SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Forty gay couples in South Dakota applied to be married during the first month following a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized such unions across the country, according to data provided by the state Department of Health.
The number of marriage licenses issued to gay couples in South Dakota represents about 5 percent of the 839 licenses issued to all couples from June 26 to July 27, The Associated Press found in its analysis of the data.
Although the numbers pale in comparison to bordering Minnesota, where more than 1,600 licenses were issued in August 2013 when same-sex marriage was legalized there, gay rights advocates called the statistics reflective of the barriers the gay community still faces in South Dakota and other conservative states.
Nancy Rosenbrahn, a Rapid City woman who became the public face of the fight against South Dakota’s ban on same-sex marriages last year, said she was amazed that 40 people had already been married, but noted that there are likely many more South Dakotans who haven’t applied because of concerns about being discovered in their communities.
Billy Mawhiney, treasurer for The Center For Equality in Sioux Falls, said he thought the lower numbers were appropriate and attributed them to the fact that neighboring Iowa and Minnesota legalized same-sex marriages years ago and that South Dakota law doesn’t include sexual orientation when prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing.
By comparison, gay couples in Minnesota made up almost a third of all licenses issued in August of 2013, the first month gay marriage was legal in the state after it was passed by the state Legislature in the spring.
Unlike South Dakota and other states, couples in Minnesota had several months to decide whether to apply for a license before it became legal. News reports also showed citizens from other states flocked to Minnesota to marry in 2013.
Rosenbrahn, who married her wife in Minneapolis last year, said gay South Dakotans have to feel they’re secure at their job and in their housing before they decide to go into a public government office and ask to be married.
“That’s a risky venture in South Dakota,” she said. “In Minnesota, hell no. You could go in and not have to worry about it.”
At the county level, half of licenses issued to same-sex couples in South Dakota have been in Pennington County. Five were issued in Minnehaha County, which includes Sioux Falls.
All other counties issued three or fewer licenses since gay marriages began in the state, which means at least 49 counties have not issued a marriage license to a gay couple. The state Department of Health doesn’t release license data at the county level unless at least four have been issued for privacy reasons.
Eleven of the same-sex couples consisted of two men and 29 were made up of two women.
The number of marriage licenses issued in South Dakota so far appears to be in line with projections, according to Christy Mallory, senior counsel at UCLA’s Williams Institute, which tracks the demographics of gay and lesbian Americans.
In a report published by the institute in October 2014, researchers projected that approximately 357, or about half, of the state’s same-sex couples would marry after same-sex marriage was legalized in South Dakota. The report estimated that 64 percent of those couples — or about 228 — would marry within the first year following legalization.
Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom To Marry, the national organization that led the push to legalize same-sex across the country, said despite the low numbers, South Dakota’s statistics are telling. He said people can now plan their weddings and get married without the anxiety that a law could be blocked or somehow stopped before they can marry.
Mawhiney, a manager at a Mitchell grocery store, said anybody in southeastern South Dakota wanting to get married in the last few years could have driven to either Minnesota or Iowa, where he and his husband Kyle Margheim were married in May 2012.
But Mawhiney said just because couples can get married now, they don’t have to, and said many are waiting until they feel they’re ready for such a commitment, like he was.
“This isn’t just someone that you’re dating … for us, it meant more. It was hard work to get to here,” he said. “And so I think people are going to take their time, they’re not going to just rush out and do it.”
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