LGBTQIA+ History in the North Star State
This June, Twin Cities Pride is proudly celebrating 50 years of promotion of the self-affirmation, dignity, equality, and increased visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA+) people. Twin Cities Pride serves Minnesota with a critical vision, to "empower every LGBTQIA+ person to live as their true self." LGTBQIA+ is a fairly recent acronym popularized in the last few decades. However, as long as there has been civilization, there have been individuals who lived outside the gender and sexuality perceived norms.
There is a complex history of the LGBTQIA+ community in Minnesota that has evolved through different eras. Spanning from native history, the industrial age, to so-called safe spaces of the 1950s and 1960s, to the Stonewall Uprising, and into today.
For those wanting to learn more, I highly recommend Land of 10,000 Loves by Stewart Van Cleve.
Some Ground Rules
The words lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual were not used in their current known forms until the latter half of the twentieth century into the twenty first century. The term queer is considered the appropriate word used by anthropologists to describe identities that challenge hetero-normativity and gender dichotomy in history prior to current times. It wasn't until around 1920 that society started to understand an individual's sexual preferences as evidence of an identity that could be named. The words homosexual, heterosexual, lesbian, and gay began to appear as identifying words for these communities. These terminologies began to provide ways for the trans and queer communities to identify each other.
The Dakota and Ojibwe Natives recognized and respected their nonbinary communities. MinnPost writes that Dakota and Ojibwe used the terms wiŋkte - men who adopt behaviors of women, ikwekaazowag and ininiikaazowag - which were phrases to recognize those who act like women and act like men. These groups of individuals were considered sacred and respected amongst their communities. One Native Americam Ojibwe woman, Ozaawindib, was doucmneted as being an Ojibwe warrior, expeditioner, and agokwa - an individual assigned male at birth who takes on women's roles - she played a large part of Minnesota's early history. in 1832, Ozaawindib consulted with Henry Rowe Schoolcraft on behalf of the Ojibwe. Schoolcraft - a government assigned Indian agent tasked to calm the fighting between the Ojibwe and Dakota - needed Ozaawindib's assistance in settling strife between the Ojibwe and Dakota. Ozaawindib led Schoolcraft to Gaa-Miswaawaakokaag (near Cass Lake). Here, Schoolcraft created a council to promote peace between the Ojibwe and Dakota. Schoolcraft presented Ozaawindib with a medal to symbolize her recognition by the U.S. Government as chief of her community.
Kai Pyle of The Activist History Review gets it spot on, "Ozaawindib’s story remains important to Ojibwe people. A full account of her life would place her in even deeper context as an agokwe, a woman who went to war against the Dakota people of Mni Sota Makoce, the daughter of a prominent leader, a U.S.-designated chief in her own right, a woman who liked to drink socially on occasion and who sometimes got in fights, a good hunter and a swift runner, and above all as an Ojibwe person."
After the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, European colonists began to exponentially increase their immigration to Minnesota. Euro-American colonist culture was bounded by religion and defined binary cisgender roles. During this time period, labels had not yet burgeoned for non-binary gender roles and sexual orientations. It's important to note that LGBTQIA+ society existed long before these terms became commonplace.
Civic ordinances and laws began to target the queer community as early as the 1870s in Minnesota. Minneapolis created an ordinance in 1877 that criminalized men dressing as women and vice-versa. The first publicized offender was Leon A. Belmont. Female at birth, Belmont's story was on full display in 1880 and 1881 in the headlines of Minneapolis newspapers for living his life as a male and engaging in sexual relations with women.
Alexander Ramsey was the second Governor of Minnesota in 1860. Ramsey's running mate, Ignatius Donnelly, served as Ramsey's Lieutenant Governor during this time. Although they served as political running mates at one time, Ramsey and Donnelly were adversaries and their disdain for each other was palpable. Donnelly wrote in his diary that Ramsey had a sexual relationship with the driver of his coach. The coachman allegedly extorted Ramsey after the sexual relationship ended to keep the information about the relationship from getting to the press. Although it is more than fair to scrutinize Ramsey's political career and aggression towards Native Americans, his sexual life should not be placed under the microscope of scrutiny. Ramsey's wife had passed away years prior, and only after her passing did Ramsey ostensibly have a same-sex erotic encounter.
To provide some further context - this wasn't the first time that Donnelly accused other Minnesota Moguls of homosexual acts. Donnelly also accused esteemed hotelier James J. Hill of socializing and spending evenings with male sex workers.
