A personal battle

A Minneapolis legislator finds himself at the center of an emotional debate over the proposed same-sex marriage ban

As state Sen. Scott Dibble began a busy day at the state Capitol recently, a flurry of lobbyists and colleagues filtered through his office to talk about a wide range of issues on which the Minneapolis legislator has been working.

There was news about the bill Dibble introduced to restore funding for the Minnesota AIDS Project AIDSLine, a statewide HIV information and referral source. After that, he got an update on the push for a statewide smoking ban and then got word that more funding may be available for a park program that employs at-risk city youth.

Dibble took notes on every conversation and jotted down the names of people with whom he'll follow up. He cares about these issues, and they benefit from his time and dedication.

But as he left his office and headed to the Senate Chamber for session, he was quickly reminded of the one subject that has taken so much of his attention away from these issues and often left him emotionally drained.

Two groups of people holding signs supporting and opposing a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage stood outside the Senate Chamber doors. It was nearly a week after the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the proposed constitutional amendment on April 4, but supporters and opponents still firmly planted themselves at the entrance of the Senate Chamber.

Although the swarms of people who had invaded the Capitol the week before were gone, the highly charged emotions that drive the gay-marriage debate were still very much present in the handful of people who held signs with messages such as &#8220Defend Marriage” and &#8220Marriage Discrimination Is Bigotry.”

And Dibble is at the center of the debate. One of just two openly gay members in the Minnesota Senate, he is the leading opponent of the amendment he says would discriminate against all same-sex couples. This issue affects him personally, and he fights it with his whole heart.

&#8220It's just been very intense,” said Dibble, who sports a rainbow ribbon on his suit in a silent show of support for the GLBT community. &#8220I spend as much time and energy as I can talking to my colleagues, talking to my community, organizing a larger coalition response, really trying hard to cultivate other kinds of voices to help participate in this whole conversation.”

Minnesota already has a law prohibiting same-sex marriage. But Republican Sen. Michele Bachmann of Stillwater, the leading proponent of the constitutional amendment, maintains it's necessary to pass this measure to prevent the courts from overturning the state's existing law. She is determined to get the amendment on the ballot this November and has said she will force a floor vote on the issue in the Senate. She could not be reached for comment.

Bachmann's doggedness in pursuing the constitutional amendment has led to a battle that has waged on in the State Legislature and dominated media headlines for several years. It has also roused an emotion-fueled outcry from supporters and opponents.

And fighting the amendment has swallowed enormous amounts of Dibble's time and energy. He points out that a radio debate with Bachmann took hours for him to prepare for and actually participate in.

&#8220Meanwhile, I'm trying to work on quite a few other issues,” Dibble said. &#8220It really does distract from our creative energy, our time, the work that goes into crafting the kind of solutions I'm working on for other issues.”

On the surface, Dibble has remained calm and appealed to his sense of logic throughout the debate. His own constituents overwhelmingly support him and oppose the gay marriage amendment, he said, so the hard part is simply fighting what he calls a &#8220mean-spirited” measure.

&#8220To reach into the constitution for this purpose is setting an extremely dangerous precedent,” Dibble said. &#8220If every time you disagree with a debate that's going on in society you try to cut down that civilized debate by changing the constitution, that is very, very dangerous. And that's handing a tremendous amount of power to an extremist religious perspective.”

But Dibble's level-headed approach to this debate belies the frustration he often feels. This is an issue the 40-year-old Kingfield resident can't always leave on the steps of the Capitol at the end of the day.

He goes home each night to his partner of two years, 45-year-old Richard Leyva - a man he made a private commitment to and affectionately calls his sweetheart - and is part of the type of caring and committed relationship the constitutional amendment takes aim at. Dibble wears a band on his ring finger and said one day the couple would like to have a ceremony celebrating their commitment to one another in front of their friends and family. But he doesn't want it to turn into a political statement or a &#8220big production.” He wants the focus to be on the loving relationship to which he and Leyva are committed.

&#8220It's very personal to us,” Dibble said.

Which is exactly why the very public debate he's in the middle of can be so painful. To burn off frustration and relax, Dibble runs and trains for marathons and triathalons. It's one of the things that helped him get through the difficult week the Senate Judiciary Committee took a vote on the amendment.

&#8220I was driving away just feeling angry. And I called my sweetheart, and I decided to go out for a really long and intense run and it was just the perfect tonic,” Dibble said. &#8220I got it all worked out, and I had a lovely rest of the evening.”

Back in his office at the Capitol, Dibble has surrounded himself with posters and photos supporting the causes he's passionate about, which range from HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns to alternative energy sources. A large rainbow sign with the word &#8220Peace” printed on it hangs in the window and cards from children with &#8220rainbow families” hang on his door. An HIV Plus magazine sits on the coffee table and little cardboard versions of the light-rail cars line the ledge around the room. It's an inviting office filled with things that remind Dibble that there are other issues that matter and there is a wealth of people who support domestic partnership benefits and marriage equality.

&#8220This is a business where you have to learn how to be balanced and be healthy,” Dibble said. &#8220You have to learn how to compartmentalize so your emotions aren't spilling over at the end of the day.”

He's learned that lesson over the years. In the years since he was first elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2000, he's also fought for the inclusion of domestic partnership health-care benefits for state employees. Losing that battle, he said, was extremely painful.

&#8220It's important to deal with it in the political realm and not personalize everything,” Dibble said, adding that he tries to focus on the politics and policy rather than the emotions. &#8220But every so often, you remember that this really strikes at your heart because it's talking about denigrating the dignity and worth of some families.”

City Council Vice President Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) said he admires Dibble for being able to constantly withstand the debate at the Capitol. Lilligren is one of three openly gay Minneapolis Councilmembers - along with Councilmember Gary Schiff (9th Ward) and Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward) - but he said, at the city level, being a gay elected official has never affected his work. Rather, it's something many Minneapolis residents embrace.

&#8220It's a nonissue as far as my work at City Hall goes,” Lilligren said. &#8220At the Capitol, it's just vile. It's so polarized. I don't know how they do it, and I have every bit of admiration for those guys going over there and fighting that fight.”

He said his feeling is that many people have priorities other than fighting gay marriage and that will show in this fall's elections.

&#8220I think a lot of people are going to ask themselves ‘Do I care? Is my most important issue whether someone wants to marry someone?'” Lilligren said.

Dibble is also optimistic that the political tide is slowly changing on the gay-marriage debate. He said the civil rights movement for GLBT equality took 15 to 20 years to take even modest steps, so he doesn't expect significant progress overnight. But he has hope in a younger generation that is largely accepting of the GLBT community and supportive of gay marriage.

&#8220We're kind of at the threshold or at the cusp of what that whole conversation means for relationships - what the legal, civil, economic underpinnings of love and commitment really are,” Dibble said. &#8220People are coming along, and they're starting to understand that we're not talking about reaching into people's basic values or religious beliefs. We're talking about fairness and opportunity and really making sure that the basic things of life are still there so that families are as healthy and stable as they can be.”