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Over the rainbow: queer and trans history in Minnesota

Before settler-colonists came to present-day Minnesota, Indigenous people understood variations in gender and sexuality in the contexts of their own languages and lifeways.

A scene from the 2013 Ashley Rukes GLBT Pride Parade on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.
A scene from the 2013 Ashley Rukes GLBT Pride Parade on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

There have always been people in Minnesota, as in the rest of the world, who have lived outside perceived norms of gender and sexuality; the words used to name them have just changed over time. The LGBTQIA history of the North Star state, then, is also a history of language and tradition, and of the variations in gender and sexuality that have been (in)visible in different eras.

Indigenous identities

Before settler-colonists came to present-day Minnesota, Indigenous people understood variations in gender and sexuality in the contexts of their own languages and lifeways. As a result, the identities they claimed were culturally specific. For the many Native people who claim them today, they still are. Though they overlap in some ways with European American terms like gay and transgender, they are not equivalents of those words, and they exist on their own terms.

Dakota and Ojibwe traditions both make room for gender-non-normative and same-sex-oriented people, and they support identities that combine gender identity with sexual orientation. Historically, Dakota men who took on women’s roles were called wiŋkte or wiŋkta, an abbreviation of wiŋyanktehca (ones who act like women). Their ability to blend masculinity and femininity made them wakan — sacred — in the eyes of their relatives. Wiŋkte performed special spiritual and ceremonial work, for which they received respect. Many served their communities as warriors and through prayer, prophecy and naming children. A similar identity existed among the Ho-Chunk, a related nation with later ties to Minnesota.

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Ojibwe ikwekaazowag (ones who endeavor to act like women) and ininiikaazowag (ones who endeavor to act like men) had same-sex spouses and, like wiŋkte, were considered sacred. Related Ojibwe words include ogichidaakwe (warrior woman) and agokwa (sometimes translated man-woman; also spelled ayaakwe). An agokwa named Ozaawindib (Yellow Head) wielded military and political power as a leader of the Cass Lake Ojibwe in the early 1800s.

Ozaawindib led Ojibwe warriors in battle but also negotiated during periods of conflict. She had multiple husbands, including a man named Wenji-dotagaan, and she guided Henry Schoolcraft’s expedition to the source of the Mississippi River in 1832. Her legacy is written into Minnesota place names, including Ozaawindibe-Zaaga’igan (Ozaawindib Lake, also known as Lake Plantagenet) and Ozaawindibe-Ziibi (the Ozaawindib River, also known as the Schoolcraft River).

(Native people did not use the English phrase Two-Spirit, an umbrella term inspired by traditional identities that crosses boundaries of culture and nation, until the 1990s. See “Queer and Trans Futures,” below.)

(In)Visible deviance: 1858-1920

As settler-colonists moved into Minnesota Territory in the 1850s, their rigidly binary thinking displaced Indigenous sex and gender systems. They expected people recognized as male at birth to be men, as well as masculine; they expected people labeled female at birth to be women, as well as feminine. Men, meanwhile, were supposed to have sex only with women, and vice versa. But in spite of these expectations, for much of the 19th century, settler-colonists assigned few labels to people who transgressed their norms. The modern concepts of gender identity and sexual orientation did not yet exist, so the gender of your romantic partners did not mark you as a “type” of person (straight or gay or bisexual). Neither did the relationship of your assigned sex to your understanding of your gender (transgender or cisgender).

Because of this lack of identity labels, it can be hard to find the forerunners of LGBTQIA Minnesotans in the written record. Between 1858 and 1920, however, people who might identify today as trans, queer and/or intersex are visible in the surviving letters, memoirs, newspaper articles and court records that describe their behavior without labeling their identities.

One crucial incident in trans American history unfolded in Meeker County in 1858, the same year in which Minnesota became a state. During a trial held in the farming colony of Forest City, 7 miles outside of Litchfield, a judge considered the case of Joseph Israel Lobdell, a homesteader accused by the Meeker County attorney of “impersonating a man.” Lobdell had been assigned a female sex at birth but had presented himself as a man since 1854. The judge ruled in Lobdell’s favor and cleared him of the criminal charge, pointing out that ancient laws (including the Code of Justinian) had granted women the right to dress as men.

After the Lobdell trial, gender variance in Minnesota was visible during the Civil War, when some women presented themselves as men in order to fight with the Union Army. Some seized the opportunity to express their masculinity; others wanted to act on their patriotism or to follow family members into battle. Frances Clayton enlisted at St. Paul in 1862 and reportedly fought in 18 battles, including the Battle of Shiloh. Mary McDonald of Sibley County signed up to be an orderly in a regiment of mounted rangers at Fort Snelling in 1862. And Mary W. Dennis, after growing up in Stillwater, joined the Second Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1863.

