Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday March 19th 2019


First Comes Love Then Comes…

Local Love Stories and the Heart of the Marriage Equality Movement
by Jessica Forbes

Imagine waiting 40 years to marry the person you love.

Like millions of other same-sex couples throughout the U.S., Pensacolians David Richbourg and Norman Ricks don’t have to imagine what it’s like to build a life together yet be unable to legally marry for decades—it is part of their story.

In 2010, the couple married in Provincetown, Mass. after almost 40 years together. Their wedding took place the day after Ricks’ 80th birthday.

“Massachusetts was the first state, so we wanted to go to where it was legal first,” said Richbourg.

“At the airport [in Provincetown] there’s a big sign that says, ‘We believe in and practice diversity. If you do not, please leave,’” Ricks remembered.

Since 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to legalize gay marriage, 13 other states and the District of Columbia have also made same-sex marriages legal. Until recently, however, those marriages were not recognized by the federal government, and they currently remain unrecognized in 35 states, including Florida.

So, while a same-sex couple could be legally married in one state, they were ineligible to file for federal taxes together, share health insurance and other federal spousal work benefits, or—for military couples—live in base housing together, among other disparities.

A significant move toward widespread legal equality occurred in June, when the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) struck down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that prohibited recognition of same-sex marriages for all federal purposes.

But while federal recognition is currently rolling out, couples who live in states where same-sex marriages are not recognized still face inequalities when it comes to marriage rights—most specifically related to taxes, health insurance and visitation rights in hospitals.

The Domino Effect
The disjointed system within which married same-sex couples navigate represents the transitional and historic nature of this point in time, over 50 years after the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights movement began.

“We appreciate those that went before us,” Ricks stated. “Can you imagine the courage it took for those queens at Stonewall the night they took off their high heels and beat the hell out of those police? That took a lot of guts back then; there was nobody to help them.”

The Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which Ricks referenced, were widely recognized as the beginning of the LGBT Rights Movement. Patrons of a gay bar raided by police resisted arrest and sparked riots that continued for days in protest of institutionalized discrimination against LGBT Americans, which is ongoing—marriage equality being the case in point.

Over 50 years after Stonewall, Ricks and Richbourg are now proud to serve as an example of what’s possible for younger LGBT couples.

The couple has lived in Pensacola for the entirety of their relationship and Ricks said, to the best of his knowledge, they have never been discriminated against, “but we have friends who have, and it’s for them.”

“Think about a generation ago how many people lived their entire lives in the closet. They gave up their entire life of being who they were in order to fit the mold … maybe just to keep their employment,” said Richbourg. “We were lucky enough to own our own businesses, and be secure financially and it didn’t matter—we couldn’t get fired for being gay.”

Richbourg said his fundamental belief and what he has expressed to friends who were unsure they fully supported same-sex marriage is, “I’m not telling you that your church needs to marry us, because this has nothing to do with religion, this has to do with equal rights. Your church can not marry gay people forever if that’s what you want to do in your church, but I don’t think you should tell me that I can’t be married.”

Before same-sex marriages or civil unions were legal, Ricks and Richbourg did what they could to get their legal and financial lives as close to a marriage as possible. The couple had a Holy Union ceremony in Key West over 20 years ago and made legal arrangements that provided the same protections heterosexual marriages convey.

“A lot of the things that we went to the lawyer and did 25 and 30 years ago so that I would be able to go in his hospital room and make the decisions with his doctors and he could do the same things, and inheritance issues … we did all of that, we tap-danced with the lawyers and the CPAs to try to make the things that would come automatically with marriage happen for us, because we didn’t think we’d ever be married,” Richbourg remembered.

“We locked it up really tight,” said Ricks. “We own everything together… there is never, ever, a question of who comes first:  Each other.”

Love and equality are terms at the heart of the marriage equality debate, and for Ricks framing the movement in any other way is unacceptable and inaccurate. “There is no gay agenda; there is an agenda of equality,” said Ricks.

“We wanted to get married because of our love for each other and wanting to be public about it,” said Ricks, “but also I have seen through the years, at 84, young gay people put down, discriminated against, and I said, ‘I will be damned if I’m going to be quiet and sit back.’”

