NICK HENNEN: Now I See — Every Day Is A Challenge For LBGTs In North Dakota

As a gay American living in what is inarguably one of the most retrograde states in the union, every day can prove to be a challenge.

Traveling through my shoes, you’d feel a passage that can scrape, sometimes, against every living fiber that makes up who I am as a mother, a daughter, a sister, a human being, and most importantly for this discussion, a progressive North Dakotan.

Public discourse on gay politics here is not easy. It is in no way comfortable and here in particular, it somehow, strangely, seems to border on impolite. But it is as important as it is difficult and when human rights are involved, I feel it as a topic, it no longer can be ignored.

To say the political climate was heightened in the days leading up to the vote on North Dakota Senate Bill 2279 on April 2, would be quite an understatement.

Tensions were running high over this and similar bills being voted on across the United States.

The bill, known as SB2279, offered protection against discrimination for the lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender residents of our state. And it was controversial.

Stated simply, it meant that the LGBT population in North Dakota would be allowed the same rights as everyone else.

They would be protected legally from being unfairly fired due to their sexual orientation, something many LGBT think they were born with.

They would have the right to access consumer goods and services and an assurance that they would not be tossed out of an establishment because of their sexual orientation, should that somehow be discovered.

And let me say, before you ask, “How does one know someone is gay?” or “Why does this even come up?” Well, let me offer you evidence in the form of access to my public pages as a freelance journalist, social media editor and prolific breaking news tweeter — because there you will find a collection, though scattered across time and space, of photographs of me.

Otherwise, I suspect you could use your imagination when I tell you simply, “I look gay.”

And I do. I honestly was born looking this flavor of different.

How is this true?” you may ask. “A lot of ways,” I’d reply.

I suppose I have a masculine energy, and I’m not particularly feminine in every thing I do, which for the record, isn’t always an indicator of one’s “gayness.”

I also prefer men’s clothing and have a sort of forward leaning gait and have even been told, “you walk like a dude.” Thankfully, I don’t consider it an insult.

I know I’m different. It’s OK. I would say, to borrow from Jacques Lacan, a favorite philosopher, this is “The Real.”

This is my truth, and I’ve accepted this reality, and the notion that my heavenly Father created me, exactly this way, for a reason.

Maybe that purpose is for me to reach you, somehow, someway, right now?

I don’t know, but I do believe that some people, like me, are known to be gay simply by appearance or other potential indicators.

In large metro areas across many parts of the United States and Europe, this difference goes largely unnoticed. I know this because I am grateful to have traveled all over the United States and a little bit abroad.

I feel alive when I travel. I feel free when I’m in between cities, and I even feel at home in airports, train stations and in subway stations.

Maybe this is because I have never really felt truly at home here in North Dakota?

There is a different sense of comfort and security for me inside big cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Texas, Orlando, Fla., and my favorite, New York City. This fact can be largely attributed to the notion of going unnoticed for essentially, looking as gay as I do.

This feels like a victory as I want to be, or at least perceived to be, just like you — and everyone else.

So, yes, some people like me just “look” gay. Some also choose to look and appear as the opposite sex from which they were born, and that’s OK, too. Others may speak in a way that reveals a theory about one’s sexuality; still others may look heterosexual but chose to openly express affection for someone of the same-sex, like hand holding for example. Or there may be an all-male or all-female couple who are checking into a hotel, renting an apartment — or any number of things — when it is “discovered,” shall we say, that they may belong to the LGBT family.

This happens every day, and this is why it is sometimes known that a person just happens to be LGBT.

So, back to SB2279. The rest of the nation was also talking about similar matters in Indiana, where a pizza owner stated that she would “never refuse” service to LGBT client while simultaneously stating she would flat-out refuse to cater pizza for a gay wedding.

The question posed, hypothetical or not, appeared to use religion as a tool for discrimination against any LGBT this pizza owner may uncover.

Perhaps, she wanted it known that she would serve LGBT provided they look a certain way, or don’t — or discuss any gayness in her establishment? I’m not sure and frankly, I don’t think any one knows except for her.

Apparently, it is a belief of some, or at least one writer, that it is a “civil rights argument” in the violation of one’s religious rights when they “provide service to sinners,” As Mike Jacobs indicated in “The N.D. of discrimination against gay people,” which ran April 7 in the Grand Forks Herald.

