20 years after Senate first tried, Minnesota Legislature finally gives gays civil rights protection

Second of two articles

Editor’s note: This excerpt is from the Afterword to “Crossing the Barriers: The Autobiography of Allan H. Spear.” The Afterword was written by John Milton, a former Senate colleague of Spear. In 1974, Spear came out as the nation’s first gay man serving as a legislator. It would take another 19 years for Minnesota to include protection of gays in the state’s Human Rights Act. Read the first excerpt here.

On May 23, 1973, shortly after that year’s legislative session was adjourned, Allan [Spear] wrote a letter on his Senate stationery to Majority Leader Nick Coleman, expressing his appreciation for Coleman’s effort to include gay and lesbian people in the state’s Human Rights Act.

The Minnesota Senate had indeed been the first state legislative body in the country to pass a gay rights bill, but the House didn’t follow suit and the bill died. Thereafter, session after session, the Legislature never came closer. Any satisfaction over that success in 1973 would have to wait another 20 years for fulfillment.

Despite the distraction of the AIDS threat, public opinion was gradually changing on gay rights. Wisconsin passed the first statewide rights law in 1982, and several other states, mostly in New England and on the West Coast, had followed.

Openly gay public officials such as [Brian] Coyle, Congressmen Gerry Stubbs and Barney Frank of Massachusetts, and lesbians such as Minnesota Rep. Karen Clark and Dane County (Wisconsin) supervisor Tammy Baldwin, later a state representative and member of Congress, had been active with Allan in forming INGLO. So it seemed to be time for what Allan called “regrouping in Minnesota.”

This time, there would be a well-planned strategy, not — as in the 1970s — reliance on the common sense and goodwill of legislative colleagues to vote for the elusive “right thing to do.” There would be more planning, broadening the effort statewide, especially beyond the Twin Cities where there were less visible clusters of support, as well as building a coalition of human rights groups, women’s and minority organizations, major religious denominations, labor unions and student groups.

Moreover, the Senate had been changing and, on GLBT rights, for the better. Whereas in the 1970s there were piranha — led by Senators Charlie Berg, Bob Brown, Florian Chmielewski, Mike Menning and Wayne Olhoft — swimming in both DFL and Republican streams, now only Berg and Chmielewski remained.

Allan H. Spear
Courtesy of the U of M
Allan H. Spear

In the late 1970s, there were only four women in the body; the elections of 1990 and 1992 raised the number to 19 female senators, 12 of whom voted for gay rights. The Judiciary committee in 1993 was now chaired by Ember Reichgott, an attorney from the Minneapolis suburbs, with a number of liberal nonlawyers on the committee to smooth passage of a human rights bill. And progressive Senate newcomers like Ellen Anderson, Don Betzold, Carol Flynn, Jane Krentz, Ted Mondale, Steve Murphy, Sandy Pappas, Jane Ranum, and Deanna Wiener brought fresh energy to the historically sedate chamber. There were even moderate Republicans who could be counted on to give any proposal a fair hearing: Bill Belanger of Bloomington; Dean Johnson, the minority leader; Sheila Kiscaden from Rochester; and a former corporate executive from Minnetonka, Martha Robertson.

It was time to strike, clearly, though with little support from rural senators, it would still be an uphill climb. As Allan himself once revealed to a gushing audience at the 1978 Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies at St. Paul’s Concordia College, Minnesota had a grand tradition of progressive politics, yes indeed, but it was “only a little better” than other states on the tough issues.

Fortuitously, there was a movement in St. Paul to reinstate the city gay rights ordinance that was repealed 10 years earlier. In 1988, the city council passed a new ordinance. When the opposition tried to overturn it again, the voters of St. Paul strongly refused to accept that. Scott Dibble, a future senator who by then had come out, was active in GLBT politics, and was considering a run for public office, says, “It was hoped this success in St. Paul would provide momentum for the push at the Legislature.” Apparently, it did.

A statewide push was implemented by the task force appointed in April 1990 by Gov. Rudy Perpich, then finishing his third term. Allan and Perpich had been kindred spirits on many liberal issues since 1968, when both supported Sen. Gene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. They worked closely after Perpich’s return to the governor’s office in 1983; with Rudy in the corner office, Allan could be sure that liberal bills passed by the Legislature, except those relating to abortion, would not be vetoed.