At Last, Insured
Since the June SCOTUS rulings, federal agencies including the Department of Defense (DOD), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and Veteran’s Administration (VA), among others, have extended recognition and benefits to same-sex couples under presidential directive and Department of Justice guidance.

“Yes, we too can be subject to the marriage penalty now, yay!” Laura Ericson, 48, joked, adding, “I put an amendment on my form every year since we’ve been married that I would’ve paid more taxes but for the federal government not recognizing our marriage.”

Like any married couple, Ericson and her wife Stephanie Karous, 49, have had taxes—and insurance—on their minds.

The couple is currently two months into sharing a health insurance plan, a right they first began lobbying for in 2011.

Married in Washington, D.C. in July 2011, Ericson applied to add Karous to her plan during the government’s open enrollment period that year. When declined, Ericson enlisted the help of the ACLU to file an administrative challenge to have Karous recognized as her spouse.

“When they declined our claim, they cited the Florida state constitution and DOMA,” said Karous.

After the eight month application and challenge process, the couple was aware that the Windsor case would go before the Supreme Court and waited for the decision. Two days after the Supreme Court rulings in June, Ericson’s federal employer circulated a memo saying the agency would recognize same-sex marriages.

“After the Windsor decision came out it was literally two days and then I had her signed up for health insurance,” said Ericson.

Timing was in the couple’s favor; Karous had just sold her veterinary practice in Atlanta—through which she had obtained health insurance—in order to permanently relocate to Pensacola.

“It came in the nick of time,” Karous stated. “Otherwise we would’ve had to pay out of pocket considerably more than what I was paying before.”

“In Florida, we’re probably in a lot better shape than most people because I’m a federal employee,” said Ericson.

For couples in which neither spouse works for the federal government, however, sharing health care coverage is often not permitted as a result of the patchwork of legal recognition for same-sex marriages. Outside of the workplace, as Floridians, Ericson and Karous still do not receive other benefits—such as marriage discounts on car insurance—that heterosexual couples do in this state.

Having thought about marriage for two years before they wed Ericson and Karous point out that there are fundamental inequalities between the basic opposite- and same-sex marriage processes as they currently stand.

“You really have to figure out what you have to do, you have to plan,” Karous explained of the marriage process for same-sex couples. “You have to take time off from work, traveling, there are a lot of expenses involved.”

“You can’t just run down to the courthouse on your lunch hour,” Ericson said.

Going the Distance
Vince Abbott and John Connor have been together for 13 years. Originally from Kentucky, the couple moved to Pensacola 11 years ago.

Abbott, 48, and Connor, 53, spoke to the IN shortly before traveling to New York to marry in mid-September.

“I never thought in my lifetime that I would ever see this,” Abbott said of his and Connor’s ability to legally marry. “It was never even a thought until the Supreme Court ruling and because of his condition.”

In March 2012, Connor was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, which doctors recently told the couple is inactive, but not officially in remission. “He was probably within a month of death and they brought him back … it was a rough time,” Abbott remembered.

Fortunately, Connor’s then-employer General Electric provided health insurance, though he is now considered permanently disabled and will lose coverage this November.

Like many same-sex couples, Abbott and Connor have previously faced tough decisions regarding insurance. Though GE provides health benefits to same-sex couples, once Abbott was on Connor’s plan, it became clear that the benefits would be too costly.

“It’s so expensive,” Connor recalled. “It took all of my wages.”

“It was only cheap if you lived in a state where you were married and the state recognized the marriage,” said Abbott who only stayed on the plan for a few months. “It’s great that they offer it, but it becomes discriminatory because of the state differences.”

The Supreme Court rulings came at a difficult time for the couple as Connor underwent treatment and they evaluated their options as long-term partners.

“We did everything we could legally to leave everything to me up to that point,” said Abbott.

“We sat here until the Supreme Court ruling came through on the TV. He lies down with his eyes closed most of the time, but he just raised up and said, ‘I guess you need to start looking at plane tickets,’ and laid back down,” Abbott recalled with a chuckle.

“I’m just glad he’s able to go,” said Abbott. “That was scary:  The thought that now we can do it, but now can he make it?”

