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.

Benson 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."

Minnesota for Marriage, a coalition supporting the amendment, has raised $1.4 million in its fight. The group draws its support from the state's 750,000 evangelical Christians, a group that has formed formidable voting blocs in other states where similar amendments have passed. Most recently, on May 8, evangelicals helped North Carolina become the 30th state in the country to prohibit same-sex marriage in its constitution.

But the neighborhood ladies are hopeful -- and relentless. Ivins recalls a discussion she had one night with a neighbor who argued, "There are more important issues to deal with, like the economy."

Ivins' husband, Gary, stepped in. "I'm not an economist," he said. "I can't solve the economy. I'm not a military strategist, so I can't do that. I'm a doctor -- and this I do know: Every human being deserves the right to be treated the same as everybody else, and the ability to marry and spend your life with someone is a fundamental right. This is on our ballot right now; it's important to us right now that we do something about this."

"The person backed down a bit," Ivins says. "It's all about civil rights, injustice. But it's simpler than that. It's about individual families -- what does it mean personally to you?"

Perhaps the last to know of the movement afoot in his neighborhood was Larry Montan, a longtime Eden Prairie resident who lives with his partner, Jerry Johnson. Montan recalls returning from a business trip and being greeted by the sight of rainbow flags throughout his neighborhood. "I was so pleasantly surprised. It wasn't us walking around saying, 'We'd really like to get married but there's a really nasty amendment out there.' That didn't occur.

"I went to Wendy [Ivins] and said, 'Can I have a flag too?" Montan recalled with a laugh.

Ivins is pleased to see how the movement has taken off. "If I were the only one with the flag, I might feel like, 'Um, okay, I'm not sure.' But there's strength in numbers," she explained. "If you see seven rainbow flags on our street, I think it makes people feel more empowered."

The power of community is indeed what gave Johnson, who describes himself as a relatively private person, the confidence to put up a flag. "I'm this gay man in the suburbs but because everyone around me is there to help me, it's like, 'Okay, this is cool. I'm normal.'"

Montan is convinced it's not just having "the gay neighbors" that's gotten his neighborhood revved up. "I would even surmise that if we didn't live in that neighborhood, they would still be doing this."

Especially striking in this digital era is that simple face-to-face conversations -- not charged political advertisements or overly emotional YouTube videos -- are changing opinions and outlooks. "They've done just what they were intended to," Watsabaugh says of the flags. "They've been a source often of curiosity from other people and neighbors. So when the opportunity presented itself, we told people what it was for."

Lynda Frayne, a flag-flying Eden Prairie resident, says that changing people's minds, including her own, is an ongoing process. "I think that people on the fence are thinking long and hard about what we are doing here -- what freedom means -- and thinking in a different way than they thought before in terms of political or religious views."

The vote on the amendment and the support of gay marriage has largely been labeled as a partisan issue. The neighborhood ladies insist that it doesn't need to be. "This is an issue that crosses those boundaries and lines," Henderson argues. "Our state is contemplating losing its soul." And she insists that it's not a religious issue, either. "The whole message to me is about fighting injustice and fighting discrimination, not about being saved and going to heaven. It's about making this place heaven, making this place just, not waiting for another day. Heaven is justice, heaven is fairness."

The movement has become exactly what Henderson envisioned when she first bought the flags. It's been stripped of notions about left and right, suburban and city-dweller. "Maybe in seeing those flags, people will see that in this neighborhood there's more support out there for this issue than they had assumed. Maybe it will get people thinking, and maybe give them courage. That was my hope."