A North Dakota Family Breaks The Silence On Gay Marriage

Apr 16, 2015
Originally published on April 18, 2015 12:17 pm

All this week, Morning Edition is listening to people think out loud about same-sex marriage in North Dakota, one of 13 states that still ban same-sex marriage. Thursday's story looks at discussions about same-sex marriage among families — a subject some feel is often too taboo to tackle.

Melanie Hoffert grew up on a farm near the town of Wahpeton, N.D. She called her new memoir Prairie Silence because around here, people prefer not to talk about hard things in the open.

Conversations about homosexuality and coming out could easily take place almost anywhere — but not here in rural North Dakota. It can be even harder for a family dealing with conflicting emotions about a loved one who's gay.

Morning Edition met Melanie on a day when the wind was blowing through the trees lining her family farm — it makes a sound like waves, as she writes in her book. She leads the way to her favorite hiding place: a tiny abandoned church on the farm.

Inside the musty, dark and cold building, a raccoon scurries away near a wooden overhang. There are words carved in the wood: "That is slain is holy." Those words have always stuck with Melanie.

"There's a Bible verse that — of course, I'm not going to quote word-for-word, but something about — he who is slain is worthy, like the lamb, Jesus Christ," she says. "I think it's derived from scripture."

Melanie was raised in a deeply religious family. Today, that's what gives her compassion to understand others who want to change her because she's gay, she says. Even though she strives to be empathetic and not judge those who disagree, she still feels angry sometimes.

"Especially when I'm back at the farm," she says, fighting back tears. "I think about little Melanie. I had to grow up knowing inherently that I was a good person, but having to question that based on what I was hearing from the world around me."

She says it's only at this point in her life that she's started to feel very defensive of the kid she used to be. Still, Melanie recognizes that there are people close to her who are struggling with her sexuality, and she tries her best not to judge them.

One of Melanie's brothers runs the farm now, since her parents moved into a house in Wahpeton, closer to town. That's where Melanie is sitting down to a pizza dinner at her parents' long dining room table, with her mom, her two brothers and their wives.

Melanie's mother, Kathy, first chimes in about her daughter's childhood, and recalls the day Melanie, then 19, came out to her at a restaurant.

"It took her a long time. I almost had to start guessing what in the heck was the matter," Kathy says. "And she mentioned that she was gay, or lesbian, whichever word [she] used. And I responded, 'Melanie, you are not.' The reason being, I don't like the word lesbian [or] gay. I don't know why they have to put a name on something. It seems like a label that I just didn't like."

Kathy says she thinks that led to a misunderstanding, in which Melanie thought her mom didn't believe she was gay.

Kathy says that wasn't the case. "I did know, and I'm glad it was finally out," she says. "So after that, I think everything went a little better between us."

Melanie came out to the rest of her family a bit later. Thinking back, her brother David now feels some guilt.

"I probably made it pretty hard for her to tell me, I think, because I had maybe made negative comments about gays," he says. "I wouldn't say I was anti-gay or anything like that, but I would joke along with everyone else if someone threw out a gay joke, I guess."

David's wife, April, found out about Melanie's sexual orientation when he told her after a night of partying.

"I kind of knew too, because we're from small towns that are right next to each other, so word travels fast," April says. And while she adds that she doesn't remember what her exact reaction was, Melanie does, because David had told her.

"She said, 'It doesn't matter, we love Melanie,' " Melanie recalls. " 'She's your sister and it doesn't matter.' "

Eventually the conversation at the dinner table turns to same-sex marriage. Melanie's mother and brothers each take turns expressing that they don't see any problem with same-sex marriage and hope that, one day, others won't either.

But others at the table are conflicted. April, who was vocal moments before about her support for Melanie, moves toward the kitchen to tend to the children.

Melanie's other sister-in-law, Julia, says she's struggled with the idea of gay marriage. "That's actually a really hard question for me," she says.

Julia is a devout Catholic and says, were if it not for knowing and loving Melanie, she would see marriage as something that's just between a man and a woman.

"I do stand by my faith and I do believe what my church says to be true," she says. "But I also see where that would hurt somebody and I know that my beliefs and my faith doesn't stand to hurt people either."

April stays out of the room entirely. But her husband David says the two of them have talked about April's feelings before.

