North Dakota is a very confusing state to live in. One day we make major advances, and another day go right back to where we started. One day a member of the state legislature votes against equal protection for the LBGTQ community, and then shows up on national news for sending dick pics to a young man on Grindr. We always make national news for all the wrong reasons: exploding oil trains, sex trafficking, environmental problems, and now dick pics.
Politically it’s a conservative state: one of more conservative in the country. There is also a very strong community of liberal activists that make you think you live somewhere progressive. In the last couple of years, the state has reached some major political milestones: we elected our first woman to congress and our first openly gay state legislator. On the other hand, we have had to fight onslaughts of regressive legislation.
To give some perspective about the voting habits of North Dakotans, in the 2012 presidential election Barack Obama got only 38% of the vote here. That same year the Democratic Non-Partisan League Party of North Dakota (Dem-NPL) ran two women for congress: Heidi Heitkamp ran for the Senate and Pam Gulleson for the House of Representatives. One of them won.
Heidi Heitkamp eked out a win, becoming the first woman from North Dakota to be elected to Congress. It only took 92 years from the time we were given the vote. Go North Dakota!
But, in all seriousness, it was an amazing victory. Heitkamp has recently been working to pass legislation to help protect victims of sex trafficking – a serious problem in western North Dakota’s oil fields, where law enforcement is so overwhelmed that they can barely provide basic services.
2012 was a good year for women in the state legislature, too. Kylie Oversen was elected to the House of Representatives at 23, making her the second youngest woman serving in public office in the country. She has so far proven to be an advocate for the rights of women and families, sponsoring legislation to benefit women, and opposes the attempts to limit our rights by the Republican super-majority.
Of the 23 Democrats in the House, 11 are women. Almost to half! Considering the legislature, as a whole, is 80% male, that’s pretty good! All of the new Democrats elected in 2014 were women.
Maybe, just possibly, we’re inching toward equality.
Or maybe not.
The gains we’ve seen are offset by ballot measures and bills that try to limit the rights of women and LGBTQ people. In 2012, the legislature introduced a slew of bills meant to restrict the right to abortion and other reproductive services. On the plus side, the most vocal supporters of those bills were solidly unseated in 2014, replaced by progressive women.
There was also a “religious liberty” measure on the ballot that year. If you’re familiar with the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Hobby Lobby” case and ruling, it’s essentially the same thing. A person or organization with a sincerely held religious belief could act according to that belief, even if that means discriminating against customers or employees. That measure was soundly defeated because we sent a clear message to our elected officials: stop meddling in our private lives. That didn’t stop them from trying again with a personhood ballot measure in 2014, also defeated by wide margins.
North Dakota has a mixed record on LGBTQ issues, too. Our victory in 2012 was electing our first openly gay legislator, Joshua Boschee. Rep. Boschee has spent his time working toward expanded services for the underprivileged.
But it is still completely legal to fire someone or evict them from their home for being gay in North Dakota. This legislative session, the state Senate proposed making sexual orientation a protected class under the state constitution. This wasn’t even an attempt at marriage equality; just equal protection.
The newspaper in our largest city, The Fargo Forum, came out strongly in support of the bill. I didn’t expect it to pass, but hoped that maybe public opinion around the issue might sway the politicians, as happened in other states. The state senate passed SB 2279 by 3 votes. The House voted it down by a large margin, though a handful of Republicans even broke from their party to support it.
The next day The Fargo Forum made a statement against the outcome. A local coffee shop made national news by posting in their entryway the faces of legislators who voted against the measure, satirically denying them service based on their beliefs. Meanwhile, though, in North Dakota, it’s still legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation.
There are a lot of other issues in North Dakota politics, but what I’ve mentioned illustrates the pattern in the state: one step forward, two steps back. Some days I’m proud to live here, and other days I want to bury my head in shame. The call to action is pretty clear. We need to elect more women, young people, and progressive minds. We don’t want to watch our rights disappear one by one. Helping voters navigate their newly restricted voting rights will be the main task. (Yep, that happened, too.)
North Dakota is an infuriating combination of progress and regression all rolled together. Maybe, eventually, we’ll go somewhere rather than standing still. We have to hope that to stay sane.
Photo of North Dakota sign by J. Stephen Conn, CC-licensed via Flickr.