What We Talk About When We Talk About Gay Marriage

Apr 13, 2015
Originally published on April 26, 2015 8:05 pm

This week, Morning Edition is taking a look at the attitudes about gay rights in North Dakota, one of 13 states that still bans same-sex marriage.

Wahpeton, N.D., is about an hourlong drive from Fargo, through vast, empty farmland that's brown and yellow this time of year. It will look very different soon — farmers are already out on their tractors preparing for the planting season.

Another change might be coming too. This summer, the Supreme Court will take up the question of same-sex marriage, which is still banned in this state and 12 others. It's an issue that often becomes polarized in national politics. But in this small hub of rural America, gay rights aren't something people particularly like to talk about.

'Nobody Backed Them Up'

There was an incident here 16 years ago, though, that forced a number of people in the community to choose a side. At Evergreen United Methodist Church, the pastor refused to baptize a baby because he felt that the child — adopted by a lesbian couple — could not be given a Christian home.

Kim Mann was a member of that church at the time. Her hands and voice quiver as she prepares to talk about it. She says she remembers the gay couple leaving quietly.

"I really don't think it was that out in the open," Mann says. "Because nobody backed them up, or went to bat for them. And you know, we would have left the church at that time ... others, some people did. We would have left then too but I had three kids who never said, 'Do we have to go to church?' "

So Mann stayed at the church for a while, though she doesn't go there anymore. And she says as her older self, she'd have made a different choice 16 years ago: "I have found you don't have to worry so much about what people think of you, or your choices or your decisions."

On the issue of marriage, she has come to believe that all couples should have the same rights. But, she says, so many of the people in her community are uncomfortable with that idea.

"It's like they're afraid to progress. You know, with a lot of things. I mean, it's like they want to be the last to see how everything works out. They're not going to be the leader in anything," Mann says. "I love my state. I don't want to live anywhere else. But it gets kind of frustrating."

Supporting Equal Rights, But Not Equal Words

Edd Goerger is a farmer outside of town. His thinking on homosexuality has changed a lot in recent years — in part because he has gay family members. But he still struggles with the idea of same-sex couples using the term "marriage."

"I see it as something different. I have a Crescent wrench, and I have an end wrench, and I have a socket wrench," Goerger explains as analogy. "They all do the same thing. But they're all called something different."

He believes firmly that same-sex couples should have all the same rights that heterosexual couples have. He also believes firmly that marriage is between a man and a woman.

He pauses as he works through how he'd explain this to a gay couple.

"I understand the perception of being offended and feeling like you're taking some right away," he says. "But yet — I don't know. I see your point. But I hope you see mine too."

Click the audio link above to hear more from Mann and Goerger.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Supreme Court this month will consider whether states have the right to ban same-sex marriage. There could be huge implications. The justices could make it legal for same-sex couples to marry nationwide, or they could bolster the view that marriage is defined as between a man and a woman. The court is certainly not operating in a vacuum. Across this country, churches, communities and individual families have been grappling with this issue. And this week, we're going to listen as people sort their feelings out. We went to North Dakota. It's one of 13 states that still bans same-sex marriage, and there's plenty of disagreement there. A poll taken at the end of last year found half the state's residents support the ban. We arrived south of Fargo along the Minnesota border. Perfectly straight asphalt roads sliced farmland into squares. It's all flat until suddenly an outgrowth of buildings appears. It's the town of Wahpeton - population 7,000.

This is a classic main street. I'm standing on Dakota Avenue. I'm right in front of a law firm; across the street, Wahpeton Video and Deli. There's the laundromat. It says Maytag equipped, just like home. The corner drugstore called Corner Drug; flower shop, bar. It's really, really charming. Now, a few blocks off Dakota Avenue, there's a parking lot for a tattoo parlor and also a small financial consulting business, and this is where Kim Mann works. She was offering us coffee the moment we walked in.

KIM MANN: We have French vanilla, caramel drizzle...

GREENE: Wow.

As she poured the coffee, her hands and voice were quivering. We had come to talk about something that makes her nervous. Kim used to be a member of a Methodist church in town. And 16 years ago, the pastor there refused to baptize a baby who'd been adopted by two members of the congregation - a lesbian couple. Few in the church talked about it at the time. After all, this is a community known for being North Dakota nice - friendly to a fault, often avoiding talking about the hard things. Kim remembers the gay couple leaving the church quietly.

