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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