By Mark Fischenich
The Free Press
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-day series on the
proposed marriage amendment. Saturday’s story is on our
Pam Soper has a wedding band on the ring finger of her left hand and a matching band on a chain around her neck.
The ring on her finger has been there since the day Anne Walsh signed the do-not-resuscitate papers at the Mankato hospital, one of the last days the Army veteran and longtime Mankato police officer spent in the hospital before going home to die.
“I decided that was the moment,” Soper said. “It was just the two of us, and I pulled out the rings. I just said, ‘I know we’re not able to have this wedding we talked about, but — for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health, till death do us part, Anne, am I with you.’ And we just cried and cried, of course, in the hospital room.”
The ring on the chain around Soper’s neck has been there since July 19, when Walsh died following a three-year fight against ovarian cancer.
Four weeks later, Soper stood up before a packed Mankato City Council hearing to encourage opposition to the amendment on Tuesday’s ballot that would constitutionally reinforce Minnesota’s ban on gay marriage.
Soper talked of Walsh’s service to her country and her city, of the love and commitment they shared, and of the hurtfulness of the amendment. For the same reasons, she agreed to be interviewed for this story.
“She lived an incredibly honorable life and fought so hard and wanted to see things change,” Soper said.
She offers their story mainly for people who have no direct connection to a gay couple, no personal stake in Tuesday’s vote.
“I just want people to open their minds. ... Even my parents say if it weren’t for me, they probably would still be anti-gay because they just hadn’t been forced to deal with it as a real-life situation. And I think that happens for a lot of people until they really have someone in their life who’s gay and realize, ‘Oh, they’re not so freaky.’ You’re afraid of what you don’t know.”
“Who’s in charge?”
The Rev. Victor Roth is worried about the spiritual health of Americans and about the nation’s future, just as he worried decades ago about his son’s salvation.
The foundation of Roth’s concern was the same in both cases — the ramifications of placing individual desires above God’s will.
“If we reject what God says, self-love is going to come up with all kinds of different things to try to explain in its favor what it desires — not only in regard to same-sex marriage but in regard to everything that’s going on in life,” said Roth of Mankato. “It leaves God out of the picture. And that’s my No. 1 reason for saying, ‘Vote yes on the marriage amendment.’ Because you either follow God or you don’t.”
Roth, 90, was a Lutheran pastor for nearly 60 years, including 18 years in Waterville and 12 at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Mankato. For all of those years, covering the gamut of issues, the conflict is almost always the same, he said.
“Who’s in charge?” Roth asks.
For people who choose to put God in charge, who are uncertain about an issue and who want to discern God’s purpose, the answers are provided in the Bible, he said.
“I have to go back to what I believe and taught in the ministry,” he said. “... I believe that my authority is holy Scripture where God speaks to us and tells us what he himself has said in regard to things of life itself.”
So people who want to put God first, Roth said, can find direct instruction in the Bible on how to fill out the ballot.
“Scripture talks of one man and one woman being together in marriage. It doesn’t talk about two same-sex, nor does it talk of three or four all together in marriage,” he said. “And I believe we have to follow holy Scripture and God’s word.”
“It’s very hurtful”
Soper regularly attends Centenary Methodist Church, but she doesn’t consider herself a biblical scholar in any way.
“I don’t know the Bible well, but I do know that not once does Jesus mention anything about homosexuality being a sin,” she said.
As for the Old Testament, it seems to be full of instructions that are routinely not enforced by even conservative Christian churches.
“There are a lot of things in the Bible that we were told that are not so anymore,” Soper said. “I may misspeak, but it was OK (in the Old Testament) to have more than one wife so you could have lots and lots of children, that men should have beards, that if someone cheats on their spouse that they can be stoned to death.”
Soper, though, doesn’t use religious arguments in asking people to vote against putting a ban of gay marriage in the constitution. She talks instead of simple fairness — keeping open the possibility that all couples who fall in love and wish to make a lifetime commitment can someday have the same rights and benefits of marriage.
She starts from the premise that gay people don’t choose to be gay. Soper said she knows that from personal experience, and she asks people who doubt her a basic question: Why would anyone choose a life that can bring discrimination, that can attract hate crimes, and that can change the way someone is treated even by his or her own family?
Soper wonders why her 19-year relationship with Walsh — and the decades-long relationships of other gay couples she knows — should forever go unrecognized by the state.
“It’s very hurtful to think people see my capacity to love and commit to someone as less than what they can do,” she said. “It’s mean. It’s mean-spirited. It’s evil. I don’t get it, I don’t get it.”
“... before he died”
Roth doesn’t believe that homosexuality is destined for anyone, and he believes it despite — even because of — the experience of his son, Danny Roth.
All people are born into sin, and only God’s grace can change that, Roth said.
“We had a son who was brought up the way we thought he should go. He rebelled against it and became gay. He wasn’t that way in the beginning. He wasn’t that way. He wasn’t that way. But he got into the wrong crowd.”
“The result was that for 10 years we didn’t know where he was. But he got sick. He got AIDS. And he got it through homosexuality.
“He called us one day and told us how he had offended us, how he was wrong. He wanted to come back home. And he changed his thoughts: ‘I was wrong.’
“I use that as an example how we can change,” Roth said.
