ST. PAUL, Minn. – As a crowd of thousands roared from the lawn of the state Capitol, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill Tuesday that makes gay marriage legal here come Aug. 1.
"What a day for Minnesota!" the Democratic governor declared, as American and rainbow flags flapped in a sweltering hot wind. The Minnesota State Patrol estimated about 6,000 people made up the massive crowd, and many headed to downtown St. Paul afterward for a street party celebrating the bill's passage.
Dayton's signature on the bill ended an intense two years for gay marriage supporters and opponents in this Midwestern state, which swung from a failed push to constitutionally ban same-sex weddings into a successful bid to becoming the 12th state to affirm them.
Watching over Dayton's shoulder as he signed the bill were the measure's two chief sponsors, Rep. Karen Clark and Sen. Scott Dibble. For them, it was vindication for a long and sometimes demoralizing struggle for gay rights.
"I thought it would happen someday, but I didn't know I would be able to be here to be part of it," Clark said Tuesday, a few hours before the ceremony. Clark can now marry her partner of 24 years, in the only state she's ever lived.
The longest-serving openly gay lawmaker in the country, Clark, 67, had already been out of the closet for a decade when she was elected to the Legislature in 1980. She grew up on a farm in Rock County, in the state's southwestern corner, and came out to her parents, now both dead, in her mid-20s.
"The very first thing my mother said was, `I will always love you,"' Clark recalled.
In 1993, her by-then elderly parents marched with her in the Minneapolis gay pride parade a few weeks after she led the effort to extend Minnesota's civil rights protections to gay people.
But by 1997, the same Legislature passed the "Defense of Marriage Act," which restricted marriage to only opposite-sex couples. A year later, Clark introduced a bill to repeal it and allow gay marriage.
It took 16 years to get to this week, which comes two years after the 2011 Legislature -- then controlled by Republicans -- put an amendment on the statewide ballot asking voters to cement the existing gay marriage ban in the state constitution. Minnesota became the first state to reject such a ban after more were passed in more than 30 states, and is now the first state in the Midwest to approve gay marriage by a legislative vote.
"It was hard because it was very personal," Dibble said of the 2011 vote to put the amendment on the ballot. "People whom I had counted as very, very good friends voted for it."
Dibble, 47, graduated from high school in the Minneapolis suburb of Apple Valley and came out in college. He cut his teeth politically in the late 1980s as a member of the Minnesota chapter of ACT UP, a gay civil rights group that engaged in civil disobedience out of anger toward government neglect of AIDS and HIV sufferers. He got an early chance to join the establishment from Clark, who tapped him to run one of her re-election campaigns.
"I pulled him from street politics," she said.
Dibble was elected to the Minnesota House in 2000, and to the state Senate in 2002. He holds the southwest Minneapolis seat once occupied by Allan Spear, who in 1974 became one of the very first U.S. elected officials to come out of the closet. At Tuesday's bill signing, Dibble took time to thank Spear, who died in 2008.
While Dibble's district includes many of Minneapolis' trendiest neighborhoods, Clark's just to the east is marked by public housing towers and large populations of new immigrants.
"She is a huge, huge voice for the poor and the disenfranchised and the dispossessed," Dibble said.
But Clark continued through her career to make a mark for gay rights: During former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's 2006 State of the State speech, Clark stood up on the House floor and turned her back to the governor as he endorsed a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Not long after that, the first stirrings of legal same-sex marriage started to surface around the country. In 2008, Dibble and his husband, Richard Levya, were married in California, where Levya is still a part-time resident. While a judge later struck down gay marriage in that state, marriages that already occurred were not nullified.
Levya stood next to Dibble on Tuesday as Dayton signed the bill. Dibble said they won't remarry in Minnesota, but will have an affirming ceremony.
Clark and her partner Jacquelyn Zita, who also was at the bill signing, plan to make their marriage official in Minnesota. They haven't picked a date, but Clark envisioned a wedding on the farm they own north of Minneapolis.
"It will be small, probably just friends and family," Clark said. "We're actually very private people."