Perpich, despite having spent four years in exile as a vice president of computer-maker Control Data Corp. in Europe, had not forgotten his roots. His Iron Ranger sympathy with lower-income families and people who’d suffered ethnic or religious discrimination — for that matter, anyone who’d been forgotten in Minnesota — was as strong as ever, and Allan worked with Perpich after his return on issues relating to civil and human rights. He convinced the governor to appoint a task force to visit every corner of the state and come back with findings about the closeted life of GLBT Minnesotans.

With Allan’s suggestions, Perpich appointed a task force of 16 Minnesotans in April 1990, and Allan arranged for Geraldine Sell, a Minneapolis reader for the blind and community activist, to chair the group. Roughly half the members were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans-gender. Allan was a member and attended when his teaching schedule at the university and legislative meetings permitted.

“Allan asked me if I’d be chair of the task force,” Sell says, “and he was clearly involved in the effort. He kept on top of things throughout the year.” Over the next 11 months, task force members visited nine communities in different regions of the state. In some places, they held up to four meetings to better assess the situation and afford privacy to GLBT residents still in the closet. In addition to several places in the Twin Cities area, they visited Bemidji, Duluth, Mankato, Morris, Northfield, Red Wing, St. Peter, Virginia and Winona.

From its findings, the task force agreed on four principal recommendations, the first and most important of which was amending the state Human Rights Act to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. When the final report was submitted in January 1991, Perpich was gone, defeated for re-election in November by former representative and state auditor Arne Carlson, a Republican.

"Crossing the Barriers: The Autobiography of Allan H. Spear"

Fortunately, Carlson was a moderate who’d supported gay rights as a member of the House. He accepted and approved the report, and appointed a second task force that included several of the original members. In its initial meetings, the second task force took a big step forward, concluding that “the findings from the first task force report justified the inclusion of issues of concern to bisexual and transgender persons in its mission.” To address this issue, “language was needed to collectively identify persons covered by the sexual orientation amendment.”

Inclusion of bisexual and transgender people was easier said than done. Karen Clark — the first openly gay or lesbian person to run and be elected to the Minnesota Legislature, and the longest-serving openly lesbian member to serve in a legislature anywhere in the country — recalls how Minnesota became the first state to include transgender people.

“Allan went through a learning process on that issue,” she says, “and it happened because we went to the Legislature only after we’d spent a lot of time and effort in a ‘bottom-up’ approach.” Clark relates how the GLBT community, under the banner of “It’s Time, Minnesota,” first got itself organized by “finding people all over the state who were living their lives privately, not really daring to come out except in small, local support groups. Then, after organizing, we shifted the emphasis to lobbying.”

Language that became “all-inclusionary” evolved, bringing trans-gender leaders into the discussion. “We were fortunate that the trans-gender community had gotten itself organized, so we had an emerging community working with us. Allan grew to have great respect for them, and when he ‘got it,’ he became one of the strongest supporters of the inclusionary language.” The resulting language in the law — “actual or perceived sexual orientation” — includes everyone, Clark says.

Dibble, who later became Allan’s successor in the Senate, recalls that inclusion of transgender in the 1991 version of the bill had become a major reason for its failure that year; it drew the heaviest attack from cultural conservatives. “We knew its inclusion in 1993 would draw fire,” he says, “but if we left it out, there would be fire from the other side. By carefully crafting a description of those who’d be covered in the definitions section of the bill, we were able to include everyone.”

So the stage was set. Allan by then had been elected president of the Senate, Moe was still a strong and supportive majority leader, and Reichgott was chair of Judiciary, which included Allan and liberal senators [Linda] Berglin, Don Betzold, Dick Cohen, Skip Finn, Kiscaden,

Krentz, Gene Merriam, Ranum and Robertson. That lineup ensured the bill would emerge from Judiciary without crippling amendments, and it did, with only one dissenting vote (Republican David Knutson). Meanwhile, the companion bill with Clark as chief author was moving through the House.

Throughout February and March, lobbying for and against the bill continued unabated. Religious fundamentalists led the charge to dismember or kill the bill, and as it reached the floor of the Senate, the vote count was positive but tight. Two or three votes swinging to the other side would make the difference. In the rough-and-tumble of “wedge issue” politics, it was still too close to call.

