It was the tipping point.

Rob Thomas, 45, and Joe Strong, 50, have been in a serious, committed relationship for almost 17 years now. They share a house, three dogs and a life together. But when Strong was told he was not allowed to visit his partner during a recent trip to the hospital or make decisions related to his health, he knew something had to change.

The two had once decided never to get married. But with a same-sex marriage bill passing through the Minnesota Legislature and the media abuzz about marriage equality, they began to reconsider.

“Our main thing is we’d like to speak for each other,” Thomas said. “We want to be able to make decisions for each other.”

When the bill was passed several months later, they decided to take the leap. They will be married Aug. 1, the day the bill goes into effect, at the Nicollet County Courthouse.

“We’re like, ‘Why wait?’” Thomas said.

“… And we kind of did want to be the first [same-sex couple to get married] in St. Peter,” he said with a laugh.

The decision to get married has less to do with making vows than it does with making provisions, Strong said. A practical move, it allows the two to have legal say in each other’s lives. The two have already made their own promises to each other, in front of friends and family.

“A lot of different things have changed around us and in the state of Minnesota,” Strong said. “For us nothing has changed. It’s just a piece of paper.”

“I’ve always called him my husband,” Thomas said. “I always have.”

An instant connection

More than 17 years ago Strong walked into a Minneapolis watering hole and saw Thomas for the first time.

It took him two weeks to get up the courage to ask him out on a date. Thomas said yes.

“We haven’t been apart since,” Thomas said.

About 12 years ago, the couple moved to St. Peter. Thomas, who had friends in the area, found out his “dream house” was on the market. He asked Strong to buy it for him.

“It was kind of a leap-of-faith type situation,” Strong said. “We didn’t know yet how our lives were going to end up.”

Strong commuted between the Twin Cities and St. Peter for about six months, eventually taking a position that allowed him to work for home. Thomas found employment at the St. Peter Food Co-op.

They say the community has been more than welcoming and that many respect their lifestyle.

“I’ve found St. Peter a very comfortable and a very liberal community,” Strong said.

Opening their home to several foreign exchange students, the two have also gotten to be an active part of St. Peter’s school system.

With tears, Thomas recalled how one of the boys, nominated for homecoming king, included the couple in a speech, referring to them as his favorite pair of dads.

Strong said other parents in attendance during the speech showed strong support for the two men’s commitment to the foreign exchange program.

The speech convinced them they were having a positive influence on the students that had lived with them. Many of them have kept in contact with the men, sending emails and Facebook messages, and one may even attend their wedding.

“We were able to certainly affect their lives in a positive way and show that this type of relationship can be just as loving as a conventional family,” Stong said.

Since announcing their engagement, Thomas and Strong have received outpourings of support from friends, family and many in the community.

The attention is overwhelming, but they welcome it all the same. Acknowledging the significance of being one of the first same-sex couples in Nicollet County to get married, they said they hope those in attendance remember one important thing.

“We’re still just Rob and Joe,” Thomas said.

Reach reporter Jessica Bies at 507-931-8568 or follow her on Twitter.com @sphjessicabies

Reach reporter Jessica Bies at 507-931-8568 or follow her on Twitter.com @sphjessicabies

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