When Jae Allen and Ruth Reeder visit their daughter in Portland, Ore., they hold hands.
As far as public displays of affection go, it's the definition of tame. Unless you're a lesbian couple.
"Not on the streets of Belleville," said Ruth, 61.
The couple smile as they sit near each other in the home they share on a quiet street in Swansea.
Together 20 years in April, and raised when mentioning lesbians and gays wasn't part of any dinnertime conversation, they have learned to be resilient and optimistic, but realistic as well.
"At the time, there are dual feelings," said Jae, 58, of knowing she can reach for Ruth's hand only when they are far from home. "Freeing and sad. That you have to think twice."
They do not want stares or confrontations or judgment. Cautious about being part of a story about same-sex marriage, they nonetheless feel a need to demystify their lifestyle.
"We're very much Midwest girls," Ruth said. "Traditional in so many ways!"
They play golf. Jae is better at it. They enjoy gardening, an evening at the theater, staying home to read and watch movies. Neither likes to cook very much, but they work at it.
"Regular old boring things," said Jae with a laugh.
Ruth attends St. Paul United Church of Christ in Belleville. Jae is making her way back.
"I had bad experiences with church and religion," Jae said. "It was clear I was broken and wrong, according to religion as it was interpreted."
Separate paths that joined
Jae and Ruth came to the St. Louis area in 2005 for Ruth's job at Washington University. She does cochlear implant research.
Jae works there as well, as the program manager for an infrastructure grant at the medical school.
They met in 1993 through mutual friends when they both were living in Champaign, Jae working as a software developer at the University of Illinois and Ruth as an audiologist at the Carle Clinic.
Jae was part of a lesbian community at the university, but felt destined to always be single.
Ruth was coming out of a 14-year relationship with a woman. Her daughter Morgan, born through insemination with a donor, was 10 at the time.
"I was closeted the whole time. I was a single mom and she was a 'friend.'"
Both said they didn't completely acknowledge their sexuality until they were in college. But there were signs years earlier of an awareness they didn't fit in.
Jae grew up in Carmi in Southern Illinois with two older sisters and a love of playing sports. Her mother was 40 when she was born and her father died when she was 25.
"I look back on it and it was very young, middle school" when it became clear there was a prejudice toward homosexuality, she said. "There was a real stigma. I remember there was no wearing green on Thursday in school for fear of being called queer or a fag or a dyke."
Ruth thought for a while she might be bisexual. She grew up in Champaign in a family where her father was an open-minded, activist Presbyterian minister. Still, she had no role models or outlets for conversations about her sexuality to help her cope with feelings of confusion.
"In our family, there was nothing negative said about gays and lesbians," she said. "I didn't have to deal with the hell and damnation part, but (her parents) had no knowledge or experience. ... I was making the best of it I could, trying to fit into what I knew."
Jae knows that with her short hair and more athletic build, she fits the stereotypical profile of a lesbian in the straight world.
She grins when she looks at her partner. "She could pass. No way I could."
Together, Jae and Ruth felt right.
And with Ruth came a family.
"Having (Morgan) in my life, I never envisioned it," Jae said. "She was a bonus."
Now 29, Morgan is a technical writer who works out of the home she shares with her partner, Adri.
Growing up in this family seemed normal because her parents were open about their relationship, she said.
"I vaguely remember my mom telling me" she was a lesbian, she said. "We were sitting on my bed and she explained it. It all made sense, but I remember thinking that it doesn't really matter. My family is my family, and my parents are my parents. Putting terminology to it seemed strange or distant in some way."
Kids never bothered her about having two women as her parents.
"... The most common question was how could I not have a dad," Morgan recalled. "When I was younger, I would say, 'I just don't,' and the conversation almost always moved on."
Ruth said that "by high school, she was introducing us as her folks."
They suspected their daughter was a lesbian before she came out in college.
"We were open to her sexuality, to be supportive of her and give her an environment where she was safe," Ruth said. '"She waited until she was sure."
They treated her like any set of loving parents would, Morgan said.
"I think the examples they set are the same as any wonderful set of parents would. I feel really blessed to have such an amazing, loving family."
Hope for the future
Ruth and Jae will never be branded activists, they admit, though they do fly small rainbow-colored flags on their cars.
About 18 years ago, they had a "celebration" of their relationship with friends and family.
And on Feb. 18, 2012, they took advantage of the civil-union law in Illinois and had legal and religious ceremonies. They waited almost a year after the law went into effect so Morgan and Adri could be there with them.
Busy with work and home and activities, they don't put a lot of energy into connecting with other lesbians.
People are more accepting of them now than several decades ago. Weekdays, they sit shoulder to shoulder on the train and ride to work, reading the paper together.
On two occasions, someone has come up to them to comment. One was a woman.
"She said, 'You two share the newspaper well,'" recalled Jae. "They stepped out of their comfort zone to show their support."
"It was good and odd and a little sad," Ruth added.
Jae and Ruth just want the same things their neighbors want.
"Peace, end to poverty and hunger -- big issues we all want to solve," said Ruth.
They want more for the future, for their daughter.
"I want that federal recognition of marriage before I die," Ruth said. "We want to not have our lives framed around our sexuality."
Jae nodded. "We want it all."