Earlier in the session, Allan had called [Steve] Endean, his old friend and ally in the gay rights battles of the 1970s, who was in Washington, D.C., and dying of AIDS. He wanted to alert him about the push for passage. “I told him he should come to Minnesota if he possibly could,” Allan wrote in his Remembrance for Endean’s memoir. “I thought that we could finally pass the bill and I wanted him to see it. The climate had changed since the late 1970s and it looked like we had the votes in both Houses to finally win the struggle that Steve had begun 20 years earlier. On the day of the vote he was deathly sick, but he sat in the gallery, first in the Senate, then in the House, to watch the bill pass.”

The fate of this bill would not be decided by a party-line vote. Allan knew there’d be fierce opposition from his old nemesis, Chmielewski, the polka band leader from Sturgeon Lake who was serving his eighth term in the Senate. He’d be joined by DFLers Berg, Joe Bertram, Carl Kroening, Keith Langseth, Bob Lessard, Don Samuelson, and Leroy Stumpf — all except Kroening from conservative rural districts. And the opposition could count on Republicans Dick Day, [David] Knutson, Gary Laidig, Pat McGowan, Tom Neuville, Pat Pariseau and Linda Runbeck. The wild card, as it turned out, would be from Republican ranks.

On March 18, the debate on Senate File 444 began. Allan handed the president’s gavel to Reichgott and went down to his desk on the floor to speak. “Madame Chair, and members of the Senate, Senate File 444 is a bill that you’ve already heard more about than you want to hear and I will simply try, I hope in fairly brief fashion, to tell you this morning what is in the bill, and what is not in the bill.”

Holding the microphone from his desk and rocking back and forth as was his custom, Allan outlined how the bill would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, public accommodations, public service, access to education and access to credit. He countered the argument that it would offer special privileges to gays and lesbians:

Human rights laws do not give special privileges to anyone; human rights laws merely recognize that in an imperfect society some groups have faced discrimination and some categories have been the basis for unfair discrimination, so we include in our human rights laws those categories around which there have been historic patterns of discrimination — race, religion, gender, nationality. We don’t include things like eye color, for example, because we haven’t experienced in our society discrimination based on eye color. The question, then, of whether or not a group should be included in our human rights law is whether that group or that category forms the basis of discrimination, and I would argue that historically and still today there is in our society — has been and is — a pattern of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

He recounted the findings of the governor’s task force, saying they “listened to those who told stories of loss of jobs, of lack of promotion, of inability to find housing,” and that members of the task force “were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that discrimination is still a persistent factor in many parts of Minnesota.” So, Allan said, “this bill does not ask for special privileges for anyone, it only asks that discrimination end, it only asks that we have a level playing field.”

In support of the legislation, he pointed to polls showing that most Americans opposed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and while not approving the gay lifestyle, “they think that discrimination is wrong.” He listed the wide variety of organizations that had endorsed the bill, and then, in a dramatic conclusion, he said:

Finally, I’d like to say something on the personal side about this bill and this is not something that comes easily for me — I think those of you who have known me for a while know that I don’t talk a lot about my personal life, but I refuse to let other people question the validity of my own life experiences. I’ve been told by many people that oppose this bill that sexual orientation should not be included in the human rights law because it is a choice, because it is a choice that people make, and if they make a choice, they can change that choice … well, let me tell you, I’m a 55-year old gay man and I’m not just going through a phase!

I can also assure you that my sexual orientation is not something I chose like I would choose to wear a blue shirt and a red tie today … why in the world would I have chosen this? I grew up in the 1950s — everyone I knew was presumably straight, all of my models … homosexuality was only something people whispered about … my first awareness of what I was filled me with absolute panic.

I did everything I could to change: I dated girls, I denied my inner feelings, I sought psychiatric care — I didn’t make a choice about that … I could do nothing about what I was … I did make a choice, my choice had to do with how I would deal with who I was … I chose, after many years of hiding who I was, to be open, to be who I am, and to live my life without shame or apology, and that’s a choice I’ve never regretted … But I was fortunate — when I came out I was already a tenured college professor, I lived in a tolerant urban community and had supportive friends and family. Not all gay and lesbian people are that fortunate … many today continue to live in fear in hostile communities, in jobs they easily could lose if their sexual orientation was discovered … they’re forced to live lives based on lies and deception . . .

