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Allan Spear’s legacies: Civil rights advocate for all, landmark protection for gays

Allan Spear
Courtesy of the U of M
Allan Spear

At the end of the day on April 3, 1993, state Sen. Allan Spear walked into the House chamber at the Capitol, found Rep. Karen Clark and gave her a long, sweet hug. And then …?

“We jumped for joy,” recalled Clark Sunday night.

Neither Spear nor Clark could believe it. After a day of emotionally draining speeches, both bodies of the Minnesota Legislature had passed a bill that expanded the state’s Civil Rights Act to include gays and lesbians. Without hesitation, Gov. Arne Carlson signed the bill.

After so many years, after so many failed attempts, the fight was finally over.

“It was one of those watershed moments,” said Clark. “The same bill had failed the year before. I don’t think people realized that 20 years of work had gone into that moment.”

Spear, who was first elected to the Senate from south Minneapolis in 1972 and had told Minnesotans he was gay via a newspaper interview in 1974, died Saturday night following complications from heart surgery on Thursday. He was 71. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

The man who retired in 2000 from the Senate (he was that body’s president) and from his post as a history professor at the University of Minnesota represented so much more than that single piece of legislation.

As civil rights advocate, he fought capital punishment
Over his 28 years in the Legislature, he was a fierce advocate of civil rights across all demographics. As longtime chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he successfully fought efforts to make Minnesota a capital punishment state. He constantly pushed the idea that every dollar spent on building prisons should be matched by equal funding for preventing crime.

Additionally, until his dying day, Spear was a source of strength for gay and lesbian public officials across the nation.

“I don’t think that people in Minnesota know what a giant he is nationally,” said state Sen. Scott Dibble, who is gay and saw Spear “as a friend, a mentor and a hero.”

There was a reason he was a giant: When he came out in 1974, there was only one other openly gay state legislator in the country.

The Minnesota Historical Society, as part of Minnesota’s Sesquicentennial celebration, named him as one of the 150 people and groups that helped shape the state. His life was featured in obituaries in the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press.

Spear taught African-American history courses at the University, after years of studying — and participating in — the black civil rights movement. (In the late 1950s, he took off a semester from studies at Oberlin College to attend a predominantly black college, Fisk.)

In an interview with an Oberlin Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender organization a few years ago, he acknowledged that his intense involvement in the black civil rights movement helped him to understand his own sexuality.

“It was out of that (1960s activism) that I think I began asking questions about myself and began to relate my activism to growing awareness of my own homosexuality, and the fact that this was not a pathology, but it was a minority status.”

Spear, the longtime partner of Junjiro Tsuji, loved music and travel.

But one April day in 1993 had to stand out for him.

Spear had led the expansion of Minnesota’s Civil Rights Act through the Senate. Clark, who the public knew was lesbian when she was elected to the House from south Minneapolis in 1980, had worked the House side.

The day the historic legislation passed was one of those exceptional days when no one was certain how the vote would come out. It was one of those rare days when legislators actually listened to each other’s speeches.

Brilliant and humorous, too
In the Senate, Spear spoke. As always, the University of Minnesota history professor was brilliant — and humorous, too.

In 1993, large numbers of Minnesotans believed that gays and lesbians “choose” their sexual orientation.

Spear suggested that no one would “choose” to subject himself to a life of discrimination and loathing.

Smiling, he also told his Senate colleagues, “I’m 55 years old — this is not a phase.”

Former Sen. Dean Johnson, who at the time was leader of the Senate Republicans (later, he would be the DFL Senate leader), gave a speech that surprised and angered many in his caucus.

“We deal more with moral issues in the Senate than I did as a parish pastor in Willmar,” Johnson, a Lutheran minister, told his colleagues. “I want you to think about that. I want the people of Minnesota to think about that. … Even though I do not understand the homosexual lifestyle, I think it’s prudent that each of us in the majority vote to give rights to the minority.”

A few weeks later, Republicans back in Johnson’s home district “censured” Johnson for his vote.

In the House, there were other acts of political courage.

A rural Republican legislator, Charlie Brown, listened to the debate, then, stood and said: “I promised my mother, I’d do what was right. I’m gonna do what’s right today.”

He voted in support of the amendment.

“I don’t know if we could see today what happened on that day,” said Clark, her voice filled with emotion. “I think, in the end, what helped so much is that our colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, knew Allan and I. We didn’t match their stereotypes.”

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