The couple chose New York City for a quick and easy trip and, as Connor pointed out, “No states around here allow it.” Traveling with a group of friends for the ceremony, the couple planned to get their rings at Macy’s and visit a few museums if Connor was feeling up to it.

“We were going to go to Washington, D.C., but they have a three day waiting period, whereas New York’s is only 24 hours. But you can get a judge’s injunction in New York where you don’t even have to wait that long; Washington, D.C. doesn’t even offer that,” said Abbott.

When asked if they think things will feel different once they are married, Abbott and Connor both laughed. “We’ve been together so long, at this point it’s just a technicality,” Abbott said. “It’s just a relief knowing that we have that protection now.”

Connor explained further, “We’re doing it for taxes; federal income taxes will eat you up.”

Another P-Town Love Story
As in D.C., marriages in Massachusetts require a three business day mandatory waiting period after filing intentions to marry; both parties must be present at the time of filing for a marriage license, meaning couples from elsewhere need to plan for at least five days in state or two trips to marry. For younger same-sex couples or those without the means to travel, such financial and time requirements leave marriage out of reach.

Robert Bellanova, 58, and his husband Davie Wass, 39, got married in 2010 in Provincetown, Mass. Together for five years at that point and hearing about their friends Richbourg and Ricks’ experience in “P-town,” Bellanova and Wass decided to take the plunge and traveled to Provincetown to legally wed.

A popular location for weddings, Provincetown has websites dedicated to wedding planning in their town, catering to both heterosexual and homosexual couples travelling from out-of-state. Likewise, other states that have legalized gay marriage, such as Minnesota, are recognizing the economic boon associated with acceptance. Mayor R.T. Rybak recently kicked off his “I Want to Marry You in Minneapolis” campaign to draw couples from across the Midwest to marry—and relocate—to his city.

Joking that they had to elope, as there wouldn’t be a Pensacola venue large enough to hold their families, Bellanova and Wass both acknowledged the complexity of emotions involved with having to marry outside of their home state.

“It’s kind of sad that you have to go away. You can’t just go to your local church or to your home and do that in order for it to be legal. It’s an odd situation,” said Bellanova, but added, “To go to the courthouse there in Provincetown was really an experience … the whole process was wonderful.”

Previously married to and divorced from a woman, Bellanova didn’t believe he would ever marry again. “I didn’t think that was an option for me,” he recalled of his early years being openly gay. “Then when I met Davie, he had been single and had never been through that process and I didn’t really like that, it really wasn’t fair. Plus, the love was there.”

Wass never thought marriage would be an option for him, either.

“To hear the term ‘husband and husband,’” Wass remembered, “I wanted to say those words—a ‘holy union’ wasn’t enough. I don’t want to offend anybody, but it wasn’t enough for me. It’s so awesome to have a legal wedding license. You can say ‘husband and husband,’ and I wanted to go someplace where that’s stated and you get the document.”

Religious Experiences
Booth Iburg, 62, is an associate pastor at Holy Cross Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). Ordained in January, Iburg is also the director of physical therapy at Gulf Breeze Hospital, a position she has held for the past 15 years. Her wife Denise Williams, 61, owns a local hair salon.

Together since 1989, Iburg and Williams had a Holy Union ceremony locally in 2001 and married in Williams’ native Massachusetts in June 2008. “If we could’ve gotten legally married in ‘89, we would have… a little bit of us wanted to wait until Florida accepted it, but not really,” recalls Iburg. “We couldn’t wait on them.”

Both Iburg and Williams were previously married to men and had two children each from those marriages; they raised their children together in Gulf Breeze, where they met in church. “It was a little hard, because we were the gossip for a while. There were some pretty nasty, bad times,” remembers Iburg.

“We definitely lost some friends,” Iburg says of the early years of her and Williams’ relationship. “Most of them have come back, but in the beginning the support was just negligible.”

Looking for an accepting congregation, the couple joined MCC in September 1995. “I’ll never forget it,” Williams remembered. “I just cried, I wept—happy tears—because we could be there together as a couple.”

As a member of MCC Pensacola for 12 years, Iburg began seminary in 2007. The couple married at St. John’s Chapel on the campus of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. where Iburg was a student taking intensive classes in two week segments while working full time in Gulf Breeze.

