With a swiftness and a decisiveness that would have been unthinkable just two years ago — let alone 20 — the next-to-last barrier to same-sex marriage in Minnesota fell Thursday as the state House of Representatives voted by a comfortable margin to approve gay marriage. The 75-59 vote in favor (four Republicans joined all but two of the chamber’s Democrats in voting for the measure) was never in doubt.
On Monday, the State Senate is an odds-on favorite to pass the same bill, sending it to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk, where it will be signed with a flourish. Barring last-minute legal challenges, wedding bells will be ringing by mid-summer for same-sex couples, making Minnesota the 12th state where gay marriage is permitted. Not exactly pioneers on the issue, but meaning Minnesota will be the first Midwestern state to pass a law extending the right to marry to all.
“It’s not time to pour the champagne yet,” Rep. Steve Simon told a raucous throng celebrating after the vote in the Capitol Rotunda. “But it (the champagne) is chilling!”
The legislation was designated House File 1045: “Marriage between two persons provided, and exemptions based in religious association provided for.” Despite the innocuous title, passage of the bill represented nothing short of a revolution in society, and in the state’s political culture: After four decades of campaigning for same-sex marriage as a human right and a matter of justice and equality before the law, the struggle has gone from quixotic to triumphant seemingly almost over night.
More than 1,000 orange-clad supporters of same-sex marriage were in a festive mood throughout the day, singing songs, cheering “Love is Love” and waiting for the victory they knew was coming. The party atmosphere was in sharp contrast to election night 2012, 189 days earlier, when supporters of gay marriage anxiously awaited the verdict on the proposed Amendment that would have written a ban on legal same-sex marriages into the state Constitution. That mean-spirited and cynical ploy, cooked up by Republican legislative majorities that had relied too long on gay bashing, proved too clever by half: Minnesota’s voters shocked the cynics, ignored the Scripture thumping and defeated the amendment.
At the same time, as a result of the energy of the thousands of GLBT activists and supporters who mobilized to defeat the amendment, the Republican majority was shot down, replaced by a DFL majority that owed its ascendancy to a same-sex marriage movement that has swept across the nation and completely changed the equation. Even then, the DFL leadership moved cautiously. Despite talk that a gay marriage proposal would be the No. 1 item on the Democrats’ agenda when the Legislature convened in January, the Democrats pushed the issue down the page, testing it out and strategery-izing carefully about not “over-reaching” as the GOP did.
To some supporters, the political pussy-footing was maddening, especially the suggestion that by extending basic legal protections to all married couples, the Democrats might in any way be emulating the Republicans who tried to restrict those rights. This was not a game of ping-pong; it was a tireless crusade for equality, and, in the end, it could not be stopped. Public opinion has changed faster than the politicians. So has the nature of the debate: Just two years ago, during the fight over putting the anti-gay marriage amendment on the ballot, the debate was raw, and angry, and insulting. Thursday, with the handwriting on the wall, it was restrained, polite, mannered.
Maybe Minnesota, which will be 155 on Saturday, is finally growing up.
Supporters held a 2-1 or 3-1 majority in the Capitol corridors, but both sides got along, somehow. Opponents were coached not to shout their opposition, but to pray, steadfastly and with dignity. They did so, including small groups of women in head coverings, and a larger group of Hispanics. There was occasional team chanting — back and forth — but it was good-natured, like a halftime competition between high school cheerleaders:
We support gay marriage, yes we do! We support gay marriage — how about YOU??
Through it all, the Capitol was open for normal business, including large groups of school children touring the building, their eyes wide open, some of them with hands clapped over their ears.
“Usually, we ask you kids to speak softly and be quiet,” a tour guide was telling a busload of 4th Graders from Lakeville as they got ready to step inside the Capitol, already echoing with chants and cheers. “But that is not going to be much of an issue today.”
The opponents seemed resigned to losing the epic battle. “We’re just people of good faith who want the best for the kids of Minnesota,” said Linda True of Mendota Heights. True was holding one of those signs that used to carry the day: One Man silhouette, plus one Woman silhouette, equaling One Child silhouette.
Yesterday, the Silhouette Family seemed to have lost all its power to persuade.
The House debate, which ran from noon to 3:05, when the tally was announced, had many emotional moments as lawmakers who supported the bill spoke of gay friends, or family members, or children, who longed for the right to marry the ones they love. Many choked up, as the weight of the moment pressed upon them.
“My heart is beating out of my chest,” said Democrat Joe Radinovich, who acknowledged that his northern Minnesota constituents had voted in favor of last Fall’s amendment and that one of them had told a reporter that “All gay people should be rounded up and shot.” Radinovich said, ” “I’d rather have the voters be upset with me right now than for me to be upset with myself for the rest of my life for making the wrong decision.”
Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill, powerless to stop it, mostly limited themselves to pro forma, low-key arguments, raising question s about unintended consequences and discussing social statistics in The Netherlands and philosophically wondering about how the nature of society and civilization might change if gays are permitted to obtain marriage licenses. It was a civil discussion, but one with a weird disconnect: Democrats quoted Martin Luther King and spoke about personal experiences, friends, family, and human longing; Republicans talked about society, and historical change, like Ph.D candidates in philosophy who hadn’t ever had their hearts broken.
The humans won.
“We come not to destroy marriage, but to uphold it,” said Rep. Barb Yarusso, a Shoreview Democrst.
The debate, said the bill’s supporters, over and over, was about “saying yes to love, no matter what.” About “an intense personal decision” that could only be decided by two lovers. About being able to be with the person you “can’t live without.” About being allowed to be “who God made you to be.”
For love, the opponents of gay marriage had no answer. They didn’t have the votes, either.
Simon, the Hopkins Democrat who advised keeping the champagne on ice until Monday, told an emotional story on the House floor right out of Torah School, about a rabbi who asks his students how they know the exact moment when night ends and a new day begins (You can see Simon tell the story at the 2:45 mark of the video above).
Is it when it becomes light enough to tell a cedar tree from an olive tree, one student asks. No, the rabbi says. Is it when it becomes light enough to tell a sheep from a goat on the hillside? Again, the rabbi says, No.
Simon, his words halting as emotions flooded over him, paused before he could finish the rabbi’s story:
“The moment when night ends and a new day begins is the moment when you look into the face of a stranger and see the face of your brother…at that moment, that’s when the new day begins.”
Yes, a new day — forty years in the making — is coming to Minnesota.
It might be here as soon as Monday.
Nick Coleman is the Executive Editor of The UpTake.