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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ North Carolina's largest insurer has cancelled family insurance policies sold to 20 gay and lesbian couples on a federal insurance marketplace because of restrictive contract language the company plans to remove next year.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina was legally bound to invalidate the policies because of standard language in the insurer's individual policies that define ``spouse'' as ``opposite sex,'' state Insurance Department spokeswoman Kerry Hall said.

Gay-rights advocates point out the nonprofit insurer offers domestic partner benefits to its own employees, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported ( Blue Cross insurance plans offered by large North Carolina companies also include health benefits for employees and their same-sex partner.

``I was so taken aback by it; I was speechless,'' said Al Hinman, who moved with his husband to Durham from New York last year. ``It was wrong, and it shouldn't have happened that way. For 24 years we've been on the same insurance with a few gaps.''

The only other insurer selling subsidized coverage on North Carolina's federally run insurance marketplace is Coventry Health, which doesn't bar same-sex couples from buying a family policy, spokesman Walt Cherniak said.

There could be similar language buried in the small print of insurance contracts in other states, but North Carolina is the only one where cancellations of same-sex customers have surfaced, said Brian Moulton, legal director for Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based gay-rights organization.

For most of the North Carolina couples hit by the cancellations, there is little or no cost to replacing a single family policy with separate, individual coverage. Hinman said the total premium for him and David Whitley, his husband of 4 years, dropped by about $68 a month by buying two policies.

But the incident underscores the many indignities that gay couples experience in states such as North Carolina that lack laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation, Moulton said.

Blue Cross has never offered domestic partner or same-sex health coverage on individual and small group policies in North Carolina, spokeswoman Michelle Douglas said. The insurer had intended to update its plans to include those offerings, but postponed making the change in terminology as the company scrambled to get ready for what turned out to be a rocky rollout of subsidized insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The change would have affected billing, insurance cards and other calculations that required time for implementation and testing. Douglas said.

Blue Cross said it plans in 2015 to offer the same insurance options to same-sex married couples and couples in domestic partnerships as are offered to everyone else.

``We recognize and agree that the ability to purchase family coverage is important from a fairness standpoint,'' Douglas said.