Denny Smith offered me just what the doctor ordered the other day: optimism.

I was feeling sick after reading about a proposal by Republican legislators to place a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot to define marriage in Minnesota as only between a man and a woman. A state law already exists defining marriage in those terms.

This cynical move, when children in our community are dying from gunfire, when jobs remain scarce and growing numbers among us are homeless and hungry, further divides us when we need to be unified, and further hurts our loved ones, friends, teachers, business leaders and co-workers, including those legislators' own constituents.

Smith made me feel lots better. He said: "Bring it on."

"We don't have to argue with the opposition," Smith said over coffee, dressed in a white button-down shirt and tie. "We don't have to out-shout them. All we have to do is outnumber them. And we will."

Smith seems an unlikely advocate for gay rights in general, and same-sex marriage in particular. He's 66, grew up in Morton, Minn. (current population: 398), was a fist-pumping basketball coach with anger issues, a math teacher and father of three sons who owns up to making plenty of mistakes along the way.

Then one of his sons, Kyle, came out in his early 20s. Smith cried at the news, not because Kyle was gay, but because the young man would endure cruelty, from "nasty" letters to the editor, to anti-gay rallies, to "blistering" sermons from the pulpit. Smith and his wife, Pat, a churchgoing couple married for 42 years, were thrilled when Kyle fell in love with Joe, a student from the Philippines.

The family enjoyed Christmases together, white-water rafting trips and coastal vacations. Smith considered Joe "my son-in-law." Life was good. Then, in 2005, Joe was forced to leave the country when he completed his studies and his visa expired.

"Had they the same rights as our other sons," Smith said of Kyle and Joe, "they would have been married, Joe would have become a U.S. citizen and life would have progressed normally."

Instead the couple, together for 16 years, live apart except when Kyle, 41, travels to the Philippines or they vacation together a few times a year. In 2010, after visiting Kyle -- living alone in Seattle -- Smith got back on the plane and sobbed.

"I wake up many nights crying and leave the bedroom so I don't wake Pat," he wrote recently in a flier he distributes titled, "A Case for Marriage Equity: Our Story."

"There is always that nagging sadness in my gut," Smith said. "Who would [Kyle's marriage] hurt, and how would it hurt them?"

Smith taught in the Montevideo schools in the 1970s, before moving into training and motivational speaking. He returned to teaching and coaching a decade ago at Technical High School in St. Cloud.

He retired from teaching in 2010 to advocate for gay rights, and served as president of the St. Cloud/Central Minnesota PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

'Calm and respectful'

In January, he founded the St. Cloud-based nonprofit Winning Marriage Equality ( to teach supporters skills for talking about this hot-button issue "in a calm and respectful manner."

And with a shot of optimism.

"I am amazed at the number of people I talk to who are supportive," Smith said. "Allies are there by the thousands."

Winning Marriage Equality board member Andy Marlow, 67, a friend since college, said Smith "has tremendous energy. Kyle's issues have really motivated him."

Smith is eager to share his views about marriage with Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, a key sponsor of the ballot bill. Limmer has said that a constitutional amendment is needed to ward off potential court rulings that could overturn the law in the future.

"Marriage isn't about sex," Smith would tell Limmer. "It's about love and commitment. Same-sex couples love each other in the same way heterosexual couples love each other. They hurt when the other hurts, they fight and make up, they take walks in the park.

"This is a civil rights issue. People have the right to live in a state of happiness."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 •