This information was unearthed from Donnelly's diary nearly 130 years later, and was presented as part of a history display created by Jean-Nickolaus Tretter at the 1992 Twin Cities Pride festival. A byline ran in Star Tribune on June 25, 1992 briefly discusses Tretter's work as a LGBTQIA+ historian and advocate for Minnesotans.
A name cherished among the greats of Minneapolis history, Eloise Butler (1851 - 1933), was a key member of the burgeoning Minneapolis Park Board in the early twentieth century. Like her colleagues Charles Loring (of Loring Park) and Theodore Wirth (whose namesake is attributed to Theodore Wirth Park), Butler sought to dedicate park space to the public in the form of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary. Butler was a huge advocate for the protection of parkland and natural resources from urban sprawl.
Evidence suggests that Eloise Butler had romantic relationships with women at differing stages of her life. There is little to be found of women in relationships with other women in Minnesota before the 1920s. However in the absence of recorded media, women still had relationships with other women that were every bit as legitimate as heterosexual relationships. These relationships involved partnership, dedication, intimacy, and romance all the same.
In addition to Eloise Butler, Gratia Alta Countryman - Director of the Minneapolis Public Library - maintained a happy relationship with her life partner Mary Todd. Countryman and Todd lived together for thirty-eight years in their homestead off of North Lyndale Avenue.
The Roaring Twenties
The 1920s brought a tidal wage of progressive change to American and Minnesotan culture. Minneapolis and St. Paul's combined population grew by over 120,000 citizens in this decade alone. The exploding population brought with an increase in the third space - designated communal spaces distinct from the home (first space) or work (second space). Theaters, bars, department stores, lounges, and public transit stations were spaces in which the queer community could safely gather. As early as 1925, The Hennepin Bath House and the Golden Rule department store of St. Paul were both known places where men could seek sexual encounters with other men.
Women's freedom followed a few decades later when women could find same-sex partners at several bars in the Twin Cities such as Foxy's Bar located in the West Seventh neighborhood of St. Paul. This bar particularly became popular among women due to it's centric location to industries that were dominated by women employees at the time - hospitals, textile factories, government centers, and offices.
During the same time that Foxy's was a hub for women's nightlife, changes were coming to the neighborhood. The Federal-Highway Act of 1956 sought to change the landscape of the surrounding blocks as Interstates 35E and 94 razed the brownstone apartment districts that female couples called home.
Minnesota's Transgender Research
Beginning in the 1960s, the University of Minnesota emerged as the forerunning research institution specializing in gender-affirming surgery. Dr. Donald Hastings, the University's pioneering researcher in gender-affirming care, performed the first gender-affirming surgery in Minnesota. At the time, the Minneapolis Tribune wrote that "The patients to be operated on are [transgendered], persons with normal male physiques who are, mentally and emotionally, women." Dr. Hastings stated that his female transgendered patients "hope to be able to assume the role of the normal female in society, to get married, and possibly adopt children." Twenty-nine male-to-female operations were performed by Dr. Hastings from 1936 - 1969.
An era of LGTBQIA+ rights and liberation began in the late 1960s after the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, amongst several other demonstrations. First organized in Minnesota in 1969, Fight Repression of Erotic Expression (FREE) was one of the first University of Minnesota off-campus LGBTQIA+ action groups. FREE's first demonstration occurred in 1970; a worker at the State Services for the Blind was fired for his sexual orientation. FREE protested the firing of this worker on the basis of sexual orientation. FREE combatted to "change the laws, attitudes, and prejudices of the uptight, upright heterosexual America" through it's weekly newsletter.
First Public Gay Marriage
Jack Baker, the first elected student body president of the University of Minnesota and student president of FREE, who was openly gay, married J. Michael McConnell in 1971. The two became the first gay couple in Minnesota to be publicly married.
First Out Politicians
Allen Spear became the first politician in Minnesota to identify as gay in 1974. Spear, a state senator, interviewed with The Minneapolis Star, Spear said "There's nothing I'm ashamed of... It's a time when gay people are beginning to emerge from their closets." This announcement made Spear the first openly gay individual to serve as a state senator in the United States. Spear later served as the President of the State Senate from 1992 - 2000.
Karen Clark was the first openly lesbian member of the Minnesota House of Representatives in the year 1980. Clark served in the House for thirty-nine years, from 1980 until 2019.
