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Denny Smith, director of Winning Marriage Equality, is an advocate for marriage equality for same-sex couples. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

A change of heart for former coach leads to advocacy for the LGBT community

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news Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

MONTEVIDEO -- Denny Smith was a table-pounding teacher and coach in the mode of Vince Lombardi while with the Montevideo Schools from 1973 to 1978.

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"Those who know me from my coaching days say I wasn't always pleasant to be around,'' said Smith, laughing.

He still likes to emphasize a point with a fist on the table, but Smith was back in Montevideo this week with a spirited presentation on a topic he would never have raised back in the 1970s. He advocates marriage equality for same-sex couples.

"It's a civil rights issue,'' said Smith in a presentation Monday to a small gathering.

Smith is the founder, director and sole employee of Winning Marriage Equality, based in St. Cloud. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Smith said he had his own change of heart over LGBT issues and believes the country is moving in that direction too.

His change of heart came at home, when the oldest of his three sons was home from college and told him and his wife that he was gay and in a relationship. The Thanksgiving-time announcement in the mid-1990s came with both tears and joy. Smith said he and his wife welcomed their son's partner into their lives as family.

"We were OK until the legal shoe fell,'' said Smith.

Their son's partner was a student from the Philippines, and had to leave the country after graduation since he was not a U.S. citizen. Were the two able to marry, his son's partner would have become a U.S. citizen and the two would be living happily together today, Smith said.

Instead, they maintain a long-distance relationship. Smith said he and his wife are essentially denied the opportunity to have the entire family together.

He describes his son's ordeal in civil rights terms. He pointed out that many states banned interracial marriages in the United States until a black and white couple brought their plight to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. Had they not prevailed, the Virginia couple faced a year's sentence in prison, he noted.

Women didn't win the right to vote until 1920, and, of course, the black civil rights struggle has spanned many decades. James Meredith was the first black man to enroll at the University of Mississippi, but it required an armed escort of National Guardsmen to make it possible in 1967.

Gay couples face many of the same challenges today, according to Smith. He pointed to political rallies against same-sex marriages and the "defense of marriage act'' laws that define marriage as between a man and woman.

"The right of the minority should never be put to a vote of the majority,'' he said.

Despite these challenges, Smith said he is optimistic. More and more Americans are supporting equality for same-sex couples. "I'm convinced that support for same-sex marriages is growing by leaps and bounds,'' he said.

It's especially true amongst younger people, he said. "Young people today aren't really as hung up on this as us older folks.''

Smith is retired from a career that saw him as a teacher, and professional speaker, trainer and seminar leader. He returned to the classroom at age 55 and served as a math teacher and basketball coach at Tech High School in St. Cloud for 11 years before retiring in 2010.

He welcomes the opportunity to present seminars on LGBT equality, and hosts a website: http://www.wmenow.org

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