For years, Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel have hoped for something the law doesn't allow: They want to get married. For most couples, that is a private choice. But for these two women, Ms. Baehr notes, "Our private life has always been a political issue."
Now, more than ever, that is true. The issue this Baltimore couple helped start in Honolulu -- on Dec. 17, 1990, when they applied for a marriage license, along with two other homosexual couples -- has followed them across the nation to Maryland. And it is arising in many states in between.
Same-sex marriage, an increasingly prominent gay-rights issue even though it is outlawed nationwide, is in dispute in 20 state legislatures. More are likely to become involved soon. In the Maryland General Assembly, the issue is due for a hearing next month.
As Ms. Baehr and Ms. Dancel talked about themselves and each other last week around the dining table in their Baltimore apartment, they touched on their personal hopes rather than on the complexity of the case that surrounds them.
Turning to Ms. Dancel, Ms. Baehr said: "It would be nice to look at her and know I'm married. The day-to-day stuff won't change; we already live in a married state. It would be most important in a time of crisis, to have a sense of security."
Ms. Dancel added: "I've always wanted to get married. My brother and sister got to get married; my parents are still married. The only group of people not allowed to get married are gay people."
She paused, then added: "It is the final frontier of freedom."
In the political and legal worlds, that move toward a new frontier for homosexual couples is stirring controversy to rival the dispute over gays in the military. But unlike in that issue, there may not be one outcome in this one, settled by the Supreme Court. The legality of marriage of same-sex couples likely will be fought out one state at a time for years to come.
With more homosexuals willing to live together openly, and with the rise of gay-rights activism, marriage has emerged as a "next step" goal. Its proponents argue that it would bestow dignity, status and acceptance on homosexual ties and help break down social and legal barriers.
Financial concerns are vital, too. A legal marriage would give each member of a homosexual couple certain rights -- to inheritance, property ownership, and insurance and other benefits -- that depend on the validity of a marriage.
A mass "wedding" of couples exchanging vows of commitment during the homosexuals' march on Washington three years ago gave the issue high visibility. Then there was a breakthrough decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court in the lawsuit filed by Ms. Baehr and Ms. Dancel. That court indicated, in a preliminary way, that the state's ban on same-sex marriages may be discrimination in violation of Hawaii's constitution.
Opponents say homosexual marriage would destroy marriage itself, accelerate moral decay by giving society's endorsement to widely condemned conduct, and produce enormous financial costs to business and government.
Such rival views are clashing in Maryland, too. Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. argues that the General Assembly must act against same-sex marriages to keep Maryland from "taking us further into a gray area" of relationships.
"There is a body of people out there who still hold to traditional values, [who believe] that this [same-sex marriage] is the wrong thing to do, that it is a further weakening of society" -- views which he said he shares. "Many people are loath to see the same sexes marrying."
But if Mr. Burns' views are accepted by the General Assembly and new curbs are enacted in Maryland, that "would put the nail in the coffin for same-sex marriages for many years to come," according to John A. Pucker of Baltimore, a law student at the University of Maryland who is president of the Same-Sex Marriage Advocates Coalition.
Mr. Pucker's group is a coalition of organizations working to promote the cause of marriage among same-sex partners.
Activists on both sides agree that it is only a matter of time until some state legalizes such unions. And when that happens, a new dispute will arise in every other state: Will such marriages be recognized as legal anywhere else?
Each state decides for itself what a legal marriage is. As a long-standing rule, states accept as valid a marriage performed legally in another state. But states have sometimes limited recognition of mixed-race marriages, or marriage between close relatives, or remarriage after divorce.
The emotional fervor that surrounds same-sex marriages echoes the battle over mixed-race marriages that ended in 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional any ban on marriage of mixed-race couples.
The dispute as it is unfolding in Maryland appears to be confined for now to the legislative halls in Annapolis. Although a constitutional lawsuit like the one Ms. Baehr and Ms. Dancel brought is possible, according to Mr. Pucker, it would await the outcome in the General Assembly.