Ten Years of Marriage Equality Captured in Exhibit in Moorhead

Photos courtesy of Gabrielle Clavo
Photos courtesy of Gabrielle Clavo

The fight for marriage equality was an important milestone for LGBTQ+ rights advocates across the country. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, federally restricting the definition of marriage to be exclusively between one man and one woman. DOMA’s consequences were immense, excluding same sex couples from Federal spousal benefits. Not much solace could be found on a state level either, because following DOMA the vast majority of state legislatures passed their own version of the law, with some states also amending their constitution to enshrine heterosexuality as the only valid form of marriage.

In time, efforts to achieve marriage equality would gain traction, leading many states, including Minnesota, to revoke previous legislation that forbade same sex marriages. On May 14th, 2013, Governor Mark Dayton signed a law defining marriage simply as a civil contract between two people of any gender. The law went into effect on August 1st to the delight of LGBTQ+ people across the state.

The residents of Clay County went all out in their celebration of the new law, choosing to open their courthouse at midnight on August 1st for any couple that wanted to get married the moment it was legal. When the clock struck midnight, 18 couples were wed. A decade later, the Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County (HCSCC), an organization dedicated to preserving and sharing the region’s history with the public, hosted At Last: 10th Anniversary of Marriage Equality in Minnesota, in celebration of the county’s unique story in the wake of Minnesota’s marriage equality.

It Takes a Village

When creating their exhibit, HCSCC staff received help from Rainbow Seniors, whose oral history collecting the experiences of elderly LGBTQ+ individuals was vital for researchers. Just as the creation of the HCSCC exhibit was the result of many individuals working together, the Clay County midnight marriage was also a collaborative project. The planning of the wedding is described by HCSCC programming director Markus Krueger.

It started with two Clay County judges – Lisa Borgen and Michelle Lawson. They had the idea of opening up the courthouse at midnight for anyone who wanted to get married as soon as the law went into effect. But it takes a lot of people to make this happen. They asked the Clay County Recorder’s office if they’d be up for staying late that night, and everybody in the office enthusiastically volunteered. They wanted to be a part of it. The county sheriff was there as well as Moorhead police officers who put together a security plan to keep people safe.

Because of the efforts of these individuals, this magical moment in the fight for marriage equality was made possible. It’s commonly said that it takes a village to raise a child, but they’re necessary for so much more. Change doesn’t spontaneously arise out of thin air. Rather, it’s achieved with the collective efforts of everyone.

Through the exhibit, the HCSCC hoped to foster an interest in civic engagement, encouraging visitors to gain an understanding of where laws come from and how people go about changing them. For this end, the exhibit has a fun puzzle, with pieces representing the state legislators, Governor Dayton, and public supporters that came together to bring about marriage equality in Minnesota. “We chose the puzzle idea because it shows how each part of the legislative process is interconnected, but they fit in a certain order” Krueger explains. The exhibit is a reminder that marriage equality, and all positive social change, is a collective effort and everybody has a part to play in crafting a better world.

Cause for Celebration

It isn’t a coincidence that the midnight marriages took place in Clay County. The county’s geography uniquely situated it to produce such an event. Clay County is situated on the western edge of Minnesota and is home to Moorhead. Across the Red River, in North Dakota, lies Fargo. Together, the cities make up the Fargo-Moorhead metropolitan area, though each city is governed by a different set of state laws.

“Minnesota and North Dakota are often political polar opposites and state laws go right through the middle of the metro area” explains Krueger, “When the Supreme Court overturned Roe, the Red River Women’s Clinic moved across the river from Fargo to Moorhead, recent laws enacted by the North Dakota legislature contributed to [Fargo-Moorhead] Pride deciding to move to Moorhead as well, and I suspect in a year there will be enough marijuana dispensaries in Moorhead to keep most of North Dakota well supplied”.

When Minnesota achieved marriage equality, couples flocked from North Dakota to be wed in Minnesota. On August 1st, 7 of the 18 couples married in Clay County were from North and South Dakota who made the trip despite the fact that their union wouldn’t be recognized at home.

As everyone made their way out of the courthouse, instead of the protestors many feared might be there, the crowd that greeted them was entirely supportive and celebratory. For many of the newlyweds, it was the highlight of their night.

Ten years later, many of the individuals involved with the midnight marriages attended the exhibit’s opening reception. It was a celebration of everything that had been achieved and the resilience of the LGBTQ+ community, a demonstration that a better world can be built, so long as we have the courage to fight for it.

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