OutFront thinks the mood is ripe for winning support for same-sex marriage in Minnesota, but opponents say the group has misread the political winds.
Between 2004 and 2006, gay marriage opponents spearheaded the political conversation in Minnesota, pushing bills to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that marriage is a union of a man and a woman only. The bills never got out of the Legislature.
In 2009, supporters of same-sex marriage hope to take the offensive, with a bill by Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, to legalize it, a Senate hearing to discuss it, and a statewide educational campaign that they hope will help Minnesotans warm to the idea.
OutFront Minnesota, the state's largest group pressing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality, says same-sex marriage will become its top priority next year. To lead that effort, the group will announce today that Amy Johnson will become its new executive director, replacing Ann DeGroot, who left a year ago.
"It feels my entire professional career and my volunteer activism led to this job," Johnson said in an interview this week. "I think in working for marriage, we are working for full dignity and respect for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender families. And on the way to doing that, we are going to engage the hearts and minds of Minnesotans."
Opponents of gay and lesbian marriage say they welcome OutFront's campaign. "To John Marty and their proponents, I say bring it on," said state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove. "I'd love to have that discussion in the next election." He said most Minnesotans oppose gay marriage.
While ramping up its efforts, OutFront Minnesota is hoping to ratchet down the potential for confrontation with assurances it does not envision passage of a bill next year. Instead, OutFront is embarking on a multiyear effort and plans to engage in grass-roots discussions where people can hear from gay and lesbian couples in their own communities and be won over to same-sex marriage as an equity issue.
Although most Republicans oppose gay and lesbian marriage, House minority leader Marty Seifert said that Democrats, who control both houses, could pass it but that it would almost certainly be vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But with DFL candidates for governor in the Legislature, he suspects they'll want to avoid a floor vote they'd have to defend later.
Once again Minnesota appears to be joining the states embroiled in controversy over the legalization of same-sex marriage. Only last month, California capped a fractious debate over Proposition 8 in which voters overturned a California Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage. Supporters of gay rights across the country denounced the vote and believe it will, ironically, win them new adherents. Currently, same-sex marriages are legal only in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
"I think the time is here. The conversation is happening all over the country," said Jane Eastwood, vice chair of the OutFront board.
Coming out as couples
Johnson, 46, a Minneapolis attorney who has built a reputation for championing the legal rights of same-sex couples, is past president of Minnesota NARAL, the abortion rights advocacy group, and past president of the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association. She is optimistic a same-sex-marriage bill will pass in Minnesota within three to five years.
"I think Minnesotans understand that if one community is discriminated against, we all suffer," she says.
OutFront wants to encourage GLBT couples to come out. Monica Meyer, OutFront policy director, says the gay community has done a good job of coming out as individuals but has been more hesitant to come out as families.
"You fear rejection and fear you will be treated differently," she said. OutFront plans to hold meetings in churches and synagogues and neighborhoods where gay and lesbian couples talk to people they know. People who know a gay man or lesbian are more likely to support gay rights, and people who know same-sex couples are more likely to support same-sex marriage, she says. "We're not in a hurry," she says, calling it a "multiyear" campaign.
Has the mood changed?
That view is shared by Marty. He'd like a calm Senate hearing debate. Same-sex couples "pay their taxes and they raise their families," he says. "Yet they do not have rights to visit each other in the hospital, they cannot receive each other's pension benefits, they are denied so many rights other families take for granted."
Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, says he expects a state bill for a referendum in 2009 or 2010 on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. He says "the state's interest in marriage is primarily raising of children, and children need a mother and father." Without both, he says, families face crime and educational problems and psychological difficulties.
"I think some people have seen Obama's election as assuring an era of social liberalism or radicalism," he said. "I think people assume the mood has changed. I don't think so."
Staff researcher Roberta Hovde contributed to this report. Randy Furst • 612-673-7382