Tevlin: Family runs deep for gay stepsister of Bachmann

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 24, 2012 - 11:47 AM

They can both remember the warm Thanksgiving day, even though it's more than 20 years ago. Clo and Nia Wronski took a walk that day to Bay Point Park in Red Wing. Nia had met someone special, Helen LaFave, and knew she just had to tell her mother the truth.

She was a lesbian.

The mother and daughter could never have guessed then that they would all become advocates of gay marriage, or that one of the central figures in opposition to their view would be someone very close to them, LaFave's stepsister, Rep. Michele Bachmann.

LaFave recently gave her first extensive interview about the estranged relationship between her and Bachmann to the New York Times, expressing shock that the congresswoman would compare gay relationships like hers to "personal enslavement."

Bachmann’s mother and LaFave’s father married when LaFave was in seventh grade. LaFave always admired her older stepsister, Nia said.

LaFave declined to be interviewed, but Nia and Clo met me on a foggy Saturday in the house where Nia grew up with her parents and seven siblings.

While it's clear Nia is disturbed that Bachmann has made a crusade against gay marriage a cornerstone of her career, she instead wanted to focus on the unyielding support from her mother, an 89-year-old devout Catholic.

"When I met Helen, and I had all those emotions, I just knew that I had to come out," said Nia. "I knew my mom, so I knew it would be OK."

It was, though her mother acknowledges it took a while to get used to, even though another daughter, Kendrick, had come out a couple of years before.

"It was a complete and utter surprise to me," said Clo. "I was a very naive person and just didn't know what it meant to be gay. I still loved her immediately, but it took a process of years to get used to it."

Clo's husband had died, so she had to come to terms with having two lesbian daughters alone. She sought out others, and quickly found that far more people than she imagined had gay kids. She also turned to others who were supportive at her church, St. Joseph.

Clo goes to mass four or five times a week. She has volunteered in various charity events, does readings for mass, was a board member and joined a group called "Befrienders," which helped community members with problems.

"One priest told me that one of the very first things they are taught is that you need to be true to your own conscience," said Clo. "I feel very confident in my faith with this issue."

While the church has asked members to keep quiet if they disagree with the church's position, "I am more concerned about what Jesus taught us and how he lived," said Clo. "As for my daughters, you couldn't find better examples of what Jesus taught us to be."

Church laws have changed frequently over the years, she said, over everything from eating only fish on Fridays to whether a Catholic could marry someone of a different faith. Clo hopes it will also change on the issue of gay marriage.

Meanwhile, she's not happy that the church has poured millions into the issue. "It infuriates me, with all the people in the world without homes," she said. "It really makes me angry."

As her daughter's relationship developed, Clo quickly began to see how important LaFave was to Nia; they have now been together 24 years.

Asked what LaFave brought to Nia's life, her mother replied: "Everything. I instantly loved Helen," she said. "She's just like another daughter to me."

In fact, when the issue of gay marriage first came up in the Minnesota Legislature, they all attended the hearings together so that Bachmann, at the forefront of the issue, could see them.

Nia said they occasionally see Bachmann at extended family gatherings and "she's beyond civil."

"I really want to like her," said Nia. "She's got a magnetic personality. She hugs us and tells us she loves us. But what does it mean to say I love you, then come out publicly saying gay people are evil or immoral? I don't understand it at all."

What's most important, however, is how her mother has accepted all of them.

"I can't imagine wanting or needing anything more than her unconditional love and her pride in me," said Nia. "My mom is an example of someone living, growing and loving us. I'll never lose what my mom has given me."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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