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‘The Honor of a Lifetime’: OutFront Minnesota leader Monica Meyer is stepping down

After a 20-year career in which she oversaw historic strides in the LGBTQ+ rights movement, Meyer will leave as OutFront Minnesota’s executive director next month.

OutFront executive director Monica Meyer at the 2019 Twin Cities Pride parade.
OutFront Executive Director Monica Meyer at the 2019 Twin Cities Pride parade.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

In 2001, Monica Meyer joined OutFront Minnesota — the state’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organization — and in 2010 became executive director. Meyer recently announced she’ll be leaving OutFront next month, to be replaced with an interim director.

At the moment, all concerned are celebrating Meyer’s achievements as one of the state’s busiest and most visible human rights advocates over the past two decades. In her time at OutFront, Meyer oversaw historic strides in the LGBTQ+ movement, including:

  • In 2011, the co-founding of Minnesotans United for All Families with Project 515, which became the biggest grassroots movement in state history with 27,000 volunteers, 67,000 donors, and more than 700 coalition partners.
  • In 2012, Minnesota became the first state to defeat a constitutional amendment that sought to permanently limit the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.
  • In 2013, Minnesota became the 12th state to win marriage equality for same-sex couples.
  • In 2014, Minnesota passed the Safe and Supportive Schools Act, an anti-bullying piece of legislation that Meyer and state Sen. Scott Dibble worked on for 10 years. OutFront led the Safe School for All Coalition, a statewide group of more than 140 education, disability, youth, religious, LGBTQ+ and social services organizations which advocated for passage of the bill.
  • The same year, OutFront worked with other transgender justice organizations to pass a transgender inclusion policy through the Minnesota State High School League, and to create a toolkit for ensuring safe and supportive schools for transgender and gender-nonconforming students that was adopted by the Minnesota Department of Education in 2017.

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OutFront also worked to ensure that non-binary people’s driver’s licenses and birth certificates reflect their gender identity.

Meyer also established OutFront’s political action committee, which has endorsed hundreds of candidates who support a broad range of LGBTQ+ equality issues; started the annual Youth Summit for junior and senior high school students; and saw the creation of OutFront’s Gender & Sexuality Alliance Network, which includes 220 schools across the state.

MinnPost spoke with Meyer, who co-launched TakeAction Minnesota and who serves as board chair for the Equality Federation, about her journey with OutFront:

MinnPost: Great work and congratulations on your next chapter. I’ve never worked for you, but listening to you talk today and over the years has been very inspiring. I can imagine that you’re an inspiration to everyone you’ve worked with, from your colleagues, to the [OutFront] board, to the community. Have you felt as much?

Monica Meyer: Oh, I don’t know. Minnesotan trying to take a compliment here. I just actually feel really honored and humbled. I’ve been telling people I’ve been leaving, and it’s been really nice to reminisce and talk about the work we did together, and I’ve been able to actually share how much I’ve learned from so many people. I really just feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of so many giants.

MP: How does it feel to be stepping down?

MM: I love OutFront so much. I love the work so much that my heart is just so full about the experiences that I’ve been able to have at OutFront. I’ve been able to meet so many courageous people who just can’t not fight for justice. I can’t believe that I’ve been able to have these experiences for 20 years, and I’m so humbled and I’m so honored to have been able to really hold that space with so many incredible Minnesotans, whether it’s on the staff or the board or it’s been leaders in communities all over the state. To do that work has been really the honor of a lifetime.

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MP: And why now?

MM: It’s time. It’s time for me to go explore other opportunities for activism and organizing in the country and in the state. I’m going to keep doing work into looking at how we can bring more justice and love into this world. That’s the work I want to continue to do. I think for OutFront, it is so exciting to have someone come in who has new ideas, new passion, who’s going to ask new questions, and do new and different kinds of organizing around LGBTQ liberation. I’m excited to continue to cheer on OutFront as they keep doing the work of trying to change our world for the better.

MP: It’s interesting you say “It’s time,” and when you’re making a change, sometimes that’s all it is, and as a leader you’ve got to be the one to say it out loud — time for a change, and time for new leadership.

MM: It is. It’s just time. It’s time. And I really just want to tell people that this is the best job ever in a million ways, because you really do get to experience so much great hope. You get to experience so much hope, and so many incredible courageous acts of courage, bravery, every day. I’m just overwhelmed with the good fortune of being able to work with so many incredible people.

MP: You started at OutFront 20 years ago. Where were you, the movement, and OutFront then?

MM: Twenty years ago, we still had a lot of typewriters and just a few computers in our OutFront office (in the Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis). We had lists of people who were leaders and activists that were on paper. OutFront started in 1987, so we had years and years of organizing across the state, we had a really big victory in 1993 when we passed the [Minnesota] Human Rights Act, which is still one of the strongest non-discrimination laws for LGBTQ+ people in the country.

We were the first state to pass non-discrimination legislation that provided protections for transgender people, which is still a model because its protections [include] housing, employment, education, and public accommodations, and we spent years passing that, with bipartisan support, in 1993, and then spent years defending it, all the time actually, after it passed.

There’s so many stories behind that. Like, how did we do this? I mean, the majority of states, you can still be fired for being LGBTQ+; there’s no legal protections. That is before my time, but we really were able to pass that law and continue that work because OutFront was known as a statewide force; a network of leaders working for change.

I wanted to work at OutFront because I knew that was the legacy and I knew that that was how OutFront envisioned our state — that this is where you could figure out a way how to be as inclusive as possible, where everyone is in, that we’re doing this work together, that we know we’re only one organization and that, really at the heart of our work is all these individual people who are coming together to work and to fight and to dream for a better world.

MP: And your job was to expand that vision, right?