In Kentucky, Gov. Steve Beshear said his state’s ban on gay marriage should be upheld in part because it is not discriminatory in that both gay and straight people are barred from marrying people of the same gender.

This is all confusing at best, right?

Well, this was the political climate leading up to the vote on SB2279 and it was happening all across the United States. And perplexing as it was, it was also controversial.

Here in North Dakota, many faces statewide were speaking out on social media to lawmakers asking them to help pass the bill. There seemed to be a sort of unified call for passage, a step that could help counter North Dakota’s long history of being stuck in “old world” thinking.

At least, that is what I was seeing from the faces of those I follow on Twitter, Facebook and a few other sites. There may have been public appeals to lawmakers requesting they shoot down this bill, but I didn’t come across any.

I took time myself to speak publicly when invited by talk radio host Sandy Buttweiler on 970 WDAY radio station out of Fargo.

We talked a lot about the justification of this bill. We discussed the city ordinance in Grand Forks protecting LGBT from housing discrimination.

And when Sandy asked the question so many were asking, “Does discrimination exist in North Dakota?” — “It does!” I argued as I talked about my participation on the public meeting in Grand Forks, where many courageous LGBT spoke out about specific incidences of housing discrimination here.

The lawmakers here listened — and voted appropriately.

Grand Forks is now the only city in North Dakota to enact a city ordinance to protect gays and lesbians against housing discrimination — because our local lawmakers felt we needed to do that after what they heard.

It made me very proud to call Grand Forks home.

I knew all along discrimination existed here — and still exits. Sadly, I have experienced this myself. I think many LGBT North Dakotans have. Not everyone discusses openly because it isn’t easy to talk about.

It wasn’t an easy experience to be apart of that council meeting here in Grand Forks. In fact, I’m quite sure I squirmed in my seat listening to the actual testimonies of hate-filled landowners who publicly testified that night that it was their religious right to discriminate against those they claimed were and are morally in the wrong.

It was hard to do, listen to that, but it was even harder for the actual victims of this tired use of religion for the purposes of discrimination.

As voting began that day, April 2, I began to feel hopeful for reasons I still don’t understand. I guess I couldn’t believe it could fail. I didn’t want to believe that the state of North Dakota would fail me or any of the LGBT population here.

I was wrong.

Across my social media feeds, outrage emerged, and with it a sense of fight — there was a lot work ahead of us.

But in my own head, there was just defeat.

I was sullen, and as a lesbian living in North Dakota, I found myself suddenly paranoid about losing the ability to obtain consumer goods and services, be removed from any employment or place of residence — all based on something that is a small slice of who I happen to be as a human being.

I publicly stated my dismay saying something to the effect that I felt as if I was without a government to protect me against basic human rights afforded to everyone else here.

“What did this mean?” I wondered aloud.

As the numbers were released, the names of the yays and nays quickly followed, and it was not long after that the “head shots” of every lawmaker involved in this bill were splashed on the front of the Fargo Forum.

As stated by the national news website Raw Story, “The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead listed all 55 members of the state House who voted against the measure, Senate Bill 2279, following a 90-minute debate on Thursday. The newspaper noted that this is the third time in six years that this type of bill has been voted down.”

And with the photographs of every man and woman who voted down the bill featured, I used an image of their collective head shots, to express my concern, fear and dismay.

I wrote. “…are the faces of the men and women who sanction discrimination against me and any and all LGBT North Dakotans,” and I included a snapshot of the Forum’s front page displaying those who voted “nay.”

And to those other faces, mostly Democrats, but some brave, new-world thinking Republicans who went, no doubt, against what seems to be their own party’s line on this issue, to these faces, I wrote another message: “I cannot thank you enough for your support and acceptance. I remain grateful for each one of you and to all of those cheering for you on the sidelines today.” I posted this with the photographs those who voted in favor of the bill.

The messages I sent out publicly through social media were personal — it all felt personal. It was one of my darkest days in a very long North Dakota history.

So, when I heard from a follower that my older brother was blogging about being proudly against this bill and that he had included a statement about his “gay sister,” I had to go look at what he was writing.

