National GLBT group sees major social and legal progress in the two decades since its last visit

Sue Hyde
Sue Hyde

When last the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force held its conference in Minneapolis in 1990, it attracted 600 people. This year, more than 2,500 are expected at the “Creating Change” event, which begins Wednesday at the Hilton. .

When last held in Minneapolis, the state had not yet passed legislation protecting the civil rights of gays and lesbians.

 In 1993, the state Legislature not only passed the human rights bill but also supported language making Minnesota the first state to include transgender people under the rights umbrella. (This is the one vote former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who supported the bill when he was a state legislator, says he now most regrets.)

When the Task Force last came to Minneapolis, conference director Sue Hyde said the “cutting edge” issue was getting at least minimal legal protections for same-sex partners.

Marriage rights now top issue
Now, Hyde, who lives in Massachusetts and is married, says winning marriage rights across the country is a fundamental issue of the Task Force.

When the conference was here in 1990, most mainline Christian organizations refused to allow gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people access to the ministry.

Now, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Presbyterian Church have opened — or are in the process of opening — pulpits to people of all sexual orientations.

The Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, who was ordained as a UCC pastor in 1997, is heading a “Practice Spirit, Do Justice” series of spiritual workshops within the framework of the conference.  A gay imam and a gay rabbi will be among those participating.

An aside here: I asked Voelkel if there is a favorite hymn among GLBT Christians. She suggested “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” which was written in 1929. Voelkel loves the inclusiveness of the hymn:

And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,

and one was a shepherdess on the green;

they were all of them saints of God, and I mean,

God helping, to be one too.

So much change. Words and phrases such as “ordained,” “married,” “domestic partner benefits” and “political power” are commonplace among GLBTers. Many, if not most, large corporations have policies supporting GLBT employees and their families. The military is finally going to drop its “don’t ask, don’t tel” policy. More and more straight people have allied themselves with GLBT causes.

Despite major progress, equality issues remain
Hyde, who is 58, says much that has happened that was “beyond my imagination” just two decades ago.

But there remains no lack of issues for this body to take on when the five-day conference begins in a city that recently was named, by a national gay publication, “the gayest city in America.” (Asked why any organization would decide to hold a major gathering in Minnesota in February, Voelkel, laughing, said, “We want to make sure people focus on the conference.”)

There’s a big marriage issue looming in Minnesota: concern among many GLBT forces that the Republican-controlled Legislature may attempt to put an amendment on the ballot that would prohibit same-sex marriage. (Marriage already is defined as between a man and woman by state law.)

There are issues around the rash of suicides among GLBT high school and college students.

“Those suicides have illustrated to all of us the need to do social change work in the environment where these young people spend their days,” Hyde said.

A Blake High senior who is a lesbian will be honored by the organization during the convention for her work in studying the suicides.

That hundreds of the nation’s high schools now have organizations of gay and lesbian students is another of those fundamental changes from the past.

But it also remains a constant that many school districts still are uncomfortable with how to deal with GLBT students. That reality popped up again in Minnesota’s largest district, Anoka-Hennepin, over the weekend.

Champlin Park issue the latest dispute
On Friday, the district was sued by the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Faegre & Benson law firm over a change in policy surrounding a Snow Days event at Champlin Park High School.

In the past, the school’s Snow Days elected royalty marched in boy-girl pairings during a ceremonial procession. But this year, a lesbian couple was elected by students to the royalty court. The two young women wanted to march together in the procession, but the district responded by changing the policy. Instead of students being paired for the procession, the district declared that members of the court were to be accompanied by a parent or teacher.

A district official told the Star Tribune the police change was made so that all would be “comfortable.”

Hyde bristled at the district’s use of the word “comfort” in explaining why policy would be changed to prevent two young women from marching together.

“We’re still in a place where some institutions believe that a semi-closet is a solution in their community,” Hyde said. “That is not acceptable. It is a ridiculous solution in search of a problem.”

After a six-hour mediation session Saturday, school officials apparently reached the same conclusion. The new policy was scrapped. The lesbian couple will be able to march together. If there’s to be a new policy, it will wait for next year.

As a result, the lawsuit was dropped.

This whole episode was a classic mini-study in issues the GLBT movement still deals with constantly, Hyde said.   

Not all of the workshops within the conference will be devoted to outside issues that affect the GLBT community.

Voelkel and Hyde both speak of how the oldest advocacy organization for GLBT rights (it was formed in 1973) has changed, too.

The organization has become far more racially and economically diverse. Fifteen percent of those attending this year’s conference are people of color. A gay black man, for example, likely will face greater difficulties economically and in other ways than a gay white male or white lesbian.

“People of color face a dual challenge,” said Hyde. “They need to find a place in the movement and maintain relationships in their community.”

Even among some gays and lesbians, the transgender issue is difficult to accept.  

Voelkel said that many of the workshops will focus on the subgroups within the GLBT community “which still are marginalized.”  

This is a conference filled with workshops  —  on political strategies and economics, and on building more bridges into the culture, reaching out to more allies and finding more support among all religions.

“But we have a lot to celebrate, too, said Hyde.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Randi Reitan on 01/31/2011 - 04:17 pm.

    Thank you to Doug Grow for covering this conference. Wonderful to know that 2,500 will attend and go home energized to work for equality in their own communities!

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