Minnesotans like Clayton, McDonald and Dennis endured public scrutiny, publicity and sometimes invasions of privacy for their gender presentation in the 1860s. But they did not face legal challenges or criminal charges, as Lobdell had. That window of freedom narrowed in the decades after the Civil War, when doctors and psychiatrists created a field called sexology — the scientific study of sex. Sexologists in Europe and then the U.S. published studies that linked criminal behavior with sex(ual) and gender variance, leading authorities to police people seen as outside the norm.

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Minneapolis entered the fray in 1877 when it adopted an ordinance criminalizing cross dressing. This regulation threatened gender-variant people with punishment, but it also made them more visible in the media. In November and December of 1880, Minnesota newspapers followed the case of Leon A. Belmont, a medical student assigned a female sex at birth and accused of “falsely” presenting himself as a man while carrying on romances with two different women in Minneapolis (he married a third woman in Isanti County in 1881). A similar episode played out in St. Paul in 1885 when newspapers reported on Cecelia Regina Gonzaga, an African American assigned a male sex at birth who’d been arrested by police for walking on the city’s streets dressed as a woman.

Articles about Belmont and Gonzaga raised the possibility that they were hermaphrodites — an often offensive word used at the time to describe people who might identify today as intersex (not typed as solely male or female in their genitalia, gonads, and/or genes). Like the queer and trans stories with which it intersects, intersex history in this period often involved prejudice and could lead to “corrective” surgery. In 1889, at a farm outside Newport in Washington County, a relief agent discovered a Polish immigrant family abusing a 9-year-old child “of neither sex.” The agent intervened and, according to the St. Paul Globe, took the child to a hospital for “an operation…in hopes of bettering its condition.”

Since sodomy was illegal in Minnesota throughout the 1800s, some of the men who had sex with men in this period appear in the written record in court documents. Not every sodomy case points to a real sexual act — some plaintiffs undoubtedly made up stories in order to attack their enemies — but the frequency of the charge shows that Minnesotan men thought of same-sex intercourse as, at least, a viable possibility. Police and the courts processed sodomy cases in, for example, Clay County in 1878; Olmsted County in 1880; Washington County in 1887; Ramsey County in 1883, 1887 and 1889; Dakota County in 1902; and Beltrami County in 1912 and 1913. In the 1889 Ramsey County case, the accused was a Chinese immigrant who operated a laundry business in St. Paul. Newspapers gave special attention to stories that paired sex with alleged violent crime, like the 1905 murder of Johnny Keller by William Williams.

Evidence of women who had sex with women in Minnesota before 1920 is less explicit, but still plentiful. State laws did not identify such sex acts as crimes, and some men did not think of them as sex at all. But in the absence of social scrutiny, women still formed bonds with one another that involved romance, intimacy and sexual fulfillment. These romantic partnerships could last for decades and lead to joint households and co-parenting. Library director Gratia Alta Countryman, for example, lived in Minneapolis with her partner, Marie Todd, for 38 years, beginning in 1902, and the two women raised a son together. While living in Faribault as the wife (and later widow) of the Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota between 1896 and 1910, Evangeline Simpson Whipple wrote letters to her former lover, Rose Cleveland, with whom she eventually reunited. Botanist Eloise Butler and University of Minnesota doctor Ruth Boynton, both of Minneapolis, also had romantic partnerships with women at different stages of their lives.

Naming identities, building communities: 1920-1968

Beginning in about 1920, Minnesotans and other Americans began to think of a person’s choice of sexual partners as evidence of an identity that could be named. It happened as sexology filtered down to laypeople, who began using the words “homosexual,” “heterosexual” and “lesbian.” This shared vocabulary provided new ways for queer and trans people to find each other in the middle decades of the 20th century, and to build businesses, neighborhoods and groups based on affinity.

By the mid-1920s, the population density of the Twin Cities supported bars, theaters, transit stations and other public spaces in which queer people could gather. Men seeking sex with other men met at the Hennepin Baths in Minneapolis as early as 1925, and then at bars like the Onyx and the Dugout in the 1930s. In St. Paul, queer men and some women congregated at the Garrick Theater, Bremer Arcade, Coney Island Cafe, Kirmser’s Bar, and the Union Bus Depot. Bars catering more exclusively to women followed in the 1950s, including the Holland Bar and the Jitterbug Inn in Minneapolis and Honey’s Barn in Shoreview, run by community icon Honey Harold. Since many white businesspeople discriminated against customers of color, queer African Americans created spaces of their own — especially parties hosted in private homes in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood.

