Senator Allan Spear and the Minnesota Human Rights Act


In 1993 Minnesota became the eighth state in the nation to outlaw gay and lesbian discrimination in housing, education, and employment. Unlike other states, Minnesota even went further to ensure these same protections extended to members of the trans* community. No easy feat, this was the culmination of two decades of legislative maneuvering and grassroots organizing orchestrated by people like Sen. Allan H. Spear, Rep. Karen Clark, Steve Endean, and Scott Dibble. Twenty years later, when the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, the story of the Minnesota Human Rights Act was something seasoned activists knew about but of which my generation was oblivious. For those curious about how such legislation could pass at a time when even advocates felt uneasy using the word “gay,” there was little (if anything) to turn to.

Wanting to learn more about this important moment in state history, in 2013 I applied for a Mondale Research Fellowship from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School. Although my historical interests gravitate toward early-20th century politics, I was inspired to study the life of Allan Spear after reading his autobiography Crossing the Barriers. Published posthumously in 2010, it recounts his childhood, his experience as a gay man, and his careers as both an historian and state senator. Unfortunately, given his passing in 2008, the book was never finished–and even worse, since Spear wrote chronologically, the narrative ends abruptly in the 1980s, years short of his greatest legislative achievements. Although the former-state senator Steve Milton wrote a nice afterward, his was the unenviable (and impossible) task of summarizing the last twenty years of a vibrant life in just as many pages.

When I was awarded the Fellowship, then, I set out not only to produce good scholarship on Minnesota’s LGBT nondiscrimination law, but I also wanted to do Sen. Spear’s life justice. As his colleagues on both sides of the aisle would attest, he was a brilliant, caring man, and someone without whom our state would be lesser.

In doing my research, I relied upon the rich archives available at both the Minnesota Historical Society and UMN Elmer L. Andersen Library. Furthermore, I sat down for several one-on-one interviews with Gov. Arne Carlson, Rep. Karen Clark, Sen. Scott Dibble, and the late historian Hy Berman. It took a while to write (life happens) but my paper “Senator Allan Spear and the Minnesota Human Rights Act” was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Minnesota History magazine. (The magazine’s staff even went so far as to make the video trailer posted above!)

Now that this project is behind me (always a strange feeling), I hope readers find some hope in the story of Sen. Allan Spear’s 20-year campaign to pass an LGBT nondiscrimination bill. Especially in this political environment, it is worth remembering that progress is often incremental and that while setbacks can be disheartening, it does not mean the cause is foolish, hopeless, or dead. It just means that there is more work to be done. While we should pause and reevaluate our course in light of history’s lessons, we must keep pushing forward. The struggle is a part of movement building, and building a movement is one of the most-powerful tools we’ve got to make this world a more compassionate and accepting place.

You can buy a copy of Minnesota History here.

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