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MM: I came in as the policy director in 2001. And then I became the executive director in 2010, which is a really big year because that’s when we saw the writing on the wall that they were going to have a constitutional amendment to ban the Freedom to Marry Act for same-sex couples.

But the other thing that we had is we didn’t have any way for LGBTQ people to provide any kind of health care benefits for their partners, or their families. That was also significant work, so when I came in, one of the first issues that I worked on was organizing state employees to get domestic partner benefits.

LGBTQ+ people weren’t able for over a year to be able to provide health care benefits for their partners and their families. It was taken away actually, and it was one of the only times that I know about where the state Legislature opened up union-ratified contracts for state employees benefits, closed them back up and basically ripped away health care for LGBTQ families that work for the state.

And for me, what was significant was hearing so many people who came out to their co-workers during this campaign to get health care benefits for their families, and they were afraid to be out before that, and they felt like they really couldn’t be anymore.

So really, all the people just taking a big risk and coming out about who they are and then also working so hard … and there’s been a lot of heartbreak. We’ve lost a lot throughout the years and we’ve been able to celebrate. And I think the key is that you’re doing it with lots and lots and lots and lots of other people. We’re doing it in community, and when we’ve had some of our biggest defeats, we’ve had people crying together and comforting each other.

In 2012, when the Legislature passed the constitutional amendment and put it on the ballot, we were there together in that, in the Capitol. There were pizza boxes everywhere. It was hot, people were crying. And there were hundreds and hundreds of people there, and I just looked around and I was like, “We’re gonna take this on. I feel that we can do that because we get to do that with all these great champions who are gonna lead the way.” It was just incredible to be able to be in community through all of these wins and heartbreaks.

MP: What have been some other career highlights at OutFront?

MM: I think that we were able to actually keep the Human Rights Act intact, with such significant attacks, over and over again. These omnibus anti-LGBTQ bills that we’ve been able to ward off, and crush most of them. In the early 2000s, we were meanwhile fighting for just health care benefits for LGBTQ, state employees’ families; zero legal protections for our families, and then all of a sudden we’re hit with the constitutional amendment fight that at the time, Sen. Michele Bachmann brought forward.

And that was from 2004 to 2006, which is when the majority of the states in this country passed constitutional amendments that would have banned marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships, which was similar to the one that we were successfully able to fight back and crush, and that was because we had OutFront Lobby Days, where I thought, “Wow, we might have ,1000 people come to this,” and then 2,000 people showed up, and the next year 4,000 people showed up, and the next year it was 5,000.

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That’s how we were able to crush it, because Minnesotans said, “No! I can’t just sit by and let these few elected officials determine the future of our state and to set it on a course of being a state that is known for discrimination and known for marginalizing LGBTQ people.” Minnesotans really felt called to action to prevent discrimination. And that was people from all over the state.

MP: The Trump years and all their collateral damage had to be trying. What has it been like, battling that bolder mainstream attack on LGBTQ+ rights?

MM: As soon as Trump became president, he had people in his administration starting to undo any kind of protections that LGBTQ+ people had, and he tried to look at undoing everything that happened in President Obama’s administration. One of the first things President Obama did was he made it so that transgender people could get passports, and that was an administrative policy, and that was [undone], along with so much hateful rhetoric and actions coming from the Trump administration.

So of course it was disheartening and terrifying on a number of levels, with him calling out for people to target immigrants, calling out for people to target LGBTQ+ people, targeting Black people, targeting people of color, just trying to, as much as possible, to divide our country and to divide Minnesota for political gains.

I think that when people use division and try to marginalize people and say “These people over here, they should be discriminated against,” my rallying cry is to protect you from them, because there is so much damage done and there’s so much harm in our society.

Currently with the way that that’s playing out, we have over 80 bills right now in state legislatures across the country that target transgender youth.

And one thing I have noticed is that LGBTQ people, we are generally a target for discrimination. We are used to that, we know that that is what happens.

And it’s not OK, it’s never OK, but we also know that they do not define us, that we get to still organize, we get to be joined together and fight for what’s right, and we still get to dream and believe and work toward liberation.

What’s been remarkable to me in the last few years is seeing that the rallying cry has been to target and discriminate against youth. We have organizations and we have elected officials trying to put forward these policies that will send the message that it’s not OK to be transgender, that will increase discrimination, that will increase violence against transgender people, and they’re targeting youth —including with some bills in Minnesota.

MP: Over the last decade, you’ve overseen OutFront as a couple new generations of activists take the reins. They’ve been both praised and disparaged as being part of the so-called “woke” generations. What do you want people to know about the young people you’ve worked with?

MM: I am so inspired by the young leaders. I think one of the things that I love about OutFront is that we have been organizing in high schools and middle schools and working with young people now for quite a while. They have so much great passion and leadership, and we get to really connect them so that they can really work to change our state. We work with over 220 gender and sexuality alliances across the state, and I am just so inspired by what the youth in our movement bring to the fight. I’m excited about the questions they’re asking, I’m  excited about their curiosity and their courage, and I’m excited about how they have a passion that that just won’t quit.

MP: You and OutFront have always been a staple at Pride weekendWill you still show up to represent?

MM: Oh, yes. I love to go to Pride. I’ve been a part of OutFront for a couple decades now, and I’ll still be there, and I’ll still support the amazing work that OutFront will keep doing.

MP: You’ve been championed as a true leader and passionate advocate by so many of your colleagues. What advice would you give to the next executive director?

MM: I would just say, lead with your heart. And, I think, really cherish the incredible role that you get to play in being a part of this vibrant, beautiful movement for LGBTQ liberation. Soak it in, soak in all the incredible work that you get to do with these fierce leaders across the state, and keep organizing.