Anyone is capable of any sin, and anyone is capable of redemption by following God’s word — and Danny’s life proves that, Roth said.
“He died of AIDS. But before he died, he indeed turned back to what he had been taught: That he had a loving savior who suffered, bled and died for him so that he could go to eternal life.”
Not all people, not all religions, not even all Christian denominations share Roth’s beliefs about homosexuality or about God’s will on gay marriage. So why should government take sides? Why not let each church decide what couples it deems worthy of marriage rites?
Roth said government regularly weighs in on what is morally acceptable and what is good for society.
“Why all of a sudden now — after, let’s say, 150 years — the whole thought of marriage has been changed?” he said. “It’s been going on for thousands of years, man and woman producing a child. Just within the last 35, 40, 50 years has it come down to their point: We have the same rights as married people.”
“For better or worse”
Those rights matter, Soper said, and her experience with Walsh is a prime example.
For 19 years, they were in a committed relationship. When they bought a home, it was financed through a Veterans Administration loan available because of Walsh’s service in the Army.
But that was before the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, so Walsh was afraid to allow any mention of Soper in the VA paperwork.
“Anne had already lived through a witch hunt in the Army in the ’80s. She was very fearful of things being denied or turned down. So the house was just in her name.”
When Walsh suffered through post-traumatic stress disorder and ultimately was given a disability payment through her pension system, there was no opportunity to accept the benefit option where a spouse would receive survivor benefits upon the recipient’s death.
“It’s not fair,” Soper said. “In 14 of the 19 years of her employment, I supported her. I lived through the hell with her that she experienced with PTSD. And the state can’t recognize that.”
And there are the rights surrounding medical care of a spouse -- something they experienced years ago with one local physician at then Immanuel St. Joseph’s Hospital.
“A doctor asked Anne to leave because I need to get some test results,” Soper said. “And I said, ‘No, she can stay.’ And he said, ‘No, you’re not family.’ That man is retired now from ISJ, thank goodness.”
Attitudes had changed by the time Walsh’s ovarian cancer struck.
“The Mayo System has been incredible,” she said. “Everywhere we’ve gone, they’ve been incredible. But they do have the right to say, ‘Only immediate family.’”
Over time, their house was put in Soper’s name. She had power of attorney for Walsh as she grew sicker. Most of the rights automatically available to heterosexual couples — other than the survivor benefit through the pension fund — were obtained, but only through extra legal processes, Soper said.
It only added to the stress of the difficult times that came with the PTSD and then the cancer. Some people expressed surprise that Soper stood by Walsh through it all, leaving Soper always responding the same way.
“‘Well, of course. It’s ‘For better or worse’ isn’t it?’ Even though we’re not allowed to say those words in a legal manner, we lived that. We definitely lived that.”
“... There to continue our nation”
When it comes to providing the legal rights that accompany marriage to gay couples, Roth is opposed — even if the rights were provided through a process separate from marriage such as civil unions. He doesn’t believe gay couples deserve those rights, regardless of the level of love or commitment they might demonstrate.
“Let’s just take an example. My wife and I have been married for 67 years. We have 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Three daughters. In 67 years, that (marriage) has grown to produce in our society individuals who will be there to continue our nation. The same-sex in 67 years will have nothing. They will have not increased our society one individual. ... I’m saying equal rights demand equal responsibility.”
Roth isn’t interested in talking about whether that same attitude would apply to childless heterosexual couples.
“That doesn’t enter into it at all,” he said. “Because you’ve taken it out of its context is what you’ve done.”
“... With you always”
Walsh, in writing her own obituary, focused on making readers smile as she summarized her life and expressed her appreciation and love for family and friends. But she managed to slip in a bit of marriage-amendment lobbying, too, in the paragraph focused on Soper.
“My soul mate Pam Soper and I have been in love for 19 years,” Walsh wrote. “We have loved, laughed, struggled, and cried together. We have lived as completely as we could. We even got ‘married’ (Please vote ‘No.’) ... I didn’t want to leave, Pam, but please know that I am with you always — except when you’re in the bathroom. I love you.”
The reference to getting “married” wasn’t to the exchange of vows in the hospital room. It was weeks later, on May 19. Walsh was getting increasingly more sick, and friends and family had gathered to help Soper deal with the mess of a burst water heater and a flooded basement.
With everyone there, Walsh’s brother decided to announce that he had taken the training to perform a marriage ceremony and was ready to do it that day — legally recognized or not.
The friends and family gathered on the deck, Soper and Walsh in the adjoining porch.
“We were all sweaty, messy, dirty. ...,” Soper said. “Even though it wasn’t recognized by the state, we had a right. And people witnessed it. ... And it was beauuuutiful.”
“... Where we are”
Roth doesn’t deny that people’s attitudes change over time, what they considered wrong a generation ago might not be deemed wrong today. That’s what makes them people, he said.
“Man will always change to meet his needs. He’ll always do that,” Roth said. “Come in another 10 or 20 years, he’ll change again. ... And that’s why we can’t depend on man, because of the change that’s always there.”
God doesn’t change, and neither does his word, said Roth, who believes failure to pass the amendment would be a dangerous step away from God.
“And I believe that’s where we are in our country today,” he said. “God is left out of the picture. ... I would be very disappointed if it doesn’t pass, and I would say that’s another step in the downfall of our nation.”