When will gay marriage be legal in Minnesota?

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

"The fact of the matter is, for some period of time when the debate gets under way, it will occupy a lot of space," says Dibble. "I call it the Twins Stadium Effect."

But some DFLers fear that a window will close after 2013. The next session will fall on an election year, when the stakes will be even higher for rural DFL legislators. And if the issue does get tabled, and Republicans win in 2014, it could be years before gay marriage has a chance again.

"This is kind of the tension," says one DFL insider, who would talk only on condition of anonymity. "We want to be team players, but at the same time, we don't want to get screwed in this historic chance to do the right thing."

Sen. Scott Dibble
Sen. Scott Dibble

The beginning of the legal debate over gay marriage can be traced back to a brazen young gay couple living in Minneapolis.

On May 18, 1970, Jack Baker and Mike McConnell, who had recently moved from the suburbs of Oklahoma City, walked into the Hennepin County courthouse and filed for a marriage license. At the time, Minnesota had no law against same-sex marriage. No one had ever tried it before.

When Gerald Nelson, the court clerk working that day, denied the couple a marriage license, Baker and McConnell sued. The case made it all the way to the state Supreme Court, but the justices did not give the argument much merit. The court ruled against the couple in 1971, and the U.S. Supreme Court later dismissed an appeal with a single-sentence ruling.

"That was further indication that the courts were not taking this issue seriously," says Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at the University of Minnesota. "It was very, very far ahead of its time. Decades ahead."

Baker and McConnell may have breathed life into the conversation, but it wasn't one Minnesota was ready to have yet. Instead, the state was still debating whether it was acceptable to discriminate against gay people in the workplace.

In 1973, a poll conducted by Mid-Continent Surveys, Inc. asked Minnesotans: "Should a person be refused a job because he or she is a homosexual?" Across the state, 29 percent of participants answered "yes" or "I don't know." Among responders 65 and older, only 50 percent said "no."

In the Legislature, the most passionate defender of gay rights was Allan Spear, a state senator from Minneapolis. Stocky, bespectacled, and rapidly balding, Spear graduated with an M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale. In addition to politics, he also worked as a history teacher at the University of Minnesota. In the mid-'70s, he became the first legislator in Minnesota to come out as openly gay.

"That in itself is a very courageous step," says Roger Moe, a retired DFL senator who served with Spear. "And then once people watched him in action — watched him as a legislator, watched him as president of the Senate — and you saw this brilliant political leader. He had great judgment, he had great political instincts."

Spear was among the first politicians who pursued same-sex equality as a civil rights issue. A powerful wordsmith, he once outlined his position in a letter to Quaere, the University of Minnesota law school's now-defunct student newspaper.

"There are, of course, differences between the oppression faced by gays and the oppression faced by minorities — just as there are differences between racism and sexism," he wrote. "But all people have an equal right to be accepted on the basis of their individual qualities — not on the basis of race or sex or religion or affectional preference. That is what the struggle for gay civil rights is all about."

Spear's position was considered radical at the time. In 1975, he tirelessly pushed a human rights bill that would outlaw discrimination against gay people on the job and in buying or renting property. The bill brought about an enormous show of support from gay rights activists. At first, the bill seemed to have momentum. But at the request of activists, then-Rep. Arne Carlson — who would go on to be a Republican governor of Minnesota — amended the bill to also include protection for transgender individuals.

"At that time, the idea of including transexuals or transgender was a little further than most of the Legislature wanted to go," recalls Bob Vanasek, another former legislator who worked alongside Spear.

Even though the bill failed, Spear continued to push it in different versions over the years, along with legislation to repeal Minnesota's sodomy and fornication laws. As it stood, it was a jailable offense for two gay men to have consensual sex in the privacy of their home. The sexist laws also deemed it a felony for a woman to cheat on her husband; if a man strayed into infidelity, it was only a misdemeanor.

But throughout the '70s and '80s, the lawmakers and public were not ready for change, and angry letters piled up in Spear's mailbox.

"To me, an indulgent or practicing homosexual and an alcoholic are in the same class," reads one piece of hate mail to Spear from April 1981. "Neither is suffering from a disease. At most, they may be victims of an inherent tendency toward an evil inclination, against which they must fight — or should fight."

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It will be legal when people run out of ropes and trees to hang homosexuals from.  I was gay bashing long before they called it that.  Oh, and I hate the term 'homophobic'.  Its not accurate.  Having a phobia implies fear.  Fear of water, fear of spinders, etc.  I do not fear homosexuals.  I just hate them.  Straight up, 100% pure hate.  Just like I hate cats and vegatables.

