Don't Marry Me in Minnesota

(Flickr/Fibonacci Blue)

The Capital Rotunda in St. Paul, Minnesotta. Participants in African-American Lobby Day occupy the first floor while protestors against the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage fill the halls on the second floor.

As I’ve been writing here, marriage is on the ballot in four states on Tuesday: Maine, Maryland, Washington, and Minnesota. The upbeat news from the first three is that voters have a chance to say "yes" to letting same-sex couples get married; the ballot question is some variant of this sentence: Should [our state] issue civil marriage licenses to qualified same-sex couples, while preserving religious freedom and protecting clergy from having to perform such marriages if doing so violates their tenets? 

The fight in Minnesota is harder. Its ballot measure is the bad old kind that will amend the state constitution to insist that civil marriage licenses can only be issued to different-sex couples.

Here’s the background. In 1971, waaaay back in the first days of the gay-rights movement, a very bold male couple applied for a marriage license, and sued when they were refused one. The court’s response was, essentially, "Yeah, right." God bless them for trying. To put it mildly, the country wasn’t there yet. But just to put a stop to any of that crazy thinking, in 1977 the Minnesota legislature added a clause to the legal code clarifying that civil marriage was between a man and a woman. Nobody noticed. The gay-rights movement was, at the time, fighting much more vicious ballot initiatives: In California, there was an initiative to ban lesbians and gay men from being schoolteachers; in Florida and elsewhere, anti-gay crusaders tried to get rid of antidiscrimination laws that made it illegal to kick someone out of jobs or housing just because they were lesbian or gay. Ah, those were the days!

Then, in the 1990s, when marriage equality started looking like a genuine possibility, all sorts of states started to ban that option in their territory. Minnesota’s legislature jumped on the bandwagon and passed one such DOMA, or Defense of Marriage Act, in 1997. But with opinion softening up on marriage equality, and with a marriage-equality lawsuit in its state court system, the most recent Minnesota legislature just didn’t think that that was enough protection. After all, state legislatures hither and yon have been passing marriage-equality laws—Maine, New York, California, Washington. So in 2011, the Minnesota legislature voted to put a constitutional amendment on this year’s ballot that would prevent any future state legislators from enacting marriage equality.

Last spring, when I spoke with Kate Brickman, the press secretary for Minnesotans United for All Families, she told me that she had a great deal of hope for their campaign. Previous DOMA campaigns, she told me, had had an average time of only five and a half months to prepare for the vote. Minnesota, on the other hand, will have had 18 months. Then, she told me that they’d carefully researched their messaging and launched a grassroots campaign that relied on the same techniques that all the marriage-equality campaigns have been using: one-to-one conversations. As I’ve been writing here, most people don’t have the time or inclination to think through issues like same-sex marriage. But if someone talks to them about why same-sex couples want to marry—love, commitment, public recognition for their desire to care for each other—people do change their minds. That’s been the campaign: Organize supporters of equality to talk to as many voters as they can—and explain why they are asking folks to vote no

Brickman told me about a host of different initiatives they’d launched. The Lutheran Church, for instance, was united in opposition to DOMA; its church members were phone banking to talk to fellow congregants. The campaign’s goal, she told me, was to talk with one million of the state’s five and a half million residents.

On the other side has been the Catholic Church and the National Organization for Marriage, running a campaign orchestrated by Frank Schubert, who oversaw the Proposition 8 campaign in California and the North Carolina vote against marriage equality. As usual, the organization is warning of dire consequences if marriage is broadened to include same-sex couples—religious discrimination, harm to children—and no consequence if the amendment is passed. This video, for instance, explicitly says that the amendment would have “no impact on rights and benefits for gay couples.” It would just “prevent activist judges or politicians from redefining marriage.” Bizarrely enough, it notes that in the 32 states that already have DOMAs, “there have been no hardships for gay and lesbian couples in those states”—which earns a “pants on fire” rating.  

The polling looks bad. The percentage who say they will vote “no” hasn't topped 46 percent in a while. As I’ve noted repeatedly, all undecideds vote against us. If someone hasn’t thought about why same-sex couples might want to marry, their instinct is to vote for the status quo. The most recent poll says that 47 percent of Minnesotans support the amendment, 7 percent are undecided, and and 46 percent are opposed. Add up 47 and 7, and the amendment passes with 54 percent of the vote. I don’t know anyone in the LGBT advocacy community—except maybe inside Minnesota, where they have to have hope to continue the fight—who expects the amendment to lose.

There’s a quirk in this initiative: It has to pass with 50 percent of all votes cast¸not just a plurality. That means that anyone who leaves that spot on the ballot blank is voting against the amendment. Some folks have hung their hopes on that. I don’t.  

But here’s the good news: The campaign against the amendment has mobilized the grassroots, person-to-person campaign that’s needed to educate Minnesotans. That’s what it will take to pass marriage equality at the ballot box when the time comes. The infrastructure is in place; the messages have been tested. The campaign just has to continue as if the vote never happened. I know, that’s easy for me to say; I’m not the one who has to raise the funds, and I’m living safely in a state where my marriage is secure. But that’s the way for Minnesotans to win the next time around—in four or six more years.

Because the truth, folks, is that there are 32 amendments “protecting” marriage from same-sex couples. Most of those states will have to vote to repeal those restrictive laws to allow same-sex couples marry. The anti-marriage movement is about to launch a permanent offense, fighting actively to pass laws that enable us to marry. Everyone’s going to have to organize, donate, and keep having those earnest conversations about why love and devotion are the same whether your beloved’s name is Jack or Jill. Minnesotans will simply have a head start. 

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