"[It was] just a conversation we were having yesterday, maybe brought up by my wife, who thinks ... marriage came from God," he says.

Although Melanie says she respects April for not wanting to talk on-air, she wishes April would have stayed in the room to express herself.

"The conversation among us could potentially be something a lot of people can identify with, because they have families who are struggling," Melanie says. "Some families are further along and some families are so not accepting. I think really talking about the issue is important."

Julia defends April's absence from the table, too. "It's not that she didn't want to be here to support Melanie, obviously she's here. But ..."

Before Julia could finish speaking, the room is interrupted by a loud slam. April had been by the front door — she had overheard everything and decided to leave. An awkward silence follows.

Later that night, Melanie texted us, explaining that April had misunderstood the conversation. She thought the impression at the table was that she doesn't support Melanie.

But that really wasn't the case.

The impression we left with was this: April loves Melanie, but feels conflicted about her own beliefs — like many people who are coming to terms with a gay relative.

We saw a family, like so many others, struggling with something hard — something that many families avoid altogether.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Melanie Hoffert just got engaged to her girlfriend. Melanie is 40 years old. She lives and works in Minneapolis. Her roots, though, are in North Dakota. But she can't get married there. North Dakota is one of 13 states that ban gay marriage. We've been listening all this week to people thinking out loud about this issue. We've been in North Dakota, but these conversations are playing out all over the country. This morning, we hear from a family - Melanie Hoffert's family. She grew up on a farm near Wahpeton, N.D., struggling quietly with her identity. She wrote a book about it called "Prairie Silence." Melanie recently showed us around the family farm. She took us inside this abandoned church. We stood in this echo-y, old building that's used nowadays to store grain.

MELANIE HOFFERT: Oh, it's very cold.

GREENE: Melanie's petite, with curly brown hair down to her shoulders. You can tell she is happy to be home, but there are tough memories.

M. HOFFERT: Especially when I'm back at the farm. I think... Sorry, I might get emotional. But I think about little Melanie, you know. Like, I had to grow up knowing inherently that I was a good person but having to question that based on what I was hearing from, you know, the world around me. And that is wrong. And so I'm only, at this point in my life, starting to feel very defensive of that, you know, kid.

GREENE: But she's also protective of loved ones who don't fully embrace who she is.

M. HOFFERT: Well, I mean, I think it's the truth. And I think that maybe I wouldn't feel so, I guess, open to that had I not grown up and gone through the stage where I too thought that I had to save people.

GREENE: That's when she was young, a born-again Christian. To her back then, love meant convincing people there was really only one acceptable path.

M. HOFFERT: And I was doing it out of love. So I'm trying to understand and remember that there are people - and I'm not talking about the extreme people where I see that religion is a cover for hate. I'm talking about people who are truly thinking, out of love, that they want something different for the people in their lives that they know. And, you know, it's like I'm just trying to assume positive intent and to stop there. It's hard though, sometimes.

GREENE: After this church, there was another stop that Melanie had talked about. She'd said she wanted us to meet her family.

So we can really come to dinner with your family tonight?

M. HOFFERT: I'm going to order some pizza. How does that sound?

GREENE: One of Melanie's brothers runs the farm now. Her parents moved into town. It's about a 20-minute drive to get to their place.

(CROSSTALK)

GREENE: Her parents' house has high ceilings and a living room filled with afternoon sunlight and also Melanie's nieces and nephews.

(CROSSTALK)

GREENE: We grabbed slices of pizza from the delivery boxes on the kitchen counter, and we sat down around a long dining room table. There was Melanie, her mom, her two brothers and their wives. We began by talking about Melanie's childhood with her mom, Kathy.

KATHY HOFFERT: Should I go back when you were younger?

GREENE: Sure.

M. HOFFERT: Whatever, Mom.

GREENE: She went back to the day when Melanie was 19 and came out to her at a restaurant.

K. HOFFERT: Well, it took her a long time. You know, I almost had to start guessing what in the heck was the matter. And then she mentioned she was gay I think - or lesbian, whichever word you used. And I responded, Melanie, you are not - reason being, I don't like the word lesbian, gay. I don't know why they have to put a name on something. I just - it seems like a label that I just didn't like. And I think she probably took it wrong, that I didn't think she was actually gay. And - but I did know. And I'm glad it was finally out. So after that, I think everything went a little better between us.