MANN: I really don't think it was that out in the open, you know, because nobody backed them up or went to bat for them. And, you know, we would have left the church at that time. I don't go to that church anymore. We would have left at that time. Others - some people did, and we would've left then too, but I had three kids who never said do we have to go to church?

GREENE: You know, it's interesting because I didn't even ask you, you know, if you thought about leaving the church yourself or if, you know, that you wish you had left the church. You kind of - you brought that up yourself, which makes me think that you almost - you don't want to be judged or faulted for not leaving over that.

MANN: Yeah because I - I think now I would have, but, you know - now, I mean, I think I'm just older. I'm a grandma, and I think I have found you don't have to worry so much about what people think of you or your choices or your decisions.

GREENE: And I brought up the question of marriage with Kim. She's arrived at a place where she believes all couples have the right to be married, but she says so many people in her community are really uncomfortable with the idea.

MANN: It's like they're afraid to progress, you know, with a lot of things. I mean, it's like they want to be the last to see how everything works out. You know, they're not going to be the leader in anything. And like I said, I love my state. I don't want to live anywhere else, but it gets kind of frustrating.

GREENE: We drove outside Wahpeton to meet a man who struggles over the definition of marriage. To get there, we drove by oceans of farmland - bare and yellowish-brown this time of year, but busy. Farmers are out there getting the land ready for planting season. For Edd Goerger, this time of year means buying new cattle for beef.

EDD GOERGER: This is what's left of my cattle herd. I got to usually restock the first part of May.

GREENE: Edd Goerger is tall, almost lanky. He was wearing worn-out jeans and a denim jacket. The weather was blowing his shaggy brown hair everywhere.

Is it always this windy?

GOERGER: Just every other day (laughter).

GREENE: Edd has family members who are gay, so he's been thinking about gay rights a lot, and he invited us over to chat about it. We got out of the wind and went into his barn to hear about his upbringing on this very farm and how his views and beliefs were shaped.

GOERGER: I was raised in a traditional Catholic family. Every day of obligation, we were dressed up, going to church, so what you learned through that religious experience was what formed my early opinions of same-sex marriage, you know, and homosexuality and all that. And then when you get into the '80s, you know, when the AIDS epidemic first hit the country, the perception was that's not a place you want to go. I mean, it just seems like that was a scary place the way the news portrayed it to the rest of the country. And then, you know, you get older. You meet more people. Then you start thinking, well, that's not really what I grew up with. That's not what I'm seeing out here. It's - they're normal people. They're fine to work with, stuff like that.

GREENE: Edd Goerger feels like he has come a long way, but still, he's uncomfortable with gay and lesbian couples using the term marriage.

Just tell me a little bit more about your discomfort.

GOERGER: Discomfort is maybe strong. It's just that I see it as something different. You know, I have a crescent wrench and I have an end wrench and I have a socket wrench. They all do the same thing, but they're all called something different.

GREENE: Is it just the name? I mean, do you think same-sex couples should have all the legal rights...

GOERGER: Yes, absolutely.

GREENE: That come with marriage?

GOERGER: Absolutely, yes. The rights thing - that's - absolutely should have everything that is defined by a traditional marriage. It's just that it's marriage, but it's a different marriage.

GREENE: And could you understand a same-sex couple feeling like, you know, that's denying them something that they should have a right to enjoy?

GOERGER: Sure, I understand that. I understand that, but I hope they also can appreciate that I can have my point of view, too. That whole movement was built on tolerance and acceptance, and they should be open and understanding what we think and what we believe, too.

GREENE: What would you tell a same-sex couple who would say what is it to you? Like, you're talking about our lives and our right to call it what we want to call it and be married.

GOERGER: Yeah, right.

GREENE: Like, what...

GOERGER: Well, I guess you can call it marriage if you want I guess, but that doesn't mean that I think it should be called marriage. I understand the perception of being offended and feeling like you're taking some right away, but yet - I don't know. I see your point, but I hope you see mine, too.

GREENE: And that's how Edd Goerger would explain his view to a gay couple, and we'll hear from one such couple tomorrow on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.