Minnesota Sen. Allan Spear: ‘Timing was key in my decision to come out as a gay man’

First of two articles

Editor’s note: This is the first of two excerpts from “Crossing the Barriers: The Autobiography of Allan H. Spear,” which is to be released by the University of Minnesota Press later this month. Spear, who served for 28 years in the Minnesota Senate, became the first male legislator in the United States to come out as a gay man. Spear, 71, died in 2008.

The 1974 elections were relatively uneventful in Minnesota. Governor [Wendell] Anderson was easily re-elected and the DFL, benefiting from the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon, increased its already hefty margin in the state House of Representatives. In the Senate, where we enjoyed four-year terms, we watched from the sidelines.

But the election that most intrigued me occurred far from Minnesota. I read with great interest of the election of Elaine Noble, an open lesbian, to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Elaine was the first openly gay person to be elected to a state office anywhere in the country, and from the accounts I read in the gay press, her district was similar to mine. She represented inner-city Boston and her constituents were a mix of university students, senior citizens, and working-class people in fading neighborhoods. I had not yet met Elaine, but her example inspired me. If I did come out, I would have company, even though she would be a thousand miles away.

Fateful weekend conference
On Thanksgiving weekend of 1974, I went to New York to speak at the conference of a new national gay organization, the Gay Academic Union. Howard Brown invited me to have Thanksgiving dinner with him and several of his friends and to spend part of the weekend at his townhouse in Greenwich Village. The conference itself was held at New York University on Washington Square, and unlike the gay caucuses that later emerged in the various academic professional organizations, it focused not on empirical scholarship but on theories and ideas about gay liberation.

I spoke about my own experiences and how I thought gay people needed to relate to electoral politics. Most of the participants were more radical than I was, and some of the presentations I found downright silly. I remember one speaker, a man, who maintained that a male erection, whatever the context, was an act of violence against women, and that if gay men wanted to develop coalitions with women they would have to learn to have sex without having erections. I was also shocked when Howard Brown, whom I considered a true hero of the gay movement, got up to speak and was greeted with scattered boos. He was obviously too mainstream for some of this group.

In fact, the most rewarding part of the weekend was seeing Howard again and having long discussions with him and some of his friends. In the struggle that was going on in my own mind about coming out, nothing was more encouraging than seeing stable, successful professional gay men who were open about their sexuality.

When I returned from New York, I had a long discussion with Steve Endean [the founder of Minnesota’s first gay and lesbian political group, Minnesota Committee for Gay Rights]. Many of the things that had happened over the past three years had been beyond my control. But one thing that still was in my control was the timing and circumstances of my coming out.

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

If I waited too long, I might lose control of that, too. More and more people knew that I was gay. In the next election cycle, if not before, someone was sure to ask me about it publicly, and it might not be in a situation that would allow me to present my sexual orientation in a positive way. If my major concern was not to be pigeonholed as a “gay senator,” timing was also important.

I had now been in the Senate long enough to have established myself as a multi-issue person. I had carried labor legislation and prison reform legislation, worked on Indian affairs, and even carried a major bill involving the singularly heterosexual matter of divorce. And my next election was still far enough in the future that my coming out would not likely dominate it.

Most important, I was personally ready to do it. I had crossed the barrier with my parents a year before. Now my friendship with Howard Brown and the example of Elaine Noble had convinced me that I would not be marginalized by coming out. Steve was delighted with my decision. I picked up the phone and called Deborah Howell at the Minneapolis Star. We made an appointment for lunch at a downtown Minneapolis restaurant called the Normandy Village on December 5.

I thought the interview went very well. Deborah knew enough about the issue to ask the right questions and she learned what she needed to know about me in a relatively brief period of time. When we were finished, she said, “I’m going to offer you something I’ve never before offered the subject of an interview — a chance to read what I’ve written before it’s published. That violates normal journalistic practice, but this is a special case and I want to get it right.”

When I did read her draft, I found nothing I wanted her to change. I asked her when the story would appear. She said that it would be the following Monday, December 9. Then I asked her where in the newspaper it was likely to appear. There was a brief pause before she said, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding. On the front page, of course.”

Minneapolis still had two newspapers in 1974. They were both owned by the same company and operated out of the same building, but they had separate staffs and nominally competed against each other. The Tribune came out in the morning, the Star in the afternoon. On Monday, I asked a number of my friends to come to my house around noon, when the Star hit the street. I knew that I would be getting a lot of phone calls, I had no way of judging what the range of reaction would be, and I needed moral support. Steve Endean, Mark Snyder, the Greenfields, and the Goldsteins all came. Someone brought a Star, hot off the press.

Deborah Howell tells my story
There just under the fold on the first page was the bold black headline: “State Sen. Allan Spear Declares He’s Homosexual.” Even with all of my careful preparation, seeing those words in that place sent shivers up my spine.

The story itself, however, portrayed me in a wholly positive manner. It began:

Allan Spear is a 37-year-old freshman member of the Minnesota Senate, a DFLer.

Allan Spear is an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota, a respected specialist in Afro-American history.

