HALLOWELL — Health insurance and joint tax returns are not the stuff of romance.

The desire to protect and support a spouse is, though, and that will get easier for couples like Sophie and Ari Gabrion thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday providing for federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

The ruling allows the hundreds of married same-sex couples in Maine access to more than 1,100 rights and privileges previously limited to married opposite-sex couples by the Defense of Marriage Act.

“When you know you’re gay, you’re raised with the expectation that you won’t have these rights,” said Sophie Gabrion, 26, a case worker for Goodwill Industries. “It’s almost like expecting a very small present for Christmas and getting a very large one.”

The Hallowell couple exchanged vows in front of a notary public on Dec. 29, the first day of same-sex marriage in Maine. They’re planning a fairly traditional wedding for September.

In spite of their marriage license, they’ve have had to file separate federal tax returns, make higher student loan payments and struggle through several phone calls to get Ari’s last name changed on her passport and other documents.

Ari, a biologist who works in Unity, gets health insurance through Sophie’s job, but they’ve had to pay federal taxes on the premium. That should no longer be the case.

Ian Grady, communications director for Equality Maine, said about 300 same-sex couples have married in Maine since it became legal, at which time the state also began recognizing same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. Grady said no one knows how many couples married elsewhere live in Maine, but they could number in the thousands.

Augusta residents Martin Swinger, a musician, and Brian Kaufman, a psychology professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, also married in Hallowell on Dec. 29.

Swinger, 58, said he hadn’t allowed himself to believe the federal government might recognize his marriage, just as the prospect of getting married at all in Maine didn’t seem like a reality until weeks after the referendum passed and he and Kaufman started planning a wedding.

“It’s baffling and surprising and incredibly exciting to finally see the political system stepping forward and accepting that there has been an inconsistency in how people are treated,” he said.

Swinger said the couple will probably first feel the practical effects of the DOMA ruling when they file taxes next year.

The impact could be more immediate and more far-reaching for couples like Alan Stearns and Austin Brown. Stearns, a Hallowell city councilor and executive director of the Royal River Conservation Trust in Yarmouth, has relied on a costly individual health insurance plan, but now he should have access to Brown’s federal employee benefits from VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus.

“While the Maine voters allowed marriage in Maine, that didn’t mean we had much, it didn’t mean we had a lot of the benefits of the federal system, whether it be insurance or survivorship or other things with Austin’s job,” Stearns said. “It’s very real and very tangible for us in terms of my access to health care.”

Stearns and Brown married legally in a small ceremony a few weeks ago and will celebrate at a reception with a few hundred guests this Saturday, the anniversary of their commitment ceremony 13 years ago.

“My family members joke that there have been several celebrations along the way, and it’s starting to feel like part of a long journey instead of a wedding or one service,” Stearns said.

In spite of the previous events, Stearns said they felt it was worthwhile to throw another party to celebrate the fact that they and thousands of other couples have access to legal recognition that seemed out of reach just a few years ago.

“I think it’s pretty exciting to see the wave crest, that just a few years ago no one would have predicted the momentum on gay marriage that exists today,” Stearns said.

For all the practical implications on her own life, Sophie Gabrion said she was even more moved on Wednesday by a separate Supreme Court ruling that will allow same-sex marriages to resume in California.

“My marriage is really recent to me, and it means more to me than I could ever describe,” she said. “It means the world to me, but I can’t imagine having my state say, ‘Just kidding, you don’t count anymore.’”

Swinger and Kaufman’s relationship has lasted 28 years without federal recognition, but Swinger said it still matters. He performs at schools frequently, and the students often ask questions about his life, like whether he’s married.

“I can say ‘yes,’ and when they say, ‘What’s your wife’s name?’ I will tell them my husband’s name is Brian,” Swinger said. “It’s going to be a huge moment for me to know that I have the legal backup to admit that to them and to be that role model that, God, I wish I’d had. ‘Yes, this is who I am. What’s the next question?’”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com