Minnesota state Rep. Karen Clark, the longest-serving openly gay lawmaker in U.S. history, turned her back on her governor when he called for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in his 2006 state of the state address.
At the time, it seemed to Clark and other LGBT lawmakers that many colleagues, and a majority of Americans, had turned their backs on equality. A wave of anti-gay amendments had been enacted across the country and there was still support for a federal anti-gay marriage in George W. Bush’s White House.
So much has changed since 2006, including the person in the Minnesota governor’s office and the person in the White House.
In May 2013, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed marriage equality bills into law. In Illinois, failure to pass a bill in the House in May left Gov. Pat Quinn still waiting – but he’s ready.
Gay lawmakers played key roles in advancing the equality bills in each state legislature.
In Delaware, with an extremely close vote predicted in the Senate, Karen Peterson, D-Wilmington, publicly came out in a floor speech. During the debate, she told other senators, “If my happiness somehow demeans or diminishes your marriage, you need to work on your marriage.”
In Rhode Island and Minnesota, gay lawmakers helped shepherd the bills through committee to floor votes.
Rhode Island’s gay caucus includes House Speaker Gordon Fox, Reps. Frank Ferri and Deb Ruggiero and Sen. Donna Nesselbush, who in her floor speech said, “Of all the bills I will ever sponsor, this will be the bill that will have most impact on my life.”
In Minnesota, Clark is joined by openly gay state Rep. Susan Allen and state Sen. D. Scott Dibble. Clark and Dibble were looking over Dayton’s shoulder when the governor signed the bill allowing for same-sex couples to begin marrying on Aug. 1.
Dibble – who holds the seat once occupied by Allan Spear, who in 1974 became one of the first openly gay elected officials – married husband Richard Levya in 2008 in California, during the brief period when same-sex marriages were allowed in that state.
In his floor speech on the Minnesota bill, Dibble said, “Today we have the awesome, humbling power to make dreams come true. What do we dream as kids growing up? What do we all dream when we start our lives? We dream of a good life, a happy home, falling in love with someone, sharing that life and loving family. And marriage says family like nothing else.”
Clark has plans to marry Jacquelyn Zita, her partner of 24 years, perhaps on the farm they own north of Minneapolis.
“Because all of that happened, we made history,” said Clark. “We wrote a new page in the history books, and in less than two years we became the first state to pivot from defeating a hurtful constitutional amendment to passing freedom to marry legislation.”
She also said, “In Minnesota, we don’t turn our back on family” and “Freedom means freedom for everyone.”
The openly gay lawmakers stood for themselves, their partners, their families and others seeking the freedom to marry the person they love, said Chuck Wolfe, president of the Victory Fund, which helps recruit, train and fund LGBT candidates for public office.
“They spoke passionately and authentically about the personal impact of this struggle, and that has made a tremendous difference,” Wolfe said.
Openly gay lawmakers also were crucial to successful campaigns for marriage equality in Maryland and Washington in 2012 and New York in 2011.
Later this year, the Illinois House is expected to vote on marriage equality. The success of the bill, in large part, rests with its openly gay sponsor, Rep. Greg Harris, who is working with openly gay Reps. Kelly Cassidy, Deb Mell and Sam Yingling.
Also, efforts are intensifying to drive marriage equality measures in Oregon, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, New Jersey, Hawaii and New Mexico. There are out state lawmakers in each of those states to lead the campaigns. In Colorado, there are six out state representatives and two out state senators. And in Nevada, there are three out senators and two out representatives.
“We’re working to make sure every single state legislature in America has the benefit of at least one openly LGBT lawmaker who can speak for our community,” Wolfe has said.
Meanwhile, campaigns are organizing in Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island to provide lawmakers who stood for marriage equality some protection at the polls.
Right-wing groups such as the National Organization for Marriage have pledged to fund campaigns to oust pro-equality lawmakers. “This is not the end of the debate,” NOM president Brian Brown said after Delaware legalized same-sex marriage. “We intend to make sure that every citizen in Delaware knows how their policymakers voted on this critical issue. ”
Brown made similar statements after the passage of marriage equality in Rhode Island and Minnesota. “Make no mistake, this vote will bring the demise of the DFL majority,” Brown threatened, referring to Minnesota Democrats.
On June 6, the first day that same-sex couples could apply for marriage licenses in Minnesota, Clark encouraged citizens to pledge support for state representatives and senators who didn’t turn their backs on equality.
“We would not have secured marriage for same-sex couples in Minnesota without Republicans and DFLers working together, or without Minnesotans of all faiths coming together with one united mission,” she said. “The next step is to defend all those leaders in the state Legislature, both Republicans and DFLers, who stood up for freedom, fairness and all Minnesota families.”