Remembering Minnesota’s GLBT Human Rights Act Amendment 15 Years Later

Fifteen years ago, Minnesota passed the first GLBT civil rights laws to include full legal protection for transgender people, as well as gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons. Minnesota’s comprehensive law protects GLBT individuals—and those perceived to be GLBT—from discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, public services, education, credit, and business contracting.

The campaign to pass this legislation transformed progressive and GLBT organizing, as well as, indeed, daily life for many Minnesotans. It was the culmination of 20 years of struggle.

In the early 1970’s, Minneapolis and St. Paul amended city ordinances to prohibit discrimination against gay men and lesbians. Parallel attempts in the State Legislature stalled, however. In 1978, local followers of right-wing activist Anita Bryant successfully repealed the St. Paul ordinance by referendum.

What followed, former State Senator Allan Spear recalls, were “lean years.”

Spear was the first openly gay state legislator in Minnesota (and one of the first in the country) when he came out in 1974. He was joined by Representative Karen Clark, the first (and still only) out lesbian legislator in Minnesota, who was elected in 1980. The two Minneapolis DFLers dutifully would propose statewide protection each year, to no avail. St. Paul stood in the way.

“If it can’t pass in St. Paul, what interest does a rural legislator have in it?” as Spear puts it.

Furthermore, discrimination faced by GLBT Minnesotans, particularly in Greater Minnesota, largely went unreported.

“We would hear legislators say, ‘I don’t think there’s much of a problem out there,’” Spear remembers. “Well, of course they weren’t hearing anything. People were in the closet. When they were experiencing discrimination and harassment, they certainly weren’t going to go tell the Legislature!”

Then, in 1989, St. Paul again amended its ordinance to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 1991, as in 1978, conservative activists attempted to repeal the protection by referendum. This time, however, voters overwhelmingly favored the civil rights legislation.

At the same time, then-Governor Rudy Perpich created a Commission on Gay and Lesbian Minnesotans. By this time, a number of states, beginning with neighboring Wisconsin in 1982, had passed some form of protection. The commission recommended similar legislation for Minnesota, but it again failed in the Legislature. When Independent-Republican Arne Carlson was elected Governor in 1990, he appointed a second commission.

Gerry Sell, who served on both commissions, describes Carlson’s surprise at previous failures: “His response was, ‘You mean this hasn’t passed yet? I voted for this 17 years ago when I was in the Legislature!’”

The second commission toured the state, holding deeply moving public and private listening sessions on the lived experiences of GLBT Minnesotans.

At this moment, organizers from the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council (which later became OutFront Minnesota) and the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action saw their opportunity to act. Their campaign, “It’s Time Minnesota,” mobilized unprecedented numbers of GLBT and allied constituencies throughout the state.

According to Alexa Bradley, who cochaired “It’s Time Minnesota,” “People went all over. We went to rural gay softball leagues, to labor unions, to women’s organizations—anyone we could think of that we thought might possibly be allies.”

The “It’s Time Minnesota” slogan caught on, and the campaign found allies, including many mainstream faith and business groups that hadn’t supported earlier efforts. The person-to-person, grassroots lobbying effort began showing encouraging signs among legislators.

Clark relates that then-Representative Leo Reding, a moderate-to-conservative DFLer from Austin, asked her, “Hey, Karen, are you going to do that gay rights bill again this year?” She answered, “Yes, Leo, I am,” thinking, “Oh, God, here it comes.” Reding replied, “Good, because I want to be a coauthor with you.”

Reding explained to Clark that constituents and longtime friends had invited him to a meeting of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Hearing the experiences of people he knew helped change his mind.

On March 18, 1993, both houses—first the Senate, then the House—took up the bill. Though they had pulled out all the stops, supporters were still far from confident they had the votes. But more unexpected allies emerged. That morning, then-Senator Dean Johnson of Willmar, Republican Minority Leader at the time, took the floor.

Campaign organizer and now-State Senator Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), recounts, “Dean gave a very moving speech about his principles as a minister, as a member of the armed forces. He ended up getting bounced out of his leadership position, and ultimately left the GOP caucus for his support for civil rights. We have a real hero in Dean Johnson.”

As the bill triumphantly passed the Senate, then the House, Steve Endean sat watching in the gallery. He had helped begin organizing efforts in Minnesota in the mid-1970s, and long since had moved to Washington, DC, where he helped organize what would become the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign.

“Steve was dying of AIDS, but he was determined to see this,” Spear relates. “He came out from Washington. He watched this. After, he said, ‘We finally have a gay rights bill in Minnesota. I can die happy now.’”

Clark and Spear—the only two out legislators in Minnesota at the time—emerged from the House chamber in an ecstatic embrace.

“Somebody said to me later, ‘If I saw you and Karen hugging and kissing each other any more, I would’ve doubted the sexual orientation of both of you!’” Spear shares.

Bucking his own party, Carlson promptly signed the bill into law, citing a commitment to human rights above all.

“I think overall, there’s a reluctance of political leadership to properly and effectively deal with the issue,” Carlson says. “That’s unfortunate, because your first loyalty and your only loyalty is to the fundamental underpinnings of democratic society.”

Of course, when it comes to civil rights, not all Republican Governors are created equal. Current Governor Tim Pawlenty, who supported the bill as a legislator, later, in 2001, called the vote “one I would take back.”

Indeed, the past 15 years have seen regular efforts to repeal the bill in part or in full.

“Opponents have failed only because of diligent grassroots activism,” Clark states. “People need to remember that legislators need to be reminded in positive ways that they have GLBT folks in their districts.”

“It’s Time Minnesota” changed progressive coalition and GLBT activism in Minnesota.

Campaign organizer Ann DeGroot, who recently stepped down after 20 years as OutFront Executive Director, comments, “One of the lasting legacies of that time is statewide travel. Not saying to people out state, ‘Here’s what you should do,’ but saying, ‘We all want this to pass. What do we need to do for this to work? What do you need to do?’”

The campaign also made history, as Minnesota was the first state to protect transgender people, as well as gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons.

Bradley points out that after a lot of soul-searching and self-education, “It’s Time Minnesota” emerged rock-solid in its support for trans-inclusion.

In Bradley’s words, “Certainly, in 1993, we were clear that if there was a version that excluded transgender people, there was no way in hell that the transgender bill would pass by itself. Really, the argument for our human rights is more complex than ‘we’re just like you.’ People shouldn’t have to be ‘just like’ anything to be treated with dignity. I don’t want to make advances by jettisoning people who don’t fit into that little story.”

Stacy M., a lesbian-identified transwoman who recently moved here from Maryland, is making this state part of her story.

“The first thing I really think of when I’m considering living someplace is that to check out the civil rights legislation,” Stacy remarks. “That gives me a general feel for what I can expect from the community regarding queer issues, and trans issues in particular. I got tired of waiting for Maryland to get it together.”

In Minnesota, Stacy doesn’t have to wait.

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