Much has been made in the debate that’s been waged over this bill about how sexual orientation is determined … most experts agree that it is determined at birth or very early in life — it’s not something that is chosen … we are what we are and we are asking only that we have the same rights that others take for granted, nothing special, just the right to a job commensurate with our ability, the right to decent housing, the right to a good education, and that’s all this bill does …

I’ve been working on this bill for 20 years — the first time it came before the Minnesota Senate was exactly 20 years ago, when the late senator Nick Coleman asked the Minnesota Senate to pass it, and I think the Senate has considered this bill about eight times over the last 20 years, so it’s not exactly a new issue … it’s going to be resolved, and the time to resolve it is now … it’s time, Minnesota.

Late in the debate, the Republican minority leader, Dean Johnson, rose to speak. His résumé, in addition to election twice to the House and four times to the Senate, included many years of service as pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in the western Minnesota town of Willmar, and as a general in the Minnesota National Guard. He was widely respected by members of both caucuses.

Johnson conceded that this was a tough vote, but that men and women throughout American history have been elected “because they have good judgment,” and he argued that even while he didn’t fully understand the gay and lesbian lifestyle, he thought it prudent to vote as a majority to give rights to the minority.

He argued that “in political history and American history, the arguments are the same … from Abraham Lincoln, when he was chastised in his arguments about slavery, the arguments that Hubert Humphrey used about civil rights, the arguments that were used against the Jews, they are in fact the same.”

Johnson accepted that this issue created “a great element of fear” among the people of Minnesota, within the Senate, and “within Dean Johnson,” but, he added, “if we pass this and the House passes it and the Governor signs it, it is the right thing to do.” It would be easy to vote against it, he admitted, more popular with the folks back home, but he believed “we were elected to lead, to do what is right and to do what is just, and to seek justice.”

Johnson paused, then told the senators about a colleague of his in the National Guard, Captain Pamela Mindt. For 12 years, he’d referred men and women to her for mental health counseling, though she was now one of those that the Department of Defense wanted to dismiss as an officer because of her sexual orientation:

During those 12 years of association with Captain Mindt it never once occurred to me, never once occurred to me to even ask myself quietly, are you gay or homosexual or heterosexual — it didn’t matter, because she did the job, she performed her duties as a commissioned officer in the Minnesota Army National Guard. She’s an excellent employee … now, should the Pam Mindts of Minnesota have to live with fear of reprisal? job loss? loss of a place to live?

So, Madame President, members of the Senate, if you feel stress, if you feel scared, I’m no different than you, but today I’m going to vote — green — yes — in favor of Senate File 444, and extend to a group of people in the State of Minnesota what I consider their civil rights, their human rights, that they too can live with dignity.

Johnson’s speech, just before the roll was called, was credited with shifting a few undecided votes to support the bill. When the roll was called, there were 37 ayes and 30 nays, and the bill was passed. Five Republicans, including Johnson, voted for it; 13 DFL senators voted against, all but one from non-metro Minnesota. When the presiding senator, Reichgott, announced the vote, a loud cheer cascaded down from the galleries, and Allan received congratulations from those who’d supported this long-awaited victory. Then he walked over to the House chamber to give Karen Clark a congratulatory hug.

“We jumped for joy,” recalled Clark in an article by Doug Grow on MinnPost.com shortly after Allan’s death. “It was one of those watershed moments.”

Excerpted with permission from “Crossing the Barriers: The Autobiography of Allan H. Spear,” University of Minnesota Press.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Charles Leck on 10/23/2010 - 07:36 am.

    Good stuff from John Milton — and, of course, from Allan Spear. Thanks.

  2. Submitted by Keith Ford on 10/25/2010 - 01:09 pm.

    It should be noted that Steve Endean, (“Weebe” as some of his friends called him), played a critical role helping us pass the Gay Rights Ordinance in Minneapolis twenty years earlier in the mid-1970s.

    I’ve have often mused over how, despite the dire warnings of calamity, of gay teachers molesting kids, of apartment house vacancies soaring as landlords were forced to rent to gays, of housing values plummeting as gays clustered in certain neighborhoods, how 20 years later, none of this happened. Minneapolis just got stronger and most people are unaware of the now 40 year old Minneapolis Gay Rights Ordinance.

  3. Submitted by Carol Flynn on 10/26/2010 - 03:23 pm.

    A celebration in honor of Senator Spear’s book is tonight from 6 to 8 at the Humphrey Center. “Crossing the Barriers” will be available for purchase.

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