Radio Connects North Dakota Residents Divided On Gay Rights

Apr 15, 2015
Originally published on April 16, 2015 7:09 am

This week, Morning Edition discusses gay rights in North Dakota, one of 13 states that still bans same-sex marriage. Wednesday's story features two men with contrasting ideologies: a liberal radio host and a conservative business owner.

North Dakota is a state where radio reigns supreme. Its communities are far apart, and shopping trips, or just visiting a neighbor, can mean a long drive. Many people have the radio on, and often it's tuned into KFGO-AM, The Mighty 790, out of Fargo.

"The eyes of the nation are upon North Dakota," says Joel Heitkamp, one of the station's hosts.

The former state senator — also the brother of Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp — says the focus is on North Dakota because of a bill that was working its way through the state Legislature in early April. It would have protected gay people in the state from discrimination, but it failed.

Heitkamp says this vote could keep potential employers out of North Dakota, and he's been on a rant about it on his talk show.

"What do you think is going to happen when all those individuals from Microsoft say 'they just voted on the North Dakota House floor that it's OK not to rent to a gay person,'" he warns. "Or 'they just voted on the North Dakota House floor that you don't have to serve a burger to a gay person?' "

A poll late last year found that 50 percent of people in North Dakota are opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. But the radio is still on, even in places where people don't necessarily agree with Heitkamp — like the auto body shop John Trandem owns just outside of Fargo.

Vanity license plates hang all over the shop walls, spelling out things like "conservative" and "capitalist." Trandem often works while listening to talk radio, including Joel Heitkamp, but that's not easy.

John says he feels personally attacked because of his views on gay rights. He was raised Lutheran, and his religious teaching shapes his views.

"With regard to sexual sin, it is a sin like any other sin," he says. "Some people struggle with pornography. Some people struggle with adultery. Some people struggle with promiscuity. And I think [homosexuality] would be in and among all sexual sin."

But when it comes to the person, Trandem says, that's an entirely different story. He says that, because he's a landlord, business owner and family man, he respects everyone — even it he disagrees with their sexual orientation.

"I love every one one of them; I pray for them," he says.

And while he's happy to exchange ideas, he has no intention of compromising on questions of marriage.

"I don't think it's a matter of whether or not you legalize same-sex marriage, it's a matter of whether or not you remove the definition of marriage," Trandem says. "If marriage is defined as an institution involving one man and one woman, that's what it is."

Trandem argues that legalizing gay marriage is a slippery slope that opens the floodgates for other unorthodox lifestyles, such as polygamy. He says it's not an issue of equal rights, because the definition of marriage is clear.

"If marriage is defined as between a man and a woman, I have the same rights as a same-sex attracted person has to engage in marriage," he says. "The fact that they don't decide to exercise that right doesn't mean that the right has not been extended to them."

Despite criticism from gay rights advocates like Heitkamp, Trandem says that cultural shifts are cyclical, sometimes leaning more conservative and other times more liberal. Still, he says, it won't change his point of view.

"I'm going to retain my beliefs. I'm going to treat other people with respect," he says. "[But] I'm going to respect the rule of law when laws are passed."

On Thursday, Morning Edition continues its discussion of religion and gay rights in North Dakota. We'll hear from a Methodist pastor and a gay mother on the baptism of children with gay parents.

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

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's continue listening now to people thinking out loud about gay rights and same-sex marriage. This month, the Supreme Court hears arguments over state gay marriage bans. Thirteen states still have those bans. One of those states is North Dakota, where people are having debates of their own. Our colleague David Greene is bringing us reports from there this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO ID JINGLE)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) 9790 KFGO.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

North Dakota is a state where radio is king. Communities are far apart, so shopping trips or even just visiting a neighbor can mean a long drive. Many people have the radio on. Often, it's tuned to The Mighty 790AM out of Fargo.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "NEWS & VIEWS")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: This is where the region comes to talk. It's News & Views, the legendary...

GREENE: The host of one of their talk shows is a man named Joel Heitkamp.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "NEWS & VIEWS")

JOEL HEITKAMP: The eyes of the nation are upon North Dakota.