As urban communities grew, new opportunities for same-sex relationships and gender variance also arose in rural Minnesota. The state’s core industries of milling, mining and logging brought together scores of young men, often outside of cities, and confined them in close quarters away from women. These same-sex settings developed unique dynamics. At one logging camp in Koochiching County in the early 1920s, a man in charge of cooking meals routinely wore a dress, an apron and makeup. The camp’s foreman matter-of-factly described him without objection as “a man who wears women’s clothing.” During the same period, a cook working for the Virginia-Rainy Lake Company in St. Louis County dressed sometimes as a man and sometimes as a woman, again without incident.

In similar work settings in Minnesota — the U.S. Army and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), for example —gender variance and same-sex activity were also not uncommon. In the 1930s, two members of Company 716 at a CCC camp near Tofte (Cook County) appeared in a recreation hall in drag, prompting their co-workers to suggest putting on a drag-based musical show. At Fort Snelling during World War II, men admired attractive new recruits so openly that the post’s induction center became known as a “seduction station.” Others, like conservationist Ernest Oberholtzer, pursued lives outside the norm by creating spaces for themselves. Oberholtzer moved to an island in Rainy Lake in 1922 to pursue a life of self-sufficiency and might have identified as queer, asexual or a combination of the two if he had lived in the 21st century.

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The concept of sexual orientation empowered people to find each other. At the same time, however, it enabled society to segregate, discipline and punish the people it had just named. Officials at prisons and reform schools singled out women for extra surveillance when they expressed masculinity or had sexual relationships with each other. In spite of this opposition, prisoners built networks of love and resistance that spanned decades. At the State Reformatory for Women in Shakopee in 1935, staff punished Marie Carey for sending notes to her girlfriend and diagnosed her with a “split personality.” She attempted to escape with another prisoner, Mildred Strain, whom staff had identified as a “sexual pervert.” Beginning in 1941, Strain had a relationship with Edna Larrabee and gave her a gold watch in defiance of prison policy. Larrabee, in turn, earned the disapproval of the prison superintendent and the label “psychopathic deviate” [sic]. She and Beulah Brunelle (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) escaped from Shakopee together in 1949 and lived as a married couple.

“Transsexual,” a forerunner of the word “transgender,” entered widespread use in the 1950s. Used to describe a person who altered their sex characteristics to align with their gender identity, the word offered some gender-nonconforming people a new way to name themselves. The University of Minnesota, meanwhile, emerged in the 1960s as a center of trans medicine. The school’s Transsexual Research Project, launched by Dr. Donald W. Hastings in 1966, followed trans women as they prepared for sex-reassignment surgery (later called gender-confirmation or -affirmation surgery) and gathered data to improve medical treatment. The project empowered many people, like the sisters Lenette and Lauraine Lee, to start new lives. But it was not without its failings. Decades later, participants remembered painful surgical complications and called out Hastings for disrespecting his trans patients.

Gay liberation and HIV/AIDS, 1969-1994

Historians of sexuality credit multiple events — among them the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco (1966), protests at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles (1967), and uprisings at New York City’s Stonewall Inn (1969) — with ushering in an era of gay liberation in the United States. The movement, which attracted mainstream attention in the 1970s, built on the work of organizers who had been active since the 1950s. Many of them embraced the word “gay” and rejected the more clinical-sounding “homosexual” as a relic of the past. They drew inspiration from other 1960s social movements, including the American Indian Movement, women’s liberation, El Movimiento and Black Power, that aimed to uplift marginalized people through political protest.

In Minnesota, a turning point arrived on May 18, 1969, when University of Minnesota graduate students Koreen Phelps and Stephen Ihrig founded Fight Repression of Erotic Expression (FREE) in Minneapolis. It was the first gay rights organization in the state. For three years, the group hosted dances, presented lectures, organized police trainings and published a newsletter in order to “change the laws, attitudes, and prejudices of uptight, upright heterosexual America.” Students of Carleton College in Northfield brought attention to the movement in the same year by founding the Northfield Gay Liberation Front. Even the phrase “gay pride” caught on in part because of a Minnesotan: Thom Higgins, the writer and FREE activist who later protested anti-gay campaigner Anita Bryant by throwing a pie in her face.