“As far as we were concerned, we were married,” said Williams of their 24-year relationship. “The state didn’t see it that way and still doesn’t.”

The couple said that they still occasionally encounter individuals who believe same-sex couples can’t maintain long-term, monogamous relationships or question “the gay lifestyle.”

“I don’t have a lifestyle, I have a life,” Iburg said she has explained to people in the past. “My lifestyle is to work hard, play hard, enjoy life, love my children, love my grandchildren, love our friends. It’s pretty healthy, I think.”

The couple faces the same common challenge of not being able to share spousal benefits. Through the hospital, the state of Florida would have to recognize their marriage in order for Williams to join Iburg’s health insurance plan. “Sometimes you just get so fed up,” said Iburg. “It’s just frustrating when my spouse is not as valued as someone else’s spouse. But we’re getting closer.”

When talking about his 22-year relationship, Reverend Patrick Rogers of United Church of Christ Pensacola notes similar frustrations. “Beyond the multitude of civil and legal rights denied because of discrimination, we experienced the most discrimination from the religious communities in which we had been raised,” Rogers stated.

Rogers and his long-time partner separated in 2001, six years before Rogers became an ordained minister. According to Rogers, he and his former partner would have married had it been an option for them, and may have remained together after 22 years had they received greater spiritual support from their religious communities.

“The United Church of Christ denomination has been fighting for decades for marriage equality,” said Rogers, who became an ordained minister in UCC in 2012. “I am grateful that in the present day, there are numerous Christian mainstream religious communities such as United Church of Christ who have gained insight into the Word of God and who now endorse, support and celebrate gay marriage.”

Of his own past relationship, Rogers remembers, “Our lives were so intertwined, we suffered tremendously from the lack of the same legal and civil rights afforded to heterosexual married couples.”

Part of he and his partner’s struggle came when his partner was hospitalized. Often, even with paperwork, Rogers said, hospital staff are either unfamiliar with or unaccepting of the documentation and will sometimes deny visitation.

“From a clergy perspective, this issue is troubling because many people who are against marriage equality say, ‘We’re going to allow you to have and will recognize holy unions,’” Rogers said of the spiritual service available for same-sex couples in Florida. “What they don’t realize is that even with holy union status and also accompanied by the proper legal documentation, I have personally witnessed refusal of hospital visitation for same sex partners.”

Through his personal experience, work in ministry, and as director of HIVevolution, Rogers has learned that much of the stigma often applied to homosexuality and to those living with HIV/AIDS “comes back to being religiously-based, from a fundamentalist perspective.  Thankfully, society’s understanding of social justice issues related to race, gender and other forms of discrimination have grown, the next natural step includes marriage equality.”

Rogers is currently working with HIVevolution to establish the Refuge Project, a network of “open and affirming churches and faith traditions that won’t bash or judge if one comes out either as LGBT or is diagnosed with HIV. Unfortunately, often times the perception is there are no spiritual alternatives when that happens,” Rogers said. “My call to pastoral ministry is to love all people and spread the gospel of Christ. Jesus loved all people and did not discriminate.”

As for the focus of clergy and church members throughout the U.S., Rogers believes the focus should be on strengthening failing marriages rather than lobbying against same-sex marriage. “We should question why the focus wouldn’t be the fact that over 50 percent of heterosexual marriages are failing and that’s growing,” said Rogers, “but the focus is against making marriage inclusive, it doesn’t make sense.”

“Our country was founded on the grounds of religious freedom. Freedom for all people and that does include 10 percent of our population who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender,” said Rogers. “If you don’t believe in gay marriage, don’t marry a gay person!”

Looking to the Future
While acknowledging that many LGBT individuals continue to face discrimination, the local couples who spoke with the IN all shared hope that the current trend of acceptance and recognition will continue for same-sex couples, and that in living openly, they can help younger LGBT individuals and their families see that stable, happy same-sex marriages are possible.

“We were lucky because both of our families were very accepting of us,” said Richbourg. “We see some of our young gay friends whose families have absolutely slammed the door … they’re just done with them. It’s for those people, what we do is important to help them.”

