The Senator Who Came Out from the Cold

Sen. Paul Koering: "Everybody knew at the Capitol. I just wanted to end all the speculation."

Among those who knew him, it was never any secret that state Sen. Paul Koering was gay. Neither, though, was it something he wanted to discuss. Through the course of three state Senate campaigns (he lost the first two), Koering managed to defer the subject. ("I didn't think it was anybody's business," he says, "and I still don't think it's anybody's business.") Nonetheless, on April 13 Koering sat down with reporters from the Star Tribune and Pioneer-Press to confirm what they had long known: The Republican senator from one of the state's most conservative districts was also a gay man.

It was one of Koering's own Republican colleagues who forced his hand in the end. The previous week, Sen. Michele Bachmann, the most opportunistic of the Legislature's claque of hard-right Christians, made a motion to pull a bill proposing an anti-gay marriage ballot referendum out of committee and directly to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Koering broke ranks and voted against the motion, and immediately came under fire.

A month and a half after his announcement, the former dairy farmer and small business owner from Fort Ripley says the fallout has been a lot less odious than he feared. He remains resolute about running for reelection next year as a member of the Republican Party, and seems to like his chances of winning. I talked to Koering as he was about to travel back to the Brainerd area for the Memorial Day weekend.

Koering: "I try to do in my job on a daily basis what I think is right."
Richard Fleischman
Koering: "I try to do in my job on a daily basis what I think is right."

 

City Pages: You came out a few days after voting against an anti-gay marriage ballot referendum. Was that entirely the reason for your announcement, or did other factors play in the decision?

 

Sen. Paul Koering: There were a lot of factors. That vote was certainly part of it. But I guess in my mind, I knew I was going to have to do something sooner or later. I just didn't know when it was going to happen. But I never, ever tried to keep anything a secret from anybody. Everybody knew at the Capitol.

Things got ratcheted up so much that I felt--what really made the final decision for me was when it started to affect my job to be so preoccupied with this. Then I made a decision that it was time to come out and say, here it is, and let's get back to work. And that's virtually what I did. I just wanted to end all the speculation.

My vote on that [amendment] was a procedural vote. People don't understand that I wasn't voting for or against the gay marriage amendment. I was voting "no" on departing from the way we normally do business in the Senate. Normally you introduce a bill, it goes to committee, and it works through a process. People have input, and it's changed by the time it gets to the Senate floor, probably for the good. To make a motion to pull this out of committee and drag it right to the Senate floor, I just thought it was the wrong thing to do.

I'll tell you another reason I voted that way. If it had been two weeks earlier or two weeks later, I might have voted different. But I honestly believe the good Lord works in mysterious ways, and it just happened that April 7, the day of the vote, was the two-year anniversary of my mother's death. The people who know me know that my mom was everything to us kids. It's been hard the last two years. So on April 7, as you might imagine, I was very emotional.

It also happened to be Gay & Lesbian Day at the Capitol. Those folks were up there trying to express their views. Not bothering anybody, just doing what it was their God-given right to do, which was coming up there and expressing their opinions to their legislators. And so, for this vote to come up on that day--as I sat there and tears rolled down my eyes, I just thought it was wrong.

So I said no to it, and one of the groups that supports the gay marriage ban started running radio ads in my district the very next morning. They gave my home number in the ads, and that weekend I had a very difficult time, not only with the anniversary of my mother's death but with all these people who were angry and calling me at home. So after the weekend went by, on Monday morning the Star Tribune and Pioneer-Press asked me again. I had a call from my local paper asking me again. I said no, I don't have anything to talk about.

It was common knowledge over there [at the Legislature], and I will say I totally respect the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press. They all knew, and when I said I didn't want to discuss it, they respected that. I thought that was a pretty standup thing to do. So finally, on Monday afternoon, when I saw that it was affecting my ability to get my work done, I said, "You know what, let's sit down on Wednesday and I'll talk about it." It was hard, you know. I don't want to be perceived as a gay activist, because I'm not. I'm a former dairy farmer, I'm pretty conservative, I vote conservative. I am not for gay marriage. But I try to do in my job on a daily basis what I think is right, and I try to weigh out the good and the bad and vote the right way.

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