By Bobby Caina Calvan | The Heartland Project
LINCOLN, Neb. – Debate over same-sex marriage has been long and contentious. The battle could soon be over, settled in courtrooms in Nebraska and the nation’s capital. Some same-sex couples – like Bil Roby and Greg Tubach of Lincoln – believe it’s inevitable that the state of Nebraska, and the other remaining dozen with marriage bans still intact, will be forced to grant marriage licenses to couples like them.
The Heartland Project delved into the legal, social, political and very personal subject in a five-story package that ran in the Lincoln Journal Star this past Sunday. The package occupied most of the front page and jumped inside across two pages.
Same-Sex Marriage in Nebraska
Read complete coverage in the Lincoln Journal Star.
Any day now, a federal judge in Omaha will rule on whether he will let stand the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that was overwhelmingly ratified by voters in 2000. That same judge rejected the ban in 2005, although his ruling was set aside by the Eighth Circuit Court. It’s uncertain what will happen this time around, especially because of other developments nationally.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether marriage bans in four states are constitutional. The high court’s decision, expected in June, could be a landmark decision that settles the issue once and for all.
For both sides of the debate, it will be high legal drama.
But for couples like Roby and Tubach and the other gay and lesbian Nebraskans featured in the Journal Star package, that unfolding drama has real-life consequences about love, commitment, health, finances, family – and so many other issues that heterosexual couples take for granted.
The Lincoln Journal Star package was certainly timely. The package would be published when the legal wrangling over gay marriage seemed at a pivotal point.
But the package had been pitched many months before, not long after I arrived in Nebraska a year ago.
Sometimes, there’s what a friend called “an allergy” to certain stories, including ones on LGBT communities, that some editors might consider agenda-driven. My agenda has never been about advocacy, but about inclusion. It’s about covering communities in their entirety – communities of color, the poor (regardless of color) and LGBT people, all among them.
For the Journal Star package, I originally pitched a package of nearly a dozen stories, all green lighted by City Editor Todd Henrichs.
I had hoped to get the entire month of February to report and write the stories for a March publication. But that would not be the case. The stories needed to be published by the end of February, during the year-long arc of the Ford Foundation grant that made The Heartland Project possible.
That meant limited time to execute the package: I had just 10 days to report and write the stories. It meant I had to pare down the number of stories. But the package was no less ambitious.
I wrote a leadoff story with a sweep, encompassing the national story while anchoring the package with voices from Nebraska. I didn’t want the package to be overly focused on policy, politics, statistics and courtroom clashes. It had to be imprinted with Nebraskan faces – from both sides of the debate – who had the most to gain or the most to lose.
I featured several same-sex couples in the stories, including a stand-alone story on Roby and Tubach, who have been partners for 28 years and who, like other couples, say they will marry when it is legal to do so in their home state of Nebraska.
Of course, we also let the other side have its say.
I did the requisite story on shifting public opinion. A 2013 UNL study suggests that there could now more Nebraskans who would allow same-sex couples to marry than there are who oppose doing so.
But I also wanted to look at the story from unique angles.
I had proposed at least two very unique stories, but only had time to complete one, focusing on how Native Americans revered tribal members who were born with “two spirits” – that of man and woman.
I learned about the notion of two spirits while preparing to pitch an earlier story on the role of spirituality in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I was intrigued by the fact that gays and lesbians in Native America, before the white man conquered the North American frontier, accepted members of “two spirits” – not shunned as they are by some westernized tribal members.
Another story I hoped to produce centered on gay, lesbian or transgender refugees who, in the relative safety of the United States, found the confidence to be who they were meant to be. They would never have considered coming out in their homelands because of the potential risks to their lives.
Of the five stories that ran Sunday, I reported and wrote four of them. The fifth story was reported and drafted by UNL journalism student Mike Shoro, who is also an intern at the Journal Star.
Shoro was ambitious and he asked to tackle a story on politics and policy. It was a tough story that even a veteran journalist would find challenging in a short amount of time. Shoro had to juggle his Heartland Project assignment with his schoolwork and internship.
He managed to pull together information on the state of LGBT rights in Nebraska politics – including the unique position the state’s newly elected governor, Pete Ricketts, finds himself in. His sister is openly lesbian and is a vocal advocate for LGBT rights. Gov. Ricketts, considered by some as a potential rising star within the national Republican Party, has said he opposes the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Time will tell how Ricketts responds to the demands by LGBT communities and their allies for expanding rights and protections against discrimination.