When will gay marriage be legal in Minnesota?

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

With sodomy laws still on the books, the Twin Cities weren't such a welcoming place for gay men. Though Minneapolis was considered progressive in comparison with the rest of the state, its police department was not, and throughout the 1980s, officers raided bathhouses and bookstores, which were common meeting places for gay men. In a single raid, Minneapolis police arrested 100 people.

In 1987, over in St. Paul, police booked two clerks for handing out condoms at movie theaters frequented by gay men, citing a law that prohibited anyone not in the healthcare field from distributing contraceptives. When Spear found out that the Minnesota AIDS Project was also being threatened with arrest, he sent a pointed letter to Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III.

"The Minneapolis City Attorney and a member of your staff advised the Minnesota AIDS project that distribution of condoms in gay business establishments would be in violation of Minnesota Statutes Section 616.251," he wrote. "This statute, however, was ruled unconstitutional in U.S. District Court by Judge Miles Lord in 1981."

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

But change was on its way. In 1990, St. Paul passed a human rights ordinance that gave gay people equal rights under the law. Though Minneapolis had years earlier passed a similar law, it was nonetheless a controversial step for St. Paul, sparking a vicious campaign for repeal led by Bob Fletcher, who later became Ramsey County Sheriff. The repeal lost narrowly, by fewer than 5,000 votes.

"That was the start of something relatively big," says political analyst Bill Hillsman. "Because if they couldn't get that done in St. Paul, they were never gonna get it done in Minneapolis."

The culture of the Minneapolis Police Department also began to change around the turn of the decade. Police put an end to the bathhouse raids, and actively tried to hire officers from within the LGBT community, spending the majority of its 1990 advertising budget on that effort. It paid off: Sharon Lubinski, now a U.S. Marshall, became the first openly gay officer in the department in 1993. Many more were to come, including recently appointed Chief Janee Harteau.

The most significant progress came in 1993, when the Legislature took up the human rights bill one more time.

Republican Sen. Dean Johnson was an unlikely supporter. A Lutheran pastor from rural Minnesota, Johnson was first elected to the House in 1978, then to the Senate in 1982. That year, he had climbed the ranks to Senate minority leader. So it was a shock when Johnson made a powerful speech on the Senate floor announcing his support for the bill, and comparing its critics to those faced by Abraham Lincoln. "Members of the Senate, there's a great element of fear," said Johnson. "There's a fear among our constituents. There's fear within the members of the Senate. There's fear within Dean Johnson. But I will tell you that if we pass this and the House passes this, and the governor signs it, it is the right thing to do. Not because we totally understand, but because we want to be a state that does not discriminate against people."

With Johnson's help, the bill passed and went on to be signed by Governor Carlson. Spear and Rep. Karen Clark, another openly gay legislator who pushed the bill in the House, embraced in the Capitol lobby after it passed, according to reports at the time.

"Would anyone question our sexual orientation if we hugged?" said Spear.

The subject of marriage wouldn't enter the debate at the Legislature for another decade, when Michele Bachmann, then a second-term senator from Stillwater, tried to push a bill to put a constitutional ban on the ballot. Bachmann made the issue a centerpiece of her career as a legislator in 2004 after a Massachusetts judge ruled it unconstitutional to limit marriage to heterosexual couples.

"I've never thought of this bill as being a partisan bill," Bachmann told the Senate floor in March 2004, emphasizing the importance of passing it before May 17 — the last day of the session, and the day the judge's order took effect.

"By default, Mr. President [of the Senate], we may have same-sex marriage legalized in our state," she argued. "Not by five million Minnesotans. Rather by one judge imposing their morality and substituting that for five million Minnesotans.... I think it's imperative that we allow the people of the state of Minnesota to have a voice on the fundamental reordering of our society."

At the time, the measure had little chance of passing the DFL Senate, but it did wonders for boosting Bachmann's political profile on a national level, says David Schultz, political analyst and law professor at Hamline University.

"It was clearly a different time than it was now, when fears of same-sex marriage were really starting to get heightened, and public opinion hadn't shifted," says Schultz. "So I think she was really astute in knowing how to use an issue for herself."

The bill failed that year. When it was defeated again in 2006, Republicans blamed Dean Johnson, who had by now hung up his Republican stripes and joined the DFL party. As in 1993, Johnson came out as a defender of gay rights — but this time it cost him. Conservatives targeted Johnson with attack ads during the next campaign, and in November, after 28 years in the Legislature, he failed to win re-election.

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