“Families want their children to be happy,” said Bellanova. “If more and more people realize it is a stable lifestyle, it is a loving lifestyle, it is a family unit that’s possible then a lot of parents would be more accepting for their children, because that’s what they want for their children.”

As for the youth, Rogers—who is also an advisor to UWF’s Gay-Straight Alliance—said, “I have found that the majority of our younger generation [not only the young LGBT people] understand that the issue of marriage equality must be focused on ‘equality’ and not stigma, religious prejudice and judgment, and they will no longer stand for discrimination even if they have varying religious views regarding homosexuality.”

In the meantime in the Sunshine State, both a 1996 state Defense of Marriage Act and a 2008 constitutional amendment define marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Williams said of legalizing same-sex marriage in Florida. “We can’t be afraid to stand up together as a couple right here in Pensacola and not be afraid that we’re going to lose our job or lose clients … it’s a tough one, but I think the more people that get to know us realize, ‘Oh! They’re just like my next door neighbors, or my son or daughter, or mother or my father,’” said Williams.

“It’s nice to see the trend reversing. It’s long past due,” Karous said. “I think the faster way that it’s going to change is if someone challenges it in the courts and brings a suit forth and says, ‘Hey, this is how this is hurting our lives and it needs to be overturned.’”

State of the Unions
The Supreme Court decisions in June 2013, while undeniably moving marriage equality forward, also left the legal community and public at large with questions about what exactly the rulings provide.

“I’ve had other lawyers ask me questions because they don’t understand the impact of the rulings,” said local attorney Joshua Aaron Jones. “These were the kinds of cases that you had to follow very closely and really dig into—headlines aren’t enough. These aren’t cases you can simply read and put away. The application of the rulings is literally evolving every day, as federal agencies hand down guidance. That’s something to take away from the Supreme Court cases, too:  They truly are some of the most procedurally and substantively complex cases of our lifetime, and of the 20th century even.”

In their ruling for the United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of DOMA, thereby mandating that the federal government could no longer deny benefits to same-sex couples, but did not directly address Section 2 of DOMA, which relates to the right of states to define marriage individually.

“In the Windsor case, the language is pretty strongly in favor of states’ rights to define marriage. You get this hint from the language that they think it’s wrong for states to deny same-sex marriage, but ultimately they sort of punt the ball and leave it up to the states to define,” said Jones. “That’s where the big problem is.”

This leaves couples in Florida in a strange legal lurch with a marriage unrecognized in their home state. Those couples along with family attorneys like Jones are waiting to see how challenges to state constitutions elsewhere progress.

“What frustrates me is now after the Supreme Court rulings, we have this still evolving interpretation of what the court meant and how that’s actually going to have a practical application to our day-to-day lives, when the Supreme Court could have just made an all-encompassing ruling and saved us years of future litigation,” Jones said.

“I think the cases are most certainly going to go our way to wrap up these confusing issues, but it’s going to take another couple of years to work their way up,” he explained. “That’s just the nature of federal litigation.”

Also in the mix are civil unions, the one-time compromise on the road to marriage equality. Himself in a civil union granted in Vermont, Jones pointed out that “Civil unions are not marriage under the federal government,” meaning couples must travel to the state of their civil union and convert it to a marriage in order to be eligible to receive federal recognition, file taxes jointly, etc.

“Most of the civil union states now have added marriage, but civil unions in those states were not automatically converted to marriages,” Jones explained. Most states have adopted forms that will allow couples to convert civil unions to marriages relatively easily, but couples have to travel to the state of celebration to fill the form out in person.

Jones led a discussion earlier in 2013 on the impacts of the Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage and advises clients on these issues regularly.

“I think it’s not a bad idea to go get married in another state. Certainly, you start to get to take advantage of some of those federal benefits, like now you can file your taxes together. It makes life a lot more convenient,” Jones said, adding, “But until Florida recognizes same-sex marriages, even if you’re married in another state, it’s still very important for each person to have a will, a living will, durable powers of attorney, health care surrogate designation, if they think the family is going to cause problems when it comes time to plan the funeral, we need to talk about pre-funeral planning.”

