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Bemidji native helps fight proposed amendment to ban gay marriage

Great Minnesota Outing founder Jon Staff films a video of Rachel and Adeline for the website Thursday in Duluth. Submitted Photo

MINNEAPOLIS - A Bemidji native has developed a website to help fellow gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people come out.

The website, Great Minnesota Outing, was created by Jon Staff and is set to launch today at the Twin Cities Pride Festival.

Staff, 24, graduated from Bemidji High School in 2006 and continued his education at Harvard College, earning a degree in government. He now works for AeroDesigns, Inc., a breathable foods company he helped start, in Cambridge, Mass.

Staff said he started developing Great Minnesota Outing after hearing about the proposed constitutional gay marriage ban, which will be on the Minnesota ballot this November.

"I was living in London when I first learned about the issue," Staff said. "I had watched it with interest go through California, Iowa and New York, but it was only when it was on the Minnesota ballot that it became real and upsetting."

He started thinking about what he could do to help, but decided just donating money or flying back to Minnesota and volunteering with the campaign to defeat the proposed amendment would be too easy, Staff said.

"I felt I could do something more, help make something bigger happen," Staff said.

That's when he remembered his own coming out experience, he said.

"I grew up in Bemidji," Staff said. "I went away to college and came out. I admitted it to myself and then told my close friends and then all of my friends and then my parents, which is the pinnacle. You never really go back and tell other people you're gay - the people you only see once a year."

Staff's mom, Diane, said it felt good when her son came out to her and her husband.

"We felt honored that he trusted us enough to share that with us," Diane Staff said. "It brought us closer as a family."

It didn't surprise Diane Staff when her son started Great Minnesota Outing, she said.

"He's always been so driven and successful," Diane Staff said. "He's such a natural born leader. I'm proud that he's standing up for what he believes in."

Great Minnesota Outing was born as a way to help institutionalize the coming out process to tell all of those people who normally don't get told, Jon Staff said.

"I thought if you could make it easier to tell all of these people, people would support the defeat of the ban if they knew a gay person," Jon Staff said. "It makes it possible for everyone like me to tell everyone."

Great Minnesota Outing asks LGBT Minnesotans to record a video of themselves identifying their sexual orientation and explaining why they love their state and why it is important to have the freedom to marry in Minnesota.

"That's part of it, but the other part is distributing the videos," Staff said. "Not just through the website, but getting the videos out there on social media and telling the people's stories in their local newspapers."

Staff said voters need to remember the proposed amendment affects people all over the state.

"If the gay marriage ban passes, it will limit marriage not just in Minneapolis or Duluth, but also in the most rural parts of the state," Staff said.

Cathy Peck, whose daughter is lesbian and is legally married in Iowa, said it is time for change.

"We've been through this before when we testified in front of the Minnesota Senate in 2006," Peck said. "It's time for the uninformed to learn something about this issue. If it passes, it means our child would never have legal rights in her home state."

Diane Staff said the proposed amendment not only takes away her son's rights, but affects everyone.

"Everybody has the right to be who they are," Diane Staff said. "If they want to be married, then they should be able to be married."

Great Minnesota Outing's Nov. 6 goal is to introduce all Minnesotans to one or more people in their community who are LGBT and to help defeat the amendment, Jon Staff said.

"I think if you know at least one gay person, it can make you change your mind and support our rights," Jon Staff said.

Peck said it was a challenge for her and her husband Wally when their daughter came out.

"But we educated ourselves," Peck said. "She's our daughter. As a young girl, I always thought all citizens had equal rights, but clearly not everyone thinks that."

As for coming out to more people via Great Minnesota Outing, Peck said while she thought it was still best to do it face to face, it was one way for the younger generation to do it.

"It may open a conversation so things aren't in the dark," Peck said. "Because things are always better in daylight, aren't they?"

Outside of the ballot issue, Great Minnesota Outing hopes to initiate social change, Staff said.

"Our more overreaching goal is to change how gay people interact with their community," Staff said. "We want them to take it that step further than just telling their parents. It's easier to stop discrimination if more people know you're gay."

While he now works and lives in Massachusetts, Staff said Minnesota, and especially Bemidji, will always be home.

"I only identify with Minnesota as home," Staff said. "To me, (the ban) is personal. I'll get married some day, and there are a few places I can get married, but I can't get married at home."