Personal pride: Teens, same-sex parents reflect on historic fight for marriage equality
By Elena Renken
When Linda Zlotnick and Mindy Kurzer brought home their second child Anna, 5-year-old Della Kurzer-Zlotnick was not happy with the situation.
While little Della loved her new sister, she did not appreciate the abrupt shift in her parents’ attention. One day, she spoke up.
“I was really concerned,” Mindy Kurzer said. “I thought it sounded like she was going to say we should send Anna back. Instead, (Della) said, ‘You know what we need to do? We need another mom.’”
Since Kurzer-Zlotnick, a senior at St. Paul Central High School, grew up in a world where it was normal to have two mothers, why not three?
Her parents worked throughout Kurzer-Zlotnick’s childhood to create a supportive environment without negativity toward gay couples. But a life like that did not fall into their laps—it had to be painstakingly carved out bit by bit.
“We found this wonderful child care center and this wonderful elementary school where our family was totally supported,” Zlotnick said.
“We joined a synagogue that was totally accepting,” Kurzer added. “We went to the kids’ schools—every time they had a new teacher, we talked to the teacher. When we got a pediatrician when Della was born, we interviewed a bunch of different pediatricians and said, ‘How do you feel about gay people and lesbian families?’”
It wasn’t the only way Minnesota gay couples like Kurzer, 62, and Zlotnick, 65, modified their routines while raising a family. Together for more than 20 years, the couple never had the option to marry, let alone size rings, taste cake or send invitations.
But thanks to the passage of this year’s bill legalizing gay marriage in Minnesota, Kurzer and Zlotnick tied the knot at their Minneapolis synagogue on November 17.
The road to same-sex marriage for Minnesota couples stretches back to May 2011 when both the House and Senate voted to approve an amendment that would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman in the state constitution. Minnesotans voted the amendment down on Nov. 7, 2012, with 51 percent voting no.
The historic vote set the stage for the Minnesota House and Senate to pass a bill legalizing gay marriage, which Governor Mark Dayton signed on May 14. The new legislation took effect Aug. 1.
Kurzer and Zlotnick said they were originally only going to get married for practical and financial reasons—and to please Della, who began planning a wedding before her parents ever thought a ceremony could happen. Since they were denied the freedom to marry their whole lives, the longtime couple became cynical and disconnected, even while attending weddings for close family and friends.
“You get to the point where you can’t live like that. You can’t live being angry and resentful and bitter and jealous all the time,” Kurzer said. “A lot of our generation, we just decided, ‘Who needs it?’ Marriage is just a patriarchal heterosexual institution. It’s just a piece of paper. It’s stupid.”
Attitudes quickly began to change when Kurzer and Zlotnick explored the reality of their own wedding. Sharing in a tradition they had long been denied was a joyful breakthrough that made Kurzer and Zlotnick feel as though society had finally accepted them as a normal, loving family.
Perhaps most surprising to them was how personal their heterosexual friends and family took the victory.
“When we invited people to the wedding, they (were) so excited,” Kurzer said. “At work, people (came) into my office with tears in their eyes.”
ROAD TO EQUALITY
Although these recent political changes reflect a more accepting society to Kurzer and Zlotnick, it doesn’t erase the intolerance they experienced to get to this moment. Their parenting philosophy was shaped by unpleasant memories of the shame and rejection they felt because of their sexual orientation.
“I’d grown up where there was something wrong with me, but I thought it’s unfair to a child to have them grow up in an environment where you’re hiding, or where you feel ashamed of who you are,” Zlotnick said.
Kurzer remembers her high school biology teacher speaking negatively about homosexuality, and putting her on the spot when she challenged him on his comments.
“He said to me, in front of the whole class, ‘So are you homosexual?’” Kurzer said. “And I said, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t had any experiences, so I don’t know what I am.’”
When Zlotnick was in college and began to have feelings for women, she told all her friends that she might be gay. They refused to hang out with her.
“And so I lost all my friends,” Zlotnick said. “I lost all that because it never occurred to me that people would reject me.”
That rejection also taught Zlotnick to be far more careful with her personal information. Both parents are still cautious about the topic, referring to each other in conversation without using gender-specific pronouns and limiting opportunities for negative reactions as much as possible.
Most of Kurzer-Zlotnick’s experiences have centered around a general lack of understanding, though she admits it’s getting better.
She remembers telling a peer in elementary school that she had two moms, to which the girl replied, “Oh, I won’t tell anyone” before running away. The day her second grade class made Mother’s Day cards also stands out. When the teacher said there were only enough supplies for everyone to make one card, Kurzer-Zlotnick started crying.
