Lost in Translation

By Andy Birky

Originally published on Advocate.com April 01 2009 12:00 AM ET

Gay GOP state senator Paul Koering represents a conservative, rural district in central Minnesota where the economy depends on the struggling tourism and the paper-milling industries. Right-wingers attempted to unseat him during his last reelection campaign in 2006, distributing literature claiming Koering would promote homosexuality in schools. And he's up for reelection in 2010. This all may explain why the senator told a radio station in February that he would vote against a same-sex marriage bill introduced in the legislature on March 5.

Activists called the 44-year-old an "Uncle Mary," and his office in St. Paul was slammed with angry e-mails. But few of his critics knew that Koering voted against forcing a senate vote on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2005. He was the only Republican to do so. A few days later, he came out-and has been vulnerable ever since.

"I decided to open up my heart and say, 'I'm gay,'È‚f;" he said four years ago. (He wouldn't comment for this article.) "Now, as far as I'm concerned, the matter is closed."

But clearly it's not. Though Koering narrowly overcame his opposition in 2006 to win reelection, his campaign next year will be another battle royal. And at least some gay Minnesotans express sympathy about that.

"He has a tough row to hoe up there," says Doug Benson, founder of Marriage Equality Minnesota. "But I wish he'd come around; it's about his own rights."

Yet for Koering, coming around could mean political death. His legislative assistant, Ken Swecker, certainly pushed back hard after his boss's radio interview made news, disseminating an open letter in which Swecker called same-sex marriage a "completely pointless issue" at a time when Minnesotans are losing their jobs. "Were you to ask them if [same-sex marriage] is an issue that should take one second of precedent over these [economic] conditions," he wrote, "do you honestly believe that they would say to you, 'Yes, please, waste the time of the state legislature with a piece of legislation that will not help, but in fact, overshadow the current situation we're living in?'È‚f;"

What the letter failed to mention was a bill Koering introduced March 6 to make English the official language of Minnesota, where the state motto is "L'Étoile du Nord," French for "Star of the North."