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‘I couldn’t be happier’: Local gay community excited for bill’s passage

Emily Powers, left, and Emily Papke-Larson, have been together for five years. They have no immediate plans to get married after Gov. Mark Dayton signs a bill allowing gay and lesbian couples to do so, but they are happy to see it happen. — Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — The state Senate’s passage of the gay marriage bill Monday didn’t make marriage any less of a personal decision for Emily Papke-Larson and her partner Emily Powers.

But, the Bemidji couple who have been together for the past five years, said they’re happy to have that option available to them and gay and lesbian couples across the state.

“The trajectory of our relationship is more personal than what happens in the Legislature,” Papke-Larson said. “That the option is there, that’s what’s important.”

“I feel like the couples that are together and are ready to do that and have been waiting for so long, it’s fantastic that they have that opportunity to do that,” Powers added.

Gov. Mark Dayton will sign the bill into law tonight, making Minnesota the 12th state to legalize gay marriage just six months after voters defeated the constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

 “I’m really kind of blown away,” Papke-Larson said. “And I think it’s a wonderful thing. I couldn’t be happier.”

Bemidji resident Joseph Phelps knew for a while he was gay before he came out in his early teens. He said having gay marriage legalized in Minnesota will help people who are going through a similar situation feel accepted.

“It’s going to help a lot of those middle school and high school kids who are just figuring out their sexuality,” Phelps said Monday morning before the Senate started its debate. “I don’t think a lot of people realize what that’s going to do for the self esteem of an entire generation of people.

“It’s really hard being a teenager and trying to figure out being a teenager, let alone a gay teenager.”

Phelps said he knows some people who will take advantage of gay marriage becoming legal right away, but that may not be the case for him. He said with a laugh he’ll have to stop joking with his boyfriend about marriage.  

“Because we do it all the time and we discussed this marriage that we just thought was never going to happen, because who saw this coming two years ago?”

Two years ago, the Minnesota Legislature voted to put a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman on the ballot.

The amendment ultimately failed the same night a majority of DFL senators and representatives won their districts, giving momentum to gay marriage in the state.

Sutton Stewart remembers that night well. He campaigned against the amendment with Minnesota United for All Families, the lobbying group that has pushed for the gay marriage bill this session.

“It was I think 3 o’ clock in the morning when it was announced that the marriage amendment had failed,” Stewart said Sunday afternoon from his living room in Bemidji. “I was asleep, but my roommates came barreling in, (saying) ‘We won! We won!’”

Stewart, a gay man, experienced a similar sense of relief when the House passed the gay marriage bill Thursday, but he was careful not to celebrate until the ink dries on Dayton’s signature and it became law.

He noted Minnesota will be the first Midwest state to legalize gay marriage through legislation rather than through the court system.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled its law defining marriage between a man and a woman as unconstitutional in 2009.  

“It’s not necessarily the wrong way to go through the courts, but it’s I think a stronger validation of the popular mentality when we go through our leaders,” Stewart said. He praised Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, who supported the gay marriage bill in a speech on the House floor Thursday.

“We’re all individual people who deserve individual freedoms, and I think having that conversation has really opened up the eyes of a lot of the majority of people in our state,” Stewart said. “And if they haven’t had that conversation, maybe now they will.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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