For Minn., big changes on same-sex marriage in short amount of time

Doug Benson of Robbinsdale
Doug Benson of Robbinsdale has appeared at nearly every House and Senate floor session to urge lawmakers to allow same-sex couples to marry in Minnesota. This year he's held signs saying "Marriage Equality This Year."
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Just two years ago, Republicans, who then controlled the Legislature, thought it would help them politically to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would ban same-sex marriage.

It's been a quick turnaround from then until now.

After Thursday's vote, same-sex marriage supporters inside the Capitol erupted with joy. But for years, one man stood silently outside of the House and Senate nearly every day holding a sign encouraging lawmakers to recognize his marriage.

"It says 'marriage equality this year' but Sen. [John] Marty came up to me and said 'you should change that to this week,' " said Doug Benson of Robbinsdale.

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Benson has been at the Capitol since 2007, either asking lawmakers to defeat a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage or encouraging them to legalize it. After six years, Benson said he's feeling a sense of relief.

"When this passes, it's going to be such an important lift for so many people in the state," Benson said. "Not just the couples that can get married, not just the couples that are already married from other jurisdictions that will have their recognized, but also the kids. The ones who are killing themselves because they think they have no future because they're gay."

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Benson said he got married to his husband in Canada in 2003. They've been together for 22 years, he said.

If the bill becomes law, as of Aug. 1, Minnesota will allow same-sex couples to get married. The law will also recognize Benson's marriage — and those of other same-sex couples who were married in other countries or states. That list includes Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who married his husband in California a few years ago. Since Dibble was elected in 2000 he's worked to defeat the constitutional ban and to pass the same-sex marriage bill.

"This is a long-term process of building a movement and bringing people along on the process of change," Dibble said. "It's been a difficult journey and very emotional but it's been exhilarating, thrilling and very rewarding because you see slowly people's hearts open up and it's been really affirming."

Dibble will steer the same-sex marriage bill through the Senate. He'll also be there when Gov. Mark Dayton signs the bill. With that signature, Minnesota will become the 12th state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage. It will also be the first state in the Midwest to pass it through the legislative process. Iowa's Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.

Richard Carlbom, with the pro same-sex marriage group Minnesotans United, said Minnesota is unique. It's the first state to defeat a ban of same-sex marriage and is now on the cusp of passing a bill that legalizes it.

Sen. Scott Dibble
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, testified before the Senate Finance Committee this week in favor of a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"Folks in the Midwest are pragmatic and they want to make sure that the decision being made is a decision that they'll be proud of for the next hundred years," Carlbom said. "I think people today are realizing that the decision being made in this Legislature is historic and will never be forgotten."

And while some say the bill is a long time coming, others worry it's happening too quickly. On the House floor Thursday, Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said there isn't consensus on same-sex marriage.

"Minnesota is still divided on this issue. Hearts and minds may be changing but Minnesota is still divided. Now is not the time," Daudt said.

Opponents of same-sex marriage, who were confident that voters would side with them in November now have to watch as lawmakers move to legalize it.

Autumn Leva, with Minnesota for Marriage, doesn't think the public has changed its mind on same-sex marriage. Instead, she said many lawmakers, especially rural Democrats, voted for the bill even though their constituents wanted the ban just six months ago. (See more details in this map.)

"I think that does not show a shift in public opinion but rather legislators bowing to political pressure instead of to what the constituents want and what may be best for Minnesota," Leva said.

It's not clear whether those constituents head to the polls in 2014 with same-sex marriage as the top issue on their minds. Same-sex marriage backers predict most Minnesotans will move on from the issue over time.