“I went up to her and just begged for more supplies,” she said. “I remember thinking that (it) was such an injustice.”
While those instances frustrated Kurzer-Zlotnick, they did not humiliate her. Quintin Smidzik, a senior at St. Paul Central who also has two moms, tries to respond similarly to sentiment that, intentionally or unintentionally, excludes gay people.
“Growing up, people asked questions (about) why I didn’t have a dad,” he said. “Of course, there are the ignorant people … who despise gay people, but I just think it’s a waste of time to worry about them.”
Kurzer-Zlotnick’s personal connection to the cause provided plenty of motivation to become part of Minnesota’s fight for marriage equality. She volunteered with Jewish Community Action, a group that worked with youth in the Vote No campaign. Though a lot of the work was door knocking and phone banking, she took another approach to convincing Minnesotans to vote against the amendment.
“I videotaped probably 20 or 25 high schoolers talking about why it was important to them that people vote no, because all of the people in the videos couldn’t vote,” Kurzer-Zlotnick said. “So the whole idea behind our specific campaign was vote no because we can’t.”
“It was amazing to see how teenagers plugged into this campaign,” said Richard Carlbom, who led the local fight as campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families. “I’ve met person after person who, because they had a conversation with their teenage son or daughter, they came to realize that being told it’s illegal to marry the person you love is just not right.”
Kurzer-Zlotnick and Smidzik also recognized a noticeable shift in how their peers approached the topics of gay marriage and homosexuality.
“When the whole Vote No campaign started, all of my friends were very supportive and it made me feel like they actually noticed that my family was considered ‘different,’” Smidzik said. “And this was probably the first time that my friends actually showed interest in the cause. But it’s better late than never.”
Added Kurzer-Zlotnick: “Especially my friends who maybe (didn’t have) such a good relationship with their parents, or who haven’t talked to their parents about this. Talking to them about the Vote No campaign was really helpful and was a really good segue.”
Milestones and major events in the political battle for gay marriage in Minnesota held even more importance for those with a personal stake in the outcome.
Kurzer-Zlotnick stayed up until 3 a.m. when the constitutional amendment was overturned, texting her mother on the floor above her when the results finally came in. On the pivotal day when the Minnesota House of Representatives passed the bill to legalize gay marriage, the Kurzer-Zlotnick family stood outside the Capitol with a group from their synagogue.
May 14, meanwhile, will be hard to erase from Smidzik’s memory.
“The day the bill was signed was probably one of the happiest days of my life. I had baseball practice so I couldn’t go down to the Capitol, but both of my moms did and I saw videos of people crying with joy. And it made me feel good knowing that people were heard in their fight to make their love equal,” he said.
Carlbom said the most memorable moment in a long campaign occurred two months after the legislation passed. His two best friends, who had been together for 30 years, finally got married.
“It was a day I’ll never forget and it was really special,” he said.
Carlbom is planning his own wedding to partner Justin Schramm on December 20.
“What’s cool about getting married is how excited people are for you,” Carlbom said. Case in point: His niece and nephew, both 6, “are competing and angling to get a spot in this wedding like you wouldn’t believe.”
‘GREATEST STATE EVER’
No less important are the after effects that, for gay couples and their families, continue to shine a light on tolerance and equality throughout Minnesota.
“This political battle for sure changed my mind about the government,” Smidzik said. “One of my moms said to me, ‘I thought I was going to die before they legalized gay marriage,’ and that honestly broke my heart. But I believe that the government heard people’s cries for the legalization of their love and I find that astonishing.”
“I really felt like if the constitutional amendment passed that I didn’t know if I could stay living in Minnesota,” Kurzer said.
Now? “I think Minnesota is the greatest state ever.”
For Carlbom, he only needs to think back to the 2012 Minnesota State Fair when he noticed two teenagers standing near the Vote No booth.
A volunteer approached them and asked if they were planning to vote no. They responded yes, and when asked why, told the volunteer that they were dating and this was the first time they had ever told anyone.
“It was crazy that all they did was walk within proximity of this booth of people who were working to include them in society,” Carlbom said, “and they felt comfortable enough to tell a stranger for the first time that they were gay.”
Q&A WITH RICHARD CARLBOM
To read more about the man who orchestrated the Minnesota ground game for same-sex advocates, check out our extended Q&A with Richard Carlbom.
VOTING “YES” FOR THE MARRIAGE AMENDEMENT
As the same-sex marriage celebrations continue, one St. Thomas student reflects on her own beliefs —and how dedicating herself to religion may have changed her vote, but (hopefully) not her friendships.