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Will Minnesotans vote to ban gay marriage in 2012? (Photo from Flickr user Fibonacci Blue, Creative Commons license)

Gay Marriage Tests ‘Minnesota Nice’

A constitutional amendment proposal comes to the Land of Lakes, a microcosm of the nation.

BY Jacob Wheeler

In Minnesota, as in other states, about half of voters tell pollsters that they support same-sex marriage rights, which means this fight could go down to the wire.

MINNEAPOLIS–This holiday season, Minnesotans in favor of same-sex marriage rights are being encouraged to talk politics and religion at the dinner table.

Turning a popular American adage on its head, Minnesotans United for All Families released a “Holiday Conversation Starter” just before Thanksgiving that encouraged families to engage in a “conversation about why marriage matters with the people you see every day.”

Minnesotans United’s goal is to defeat a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, which will be up for vote in November 2012. If the amendment fails, gay marriage won’t be legal in the Land of Lakes, but the legislature or state courts could eventually recognize it. To date, constitutional bans on same-sex marriage have passed by popular referendum in 29 other states. A ban has been rejected once, by Arizonans in 2006, though voters approved the same measure two years later.

After being seized by Republicans following landslide elections in 2010, the state legislature passed an amendment in May that defines marriage exclusively as a union between one man and one woman. The vote fell nearly along party lines, though four Republicans broke ranks and voted against the amendment, including freshman John Kriesel, who lost both legs in Iraq in 2006 while serving with the Minnesota National Guard.

“This amendment does not represent what I went to fight for,” Kriesel said in the capitol as protesters chanted nearby in the rotunda. “Hear that out there? That’s the America I fight for, and I’m proud of that,” he added, invoking the story of Andrew Wilfahrt, a gay Minnesota soldier who was killed in Afghanistan in early 2011.

A coalition of both national and local LGBT organizations immediately launched Minnesotans United for All Families, and within 48 hours, it had signed up nearly 1,000 volunteers to defeat the measure. Under the coalition’s umbrella are national groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry, and local groups including OutFront Minnesota and Project 515.

Two months later, Democratic Governor Mark Dayton vetoed the amendment, though his veto will not keep the bill off the ballot. “Symbolic as it may be, I am exercising my legal responsibility to either sign or veto it,” wrote Dayton. “The path of social progress, of human compassion and understanding, would be tragically reversed by this amendment. Minnesotans are better than this.”

This swing state on the prairie in many ways represents a microcosm of the nation. Divided in St. Paul between a Democrat in the governor’s mansion and Republicans in the legislature, Minnesota’s government shut down for three weeks last summer, just as the federal government nearly did. The cultural gap between the Twin Cities and “outstate” is vast: whereas the LGBT magazine The Advocate named Minneapolis the “gayest city in America” last year, much of rural Minnesota still resembles Mayberry. The state’s members of Congress include both liberal Democrat Keith Ellison, the only Muslim member of the House, and Tea Party idol Michele Bachmann.

In Minnesota, as in other states, about half of voters tell pollsters that they support same-sex marriage rights, which means this fight could go down to the wire. Richard Carlbom, Minnesotans United’s campaign manager, believes the campaign will be won through one-on-one conversations, not divisive finger-pointing. “We can’t lead with language about hatred or bigotry. That turns people off,” says Carlbom. “The people who will decide this are not haters or bigots, they’re conflicted. We need to help people unravel their inner conflict.”

That’s where Minnesotans United’s Holiday Conversation Starter comes into play. The online guide offers dinner table talking points like this one:

The holidays for me are all about family and being together. I was talking to my gay/lesbian (friend, colleague, etc.) and I realized that it is about the same things for them. Which got me thinking about marriage for gay and lesbian couples and I realized that I think that all loving, committed couples should be able to get married.

Statistics clearly show that the younger one is, the more likely one is to support same-sex marriage rights. That said, Carlbom has been amazed at the diverse cross section of Minnesotans he’s met at the more than 100 house parties his organization has thrown, including older rural and suburban citizens, lobbyists and businessmen.

Wheelock Whitney, an 85-year-old lifelong Republican and former gubernatorial candidate, recently donated $10,000 to the coalition and encouraged other Republicans to follow suit. At a press conference in October, he said, “There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, in my value system that supports marriage bans for our constitution.”

Jacob Wheeler is a contributing editor at In These Times.

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