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Midwest Takes Center Stage in Fight for Marriage Equality

by Megan Barnes
Contributor
Saturday Jun 15, 2013
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Just a few weeks ago, it looked as though Illinois might become the thirteenth state to legalize same-sex marriage, but lawmakers failed to secure enough votes on a marriage bill that won’t have another shot at a vote until the fall. It was a disappointing setback for thousands of couples across the state who thought they were finally going to be able to tie the knot.

It also would’ve made Illinois the third state to legalize same-sex marriage in the Midwest -- an important battleground that saw victories last month in Minnesota and in 2009 with Iowa. While much of the fight for marriage equality has been coastal, it’s increasingly taking center stage in Middle America, where attitudes are changing as fast as the fight itself.

"I think that it’s great to see states that aren’t coastal approving same sex marriage, and while last week was disappointing, it’s vitally important to see this fight happening in the heartland of America," said Jason Burns, executive director of Equality Wisconsin. In his state, the process to overturn a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage will take at least four years.

"Unfortunately unlike a lot of other states around us, short of a Supreme Court ruling, the road ahead is clear and it won’t happen as quickly for us as in other states," he added.

Wisconsin is joined by nine Midwestern states that have laws or constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. In states like Indiana and Ohio, movements to overturn them are also gaining momentum.

"I think the Midwest can do a whole lot to help moderate the views of the rest of the country," said Rick Sutton, executive director of Indiana Equality Action, and a decades-long gay rights advocate. "I have never seen an issue pivot and turn as fast as this one has and I think a lot of things contribute to that -- having a president who’s supportive, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Supreme Court cases -- every four or five months there’s another monumental event. Once that momentum starts, it’s very difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube."

Polls show that Midwesterners are more supportive of gay marriage than ever. A March survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that a majority, 53 percent, of Midwesterners approve of same-sex marriage, compared to only 43 percent in the South.

As for Michigan, senate democrats have recently introduced several gay marriage bills, hoping to bring marriage equality to thousands of same-sex couples in the Great Lakes State.


"In the past year alone, we have seen more than a 10 percent increase in support for marriage equality in Michigan -- now around 56 percent," said Gregory Varnum, development coordinator at Equality Michigan. His group is working on a policy strategy to repeal the state’s marriage ban in 2016. "The Midwest has often been a ’bellwether’ area of the nation. The fact that marriage equality is spreading beyond just New England and the coasts to the heartland of the US should be encouraging to us all. It has in the past for things like bullying, workplace discrimination, and second-parent adoption -- the Midwest will emerge as the next big battleground area as the focus shifts from the coasts," Varnum said.

"I think we’re seeing a generational shift starting to take effect," Zach Wahls, the 21-year-old Iowan who wrote a bestselling book about being raised by two lesbians, and appeared in a viral video speaking about them before Iowa lawmakers in 2011, told EDGE. "Folks in our age demographic have massive support for equality and it’s having an effect. We’re seeing change at a rapid pace and can make more leaps and bounds. I think we’ve definitely achieved critical mass, there’s an effort in Ohio to reverse the state constitutional amendment defining marriage and hopefully we’ll see marriage equality in Illinois soon. I feel pretty good about it."

In Minnesota, where Gov. Mark Dayton signed a marriage equality bill into law on May 14, a number of counties began accepting marriage license applications from same-sex couples last week. Only two short years ago, a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage was proposed in the state. The key strategy to winning marriage in such a short time there, OutFront Minnesota Communications Director Jean Heyer said, came down to a grassroots effort of simply talking to friends and neighbors.

"I think what we learned from our campaign that could be helpful in other states is that it was really about people starting conversations with friends, neighbors, family, people at their places of worship, colleagues -- really talking about what marriage means to couples and families. I think sharing those personal stories and making those connections is key," Heyer said.

Burns agreed.

"I think when you look at the Midwest, you see a mixture of blue collar workers and blue collar democrats who might otherwise tend to be a little more socially conservative. But you’re starting to see this become a non-partisan issue," he said. "Starting conversations is really important because once you have a conversation with someone who’s LGBT, it’s a lot harder to be opposed to marriage equality."


Megan Barnes is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. She regularly contributes to EDGE, San Pedro Today and was a founding editor of alternative UCSB newspaper The Bottom Line. More of her work can be found at www.megbarnes.com

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