Last month, when The Advocate reached out to pro
–marriage equality senators asking whether they believe that President Barack Obama should support full marriage rights before the 2012 election, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota was quick to reply (one of the first, in fact) in the affirmative.
“Every American deserves equal treatment under the law, and there’s no question that same-sex couples deserve full marriage recognition,” Franken said. “President Obama has taken important steps to help the LGBT community, and I urge him to join me and millions of other Americans in supporting equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.”
His stance has particular resonance in Minnesota, now emerging as one of the key battlegrounds on the issue. Though the state has a statutory ban on same-sex marriage, lawmakers seeking to go one step further approved a measure this spring to place a constitutional amendment measure on the 2012 ballot—one that Franken strongly opposes and one favored by his delegation colleague and a divisive presidential hopeful, Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Franken spoke to The Advocate late last week on LGBT issues such as marriage equality and the importance of codifying student anti-bullying policies—as well as Bachmann’s irresistible hotdish recipe and utterly resistible politics.
Advocate: You were one of several pro–marriage equality senators who told us that the president should come out in support of full marriage rights. Why do you believe it’s important that he does so now?
I believe very strongly in marriage equality, and I’d like him to show that kind of leadership. He says he’s evolving, and I don’t know what that exactly means. I think that he probably made a political decision in 2008. That doesn’t really shock me, but I’m hoping that he’s moving to the right and moral position.
I’ve seen incredibly fast movement in public opinion and the attitudes of even some of my conservative colleagues here. On repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” we had two senators who had voted against cloture on the bill and then changed their votes in the end—[Nevada] Sen. Ensign and [North Carolina] Sen. Burr. I think their calculus there was that they understood that they were going against the curve of history if they voted against [DADT repeal].
The president has said that states should decide the marriage issue and that New York was an example of that process. Do you believe the people of your state have the right to decide the issue at the ballot?
They have the legal right, now. Do they have the moral right? No. I just think that marriage equality is a right for everyone. I mean, marriage is the best thing that happened to me. This idea that same-gender couples are a threat to marriage … first of all, it’s ridiculous logically. Elizabeth Taylor—wonderful woman—was married how many times? Is that less of a threat to marriage than a same-gender couple being married once?
Are you confident that Minnesotans will vote against putting discrimination into the state constitution?
I think we’ll win this one, but I think it will be very close. We’re a very divided state, and on this issue I don’t have the strongest sense on where it’s going to be. I know there are people who just have their views and are against marriage equality.
Rep. Michele Bachmann being one of them.
Yes, I think she’ll vote for the amendment.
She further supports a federal marriage amendment and recently signed a pledge with The Family Leader to vigorously oppose “any redefinition of the institution of marriage.” What do you think of her rhetoric on gay issues in the presidential campaign?
I haven’t been paying that much attention to the rhetoric of her campaign at this point.
But you know the body of her rhetoric.
Yes, the body of her rhetoric obviously I completely disagree with.
I like Michele. Whenever we’re hanging out together, when you’re in the same delegation, you just do. You just see each other, we fly on a plane together, we’ve gone to funerals together, we’ve cried together, we’ve laughed together. Here [in Washington, D.C.,] we had a Minnesota hotdish-off—she was the only Republican who came; she wore a Twins apron. I think she was the only other member in the delegation besides me who actually made the hotdish. She made venison kielbasi, sauerkraut, and noodles, and we had a fun time.
I just completely disagree with her on this issue—and almost everything else. [Laughs]
Have you spoken with her on the marriage issue?
I have not. I don’t think it would accomplish much. I’m not going to change her mind. There’s a million things I could talk to her about. … When you have an actual issue in which you can get something done, that’s the only time you really discuss issues, otherwise it’s just, uh, useless.
Her husband, Dr. Marcus Bachmann, has said of gay people, “[B]arbarians need to be educated.”
And he does therapy to convert gay people. Supposedly. I don’t even understand what that really is.
I believe he’s denied it in the past and said that if someone who is gay comes into his clinic and isn’t seeking to be “changed,” he doesn’t have a problem with that. [Read Truth Wins Out’s subsequent investigation on reparative therapy at Bachmann’s clinic here.]
Oh, well that’s nice. That’s wonderful. Good for him. [Laughs]
She represents some Minnesotans. And that’s why I think it may be a close vote. I hope it isn’t. I hope we win by a lot, I hope we send a real good message and I hope Minnesotans come through in a good way. And I think they might. I think they may just realize that this is something that should not be in our constitution.
What will you do to fight the measure?
I’ll campaign against it. I’ve been very active on these kinds of issues and I’ll be out there on the stump. Because this means a lot.
You’re the lead senate sponsor of the Student Nondiscrimination Act, which would prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on sexual orientation and gender identity or ignoring harassment based on those characteristics, whether actual or perceived. What’s the latest on this legislation?
I have every Democrat on the [Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions] Committee as a cosponsor. And so my hope is that when we reauthorize the [Elementary and Secondary Education Act], that it will be part of the bill.
What’s the genesis of this bill?
Well, we know that so many LGBT kids are bullied. We’ve seen suicides in Minnesota. Basically what I want is for schools to have a policy against bullying—and that parents would have a right of action, kids would have a right of action against the school district. I don’t think a lot of trial lawyers will change their practice from asbestos to antigay bullying. That’s not the point. The point is, once you give a right of action, schools know they had better comply. So then they make a policy.
Will there be a committee hearing?
There will be discussions in committee; I’m not sure if there will be a hearing. But I’d like there to be one.
In Minnesota, the Anoka-Hennepin School District has taken heat for its policy against sexual orientation topics in the curriculum, which LGBT advocates have said amounts to a gag order for faculty and staff. [Tammy Aaberg, whose 15-year-old son, Justin, committed suicide a year ago, has become a noted activist on the issue and has said that bullying contributed to her son’s death; on Monday, she co-delivered 12,000 online signatures from Change.org condemning the school district’s policy.]
In your view, how has the school district handled this issue?
From what I understand, it hasn’t been satisfactory. They should put a policy in place. Kids are going to be bullied, but the school has to do something about it. And so you need a policy in place to tell teachers that you have to do something and tell principals you have to do something. You have to send a message to kids that this isn’t cool, this isn’t right.
Do you expect support from any Republican colleagues on the bill?
I’m hoping I will [have support]. I’m not going to name them, I have a few of them that will come on—once another one comes on.
I actually had one senator tell me he wouldn’t [support the bill] because he didn’t want to do anything to help trial lawyers. That’s most frustrating to me because there have been other places where that senator has been good on this issue. And I just thought it was a disingenuous excuse. As I said, the whole point of this isn’t for there to be a lot of lawsuits. It’s basically giving LGBT kids the same rights that kids have in regards to race, national origin, language, disabilities, gender.... LGBT kids are bullied. There’s just no doubt about it. And it’s a problem that has tragic consequences.