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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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.