Gay divide slowly closing
Leonard Hedlund told his mom he was gay when he was 17 years old as a senior at New Richmond High School.
Was it a big surprise? Not so much.
"I had a Pocahontas cake when I was 5 for my birthday," he said.
His folks didn't make an issue of it. They said, "It's your life. We're going to love you no matter what."
On June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down decisions on two highly anticipated gay marriage cases. By a 5-4 vote, it ruled as unconstitutional the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
In a second ruling, the court, also by a 5-4 margin, found petitioners "lacked standing" to bring their case before the court, thereby dismissing the decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and letting stand the lower court's decision invalidating Proposition 8. Prop 8 was a constitutional amendment passed in 2008 outlawing same-sex marriage in California.
Across the river in Minnesota, a determined campaign on behalf of same-sex marriage saw the defeat of the state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples in November 2012 and passage of same-sex marriage legislation in May.
As of Aug. 1, same-sex marriages will be recognized in Minnesota and with that recognition will come all the rights and privileges accorded heterosexual married couples affecting issues such as Social Security, housing, health care, filing state and federal taxes, adoption and even the right to be buried together in some instances. Minnesota joins Iowa as the only other Midwestern state recognizing same-sex marriages, bringing the total number of such states to 12, plus the District of Columbia.
In Wisconsin, where same-sex marriage is banned by the state constitution, domestic partnerships, which have been recognized since 2009, are being challenged in the Wisconsin State Supreme Court in a suit brought by the conservative group American Family Action. Domestic partnerships confer only a limited number of the same benefits (43) enjoyed by married couples (200).
According to St Croix County Clerk Cindy Campbell, she's issued a total of 26 Declarations of Domestic Partnerships since 2009, 21 of which occurred in 2009. That same year she issued 397 marriage certificates. In general, the rights and privileges granted with marriage are universally recognized from state to state while the benefits granted with domestic partnerships vary widely from state to state. Wisconsin law goes so far as to penalize residents who enter into marriage in another state if that same marriage would be prohibited here. Such marriages can result in a penalty of up to $10,000 and nine months in prison.
"What it comes down to is, I'm fighting for a life without limitations, a life like you have," Hedlund said.
After he "came out" to his family, life relaxed a little bit, he said.
"It was nice not to have to pretend," Hedlund said.
Hedlund said his younger brother didn't accept him until recently, when he decided, "Being a brother is more important."
Hedlund, 21, sports a pierced lip and ear, and just graduated from cosmetology school in Minnesota. He picked up a third job working in a group home to go along with his other jobs bartending and working as a respite caregiver. He moved to Lakeland, Minn., from River Falls five months ago.
After the rulings, Hedlund said he experienced a sense of victory and relief.
"Both because people my age, my generation, are just getting out of college and we've either been dating someone for a long time or we're new at it," he said. "So it's good to know we're that much closer to actually being able to get married. It's one less thing to have to worry about for your future."
It's hard to hide in a small town. Hedlund recounts his experience growing up gay in New Richmond as a tale of two lives.
"I feel like there were a lot of people who just didn't want to talk about it because it made them uncomfortable. People kind of knew, but they kind of didn't," he said. "They kind of wanted to talk, but they kind of didn't. High school wasn't super bad for me personally because I pretty much kept to myself for the first two years. Thank God I didn't have to deal with the hard core stuff like people bullying me."
Leading two lives adjoined Hedlund to a sub-culture in high school. In a community he estimated to be less than 50 students, gay students had three choices, according to Hedlund.
"There were students who everyone knew were gay, students who only some people knew were gay and others who no one knew were gay," he said. "For some people, keeping it a secret meant the difference between a normal high school experience and one of the biggest struggles of their lives. I'm sure you've heard about the kids who everyone finds out and they're bullied to the point of suicide. I had both gay and straight friends and they had my back for sure. I was fortunate enough to have support and love regardless of my sexual orientation so that thought never crossed my mind."
Interestingly, Hedlund did not feel like his sexual orientation had any bearing on how his teachers treated him academically, but "it did open up a few doors for other discussions related to homosexuality, which I was totally comfortable with sharing."
The majority of gay students look forward to getting out of high school and moving on to a chance to be themselves in a bigger world. "I didn't see why it was such an issue that I was attracted to another guy and why that should limit anything I did with my life or anything I would do in the community," Hedlund said.
The relationship between church and state, whether personal or public, often collides in the same-sex marriage debate.
Minnesota Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann's quote regarding the Supreme Court's recent decision exemplifies the depth of differences people harbor in this debate.
"Marriage was created by the hand of God. No man, not even a Supreme Court, can undo what a holy God has instituted." She added, "What the court has done will undermine the best interests of children and the best interests of the United States."
Hedlund said he would disagree. "I grew up really religious. Every Sunday, I went to church. I consider myself a Christian," he said. "The way I see it, growing up in church and being gay, you want to follow everything you learn on Sunday, but you obviously can't. I've tried to pull bits and pieces from what I learned and tie them into my life. I have morals. I do my best to be a good person. I do hope someday to raise a family without having to worry about discrimination."
For members of the gay community, the last year and a half have been politically gratifying. But momentum can be fleeting while education is essential to long-term success, Hedlund said.
"I have to be a role model to the younger gay population because they need us to show leadership," he said "At the same time, I need to be a role model to the younger heterosexual community because I need to show them, if its something you believe in, you have to fight for it. You have to take the initiative to do it for yourself if you're passionate about it. This is America, equality for all. No one is equal if someone is left out."