Tragically, most of us in the LGBT community — if not all of us — know all too well the acutely sharp sting and singularly painful feeling of betrayal that results from being rejected by a beloved family member. Most of those families, though, don’t include U.S. Representative and one-time presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. But that is the experience of one Helen LaFave, an unassuming Minnesota lesbian who happens to be related to one of the nation’s most notorious and outspoken homophobes. She almost never speaks with members of the media, but she recently opened up to New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. And her story is heartbreaking. From Bruni’s latest column, titled Bachmann Family Values:
THERE are many people who are hurt by Michele Bachmann’s divisive brand of politics, but perhaps none in quite the way that Helen LaFave is.
The two women once shared confidences. They’re family. Some 40 years ago, Michele’s mother married Helen’s father, and when Michele was in college, the house she returned to in the summer was the one where Helen, then finishing high school, lived. Helen craved that time together.
“I remember laughing with her a lot,” she told me in an interview on Thursday in her home here. She remembers Michele’s charisma and confidence, too. “I looked up to Michele.”
As the years passed they saw much less of each other, but when their paths crossed, at large family gatherings, there were always hugs. Helen was at Michele’s wedding to Marcus Bachmann and got to know him. And Michele got to know Nia, the woman who has been Helen’s partner for almost 25 years.
Helen never had a conversation about her sexual orientation with Michele and knew that Michele’s evangelical Christianity was deeply felt. Still she couldn’t believe it when, about a decade ago, Michele began to use her position as a state senator in Minnesota to call out gays and lesbians as sick and evil and to push for an amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would prohibit same-sex marriage: precisely the kind of amendment that Minnesotans will vote on in a referendum on Election Day.
“It felt so divorced from having known me, from having known somebody who’s gay,” said Helen, a soft-spoken woman with a gentle air. “I was just stunned.”
And while she never doubted that Michele was being true to her private convictions, she couldn’t comprehend Michele’s need to make those convictions so public, to put them in the foreground of her political career, and to drive a wedge into their family.
Helen told her stepsister Michele just how much pain her anti-gay campaign was causing her in a letter, which she sent at the end of November 2003. Bachmann never responded. But as Bachmann’s star ascended in evangelical circles, she did talk a lot about homosexuality. She called it “personal enslavement,” falsely alleged that gays and lesbians recruit children, and publicly described how painful it was to have a gay family member. Helen, Nia, and several supportive family members visited the Minnesota Senate chambers in 2006 on the day that Bachmann took to the floor to express support for a marriage discrimination amendment.
“I wasn’t looking to make a public statement,” she told me. “I just thought: I’m going to go there and sit there so she has to look at me. So she has to look at Nia. I wanted her to see: this is who you’re doing this to. It’s not some anonymous group of people. It’s not scary people. It’s me. It’s Nia.” She paused, because she’d begun to sob.
“I just wanted her to see me,” she said, “because it just feels, through the whole thing, like she hasn’t.”
Next month’s amendment vote, which LaFave calls her stepsister’s “very, very sad legacy,” is what prompted her to begin telling her story. Helen LaFave hopes to be able to marry her beloved Nia in Minnesota someday, but
if when that day comes, she won’t be inviting Bachmann to share in the celebration.
I asked if she would invite Michele to the ceremony.
She fell silent a few seconds, then shook her head. “I don’t think it would be a very good fit,” she said.