In Prior Lake, a 71-year-old retiree went to a drag show with her gay nephew. In Dassel, the owner of a local cafe insists God’s law is clear: Marriage is between one man and one woman. At the Capitol, a nervous first-term legislator waits for the mail, hoping voters will break a deep moral deadlock over whether gay and lesbians should be allowed to marry.
In November, Minnesotans narrowly defeated a constitutional ban on gay marriage and swept DFLers into power throughout state government. Since then, the push for outright legalization of same-sex marriage has taken on a seldom-seen velocity nationally. At the State Capitol, legislators are within weeks of a vote for outright legalization — putting some lawmakers at odds with their parties or voters back home.
“This issue is killing me,” said state Rep. Jay McNamar, a first-term DFLer from Elbow Lake. “I don’t know what to do. You can’t imagine how hard of a decision this is to make.”
The renewed strain over the marriage issue is rooted in conflicting values woven deeply into the fabric of the state. Gay and lesbian supporters are tapping the state’s famously fierce independent streak as they try to make Minnesota among the first states to legalize same-sex marriage. That has put them on a collision course with a decades-old state law deeply rooted in Christian dictates defining marriage as a heterosexual union.
Nationally, the U.S. Supreme Court is about to decide cases testing how marriage is defined. Nine states have already opted to legalize same-sex marriages on their own.
In Minnesota, many DFLers are lining up strongly behind same-sex marriage. Not so in McNamar’s corner of western Minnesota, where support for the amendment that would have banned gay marriage topped 65 percent in parts of his district.
Fearing a backlash either way, McNamar refuses to discuss his personal views on marriage. Instead, the former small-town mayor said that when legalization of same-sex marriage comes on the House floor, his vote will rest solely on the results of a survey he mailed to his constituents.
So far, McNamar is hearing from a lot of people like Janice Bapp, owner of Dassel’s 3rd Street Cafe.
Bapp, 68, said she does not know of any gay or lesbian people in the area who want to marry.
“It’s not right. It doesn’t say in the Bible that same-sex people can marry,” said Bapp, rolling silverware in napkins after the breakfast rush. “That’s just all there is to it.”
Over in Winthrop, Greg Johnson said he can’t believe legislators are wasting time addressing the concept of marriage.
“I think people get confused and believe marriage is an American institution,” said Johnson, 34, owner of Sisters Coffee House and Restaurant. “Marriage is not so you can love the person you love. Marriage is for the children, it’s an institution that is about strengthening families.”
On the Iron Range, many residents are proud, lifelong Democrats with strong union ties. They warmly embrace liberal figures such as Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. But even though DFL support for same-sex marriage runs deep in urban areas, Iron Rangers are leery. Across the Range, pockets of voters supported the constitutional ban on gay marriage in overwhelming numbers.
Some Iron Range legislators are bucking the local electorate on the issue, albeit quietly.
“It’s a hard issue for the people of my district,” said Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township. Asked directly how he would vote if the issue came to the House floor, Anzelc paused, then said: “Put me down for marriage equality.”
Anzelc said he has family and loved ones who are gays and lesbians. He understands that many — maybe even most people in his district — may disagree with his view on marriage. “For me, it’s family,” he said. “But I do not talk about it.”
‘Is this inevitable?’
The issue is just as agonizing for many Republicans.
As Senate majority leader last year, Republican David Senjem of Rochester was among those who moved to put the marriage amendment on the ballot. Rochester voters rejected the amendment but also returned Senjem to St. Paul for another term.
Now the 71-year-old married father of two finds himself torn over which way to vote.
“It’s a divided house,” he said. “It’s a divided state.”
Looking out at what he sees as a huge generational shift on the issue, Senjem is starting to believe gay marriage is inevitable.
“Are we really standing in front of a train here?” he asked. “Is this inevitable? Should we recognize what is probably inevitable and just do it? That’s what I struggle with.”
If same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, Senjem shrugged: “I won’t cry all the way back to Rochester.”
Voters in many conservative-leaning areas of the state are rethinking the issue as well.
“If you would have asked me 15 years ago, I’d have said no” to same-sex marriage, said Joyce DeJoy, a 71-year-old retiree from Prior Lake, who has relatives who are gay.
Then, DeJoy went to a drag show with a nephew.
“There I was, 70, at a drag show putting dollar bills in one of the ‘girl’s’ pockets, thoroughly enjoying it,” DeJoy said. “We should just accept people as they are.”
John Berg, a 52-year-old beer distributor in Maple Lake, said the Catholics and religious zealots are behind the effort to block gay marriage, and the power and reach of their beliefs are fading.
“Who cares?” he said. “To me, it’s a nonissue.”
The shifting local and national sentiment is weighing heavily on many Republicans here, who once displayed lock-step opposition to changing the institution of marriage. They have watched in wonder as public opinion — in a matter of months — has quickly pivoted toward support of gay marriage and as many of biggest names in Republican politics nationally have done the same.
The issue has not always broken along party lines. The political strain over it flared again last week, when a cluster of moderate and libertarian-leaning state Republicans were joined by a DFL assistant majority leader in offering a last-ditch proposal to allow civil unions as a marriage substitute.
Supporters pitched it as a compromise measure to diffuse the tension over the issue. They reminded gay and lesbian advocates that most polls show that a majority of Minnesotans don’t want same-sex marriage.
“We can engage in a gay marriage debate and have half of Minnesota fighting with half of Minnesota over this issue,” said state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington.
State Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, was one of only four Republicans to oppose the GOP majority’s attempt to put a ban on same-sex marriage into the state’s constitution. Kelly said the clear message he got from that election was to move on from an issue that often turns “neighbor against neighbor.” He’s leading the charge on civil unions, he said, because it’s “an opportunity for us to heal a lot of wounds.”
In Gaylord, where American flags line the main street and signs against abortion greet visitors on the highway into town, 19-year-old Tana Osweiler sees her town changing on the issue of marriage.
Older residents of Gaylord are against gay marriage, she said, but for herself and her friends: “Love is love.”
An hour away in Waconia, a group that meets regularly for coffee and friendship has come to a starkly different conclusion.
“They shouldn’t try to push it in my face,” said David Gilbert, 69, who is self-employed. “No one can force us to accept their way of life.”
The group nodded in agreement. Traditional marriage, they say, is God’s law, and they are watching legislators closely to make sure they uphold it.