Dog Gone
Dog Gone topcommenter

I would add something to your story and your timeline charting the support and opposition sides of gay rights.

On June 5, 1979 Terry Knudsen was beaten in Loring Park for being gay, part of a larger pattern of assaults on gay victims, six in one week, in Loring Park.  To quote from the Queer Twin Cities GLBT Oral History project (p.68-9). It goes on to note that another gay man, Les Benscotter, was found nude and strangled, beaten and maimed in his apartment, next to a bookcase with the words scrawled on it "Fag will die". Other attacks over the next decade claim more than 40 deaths that were sexual orientation motivated or related.

I don't think you can look at the political activity without the larger context of hate crime motivated violence.  I don't believe you can look at the context for action in 2013-14, without looking not only at the mainstream opposition of conservatives, but also at the hate groups that have been identified in Minnesota - and we have more of them than are found in the surrounding states, if you accept the list of those identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Minnesota has 12, with the surrounding 5 states in the single digits - the Dakotas have 3 each, Iowa has 4, Nebraska has 7, and Wisconsin has 8.

Of the dozen identified hate groups in MN, two are specifically anti-gay; and the remainder are militant or radical Christian groups (although I would argue that the anti-gay designated groups are as well), with a few skin heads and neo-nazis thrown in, and one lone black separatist group.  I don't know if this means the same hatred that was expressed violently in the 70s and 80s has become more organized, or if it just indicates a different way of identifying it. But the whole spectrum of the social opposition and support should be looked at as the context for action now.

I would also argue that where the tea party conservatives who were elected in 2010 showed an excessive arrogance in their waging of culture wars instead of tending to more appropriate and necessary area of government.  The hubris of the right wing over-reach in trying to force a minority extreme viewpoint, voted in by low voter turnout in 2010, on the majority of Minnesotans was a large part of their defeat in 2012.  I would hope that the Democrats would use their majority more wisely to form a genuine consensus and majority support for gay marriage.  There are many arguments for it, including economic ones. That those who oppose it can be persuaded was demonstrated by the voting down of the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment; persuasion worked, and it should continue to work to make passing gay marriage the will of a majority of Minnesotans - as I believe it can and will be. Approach it through a majority tyranny that ignores the opposition, and we could lose the hard won advantage gained in 2012.

More than that, any vote on legislation before the SCOTUS ruling would be foolish; if that goes in favor of gay marriage, which I think is likely, we may not have to pass any legislation at all, or at most repeal or amend the existing legislation that limits marriage to one man and one woman, to read between two adults capable of legal consent, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

An amendment to change that legislation might be easier than new legislation that includes repeal of earlier law.


Minnesota's talented legislators can both walk and chew gum. There is enough time to deal with pressing budgetary/economic issues facing the state and for constructive dialogue about allowing all committed Minnesota couples the freedom to marry.


@JohnnySwift Your summary of the tea party position is quite accurate and to the point. You should work for Fox news. Too bad you are too chicken to write under your own name.


@Dog Gone homosexuals deserve to be killed.  just like what the Bible says.  Stone them or burn them.

Dog Gone
Dog Gone topcommenter

@JohnnySwift @Dog Gone 

You might want to be careful of what you choose to accept as an authority.  It also says that if you masturbate you should die -- and that it is even possible God will kill you directly himself.  Are you familiar with what happened when "Onan spilled his seed on the ground"? If God doesn't make that a personal killing of you, that's another stoning offense.

Have YOU ever masturbated, Johnny Swift?  Should we stone you? 

How about that bit in the Bible about selling people, including one's own wife, and children, into slavery, including sexual slavery? No?

Then you might want to turn away from those old testament pages, and look at the New Testament where Jesus says absolutely nothing about punishing or killing homosexuals.

You might want to take a look at the part in John 8:7, about he who is without sin casting the first stone.  Or go sit in a corner, slap yourself for being stupid and bigoted, and then play with your own 'stones', rocks, nuts......whatever vulgar slang euphemism appeals to you while you drool stupidly.

 Before our civil war, the Bible was used by slave owners to justify treating people as property.  That is just one very good reason to reject the Bible as the basis for any law making; it has a lot of absolutely terrible crap in it along with the good stuff.

 I reject slavery, especially sexual slavery of children, and the rejection of sea food, blended fabrics, homophobia, and a lot of other things in the Bible that even modern Christianity and Judaism rejects. Add attitudes towards homosexuality to that list of really wrong things in the Bible.