I was hurt, angry and shocked, really that I had been referred to after I had been so public about my opinions on this bill.

I know I don’t see eye to eye with this brother. I know we’re political opposites, but I can look the other way at this most of the time.

But this mentioning me as a sort of reason why he would claim there is, in fact, no discrimination in North Dakota, was out of bounds, I felt.

Long story short, I fired back a statement on his public blog, which essentially quite fairly challenged his entire sentiment.

Unfazed, he went on to continue to discuss this in a public forum without responding to me directly in a public way, but thankfully, without mentioning me anymore.

Later, I went on-the-air again with Sandy Buttweiler on 970 WDAY radio station out of Fargo and we talked about the latest developments including my disgust with my brother and his public use of my name to claim this, what I felt was a ridiculous notion that North Dakota residents, collectively, do not discriminate against LGBT, at all.

This brother and I politely texted one another on other matters during this time, but you could cut the tension with a knife.

It wasn’t long, however, before we talked on the phone about the bill, about my thoughts, about his thoughts, my recent radio interview and our subsequent conclusions.

We came to agreement to disagree.

I asked that he not mention me anymore inside his arguments on this, or any other LGBT topic.

He said he would like to ask the same. I agreed, but said I would write one final piece on SB2279 that would not mention any of the specifically personal issues which arose, or even his first name, but instead offer a summary of the entire experience for me.

Then, I said something we all, my entire family, regularly say and have said our entire lives, “I know you know I love you.” And he replied, “I do. And I know you know I love you, too.” And I did, and I do.

Sure, it’s like an elephant is always in whatever room we occupy, wherever we are, but I’m sort of used this enormous creature by now, after all these years.

In the days following the failure of North Dakota Senate Bill 2279, I have felt many, many different things.

Like many of my LGBT friends, I’ve considered moving away from the North Dakota I have come to love so much.

And I know while I’m here, there will always be that fear of living, existing, coming to grips with my choice to stay in a state where my human rights are not protected.

I am, however, choosing to hope for the best for our future here in North Dakota. I’m continuing to count on lawmakers like North Dakota’s Lois Delmore, Kylie Oversen, Joshua Boschee, Corey Mock, Elliot Glassheim and others to keep fighting the good fight for the change I believe we are collectively headed to as a nation.

North Dakota is so amazing.

This is the one state where you can use the word “awesome” to describe its vast, majestic landscape, and you are, in fact, using that word correctly.

I want to again say, “the great state of North Dakota” like I used to, with my chest swelling with pride.

I want to again tell others that we, as a state, have moved beyond being unwelcoming in this way, as we in the city of Grand Forks, have done.

I want to be proud to be a North Dakotan once again, and I believe that day will indeed come.

Social media sites to find me:

— Twitter @tweetbrk.

— Instagram @newsgunner.

— Periscope @BreakingNews @tweetbrk.

— SnapChat @newsgunner.

— Vine @tweetbrk.

— Tumblr @newsgunner.

And more at http://breakingjourno.com.

3 thoughts on “NICK HENNEN: Now I See — Every Day Is A Challenge For LBGTs In North Dakota”

  • Barbra April 15, 2015 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks for the article Nancy … you write beautifully , I admire your bravery…..sending you a BIG hug. Barbra

    1. Richard Shafer April 17, 2015 at 11:23 am

      Nancy: Well done. Thanks for giving your perspective on the obstacles to living your alternative lifestyle here on the East Coast of North Dakota. I know I big part of your identity and being is derived from traditional Minnesota and North Dakota values- because you grew up in this part of the country. If you do move elsewhere – I predict you will be defending the people and quality of life you leave behind. The fact that so many people here love you and admire you for who you are suggests that here is much hope for change. The battles for acceptance you are fighting can – and I hope will be won. Also, you are a good looking woman whatever your preferences are – and I am not sure most people here are discerning enough to make conclusions about your sexual orientation. They are mostly too involved in their own lives to pay much attention. Our harsh climate and common survival imperatives might actually make us less judgemental in this regard. Thanks for helping me to think about all these things. Love, Richard Shafer

  • Jill Shafer April 15, 2015 at 7:39 pm


    Thank you for sharing this well-needed article with our community and our state. Jill


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