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Fetishist? Pansexual? Minnesota House approves Equal Rights Amendment after winding debate

Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, on Thursday, March 7, 2019, spoke in favor of her legislation putting before Minnesota voters in 2020 an amendment to the state Constitution that states, “equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged or denied on account of gender." Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota House of Representatives on Thursday, March 7, advanced a proposal to add language to the state Constitution providing for gender equality under the law but not before pivoting into questions about abortion and transgender athletes.

At issue was one word in the bill: gender.

The proposal, House File 13, would ask Minnesota voters whether to enshrine in the Minnesota Constitution that “equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged or denied on account of gender."

While several other states have ratified equal rights amendments that nearly mirror that, they use the word sex rather than gender.

Opponents said the language would be a step backward for women and girls in the state.

“It’s become a little bit hijacked here," Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said. “It’s not going to do what it’s intended to do, and that’s to create an even playing field for women."

Supporters said the language was used intentionally to include people of various gender identities.

“We chose to use the word gender because we felt that it was inclusive in this day and age," the bill's author Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, said. "I don’t need to carry around a birth certificate to say how I self-identify. I identify as me, you identify as you and we are all equal under the law."

Women in the chamber wore white and green to commemorate the vote and several lawmakers donned "ERA YES" pins. One by one, lawmakers shared their history of supporting the measure or their female relatives' fight for equality.

"We want to be a state that puts equality in bright green letters in our constitution," said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

Before lawmakers approved the bill on a 72-55 vote, they entered into a debate about the possible ramifications of passing the measure.

Republican lawmakers put forth a set of amendments aimed at replacing the word gender with sex or biological sex at birth. They also asked to add a provision that would clarify that the change wouldn't affect existing abortion laws in the state.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, at one point aimed to highlight his concerns about the term "gender" being too broad and confusing by asking Democratic lawmakers on the floor if they could define "pansexual" and "fetishist." He said he feared those identities would be protected under the bill.

"We’re putting forward a proposal that has no definition," Drazkowski said, "and when we do that and put that in front of the voters of Minnesota, it becomes a deceptive measure for them."

Ultimately, the amendments were defeated.

The measure would have to be approved by the Senate before it could come up for a vote on the 2020 ballot.

Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment were set to rally at the Capitol Friday morning.