A North Dakota Family Breaks The Silence On Gay Marriage Author Melanie Hoffert grew up gay in rural America, where coming out was difficult. But that hasn't stopped her family from having a frank and challenging conversation about same-sex marriage.
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A North Dakota Family Breaks The Silence On Gay Marriage

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A North Dakota Family Breaks The Silence On Gay Marriage

A North Dakota Family Breaks The Silence On Gay Marriage

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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.


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


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?


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?



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.


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 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.


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.

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