Two events put Minnesota at the center of a national conversation about gay rights in the early 1970s. FREE’s president, Jack Baker, departed from other gay liberationists (including many in FREE) by prioritizing marriage as a political issue. When he applied for a marriage license with his boyfriend, Michael McConnell, in 1970, Hennepin County denied the couple’s application. Their subsequent lawsuit led to the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case Baker v. Nelson, which denied the couple’s constitutional right to marry. State Sen. Allan Spear attracted additional national attention in 1974 when he identified himself as gay in an interview with the Minneapolis Star. The announcement made him the first openly gay person to serve in a state legislature in the U.S.

Alongside Baker’s activism and Spear’s coming out, Minnesota organizations established in the 1970s brought gay and lesbian issues into state politics. The Minnesota Committee for Gay Rights (MCGR), founded by Steven Endean and Jean-Nickolaus Tretter in Minneapolis, lobbied local businesses for support and pressured politicians to reveal their stances on gay issues. In the social services sector, Gay Community Services and the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council (GLCAC) tackled similar advocacy issues while coordinating education, counseling and outreach. GLCAC’s 1988 community needs assessment Out and Counted: A Survey of the Twin Cities Lesbian and Gay Community (also known as the Northstar survey) provided crucial data about the needs of constituents in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

At the same time political organizers were agitating for gay liberation, distinctly Minnesotan gay, lesbian and trans cultures were emerging in bookstores, newspapers, libraries, theaters and resource centers across the Twin Cities. Among them were Amazon Bookstore (founded in 1970 and fondly satirized as Madwimmin Books in Alison Bechdel’s comic “Dykes to Watch Out For”); the Lesbian Resource Center (1972); At the Foot of the Mountain Theater (1976); Northland Companion/Positively Gay (1978), which evolved into the GLC Voice (1979); A Brother’s Touch (1983); Quatrefoil (1986); and Patrick’s Cabaret (1986). Organizers put on the first Twin Cities Pride celebration in 1972, and similar annual events emerged over the next several decades in Duluth-Superior, Rochester, Fargo-Moorhead, Golden Valley, Mankato, Brainerd and Pine City.

The cultural outpouring wasn’t limited to cities. Lesbian feminists, for example, started communal farms in rural areas (e.g., Aitkin County’s Rising Moon) that brought together women from across the Midwest. The bear subculture, meanwhile, built on traditions of male-male intimacy in rural environments like logging camps to celebrate the rugged attractiveness of hairy, working-class, often large men. In parallel, the radical faeries movement found a foothold in Minnesota when queer men established Kawashaway Sanctuary in the north woods.

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Progress toward liberation, however, was not unbroken. When Minneapolis resident Bruce Brockway started feeling sick in the summer of 1981, he could tell it was more than a run-of-the-mill illness. Brockway, who had founded Positively Gay and organized a task force to settle gay Cuban refugees in Minnesota, had just heard about a mysterious new disease affecting men who had sex with men in cities like New York and San Francisco. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) named the affliction Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome — AIDS — a year later, and identified its cause as a virus that attacked the human immune system, eventually named HIV.

A June 1982 diagnosis confirmed Brockway’s fears: He had the first documented case of HIV/AIDS in Minnesota. He responded by founding the Minnesota AIDS Project (MAP), a community organization that began serving HIV-positive Minnesotans. After he died in 1985, others continued his work, including doctors at the state’s HIV/AIDS clinic at St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center. Volunteers organized the first annual AIDS Trek bike-ride fundraiser through Greater Minnesota in 1986, and in 1989, members of ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) Minnesota protested in support of sex education at a high school in Mora (Kanabec County). Events that united Minnesotans in collective mourning, such as the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt Display (1988), brought moments of comfort in the midst of an epidemic that continued to devastate local communities through the mid-1990s. Among the thousands lost was Brian Coyle (1944–1991), the Moorhead-raised Minneapolis City Council member who had been one of the first public figures in the nation to share his HIV-positive diagnosis.

Queer and trans futures, 1994-present

Just as gay Baby Boomers had rejected the labels and orthodoxies of their elders in the 1970s, in the 1990s a new generation stepped forward to change the terms of the conversation about sex(ual) and gender variance. At the forefront of the new movement was the word “queer,” a once-derogatory slur now reclaimed by young people frustrated by the limits of “gay” and “lesbian.” It gained visibility in Minnesota in 1994, when Minneapolis organizers followed the lead of AIM Patrol and tasked on-the-street volunteers with protecting community members from police abuse. They called their team of peacekeepers Queer Street Patrol.

