ORLANDO, Fla. — Joan Rodriguez cradles her month-old son in her arms and kisses him lightly on his furrowed brow.
“His name is Liam,” she says. “It means ‘strong-willed warrior’ — the perfect name for him.”
Certainly Liam’s journey, though short, has not been easy. Rodriguez, a 37-year-old east Orlando resident, had planned her son’s birth with fiancee Liz Molina, using an anonymous sperm donor. But midway through the pregnancy, Molina’s battle with cervical cancer — a battle the couple had expected to win — took a dramatic turn for the worse.
Molina died Nov. 3, nine days before Liam was born.
“She was the love of my life,” Rodriguez says. “She was only 35. She wanted so badly to live long enough to meet her son. But I told her that she would get to bring him to me from heaven.”
Their private tragedy has made them a public face in Florida’s fight for the right of same-sex couples to marry.
In mid-October, when the cancer had left Molina too weak to travel to a state that would make their union legal, Rodriguez stood before the Orange County Commission, imploring the board to support overturning the state ban on same-sex marriage.
“We wanted so desperately to get married,” Rodriguez told commissioners, her voice shaking with emotion. “I need you to stand up for us and make sure these things do not continue to happen. … It may be too late for me and Liz. It may be too late for our family. But it doesn’t have to be too late for other same-sex families.”
By then, Molina weighed 80 pounds. She was too sick to leave the house.
The board voted 5-2 in favor of filing a friend-of-the-court brief to overturn the ban. A video of Rodriguez’s testimony was posted on YouTube, drawing thousands of viewers. Anonymous supporters sent her baby gifts. Hundreds of strangers sent Facebook friend requests, saying they were moved by her words. A campaign by the civil-rights group Equality Florida to publicize the couple’s plight brought in nearly $20,000 in donations to help Rodriguez cover medical bills.
Rodriguez hadn’t set out to be an activist. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Chicago, she moved to South Florida in 2000, a year before meeting Molina on a visit to Orlando. The two hit it off instantly, and a friendship quickly turned into a romance. Rodriguez adored Molina’s infant daughter, but Rodriguez says she wasn’t prepared to make a commitment.
“Liz wanted more than I could give her at the time,” she says. “I wasn’t ready for the whole (prospect of) coming out and losing my family, losing my friends,” Rodriguez says.
Three years after meeting, the relationship ended, and Molina moved back to Boston, where she’d grown up. The two spoke once in the next seven years.
But Rodriguez could never quite forget “the one who got away.” And in January 2012, she moved to Orlando and began trying to find her. She scoured social media, paid an online search site, dug through property records and wrote a series of letters to possible addresses. Each came back “return to sender” — until the last.
Molina, still living in Boston, called almost immediately, and the two talked all night. Within a month, Molina moved back to Orlando.
“And then we started our life together,” Rodriguez says. “Her daughter lived with us, and everything was beautiful and perfect — until she was diagnosed with the cancer in August of 2013.”
Molina underwent radiation and chemotherapy, and by January of this year, she seemed to be in remission. She proposed. The couple decided not to wait to start a family.
“But because we weren’t married, I couldn’t put her on my insurance through my work,” says Rodriguez, a senior accounts manager for a software company. “And a technical problem kept her from getting Medicaid for the next four months.”
Those four months turned out to be critical.
In July, when the insurance finally kicked in, doctors found Molina’s cancer had spread — to her liver, kidneys, intestines, abdominal wall, spleen and lymph nodes. She was given two to six months to live.
Rodriguez had to hire an attorney to help her get the right to see Molina in the hospital and to carry out Molina’s health-care wishes. She took her partner home and brought in a hospice nurse.
“We knew then it was too late for us to marry,” Rodriguez says.
“I have to move forward,” she says, “for my son’s sake.”
But she also wants to continue to fight. Though the U.S. Supreme Court has cleared the way for same-sex marriage in Florida starting Jan. 6, there are still legal arguments to be made before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Now, Rodriguez says, it is more important than ever to speak out.
“It’s not about me,” she says. “It hasn’t been about me in months. Now it’s about Liam and the world he grows up in. I want that to be a world where people can marry the person they love.”