When will gay marriage be legal in Minnesota?

After 42 years, the same-sex marriage debate in Minnesota might finally come to a close

When will gay marriage be legal in Minnesota?
Ulana Zahajkewycz

UPDATE: Governor Mark Dayton signed same-sex marriage into law on May 14, 2014. The first same-sex couples to legally wed in Minnesota celebrated their unions at Minneapolis City Hall at midnight on August 1, 2013, with then- Mayor R.T. Rybak officiating the wedding for Cathy ten Broeke and Margaret Miles before dozens more couples joined together throughout the night.

Three weeks after the election, John Marty is moving. A slight, silver-haired senator from Roseville, Marty was cast out of his Capitol office in 2010, along with his DFL brethren, when the Republicans took control of the Legislature. Asked if it's nice to be back, Marty shrugs it off as a mere formality, save for the picturesque view of St. Paul.

"I spend a lot of time gazing out the window," he says with a smirk, as his staff files in with more boxes.

Sen. John Marty plans to introduce a bill to legalize gay marriage this session
B FRESH Photography
Sen. John Marty plans to introduce a bill to legalize gay marriage this session
After a long election night, MN United celebrates the amendment's defeat
© 2012 by Anna Min of Min Enterprises Photography LLC
After a long election night, MN United celebrates the amendment's defeat

Marty produces an artifact excavated during the move: a double-sided sign from the GOP's early-2000s push for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, led by then-state Sen. Michele Bachmann. In its original form, the sign featured images of a man and a woman, ordered to say: "Man + Woman = Marriage." But Marty changed the math by cutting out one of the figures with an Exacto knife and flipping it around. Now, on one side, it says, "Man + Man = Marriage" and on the other, "Woman + Woman = Marriage."

"Their proposal 10 years ago, the chant was, 'Let us vote, let us vote,'" he recalls. "My feeling is: Human rights is not something you put up to a vote."

Nine years later, on November 6, 2012, that vote finally took place. After a long and ugly campaign, Minnesota became the first state in the nation to vote down a referendum to ban gay marriage.

Now, as the legislative session approaches, Democrats face a difficult decision: What's next?

For Marty, who first introduced a bill to legalize gay marriage in 2008, the answer is simple.

"I'm dropping a marriage equality bill again," he says. "I think we've waited far too long, and saying we should wait longer is not okay."

In Minnesota, the debate over the legalization of same-sex marriage has been more than 42 years in the making.

The going has been slow and repetitive. This past election wasn't even the first to include a campaign with the slogan "Vote No." That also happened in 1992, when veteran St. Paul cop Bob Fletcher led a doomed push to repeal the gay-rights provision of St. Paul's human rights ordinance.

But through these long and arduous years, one thing has remained constant: Minnesota is moving toward equality.

Like Marty, many pro-gay-marriage politicians, activists, and voters believe this is the closest the planets have ever aligned for a push to legalize marriage equality. For the first time in more than two decades, the DFL controls the House, Senate, and governor's office. Possibly the largest grassroots campaign ever assembled in Minnesota — more than 27,000 volunteers who worked on the Minnesotans United for All Families campaign — is ready to move. And the night Minnesota voted down an amendment to ban gay marriage, three other states voted to legalize it, while Wisconsin elected the nation's first-ever openly gay U.S. senator.

"I think in this election cycle, we saw the shifting of tides," says Aaron Klemz, a liberal blogger who has assembled a petition with more than 4,400 signatures to legalize same-sex marriage. "Now is the moment where we might be able to push and see a change."

But as history has proven, the issue of gay rights is complicated in Minnesota. If DFL legislators try to repeal the state's version of the Defense of Marriage Act this session — which begins next week — they could very well be heading for disappointment, says Bill Hillsman, a political strategist who worked on one campaign against the amendment.

"They defeated the constitutional amendment, but they didn't defeat it by much, and it wasn't that easy," says Hillsman. "So to jump right from that to, 'Oh we've got this great momentum, let's try to pass a law' — I don't know if that's the reality."

The problem comes down to simple math. Though the constitutional amendment lost by 5 percent in November, the overwhelming majority of "no" votes came from the metro area. Of Minnesota's 87 counties, 75 actually came out in favor of the amendment.

Now DFL legislators from rural districts are put in a compromising position. If they vote for a controversial law that the majority of their constituents oppose, they could be vulnerable come next election, which is quickly approaching for House members.

"I think people are wanting to move forward, but realistically, the votes probably aren't there," says Rep. Susan Allen, DFL-Minneapolis, who is openly gay.

In talks since the election, there have been mixed feelings among DFL legislators on how to proceed, says Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.

"It's fair to say that there are different points of view," says Dibble, also openly gay. "Some think 2013 is best — let's go ahead and do this and show that Minnesota won't fall off the face of the planet as a result."

Others fear that pushing the hot-button social issue will be perceived as a distraction by the public. Heading into the session, Minnesota faces a projected $1.1 billion budget deficit that must be balanced by the end of the spring, or the state will fall into yet another government shutdown, which could have grim political repercussions for Democrats. And even if the majority of the session is spent on fiscal matters, passing gay marriage would inevitably be a grueling process.

Next Page »