GREENE: He says that because of a bill that was working its way through the state legislature recently. It would've protected gay people in North Dakota from discrimination. It failed. Joel rants about this a lot. He's got a big platform with a big radio audience. He also has a familiar name. His sister, Heidi Heitkamp, is a U.S. senator. Joel said this vote could keep potential employers out of North Dakota.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "NEWS & VIEWS")

HEITKAMP: What do you think's going to happen when all those individuals from Microsoft get in a room and say, they just voted on the North Dakota House floor that it's OK not to rent to a gay person? They just voted on the North Dakota House floor that - you know what? - you don't have to serve a burger to a gay person.

GREENE: Joel's voice is coming out of the radio even in places where people don't necessarily agree with him. A poll late last year found 50 percent of people in North Dakota are opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the skin's delicious, so don't be afraid to do that. Leave the skin on. Just cut a stake out of it.

GREENE: That's The Mighty 790AM on in John Trandem's auto body shop outside Fargo. John, the owner, has long, dark hair that's pulled back tightly into a ponytail. He's hung vanity license plates all over his walls. They spell out things like conservative and capitalist. We caught John working inside a pickup truck. He was installing a court-mandated breathalyzer. It's hard for anyone not to be able to drive in this state, including people with DUIs. This lets them start their engine once they puff and prove to a machine that they're sober.

How often do you put these things in?

JOHN TRANDEM: I would say almost every day.

GREENE: And often while he's working, he's listening to talk radio - sometimes Joel Heitkamp, which is not always easy. John sometimes feels personally attacked because of his views on gay rights. He was raised Lutheran, and his religious teaching shapes his views.

TRANDEM: I'm a Christian. I believe that the Bible is the inherent word of God. It's the inspired word of God. With regard to sexual sin, it's sin like any other sin. Some people struggle with pornography. Some people struggle with adultery. Some people struggle with promiscuity. And I think that it would be in and amongst sexual sin. With regard to the person, that's an entirely different story. I have customers. I have - I'm a landlord. I don't know whether or not I have tenants that are same-sex attracted or living a homosexual lifestyle. I have members of my family that have struggled with that, and I love every one of them. I pray for them. I'm happy to have a dialogue with them, and I'm happy to honestly exchange ideas with them.

GREENE: But one place John will not compromise is on the question of marriage.

TRANDEM: I don't think it's a matter of whether or not you legalize same-sex marriage. It's a matter of whether or not you remove the definition of marriage. You know, if marriage is defined as an institution involving one man and one woman, that's what it is. If you want to create a union with a man and you're a man, that's not marriage. And under the guise of equality, if we were to remove the definition of marriage to include or amend the definition of marriage to include one man and one man, how would we logically and rationally be able to exclude two men and two women or three men or three women if equality is the endgame?

GREENE: Three men and three women, like three people getting married or...

TRANDEM: I'd say six people getting - well, it doesn't matter. Add the number because the magic behind the number two is biology - which we're getting rid of that - and tradition. And we're getting rid of that.

GREENE: Many people with your view have been seen very negatively, sometimes seeming to stand in the way of two people just wanting the same rights as two other people. Do you blame people for having that reaction when they hear views like yours?

TRANDEM: I think that the reaction is one of efficacy because it works. People respond to that type of reaction. I don't not want people to have rights that I don't have. As it stands, that's all based - goes back to the definition of marriage. If marriage is defined as a man and woman, I have the same rights as a same-sex attracted person has to engage in marriage, which is defined as one man and one woman. The fact that they don't decide to exercise that right doesn't mean that the right has not been extended to them.

GREENE: The country seems to be changing at a pace that many people didn't even expect. You know, polls suggest that more and more Americans are now in favor of legalized same-sex marriage. What - how do you react to that?

TRANDEM: I think that cultural changes are very natural. They've been going on forever - cultural shifts. And it's cyclical to where the culture will drift more to a liberal perspective and more toward a conservative perspective. And I think that's going to change throughout our lives, and I don't think that it - I don't think that it's ever going to end. I don't think that there's any way for me to stop it, so I'm going to retain my beliefs. I'm going to treat other people with respect. I'm going to respect the rule of law when laws are passed and live my life, take care of my family, instruct my children in the things that I believe.

GREENE: That's John Trandem. He owns an auto body shop just outside Fargo. We're listening to people talk about same-sex marriage and homosexuality in North Dakota this week. Tomorrow, we'll hear from Melanie Hoffert, who describes coming to terms with her sexuality while growing up on a North Dakota farm.

MELANIE HOFFERT: 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.

GREENE: We hear from Melanie Hoffert and her family tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.