Minn. Anti-Gay Amendment: Crisis? Or Opportunity?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday May 26, 2011

The approval of an anti-gay ballot initiative to amend the Minnesota constitution was not a surprise given the Republican dominance of the states legislature. But what may be surprising is the hope that GLBT equality advocates have expressed that the state's voters might make history by rejecting bias in the voting booth come election day, 2012, National Public Radio reported on May 25.

The state senate had already approved the anti-gay measure when the house followed suit on May 21 with a vote of 70-62. If Minnesotans approved the constitutional re-write, they will embed language that restricts the rights of gay and lesbian families into the state's bedrock law by denying same-sex couples the right to marry.

State law already bans marriage equality, but similar laws have been struck down in other states as unconstitutional. The most prevalent way of ensuring that this does not happen--approved in 31 states--is to change the state constitution itself. There has even been an intermittent and, thus far, unsuccessful push to amend the Constitution of the United States in a way that enshrines anti-gay language.

But GLBT equality advocates, while unhappy that the rights of same-sex families are once again headed to the ballot box in a way that heterosexuals' rights have never been put to a popular vote, say that there's reason to think Minnesota might be the state that changes the outcome.

In all but one case where the rights of gay and lesbian families have been put to a popular vote, those rights have been rescinded or curtailed. The single exception was Arizona in 2006, when voters feared that a vaguely worded ballot measure would backfire, impacting unmarried heterosexual couples and rejected it. A subsequent ballot measure refined the language so that only gays and lesbians would suffer the consequences, and voters approved the measure handily.

But arguments about fairness, parity, and equality have never carried the day. Instead, campaigns that spread messages of fear about gays--that they wish to target and "recruit" children, that a marriage between two men or two women will somehow tarnish marriages between men and women, or that allowing loving couples of the same gender to marry will open the floodgates to people marrying child brides, close relatives, or animals--have succeeded in convincing voters to deprive their fellow citizens of their family rights.

Such messages have had fertile ground in which to take root. For decades, political and religious leaders have recited and repeated myths about homosexuals, calling them "sinners" who "chose" a "lifestyle" of loving others of the same gender.

As science has advanced--and, more crucially, as gays and lesbians have increasingly come out of the closet to be seen, heard, and counted--such myths have begun to be dispelled. As more Americans realize that their own family members, colleagues, and close friends are GLBT, they have begun to realize that the mantras of myth bear little resemblance to truth. That, at least, is one interpretation of polls that continue to show an increasing acceptance of GLBT individuals and their families.

With the latest Gallup poll now showing a slender majority favors marriage equality--53%--there's a sense that the black cloud of bitter, loud, and divisive campaigning that is about to descend on Minnesota might prove to have a silver lining: Minnesota voters may well reflect the current trends and refuse to enshrine anti-gay language in their state's constitution.

Though the latest poll shows that Republican opposition to marriage equality has not budged in the last year, the last 12 months have seen other segments of society shift on the issue. Moreover, polls have long shown a generational break on the issue, with young voters being much more supportive early on than older voters--which suggests that as time passes, acceptance of family parity for gays and lesbians is likely to keep growing.

Activists on both sides suggests that the proof is in the political pudding--though some of them say that settling social issues via ballot initiatives is not necessarily the best approach.

"For so long, we've had these ballot measures, and we keep losing them," the Human Rights Campaign's Sarah Warbelow told NPR. "But our hope is that Minnesota is going to turn the tide."

In addition to the Gallup poll (only one of a number of polls that reconfirm that a majority of Americans now support marriage equality), a poll of Minnesotans undertaken by local newspaper the Star Tribune also showed that gay and lesbian families had made progress: more than half--55%--did not support the constitutional amendment, noted the NPR article.

"We're in a cultural shift on this," the HRC's Michael Cole-Schwartz told NPR. "The polls are indicative of a larger movement." As a result, politicians are now using gays as political footballs less often than used to be the case.

"Party leaders realize this doesn't play like it used to," Cole-Schwartz noted.

That in itself has contributed to a notable paradigm shift that sees gay conservatives on the ascent--and vocal about it, asserting that they, perhaps even more than heterosexual conservatives, have reason to pursue policies that would limit government's size, scope, and power to interfere with individual liberty.

Anti-gay groups are not ready to concede ground just yet, however. The National Organization for Marriage, which has poured millions of dollars into campaigns around the nation to prevent gay and lesbian families from gaining the right to marry--or, as in the case of California's Proposition 8 in 2008 and, a year later, a ballot initiative in Maine, to rescind marriage parity--insisted that the polls were meaningless.

