Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

In a long public career, Allan Spear was a tireless advocate for LGBT community

Allan Spear

Allan Henry Spear was the first openly gay man in the United States to serve as a state legislator. In 1993, he won a twenty-year fight to include the LGBT community in Minnesota’s Human Rights Act. He served as president of the Minnesota Senate for nearly a decade, taught history at the University of Minnesota for thirty-five years, and was a lifelong lover of travel, food, music, and literature.

When Spear was launching his twenty-eight-year career as a Minnesota senator and beginning to come out as gay in 1972, he already had a lifetime of experiences behind him. Born to Esther and Irving Spear on June 24, 1937, in Michigan City, Indiana, he went on to participate in some of the most tumultuous events in American history.

As a white, Midwestern Jewish man, Spear may have seemed an unlikely civil rights activist and scholar of African American history. But he became directly involved in the American Civil Rights Movement at a young age. In 1955, when he was eighteen, he visited a friend in Mississippi. While he was there, another teenager visiting from the north, Emmett Till, was brutally kidnapped and killed in an infamous incident of racist violence.

Till’s murder left a lasting impression on Spear. While enrolled at Oberlin College, he was an officer in its NAACP campus branch and spent a semester at historically black Fisk University. After studying at Harvard Law School for a year in 1958, he earned his MA and PhD at Yale. In 1964, at the age of twenty seven, he took a position teaching in the History Department of the University of Minnesota and moved to Minneapolis.

Spear later admitted that he started to realize he was “different” from his friends at about age twelve and began privately discussing his homosexuality with a sympathetic friend at age nineteen. He did not begin coming out, however, until 1972. This happened to be months before he ran for, and was first elected to, the Minnesota Senate. Spear publicly revealed his homosexuality two years later in an interview with the Minneapolis Star newspaper and became the first openly gay Minnesota legislator.

After he came out, Spear endured political attacks from gay activists who found his approach lacking in defiance and aggression. In 1982, he uprooted his home to avoid running against a longtime ally after major redistricting. He represented Hennepin County districts fifty-seven (1973–1983), fifty-nine (1983–1992), and sixty (1993–2000) as a member of the Democratic Farmer–Labor Party before retiring in 2000.

Spear’s tenure was defined by hard-earned respect and slow progress. His first draft of a gay rights bill failed to pass in 1975, but Spear was undeterred. He tried again in 1977, introduced a gay and lesbian human rights bill with Representative Karen Clark in 1981, and added protections for transgender people to the proposed legislation in 1991. It was not until 1993 that Spear succeeded in amending Minnesota’s Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

While his work on queer and human rights may be the centerpiece of his career, Spear was determined not to be a single-issue senator. He became known for his work in judicial reform and was the first non-lawyer chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, serving from 1983 to 1992.

Spear also focused on criminal justice and corrections reform, becoming the chair of the Crime Prevention Committee in 1993. Most notably, he served as president of the Minnesota Senate from 1993 to 2000 and earned a reputation as a fair leader who could work with both parties.

In his personal life, Spear was deeply involved in his community and in social service. After he retired, Governor Jesse Ventura appointed him to the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. He also served on the boards of the OutFront Minnesota political action committee, the Schubert Club, and the Shir Tikvah Synagogue.

In the early 1980s, Spear found the love of his life, Junjiro Tsuji. They shared a passion for travel, cooking, and entertaining and remained together for the rest of Spear’s life.

Spear passed away in a hospital from heart-surgery complications on October 11, 2008. His memorial service was held on November 23, at Temple Israel in Minneapolis.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Jon Butler on 06/05/2017 - 11:33 am.

    Allan Spear as a teacher and historian

    Allan also was a fabulous teacher and superb historian. I served as a teaching assistant for him in the later 1960s when he taught 400+ students in the U.S. history survey course at the University. His lectures were models of concision, sophistication, and engagement. Students loved them, and we graduate students took them as models. His 1967 book, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto (Univ of Chicago Press), is still cited as a major work on the development of early twentieth-century northern black ghettos formed by the mass migration of southern blacks. In short, he almost instantly became a major figure in the world of American historical scholarship, previewing his subsequent importance in Minnesota politics and LBGTQ activism.

    Jon Butler

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/05/2017 - 02:38 pm.

    And he was a leader on the left, not just for LGBT issues. Forward-looking bold, able to work with officials from both parties, and a brilliant legislator.

  3. Submitted by Kim Munholland on 06/05/2017 - 04:20 pm.

    Allan Spear

    What is not mentioned is that Allan was a gourmet class cook. Allan and I arrived at the U of Mn at about the same time. He in 1964, I came in 1963. We quickly noticed that we were in a place where the cuisine was all white (it has greatly changed since then): white cod, white fish, white mashed potatoes, white bread–and hold the spices. So we formed a kind of informal dining group where we would be hosted each weekend by other colleagues who prepared meals from the pages of Julia Child. Allan would always add something a bit difference from Julia’s. When Allan decided to venture into politics, I came up with one of the most abstract, obscure campaign badges you could imagine (4 spear–a stick with a sharp point) which Allan politely thanked me but did not use in his campaign. No doubt this was a factor in his failure first time around in 1972, but shedding well-meaning but useless advice from friends, he won on the second attempt.

  4. Submitted by bea sinna on 06/05/2017 - 05:04 pm.

    He was the best teacher I had st the U of M- I had a lot of teachers in 6 years as undergrad and then in grad school. He commanded students to think rather than read and repeat. Tiny but mighty.

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