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Once an ally, University of Minnesota-Morris student now works for her own freedom to marry
Like many teenage girls, Naomi Wente once wrote out a list of the characteristics she sought in a spouse: intelligence, compassion, political involvement.
Looking back during an interview at the Common Cup coffeehouse in Morris, the U of M senior from Dodge Center, Minnesota, recalls that she never assigned a gender to that individual.
"Most of my friends wrote, "My husband will..." while I wrote, "The one I marry...," Wente said, as a smile flitted across her face. That smile frequently punctuated her remarks as she talked about marriage equality.
Now passionately engaged in the campaign to secure her own right to be able to marry, Wente first recognized her own affectional identity just over a year ago when she met up with friends in her graduating class in Triton High. As a high school student in a small, rural town, Wente was "involved in everything, you name it, and I was involved in it" she said, rattling of a list of sports, music, theater, and student organizations. Wente said “I lived in the kind of town were everyone knew everyone.”
Encouraged by her parents to be politically active while in high school, Wente rallied for immigrant rights, walked picket lines with union workers, and sought to provide Cambodian girls with access to safe sanitation and water. Like her family, she celebrates a solid Lutheran faith.
Wente continued her legacy in at Morris. In 2011, she was named a Newman Civic Fellow, after being nominated by the university chancellor as "best-of-the-best . . . promising college student leader." Wente had spearheaded efforts to bring local food to the Morris Campus and community, as well as being named president of the Pomme De Terre Food Co-op, a local nonprofit. In 2012, she was selected a Udall Scholar. She is also active in MPIRG, College Democrats and Equality (the LGBTQ student group).
But despite that record of achievement, as her friends sat in that post-high-school holiday break gathering, calling out the roll of who was what, where and how, she found herself flinching as her old friends grimaced when they announced that an acquaintance was gay or lesbian, proclaiming that these former classmates were going to hell.
That night, the ordinarily cheerful young woman cried as the realization--that she had refused to acknowledge during high school--dawned on her that she is attracted to women.
The next day, Wente traveled to Wisconsin to meet up with her family for Christmas. Surrounded by loved ones in a small church, she heard a powerful Christmas sermon about recalibrating one's life. At Christmas dinner later that night, her aunt stood up and gave a few words before the meal.
Wente recalls, “She looked us each in the eye, and told us that she loved us each for who we are—telling us that we need to tell one another that we love each other more.” The words took hold.
Shortly after Christmas, Wente traveled on a whim with her brother Jordan and two friends to Spain, where she was able to digest the realization that she was attracted to women. During this trip, she first came out to her brother, with whom she has always been close. Shortly thereafter, she e-mailed her mother.
"My mom read that, and wrote 'I think we have to have coffee,'" Wente said, laughing. Once Wente assured her parents, both college professors and UMM alumni, that she was certain of her identity, they supported her completely.
Before Naomi had left for Spain, she had been texting Grace Geier, a UM-Morris student from St. Louis Park and MPIRG student organizer. They continued to talk over Facebook once Wente went to Spain, a conversation which quickly evolved into flirting. Once Naomi arrived back in Morris for the semester, they started dating.
"At first my mom wondered whether this was too quick," Wente said, her eyes twinkling at the memories, "But I'm the sort of person --when I know something, I know. Once I was out of the closet, I was out!"
"Both our families are wonderful; we share Thanksgiving, Christmas, all the family things. Grace has 'two aunts' and they've been helpful for us, " Wente said.
Wente and Geier have rented a duplex beginning in June. "We're picking out the curtains, the rug, the furniture. It's fun being domestic," the student leader said.
For a moment, she grows somber. "As we plan and look ahead, there's always this barrier: we can't get married if we reach that step. It doesn't matter who we are, how much we give to our community. It just stops.'
Wente has never been one to accept barriers, but she feels that, for the first time, she has to fight for her own rights. "In the past, I was working as an ally for others: immigrants, union members, candidates," she reflects. "Now it's my own freedom to marry."
She hopes that her state representative, freshman Jay McNamar, remembers that pro-equality students at Morris and in the community put in countless hours to get him elected. "He told us after the election that we put him over the top," Wente said. "If he is here for us on marriage equality, we'll be there for him in 2014."
Back on campus on a snowy day, Wente brings a book to Geier in the student center. Like Wente, Geier has a ready smile, keenly intelligent eyes and clear fondness for her girlfriend. They pause for a photograph, then move on to the next step in their day.
At top: Grace Geier and Naomi Wente (Photo by Sally Jo Sorensen)
This original story is underwritten by a sponsorship by Minnesotans United for All Families.