In Sleepy Minnesota Suburbs, Church Ladies Launch Gay Marriage Crusade

The women of these Lake Wobegon-esque neighborhoods are fighting a proposed marriage amendment with rainbow flags and neighborly conversation.

rainbow-flag.jpgBenson Kua/Flickr

The southwest Minneapolis suburbs of Minnetonka and Eden Prairie bring to mind Garrison Keillor's tales from Lake Wobegon: They're lined with well-maintained homes and tree-lined roundabouts, and home to residents of largely German and Scandinavian ancestry. But the ladies of these towns have quietly begun a revolt -- one fought with rainbow flags and a Minnesota nice attitude.

The women, mostly in their 40s and 50s, come from different political parties, religious views, and backgrounds, but they've united to fight what many of them call an embarrassment to Minnesota: a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage that will appear on the ballot this November. Minnesota is the 31st state to include such a measure on a ballot, despite a strong LGBT community in Minneapolis, which was named the "gayest city in America" by Advocate Magazine in January 2011.

Throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul, pro-gay activism is the norm -- conservative lawn signs are strikingly few. The state's liberal, urban voters have been fighting the amendment for over a year now. Minnesotans United for All Families, a coalition of 520 businesses and religious organizations based mostly in the Twin Cities, has raised $3.1 million to fight the ban.

But in the bedroom communities of Eden Prairie and Minnetonka, billboards promoting right-wing candidates and talk show hosts frequently pop up between car dealerships and golf clubs. A sudden proliferation of rainbow flags has made these neighborhoods into unexpected battlegrounds in the state's marriage fight.

It started with Gwin Pratt, a senior pastor at St. Luke Presbyterian Church, which has a long history of advocating for gay rights. After the Minnesota State Legislature voted to include the amendment on the ballot, the congregation began an outreach plan to to oppose it. Cindy Eyden, a member of St. Luke, suggested buying rainbow flags in bulk and distributing them to anyone in the community who was interested. What she didn't know was that her idea would go viral.

Maureen Henderson, a fellow St. Luke congregant, was quick to follow Eyden's lead. "They were selling these rainbow flags, only $2.50 for this full size, beautiful flag, and I looked at it, and bought a whole bunch of flags." Henderson told herself "I'm going to go home to my neighborhood, and see, in our community, if one by one we can hand them out and then together start to address this issue."

So off Henderson went to her home in Eden Prairie, a suburb of 60,000 filled with white-collar professionals, 94 percent of whom are Caucasian. That afternoon, she started going door to door with flags in hand. She was quickly joined by her neighbor Wendy Ivins. They took the picture-perfect neighborhood by storm, engaging their neighbors in respectful conversations. Soon, more and more rainbow flags began to appear in the sleepy cul de sacs, planted on large lots and hanging from wood porches.

On city blocks it would be easy to spot a growing movement, but in Eden Prairie, you have to drive past one spacious home after another to witness the trend. So Ivins sent an email to a few dozen of her neighbors: "As you may have noticed, there are many rainbow flags flying in front of houses in our neighborhood," she wrote. "We are doing this to show support for our gay neighbors, friends and family members and our pledge to VOTE NO on the constitutional amendment that would ban marriage for same-sex couples." She added, "Flying the rainbow flag is not meant to start a confrontation, but rather to start a conversation. I think we can all learn from each other."

Doug Watsabaugh, a neighbor of Henderson and Ivins, acknowledged that Eden Prairie is an unlikely place for such a movement. "It definitely puts us out there more in different ways than we have in the past," he said. "But when we talk about an amendment to the constitution, it's not a small change. Our opportunity and responsibility to say what we believe is here now. And it won't be forever."

Meanwhile, the opposition is strong. Minnetonka and Eden Prairie are part of Minnesota's 3rd congressional district, one of the most affluent in the state, represented by Republican Erik Paulsen. In 2010, Paulsen voted against the Don't Ask Don't Tell Repeal Act, a bill that was later passed with a bipartisan vote.

Thirty minutes away is Anoka, where Michele Bachmann made a name for herself. As the Republican representative of Minnesota's 6th district, she proposed a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage back in 2003. In a 2004 lecture, she called homosexuality a "sexual identity disorder" and an "issue of sexual dysfunction." Her district made national headlines after an upsurge of teenage suicides led to a Rolling Stone piece called "One Town's War on Gay Teens."

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Talya Minsberg is a journalist and community moderator at The New York Times.

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