LGBTQIA+ Community in Minnesota
By the 1970s, the LGBTQIA+ community was thriving in the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Committee for Gay Rights was founded during this time to lobby politicians to disclose their stance on gay rights. Local businesses like the Amazon Bookstore, "a place where women's liberation groups or anyone interested in them can find out what's happening in other parts of the country," opened it's doors in 1970. The first lesbian organization in Minnesota began in 1973, The Lesbian Resource Center operated at 2104 Stevens Avenue South. Twin Cities Women's Union began around the same time to offer "women-centered, community-controlled education." In all, Minnesotans began to comfortably create a tight-knit community of LGBTQIA+ groups, resources, businesses, and societies.
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
Appearing suddenly in 1981, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first identified when it started to impact the gay community. AIDS at first seemed to be an outbreak for only the east and west coasts, but by 1984, seventeen AIDS patients had been confirmed in Minnesota. With urgency, gay and lesbian leaders of Minnesota worked together to launch The Minnesota AIDS Project, Minnesota Rural AIDS Action Network, and several other organizations to support those impacted by the AIDS epidemic.
Bruce Brockway, founder of one of Minnesota's first gay newspapers, Positively Gay, was the first Minnesotan to pass away from the AIDS epidemic. In addition to being a philanthropist, Brockway was an esteemed concert pianist, practicing for six hours each day until his illness became too severe for him to continue.
90s, 2k, and Today
As the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers are giving way to Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z; societal attitudes towards the LGBTQIA+ community have evolved drastically. In the last three decades attitudes have shifted from hostility, to tolerance, to acceptance, and now to equality.
In 1993, Minnesota made amends to the Human Rights Act to include LGTBQIA+ protections. This amendment outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, protecting LGBTQIA+ people from discrimination in employment, housing, and other public accommodations.
Minnesota increasingly became known as one of the most LGBTQIA+ friendly states in the United States. Today, the Twin Cities is renowned for it's vibrant LGBTQIA+ culture, community, and nightlife. In 1972 the first Pride march took place with roughly 60 people in attendance. 50 years later, Pride is expecting an attendance of nearly 400,000.
Minnesota is also home to Mossier, a Twin Cities consulting firm that helps companies build LGBTQIA+ inclusion and psychological safety in the workplace. Mossier offers plentiful resources such as workshops, a job board, and consulting on workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Outside the Twin Cities in Greater Minnesota, smaller Pride events are attended each year in Mankato, Rochester, St. Cloud, and Duluth. LGBTQIA+ culture is objectively less visible in smaller more rural towns of Minnesota, where communities are generally more conservative. In all, Minnesota has a storied history of LGBTQIA+ culture. Cheers to 50 years of Pride celebrations in Minnesota, with many more to come.
Van Cleve, Stewart. Land of 10,000 Loves. Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
"Gay, Lesbian History Display Will Dominate Pride Festival" - Steele, Mike. Star Tribune. June 25, 1992
"LGBTQ History in Minneapolis" - Meet Minneapolis, 2018
"A Brief Overview of Queer and Trans History in Minnesota" - Ehrenhalt, Lizzie. MinnPost. June 1, 2021
"Ozaawindib, the Ojibwe Trans Woman the US Declared a Chief" - Pyle, Kai. The Activist History Review. June 13, 2019
"In Disguise" - The Minneapolis Tribune. October 30, 1880
"Minnesota Firsts" - The Minneapolis Star. April 22, 1978
"A Brief History of Pride" - ACLU Minnesota. June 17, 2013
"Working from the Margins: Eloise Butler and her Wildflower Garden" - Strozok, Sara. The Historyapolis Project. April 2, 2014
"Countryman, Gratia Alta (1866-1953)" - Roberts, Kate. MNOpedia. May 24, 2021.
"Foxy's Bar" - Lost Womyn's Space. May 18, 2011.
"Building History" - The Golden Rule Building
"University Plans First Sex-Change Operations" - Lundegaard, Bob. Minneapolis Tribune. December 18, 1966.
"Amazon Bookstore Run for Women's Liberation" - Zack, Marg. Minneapolis Tribune. August 19, 1970.
"Women's Group Offers Classes" - The Minneapolis Star. February 12, 1975.
"Minnesota's First AIDS Patient Dies" - Cope, Lewis. Minneapolis Star and Tribune. August 29, 1984.