Queer organizers called attention to groups that the mainstream gay rights movement had failed to support in the 1970s and 1980s, especially because of racism. Queer Native Americans in particular struggled for recognition in a settler-colonial society that insisted on both whiteness and a rigid gender binary. In order to unite Native people representing diverse nations, languages, and gender traditions, one group in Winnipeg settled on the English phrase “two spirit” in 1990 to reflect the coexistence of male/masculine and female/feminine traits in their identities. The term caught on, and by the mid-1990s it was visible in the names of events, organizations, and publications across the US. Minnesota hosted the annual Two Spirit Gathering (a national outgrowth of a 1988 Minneapolis event) multiple times, including once in Onamia in 1997 and again in Sandstone in 2008. In 2005, when Minneapolis-based Yupik artist and activist Anguksuar (Richard LaFortune) started an organization to educate the media about Native gender identities and sexual orientations, he chose the name Two Spirit Press Room.

Another Minneapolis resident with whom the Two-Spirit concept resonated was Nicholas Metcalf (Cetaŋzi; Yellow Hawk), a Sicaŋgu Lakota student originally from South Dakota. Metcalf and a Korean American gay man named Edd Lee collaborated in 1998 to found Minnesota Men of Color, a nonprofit that delivered social services to queer and gender-non-conforming populations overlooked by majority-white LGBTQ providers. Across the river, in St. Paul, Phia Xiong and Xeng Lor set up Shades of Yellow (SOY) in 2003 to focus on the needs of queer Hmong Minnesotans.

Many Minnesotans addressing racial inequity worked to highlight the T and the B of LGBT at a time when white gays and lesbians were receiving the most attention. Bisexual trans people, who experience biphobia and transphobia at the same time, stood at the front of overlapping movements to center bisexuality and trans identity. The Bisexual Empowerment Conference, A Uniting Supportive Experience (BECAUSE) convened for the first time in Minneapolis in 1992. Organized by a coalition that included members of the Bisexual Connection, a potluck group for bi women active since about 1989, BECAUSE led to the creation in 1999 of the Bisexual Organizing Project (BOP) and intersected with the cable-access TV program BiCities.

The case of CeCe McDonald, an African American bi and trans woman who defended herself from a transphobic attack outside a Minneapolis bar in 2011, raised public awareness of the vulnerability of Black trans women in Minnesota. Recognizing the dangers of a trial, McDonald pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter in 2012, was sentenced to 41 months imprisonment, and served 19 months. When she was denied gender-affirming health care and held in a men’s prison, supporters instigated an advocacy campaign. McDonald herself became a trans-rights activist, working with public figures like Minnesotan poet/politician Andrea Jenkins. Jenkins, a former Minneapolis City Council policy aide, led the Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota’s Tretter collection between 2015 and 2018. In 2017, when voters elected her and Phillipe Cunningham to the Minneapolis City Council, they became the first two Black and trans people to hold public office in the U.S.

LGBTQIA Minnesotans and their allies mobilized in 2011 after a senate bill (SF 1308) added a marriage referendum to the 2012 election ballot. The referendum asked voters to respond “yes” or “no” to the question, “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?” The proposed measure became known as Minnesota Amendment 1. Critics included state representatives Scott Dibble and Karen Clark, a political veteran who in 1993 had succeeded alongside Allan Spear in amending the Minnesota Human Rights Act to protect gender identity and sexual orientation. In part because of Dibble’s and Clark’s advocacy and that of Minnesotans United for All Families (a joint effort of Project 515 and Outfront Minnesota), a majority of voters voted “no” in 2012, and Minnesota became the first and only state to reject a “same-sex marriage” ban through the will of voters rather than a court ruling. In 2013, the Legislature approved, and the governor signed, a bill that extended the right to marry to same-sex couples.

At the start of the 2020s, queer and trans Minnesota youth carried on the work of their elders by rejecting existing language and embracing a more inclusive vocabulary. They called attention to overlooked dimensions of sex(ual) and gender variance by popularizing the words pansexual, nonbinary, gender fluid, polysexual and aromantic. And they consistently connected gender and sexuality with race, recognizing a need for solidarity with movements like Black Lives Matter. At a Lyon County school board meeting in 2020, for example, young people defended the school’s hanging of a rainbow flag with trans-positive and anti-racist stripes in the cafeteria of Marshall Middle School. And in Sherburne County in 2021, students walked out of Becker High School in order to protest racism and homophobia alongside other teens across the state.

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