LGBT convention comes to Mpls. as rights debate escalates

John Rittman, Tom Trisko
John Rittman (left) and Tom Trisko joke in their home in Minneapolis, Minn., on January 31, 2011. The long-time couple is challenging the state's same-sex marriage ban in court.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

About 2,500 people are expected in downtown Minneapolis Wednesday for the 23rd annual National Conference on LGBT Equality.

The five-day event is billed as the largest annual convention for advocates of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, and it's getting under way at a time when debate over same-sex marriage in Minnesota is heating up -- again.

John Rittman and Tom Trisko say in the 37 years they've been together, acceptance toward gay and lesbian couples has broadened beyond their imagination. Rittman recalls how plans for a one-block street dance in honor of gay pride once caused a stir at Minneapolis City Hall.

"And since then, it's incredible, you walk along Hennepin Avenue, and you see the banners, and the mayors show up, and all these officials. It's been a sea change," Rittman said.

"When I used to go to first couple of Gay Pride festivals in Loring Park back in the early '70s we used to hide behind the trees, so that we wouldn't be on the TV that night and embarrass our parents, and have our bosses know that we were gay," Trisko said.

Sitting at their dining-room table in Minneapolis, the men aren't shy anymore about making their commitment to each other known. In 2005, they got married in Canada. And last year, they filed a lawsuit challenging a Minnesota law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Five states currently allow same-sex marriage.

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Trisko, a retired economist, notes that the last time a Minnesota court issued a ruling on same-sex marriage was in the early '70s.

"We feel that it's time, that society has changed so much over the past 40 to 45 years, that it's time to bring the issue up again, and hopefully get a different ruling."

The couple sees same-sex marriage as one of the biggest fights ahead for the LGBT community in Minnesota, and across the country.

And it will be among the host of issues discussed in workshops at this week's conference. Organizer Russell Roybal of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force says a lot of folks are excited to make the trip to Minneapolis, a place that the Advocate magazine concluded was the "gayest city in America."

"Well, I'm here to tell you that the gayest city is about to get a lot gayer," he said.

Roybal said the conference organizers recruited the most volunteers in the history of the event, and raised the most corporate cash -- more than $150,000 in all. Best Buy, General Mills and Xcel Energy are helping sponsor the event.

The last year saw a major victory for the LGBT community in the repeal of the military's policy of "don't ask, don't tell."

Roybal said Minnesota was seen as a leader in the early 1990s when it became one of the first states to pass a law prohibiting discrimination in housing, jobs, and other areas based on sexual orientation. But he says advocates are concerned that this legislative session, opponents will try to push for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

"Now we're trying to use the gathering and the conference as a way to help galvanize the community in Minnesota, to prepare for what could be a not-so-pretty fight around marriage," he said.

Tom Prichard, who heads the Minnesota Family Council, says he's been talking to lawmakers about introducing a new bill that would put the marriage question on the ballot. Prichard said now is the best time in years to raise the issue, because Republicans control both the state Senate and House.

"Now you have majorities which are sympathetic to the marriage question and the marriage amendment," he said. "Certainly, the political landscape has changed, and I think that bodes well for where the marriage amendment is at."

Most Minnesotans, Prichard said, oppose same-sex marriage.

Tom Trisko and John Rittman say they're especially concerned as they approach their 70s.

Rittman said the recent death of their friend made them realize how differently gay couples were treated under the law. Because their deceased friend had no close relatives, Rittman says the hospital couldn't release the body to his partner of 40 years.

"They had to call a distant cousin who lives in England who didn't even know that Frank had cancer, [or] was in a hospital," Rittman said. "And David the whole time is standing there holding Frank's dead hand, crying. They didn't do it to be nasty. They did it because of legal requirements."

Trisko and Rittman said they do think gays will be allowed to marry in the state eventually. They just don't know if they'll live long enough to see the day.