Fear of a Gay Planet

There wasn't much that was surprising surrounding yesterday's Senate hearing on the anti-gay marriage amendment bill at the Capitol. Both sides were out in force, filling Room 15 and two rooms upstairs (segregated by beliefs) where the hearings were televised. Anyone paying attention knows the arguments, pro and con, by heart by now. And, least surprising of all, the Judiciary Committee defeated the amendment on a 5-4 vote along party lines, with proponents vowing to exact their retribution at the polls.

If there was one thing I hadn't anticipated, however, it was the enormous and visceral fear of gays and their influence over society demonstrated by supporters of the amendment.

"I believe that if [the amendment] doesn't go through, it is a threat to my grandchildren," said Marie Ives of Rosemount, who spent much of her time outside the hearing room reading the Bible. "I see this as an attack on His way and so the Lord commits me to be here, to stand in His righteousness, which is Jesus."

When I asked her about civil unions, Ives cut me off. "My focus isn't on that. It is on what will happen to our children in our public schools, when it will be allowed for teachers to say that homosexuality is okay," she said. It was obvious that such a prospect terrorized her. What should happen to people who say homosexuality is okay? I asked. "That is in God's hands. That is not for me to say," Ives replied.

There were four or five people I spoke with outside the hearing room whose feelings were very similar to that of Ives. Most of them were suburban and middle-aged, and they clearly felt as if they were being beseiged.

On the other side, most of those who were opposed to the amendment spoke not of an apocalypse, but of the mundane stuff of benefits and partnerships. "I am a gay man and I have had a life partner of 32 years. He is the best thing in my life," said John Rittman. "I used to work for the State of Minnesota, and under the man whose photo is over there," Rittman said, nodding his head toward a portrait of Jesse Ventura, "my partner was able to share my health insurance. Under Pawlenty, that has been taken away.

"I no longer work for the State," Rittman continued. "But I think if people really believe in community and believe in family, and they fall in love, and they are willing to publicly acknowledge that love in a ceremony, as my partner and I did, I think they should be entitled to the same rights and insurance as other married people. If people don't want to call it marriage, fine, call it something else. It does not have to be anything that interferes with anyone's religion either. But there should be some way to acknowledge that we are lifelong partners--we love each other. Instead, this bill is trying to demand that everyone acknowledge that we are not valid, that we are not family. That is what is so insidious, that there can be no legal recognition at all of who we are if this passes. That is where the hatred is. That is bigotry."

Rittman and a lesbian, likewise in a long-term relationship, had a long and reasonable discussion with two or three supporters of the amendment out in the hallway. Essentially, they asked, is it fair to deny us the right to take care of our loved ones in sickness and in health, and to provide for them with the fruits of our labor? It seemed like a strong, valuable discussion. When I asked one of the amendment supporters, a woman who looked to be no more than a teenager, named Aubrey O'Brien, what she thought about what had just been said, she seemed very nervous.

"The people who are for this amendment, they seem very selfless to me," O'Brien said. "I talked to one older lady, she is just totally concerned with what happens to her grandchildren and to the other children. They want to protect other people, especially children. And the other side, all I hear from them is that they want to take care of their own rights and things. I don't hate them, but to me, that is selfish." And with that she burst into tears and walked away.

"The wording of the amendment as it has been proposed by Senator Bachmann does preclude civil unions [from being recognized]. And with good reason," said John Helmberger, CEO of the Minnesota Family Council. "In states where these civil unions have been recognized, it has increased the risk to our children and our religious freedom," he added, mentioning that it broadened the parameters of what can be taught as permissible in the public schools. "In addition, there is evidence that gays often use civil unions as a stepping stone in their drive to get to gay marriage. In Connecticut, where civil unions have been legalized, a lawsuit has been filed charging that those unions make gays second class citizens. What we believe," Helmberger concluded, "is that kids need to be protected. And what they need is a mom and a dad."

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