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We all know someone.

In February I traveled south for the funeral of my aunt’s partner, Jeri. She and my aunt had been roommates for most of my life, but with that side of the family being Southern Baptist, my aunt never openly discussed their relationship — even through years of Jeri’s cancer and subsequent illness. It wasn’t until the obituary, where my aunt was listed as Jeri’s partner and I as one of the survivors, that their relationship was officially acknowledged. I gained and lost an aunt on the same day.

Bismarck may be short on Southern Baptists, but the culture is no different. One of my dear friends is from a small North Dakota coal town, and her brother only recently came out to their parents — and of course, he no longer lives in the state. Another friend is a pastor of a Protestant congregation, and though many of her congregants privately acknowledge support of gay family members and friends, the church as a whole is reluctant to openly embrace them.

It is painful to watch this much hurt in our community. We are concerned about bright young people leaving North Dakota, and yet we turn away from fully embracing people as they are.

I understand that religion plays a part. I was raised very conservatively, and it was a struggle studying religious texts in college and wrestling with layers of interpretation filtered through cultural norms. You can make theological arguments in any direction, but to me, the greatest commandment is love. Pope Francis and prominent Jesuits and Franciscans have recently made comments in support of LGBTQ individuals. Most mainstream Protestant denominations now officially recognize same-sex marriage and allow ordination of LGBTQ clergy, though local churches are slow to adopt, or altogether reject, national policy. Many North Dakotans have a quiet “live and let live” mentality, but avoiding public discussion of this issue only perpetuates hurt and harm for individuals, couples and families waiting to be fully accepted by our communities.

It has been almost two years since the Bismarck City Commission passed an anti-discrimination resolution to guard against bias in employment, housing and service opportunities based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Fargo and Grand Forks have passed similar resolutions, but our state as a whole has failed to achieve consensus on banning LGBTQ discrimination. This is not just an economic issue, but one that inflicts real harm on families and community relationships. We can and must do better.

As for my aunt, she is a de facto widow at age 65. Yet she does not have the same legal protections as my mom, who also became a widow far too soon. Caregiving through critical illness and loss of a loved one is hard enough without legal hoops and discrimination layered on top. I hope that North Dakota culture shifts to embrace all of our LGBTQ neighbors, and I believe Bismarck-Mandan can play a significant role in taking a just and compassionate stand.

We all love someone. Let’s love one another.

Ann Crews Melton is a writer and editor particularly interested in religion, identity and diversity. A Texas native, she is proud to call Bismarck home.

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