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Marriage equality in Minnesota: A gay-rights victory in the Midwest

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, left, sponsor of the gay marriage bill in the Minnesota Senate, and his partner Richard Leyva greet a large, joyous crowd as the arrive at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. on Monday, May 13, 2013. The...
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, left, sponsor of the gay marriage bill in the Minnesota Senate, and his partner Richard Leyva greet a large, joyous crowd...

Updated, May 14, 7:30 p.m.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill Tuesday that legalizes gay marriage, making the state the 12th to do so.

Marriage equality gained an important foothold in the Midwest on Monday, as the Minnesota Senate voted to approve a historic measure extending marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.

Hundreds of supporters at the Capitol erupted in cheers as lawmakers passed the bill by a vote of 37-30 in the state Senate, where Democrats hold a 39-28 majority.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia will now allow any two people to marry regardless of sexual orientation, but only one other state in the Midwest--Iowa--is part of that group. The Hawkeye state began recognizing same-sex marriages in 2009 through a state Supreme Court order, not through a legislative initiative.

For LGBT advocates, marriage equality’s expansion into the middle of the country marks a significant, though not entirely surprising achievement, given the momentum the gay rights movement has built in recent years.

“Victory for the LGBT community in the Midwest isn’t totally shocking,” said Paul Guequierre, deputy press secretary of Human Rights Campaign, to Monday. “What some people may not be aware of is the progressive nature of some of those Midwestern states,” he added, noting that Wisconsin was actually the first state to pass a gay rights law in 1982 banning workplace discrimination.

“But it’s great to see marriage equality expand in the middle of the country, there’s no doubt about that,” said Guequierre. “It’s a big deal, and it shows where this country is going.”

Hundreds of gay marriage advocates gathered on the steps of the state Capitol in Saint Paul Monday in what Outfront Minnesota communications director Jean Heyer described as “a very excited” mood.  State Sen. John Hoffman high-fived happy supporters on his way into the building, while openly gay Sen. Scott Dibble, the bill’s architect, stopped to cheer before the massive crowd.

The bill passed the Minnesota House on Thursday in a 75-59 vote, largely along party lines. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said he would sign the bill into law as early as Tuesday.

Just six months ago, however, marriage equality was facing a very different outcome. After a Republican-controlled legislature put forward a ballot measure that would have enshrined a ban on gay marriage in the state's constitution, Minnesota voters narrowly defeated the amendment. The fact that the legislature has now voted to enact the exact opposite on gay marriage illustrates just how quickly public opinion can turn on the issue.

In the last year--since President Obama threw his support behind marriage equality--gay rights advocates have won a spate of victories, including a series of states that moved to legalize same-sex marriage, and a number of lawmakers who reversed their opposition. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two same-sex marriage cases in March, and the justices could issue historic rulings for the gay rights movement next month.

Opposition still remains, however, despite these national trends. Hundreds of same-sex marriage protesters flooded the Capitol for the Minnesota House vote on Thursday. And while there were more supporters than opponents on Monday, the bill's passage was not entirely without protest. One gay marriage opponent placed a tombstone on the front lawn outside the Capitol Monday with the words, “R.I.P Marriage 2013,” reports the Associated Press.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, same-sex marriage opponents still hold considerable influence. Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady stepped down last week, amid conservative backlash over his support for same-sex marriage. But Brady believes that such opposition represents a minority, even within his own party.

“If two adults want to enter a loving, committed relationship, then they should be allowed to do that,” said Brady on Up with Steve Kornacki  Sunday. “To me, that is entirely consistent with conservative Republican principles. A very small group of the central committee which regulates the state party, a couple people thought that wasn’t such a good idea, and they basically forced me out.... But I think most Republicans recognize that the true conservative position is in support of marriage equality.”

LGBT advocates are hoping that Illinois will be next to continue marriage equality's recent winning streak. The Illinois state Senate voted to approve same-sex marriage in February, and Gov. Pat Quinn has promised to sign the bill into law. Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk is also one of two GOP senators who has publicly backed same-sex marriage.

Minnesota is the third state this month to legalize marriage equality, after Rhode Island and Delaware. The bill makes same-sex marriage available in Minnesota beginning on August 1.

"It’s been incredible in the last couple weeks in terms of marriage equality," said Jake Loesch, communications director at Minnesotans United. "It is a very significant time in history. The energy is electric today."