GREENE: Melanie came out to the rest of her family a bit later. Her brother, David, who was sitting right across the table from me, feels some guilt thinking back.

DAVID HOFFERT: First off, I'll say I probably made it pretty hard for her to tell me I think because I had maybe - maybe had negative comments about gays. I wouldn't say I was anti-gay or anything like that. But, you know, I would joke along with everyone else if someone threw out a gay joke, I guess. So...

GREENE: What do you do now if someone throws out a gay joke?

DAVID HOFFERT: I laugh.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Everyone laughed, including Melanie. And that broke some of the tension. The family did seem a little nervous.

April, when did you first find out, from David or otherwise, about Melanie?

April is David's wife. And she learned from David about his sister.

APRIL HOFFERT: It was a few months after we started dating. And I kind of knew too because we're from small towns that are close to each other. So word travels fast. And we were - we were in college. And I'm sure we were probably having drinks with all our friends. And then we had this great idea to go to Fryn' Pan and drink coffee and eat breakfast at, like, 5 in the morning. And everything kind of comes out at 5 in the morning.

(LAUGHTER)

A. HOFFERT: After you've been drinking. And I said - I don't even know what my reaction was, just, like...

M. HOFFERT: I do.

A. HOFFERT: What?

M. HOFFERT: I do because David told me. And it stays with me today. You know, he said, I told April, and she said it doesn't matter. We love Melanie. She's your sister, and it doesn't matter. And so that was seared into my head that night. I don't know if that's what you said, but that's what he told me years ago.

A. HOFFERT: That was what I felt, I know. So...

GREENE: By now, everyone had had a few slices of pizza. And eventually, the conversation did turn to same-sex marriage. I asked Melanie's mom about it.

K. HOFFERT: I just don't even know why some people are against it, I guess.

GREENE: I asked her brother, David.

DAVID HOFFERT: No issues with it whatsoever. It should happen.

GREENE: And her other brother, Donny.

DONNY HOFFERT: I don't have any conflict whatsoever.

GREENE: But others were conflicted. David's wife, April, had quietly gotten up when we started talking about this. She was standing in the kitchen, busying herself with the kids. Melanie's other her sister-in-law, Julia, stayed at the table. And she talked about her own struggle with gay marriage.

JULIA HOFFERT: You know, it's - that's actually a really hard question for me.

GREENE: Julia's devoutly Catholic and says were it not for knowing and loving Melanie, she would see marriage as something that's just between a man and a woman.

J. HOFFERT: I do stand by my faith. And I do believe what my church says to be true. But I also see where that would hurt somebody. And I know that, you know, that my beliefs and my faith doesn't stand to hurt people either. So it - I guess it's a hard question for me. April?

GREENE: April wasn't coming back to the table. And Melanie said she understood why.

M. HOFFERT: I guess I wish she would offer her thoughts because I think that - I think the dialogue is important because I love her 100 percent. I know she loves me 100 percent. I think that there's probably a very murky area, you know, between our views on this issue, meaning that I don't know that it's exactly black and white for her. And so - I mean, I respect her not wanting to talk on the air. But I think that she - the conversation among us potentially could be something that a lot of people can identify with because they have - families are struggling, you know? Some families are in -further along. Some families are so not accepting. And I think really talking about the issue is important. So I respect her for not wanting to talk about it. But I think we will make time after this to down sit down and have a discussion for sure.

GREENE: As Melanie spoke, Julia was looking at April, who was standing over by the front door, still listening.

J. HOFFERT: So it's not that she didn't want to be here to support Melanie. I mean, obviously she's here. But...

A. HOFFERT: I just want to leave. I'm so over this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAMMING)

GREENE: That was April gathering her things and leaving. Everyone at the table was quiet for a few moments.

Do you want us to leave?

M. HOFFERT: I mean, no, I think we're wrapping up anyway. But...

GREENE: Shortly after we left, Melanie texted us saying April had misunderstood and thought there was somehow the impression that she doesn't support Melanie. The impression we left with was of a loving family struggling with something really hard. When Melanie got engaged a few days ago, the whole family congratulated her - every member. Wherever the Supreme Court lands on gay marriage this term, the kinds of conversations we heard all this week are going to go on. They bring to mind something Melanie told us in that abandoned church on the farm where she grew up. People can be conflicted about something and still be thinking out of love. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.