Also a challenge:  The subject of same-sex divorces, which are typically only granted in the state in which a couple is married and at least one spouse must be a resident of that state to be granted jurisdiction in a family court. Complicated? It most certainly can be.

“If I were a law school professor, it is the perfect law school exam, because it covers almost every issue in constitutional law from the First Amendment, freedom of association, familial rights, who has standing to bring a case, how does this erode into state rights—it’s just packed full of everything,” said Jones.

Florida’s Equality Initiatives

The essence of a 1997 state law—the Florida Defense of Marriage Act—was reaffirmed by 62 percent of voters in 2008, who voted to pass the “Florida Marriage Protection Amendment” defining marriage as “the legal union of only one man and one woman.”

The language of the 2008 Florida constitutional amendment was very similar to that of California’s Proposition 8, also passed in the November 2008 election. Unlike California, however, no suit has been brought to challenge Florida’s constitutional amendment—at least not yet.

Two groups within the state are currently approaching the task of achieving marriage equality with different legal approaches, a lawsuit against the state being one of them.

Equality Florida is currently organizing a lawsuit to challenge the state’s definition of marriage.

A separate, though similarly named group, Equal Marriage Florida (EMF), is working to have a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a legal union between two persons, with no mention of gender, placed on the November 2014 ballot. The proposed amendment also explicitly states that no church will be required to solemnize any marriage that violates its right to free exercise of religion.

The week of July 4, 2013, shortly after the Supreme Court decisions, EMF began collecting signatures to have the amendment put to Florida voters.

The EMF effort will require the most support from the general populace. Over 683,000 signatures are required to have the amendment placed on the ballot. State law then requires 60 percent of the vote to pass a constitutional amendment.

As of early September, EMF had collected over 120,000 signatures in two months. EMF has until Feb. 1, 2014 to collect the needed signatures for the ballot initiative.

Sara Latshaw, regional director of the ACLU of Florida, expressed a common concern that the ballot initiative might not be successful due to the numbers required and concerns about low voter turnout in a year with no presidential election.

“In order to strike down Florida’s discriminatory constitutional ban on fairness in marriage, we’d basically need over 20 percent of the electorate to have switched their vote in less than six years,” said Latshaw. “We’ve come a long way in public opinion in recent years, but none of the data we’ve seen show us anywhere close to that.”

Local attorney Joshua Jones is also skeptical about the initiative’s chances at present. “I’m not optimistic for that initiative. Good try, but I just don’t think Florida’s there yet,” said Jones. “That money that donors are giving to that could be better used for litigation.”

“Our chances are better in the courts, but Florida has a tough challenge there, too:  A federal circuit court that is likely to be less friendly to our arguments than other ones,” said Latshaw. “In fact, it may be a court case that originates in another state that gives all Floridians the right to marry.”

The 11th Circuit Court comprises Florida, Georgia, and Alabama and, according to Jones, many are worried that judges are too conservative to rule in favor of marriage equality, “and that then could set the movement back a little bit.”

For proponents of same-sex marriage in Florida, a favorable ruling would be the best case, but an unfavorable ruling may ultimately have beneficial results.

“If we had a good ruling in the 9th Circuit to say that state constitutions violate equal protection, and then we had the 11th Circuit saying it’s not an issue, that gives the Supreme Court more of a reason to take it up again,” said Jones, “because then we have conflicting circuits.”

Equality Florida is currently seeking couples who would be willing to join the lawsuit for marriage equality. Currently ahead of Florida’s likely case are others now in courts in Arkansas, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania; cases from Nevada and Hawaii are currently at the 9th Circuit, which may be the next to go before SCOTUS, though it would be June 2015 at the earliest before an opinion.

“Meanwhile, optimistically, we can hope that state legislatures continue to do the right thing and start repealing these anti-marriage equality statutes and taking steps to repeal discriminatory constitutional amendments,” said Jones.

In early September, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie called a special legislative session for Oct. 28 to debate the Hawaii Marriage Equality Act of 2013. If passed, the law would moot the case currently in the 9th Circuit, but would be yet another significant step toward broader marriage equality.

As for Florida, Latshaw is optimistic, “The deck is stacked against Floridians who want marriage to be fair. But we’re going to win marriage in Florida, and sooner than people expect.”

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