Brian Coyle became the first openly gay person to be elected to the Minneapolis City Council in 1983. In April 1991, he was one of the first public officials in the country to announce that he was HIV-positive.
Brian John Coyle was born in Great Falls, Montana, on June 25, 1944, to Bernard “Sparky” and Georgia (Stenersen) Coyle. He grew up in Moorhead, Minnesota, in a politically conservative family and was a member of “125 Teenagers for Nixon” in high school.
After graduating from Moorhead High School in 1961, Coyle moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota, where he became politically liberal. He joined the left-wing student activist organization Students for a Democratic Society, joined the Young Democrats, protested the Vietnam War, organized the campus’s first teach-in on the Vietnam War, was involved in the Free University movement, was a senator in the student government, and wrote for the University of Minnesota’s student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1967, Coyle moved back to Moorhead to teach humanities at Moorhead State College. The college declined to renew his contract after one year due to his anti-war stance, upsetting many students. A grand jury indicted Coyle twice for evading the draft but acquitted him both times as a conscientious objector. He then moved back to Minneapolis, where he worked as a counselor at the Twin Cities Draft Information Center from 1969 to 1971. In 1970, Coyle co-founded the underground newspaper Hundred Flowers. The newspaper supported feminists, the LGBT community, anti-racism, and anti-war organizing. Coyle publicly came out as gay in the issue published on June 25, 1971.
Coyle spent the 1970s involved in anti-Vietnam War activism and local community organization before shifting his focus to becoming a politician. In 1978 he ran as a public-interest independent candidate for the US Senate but lost to Rudy Boschwitz. He next ran unsuccessful campaigns for mayor of Minneapolis in 1979 and for the sixth ward of Minneapolis’s city council in 1981. Coyle was not deterred and won his campaign for the sixth ward in 1983, becoming the first openly gay member of the city council. His campaign platform included affordable housing, renters’ rights, crime prevention, fair taxes, jobs and community development, and human rights for all.
During his almost eight years on the city council, Coyle focused on affordable housing, civil and human rights, transportation, the environment, and community development. He participated in multiple projects and committees, including the city council’s Transportation and Property Services Committee, the Minneapolis–St. Paul Family Housing Fund, the Urban Revitalization Action Program, the Project for Pride in Living, the Safety for Everyone Program, the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, and the American Indian Business Development Corporation. He was reelected in 1985 and 1989 and was selected vice president of the city council in 1990.
One of Coyle’s biggest achievements was the 1991 passage of Minneapolis’s Domestic Partners Ordinance, which allowed same-sex and different-sex couples to register as domestic partners. This allowed unmarried couples access to rights such as employer benefits and sick and bereavement leave if they worked for the city. He also helped Stevens Square become a National Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. He made hard choices, such as supporting city ordinances that banned “high-risk sexual conduct” establishments, which included gay bathhouses. His motivation for this was to protect the health of gay men during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, even though this decision angered some in the LGBTQ community.
On April 22, 1991, Coyle became one of the first public officials in the country to announce that he was HIV-positive. He had been diagnosed in 1986, but suspected that he had been exposed to the virus in 1981 or 1982. The announcement was followed by a television special on KSTP-TV, an article in the May issue of Minnesota Monthly, and the publication of excerpts from his personal journals. Only three months after announcing his status, however, Coyle grew so ill he had to be hospitalized. Friends and family cared for him at home, and he died there on August 23, 1991. In 1993, the Brian Coyle Community Center opened, and in 1996, a bronze bust of Coyle sculpted by Debborah Richert was unveiled at City Hall in Minneapolis.
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