Allan Spear has a doctorate degree from Yale University and has written a book on the making of the Chicago black ghetto.

Allan Spear has long been active in DFL, civil rights and peace causes and ranked as the most liberal state senator in an Americans for Democratic Action survey.

Allan Spear also is a homosexual.

And, as of today, he doesn’t care who knows it.

Deborah then went on to explain why I had chosen to come out. She gave three reasons: (1) I no longer wanted my homosexuality to be whispered about; (2) I wanted to be able to speak as a gay person on gay rights issues without any ambivalence; and (3) I wanted to be a role model, to let other gay people know that they can succeed in teaching and politics even in the American heartland and not just in San Francisco and Greenwich Village.

She also discussed my fear that being openly gay would overshadow the other things I did and what impact it might have on my constituents. “I think that most of the people in my district,” I said, “are concerned with issues and my performance as a senator. . . . I have served the district as well as I can. Primarily I am a representative of the district. Quite secondarily, I am a spokesman for gay rights.”

Deborah Howell
Deborah Howell

After summing up the various steps I went through before deciding to come out, the story ended with a quotation that all of my friends had heard many times: “[For years] I’ve been trying to do something about everybody else’s oppression. It took me a long time to realize I’d been oppressed by society’s attitude and now I want to do something about it.”

The telephone rang all afternoon and evening. I received only one hostile call, from an elderly constituent who had voted for me and now felt hurt and betrayed. Otherwise the calls were wholly supportive — many from friends, of course, but others from people I didn’t know, both gay and straight, who congratulated me for my courage and wished me the best. The next day, I started receiving letters and telegrams from all over the country.

National news
What I hadn’t realized, even after Deborah Howell had assured me that I would be coming out on the front page, was that my story would be national news. But the wire services picked up the article and short versions of it appeared everywhere, from prestigious journals like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times to small-town papers that ran the Associated Press release. There was even a piece in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel.

Hastily, I called relatives in other parts of the country so that they would hear the news from me before they read about it in their local papers. My parents knew, of course, but I was sure that they had not spread the word to other family members, and I did not want any of my aging aunts and uncles to die of shock.

The mail I received over the next several weeks included every possible kind of reaction. National gay leaders such as Howard Brown and Troy Perry wrote warm and encouraging letters. There were moving messages from less visible gay people who applauded me for my courage and expressed the hope that someday they would be able to do what I had done. “Whatever the consequence,” wrote a man in Pittsburgh, “you’ve given gay people a sense of tremendous pride, relief and involvement.” A man in San Francisco wrote that “it will be of use to all of the young brothers still in their parents’ homes to see that for one man being gay is not the nightmarish toothache, compulsive and desperate, only to be played out in the shadows with eyes and heart closed.”

Several parents of gay children wrote to tell me that the example I had set was a great comfort and encouragement to them. An old friend from graduate school, whom I had not seen in years, sent a congratulatory telegram and commented on “those bittersweet Yale days [when] we talked … and never heard one another.”

Crossing Barriers

Many of the local DFL politicians, including the governor, pledged their continuing support for my career, and even a few Republicans sent good wishes. There were predictable responses from the other side as well. Most of the negative letters came from conservative Christians who predicted a dire fate for me on judgment day. Some of them had read about me in an evangelical paper called The Sword of the Lord, which headlined its item “Depravity at the Top!” and described with horror how a state senator had “announced to the world that he is a pervert.” I received numerous copies of a little illustrated religious tract called The Gay Blade, which warned of the biblical admonitions against homosexuality and implored gay people to mend their ways before it was too late. These messages, of course, went unanswered, but I replied to everyone who had responded positively and carefully kept a list of the names and addresses of those who might be potential contributors to my 1976 re-election campaign.

Senate colleagues’ reaction
I was most interested in how my colleagues in the Senate would react. I had called my closest allies — Bob Lewis, Steve Keefe, John Milton — before the Star story had appeared and knew that they would be supportive. And, of course, [Senate Majority Leader] Nick Coleman had himself been involved in the coming-out process. But when I attended a DFL Senate caucus a few days later, most of my colleagues said nothing. It was obviously not an issue that they were comfortable discussing.

I learned that at a meeting of the DFL caucus steering committee, Baldy Hanson had offered a resolution appropriating a hundred dollars to any member of the caucus who was a homosexual so that he could go to a psychiatrist and get cured. Nick Coleman shut him up and quickly moved to the next item on the agenda. When I heard this story, my reaction was, “What a cheapskate! You can’t even get into a psychiatrist’s door for a hundred dollars.” And a few weeks later, Florian Chmielewski wrote a letter to the Duluth News Tribune calling my coming out “a maneuver on behalf of secular humanism, a religion which denies the existence of God and glorifies pleasure.” My announcement, he warned, “should sound the alarm to every Minnesota citizen who believes in maintaining our Judeo-Christian ethics.”

I was determined that these isolated expressions of hostility were not going to discourage me. I was wholly comfortable with what I had done and felt better about myself than I ever had in my life. I would never again have to be ambivalent about who I was. I was now proudly and affirmatively gay.

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

Saturday: Passing gay rights legislation in Minnesota

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