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Gay rights debate hits home for GOP senator
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Sen. Paul Koering, 40, said family members and close friends have known he is gay for years. His fellow Republican senators have also known for some time, he said. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
A Republican state senator is revealing he's gay in order to put an end to speculation that he says was interfering with his work as a lawmaker. Paul Koering of Fort Ripley is believed to be the first Republican elected official in Minnesota to be openly gay. His announcement comes after he voted last week to block immediate consideration of a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. Koering says his sexual orientation won't stop him from seeking re-election in 2006, but some Republican officials say he may have crippled his chances.

St. Paul, Minn. — Last week Sen. Paul Koering broke with his Republican colleagues to vote down an effort to debate a proposed ban on same-sex marriages. That move, coupled with photographs allegedly showing Koering at a Minneapolis gay nightclub, intensified chatter the the first-term Republican is gay.

Koering now confirms that speculation, but he says that shouldn't affect how his constituents judge his performance.

"Look at the job I'm doing," he says. "If you liked Paul Koering on Wednesday, you should like Paul Koering on Thursday because nothing has changed. The good Lord made me just the way I am. I can't change that, nor would I change that."

The debate over same-sex marriage has polarized lawmakers since last year. At issue is whether voters should be able to amend the state Constitution to ban gay marriage and its "legal equivalents."

If you liked Paul Koering on Wednesday, you should like Paul Koering on Thursday because nothing has changed. The good Lord made me just the way I am. I can't change that, nor would I change that.
- Sen. Paul Koering

Koering says he supports current law that limits marriage to unions between one man and one woman, offering that he doesn't think society is ready yet to accept same-sex marriages. Furthermore, he says he believes voters ought to have an opportunity to decide the issue.

But he says he's worried that the language of the current proposal goes to far. Koering says civil unions and other domestic arrangements should be part of the discussion for gay and lesbian couples.

"I just want to make sure that we don't infringe on somebody's rights. And I would just say that in me doing what I think is the right thing, if that gets me unelected, you know what? I can live with that," he says.

Koering is now the third openly gay Minnesota legislator. The other two are Minneapolis DFLers. Koering's position on same-sex unions is unlikely to significantly change the outcome of the legislative debate; the move to bring the ban to the Senate floor would have failed with or without his vote.

Supporters of the ban say they've no intention of condemning Koering.

"It seems like he has to work through how he wants to vote on this, and we're more than willing to give him the time that he needs to do that," says Chuck Darrell, who represents Minnesota for Marriage, a group working to put the proposed amendment on the 2006 ballot.

But in Koering's Brainerd-area district, the mood is not as forgiving.

"The vote will absolutely hurt him," says Brian Lehman, the chair of the Crow Wing County Republican Party. He says Koering should have been more upfront about his sexual orientation before he began his political career.

The district is considered competitive for both Republicans and Democrats, but Lehman says voters in the area are overwhelmingly conservative on social issues, regardless of party.

"I would guess that his base voters have been hurt, and possibly would not consider voting for him. And so he's put himself in a very weak position," Lehman says.

So far, Koering says he's gotten mostly positive feedback on his announcement, but he acknowledges that some Republicans in his district are upset.

Senate Republican leader Dick Day says there's an opportunity for backlash, but that he, personally, doesn't believe Koering's sexual orientation should matter in a re-election campaign.

"Paul has done a good job ... I hope that people don't say that that issue means that a person couldn't be a state senator. That would be terrible," Day says.

Day has had run-ins with party officials in the past, standing up for GOP Senate incumbents who were nevertheless rejected by local Republicans for party endorsement.

Koering says he absolutely intends to stand for re-election in 2006 and to do so as a Republican.