"People doing polls want to get the results they're getting," NOM head Brian Brown told NPR. As if to underscore Brown's claim, an NOM-backed poll flatly contradicted the Star Tribune's survey, tallying up 57% opposition to marriage equality. Said Brown: "The only poll that counts is what happens in the ballot box, and we've never lost."

Past Results, Future Possibilities

Based on past results, "In Minnesota, they'll do what 31 other states have done," Brown predicted, "vote for traditional marriage. We've been working with the state groups, just as we did in Maine and California, and we will financially support the effort."

And NOM doesn't just spend money directly on ballot measure campaigns. The group has made it clear in no uncertain terms that politicians supportive of marriage equality might see their opponents' war chests filled with NOM cash at election time.

The anti-group has issued just such a threat when it comes to a push by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to secure marriage parity in that state. NOM has already said that any New York GOP lawmaker who votes for marriage can count on $1 million from NOM--going, that is, to somebody else gunning for their seat.

"I don't think you're going to see New York redefine marriage," Brown said.

Local anti-gay activists also predicted that Minnesota would not break the historic trend of anti-gay ballot measures passing into law.

"We feel there is strong support for marriage in Minnesota," Tom Prichard, leader of the Minnesota Family Council, said. "We also see this as an opportunity to have a discussion and a debate on the issue of marriage."

NPR noted that "the debate has already show signs of getting ugly," and reported that the Minnesota Family Council was already peddling stereotyped images of gays.

"The Minnesota Family Council's website has posted inflammatory material linking homosexuality with bestiality and 'other deviant behaviors,' including pedophilia," the NPR article said.

Such material is meant to give a look at "the nature of homosexuality and homosexual behavior," according to Pritchard, who went on to claim that, the rhetoric his group was promoting notwithstanding, the Minnesota Family Council wanted to keep the "focus of this campaign" on who should be permitted to marry whom, and "not [become] a referendum of homosexuality per se, or its lifestyle activities and behaviors. I would see that as a separate issue."

Equality supporters may have seen the very fact of the ballot initiative going forward as disappointing, but that's not only due to the rights of same-sex families going up to a popular vote once more. The focus and engagement that the state's lawmakers exhibited regarding this particular issue, when so many other matters remain unresolved, is also exasperating to some.

"We've got this $6 billion deficit here, and leadership says they want to work to improve the economy, and this is the only issue they get done," Out Front Minnesota leader Monica Meyer told NPR. "It's a sad statement for our state."

But this issue is the one that lawmakers chose to address, so it is the one that Minnesotans will have to come to terms with, and Meyer expressed optimism for the outcome.

"I do think times are changing, and we in Minnesota should be able to defeat this amendment," she told NPR.

Still, even some who think Minnesota will become the 32nd state to write anti-gay discrimination into its constitution disagree that a ballot initiative is the best way forward on social issues.

"Should marriage be between a man and a woman" is one of two distinct issues, newspaper editor Kevin Sweeney told NPR, "and I think most people would say yes. And there's the question of whether the state needs to amend its constitution."

However, Sweeney added, attempting to address the issue via the so-called "direct democracy" of a ballot initiative "is not a good idea--it gets messy."

A case in point might be how anti-gay activists in El Paso, Texas, responded to fewer than 20 domestic partners of city employees receiving benefits by putting a proposed ordinance before the city's voters to uphold "traditional values" by denying benefits to any but legally married spouses and dependents of city employees. Voters approved the measure, but its wording was so broad that more than 200 people now face a loss of their benefits--not because they are gay, but because of the technical meaning of who is, and is not, a city employee.

The ordinance involved a federal suit that was recently settled--in favor of the ordinance's backers. The judge in the case, referencing "The Federalist" author James Madison, called the result "an example of how direct democracy can have unexpected consequences."

The flip side to that is how ballot initiatives might not deliver the results they promised in the first place. The 2008 campaign in California over Prop. 8 was driven largely by claims from the anti-gay side that unless gay and lesbian adults lost the legal right to marry, children in the state's schools would be "forced to learn about homosexuality."

Education officials denounced the claims as false, but they alarmed parents. Proposition 8 passed--but a year later, similar claims about children being forced to learn about gays in the classroom were being made by opponents of an anti-bullying curriculum.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.