The Minneapolis Gay Rights Ordinance — A Personal Story By One Who Was There
I admit it. I was committed but also afraid.
Gays and lesbians have won the right to marry and are widely accepted in America today, but this most certainly was not always the case.
I played a role in that transformation many years ago. The following is my account of how Minneapolis became one of the first major cities in the US to adopt a Gay Rights Ordinance.
I will discuss the political circumstances of the time, a bit about me, and then the process as best I recall.
The Times Were A-Changing
In the fall of 1973, Richard Nixon was still president, having defeated anti-war candidate George McGovern by a landslide nationally and in Minnesota. The Watergate scandal had already broken, and the leading cohorts of the Baby Boom were beginning to take their positions in society, including local politics. I was one of them.
Upon returning to Minnesota as a Vietnam veteran, I had made a personal commitment to work for peace from the grassroots level up. I became involved in the Minneapolis Model Cities Program. I also got a job working as paid staff coordinating the McGovern campaigns voter registration efforts in the Fifth Congressional district, encompassing Minneapolis and some adjacent suburbs.
Those credentials were enough to win a DFL (Democratic) party endorsement for Sixth Ward Alderman. On the back of that endorsement, plus that of Hubert H Humphrey and a lot of door-knocking, I eked out a 134-vote margin of victory to join what turned out to be an 11 Democrat, 1 Independent, and 1 Republican city council landslide. That year’s municipal election permanently reversed long-standing Republican domination of Minneapolis politics and included the election of a Democratic mayor, Al Hofstede.
The turn of events was significant enough to merit a story by the Voice of America, not because of the change of party control, but due to the overall age of the mayor and city council. I turned 25 the day after the election, and the average age for the Council was around 33. We did have a few older, but by and large, ours was a baby boom council bursting with new ideas.
Homophobia 90 Victims 10
Young folks entering politics today cannot appreciate the pervasiveness of homophobia just decades ago, just as they cannot fully understand the improbability of reaching the moon pre-1969. For them, gay rights, like space travel, are not a fantasy but merely history. In the early 1970s, homophobia was virtually universal among men, if not the entire population, to one extent or another.
The exception being gays themselves, and maybe a smattering of others. Most gays were closeted. It was national news when the University of Minnesota professor and state senator Allan Spear, representing a liberal Minneapolis district with the University at its heart, came out in 1974.
His coming out was preceded by the activism of Jack Baker, who ran for and was elected student body president at the University of Minnesota in 1971. Baker and his partner Michael McConnel had earlier applied for a marriage license, been denied, then opted for McConnel to adopt Baker legally, and ultimately became the first gay marriage in Minnesota and the nation on Sept 3, 1971. Their activity attracted national attention and brought the gay rights issue to the surface locally.
It is interesting to note that Allan Spear is quoted by reporters at the time, as referring to them and their marriage effort as being part of the “lunatic fringe.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_McConnell_and_Jack_Baker
Two camps emerged. One, led in part by local gay activist Tim Campbell, was decidedly “in your face,” to the point of planting cream pies in various people’s faces as part of their campaign to advance the cause of gay rights.
From my perspective, such antics detracted from progress rather than advanced the cause. However, there is no doubt that these efforts brought the issues in the public eye and served to rally gays to become more active.
Growing up, I was oblivious to gays and the gay lifestyle. During the Summer of 1967, while on a Midshipmen cruise aboard the USS Benner DD803, I had a personal encounter while in port in San Francisco, which frankly left me traumatized and shaken.
Five years later, after separation from the Navy, I returned to Minneapolis to complete my BA at the University of Minnesota. Shortly after locating my off-campus housing, I discovered I had moved into what had become the Minneapolis Model City area. I soon found they were going to have an election to get people involved and that so far, no one had signed up from my precinct.
It was time to mount my white charger and plow into the weeds of grassroots politics. Three of us filed for the two spots the final week before the deadline. With some actual campaigning, I won one of the two slots — and in doing so, my first election. The third candidate who did not prevail was Jim Anderson, who lived across the street from me.
One evening I was visiting with Jim to get to know him. We smoked a joint together and were breezily discussing and resolving the political issues of the day. I liked the guy, and it seems he liked me as well. When he propositioned me, I was shocked. He demurred, but still, we talked. I was curious, and he was willing to talk about himself and how he had always known that he was gay from an early age.
That private conversation was the most important single factor in my transition regarding gay rights.
The Model Cities experience was also pivotal. I won an election to its Planning and Policy Board in what was, in essence, a mini legislature on the neighborhood level. We had money, and the authority to spend it courtesy of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society efforts. While most of us were anti-war activists at one level or another, we had a big sandbox that had us focusing on the practical issues of improving a large, poor inner-city area.
At weekly meetings, we would hash out the issues of the day in terms of inner-city housing, recreation needs, economic development, and social services. I was a member of the Income Core, which focused on economic development, jobs, and job training.
My participation in the income core led to an appointment to the Board of Directors of the Concentrated Employment Program (CEP) as a community representative. I learned a lot.
Still, a student, I lived on the $20 meeting stipends paid to Planning and Policy Board Members and my $175 a month GI Bill subsidy. I devoted myself to university studies and to understand the needs of the community and how to meld it into a Greater Society.
I came to believe that an appropriate goal of the government was to create the circumstances in which every person had the greatest possible opportunity to maximize their talents, no matter their background.
I believe that to this day. That philosophy extended to people like Jim Anderson, who happened to be born gay.
Your socks don’t match.
On January 2, 1974, I was sworn in as Sixth Ward Alderman.
Days into my new role, I faced my first neighborhood dispute regarding a half-way house in the Whittier neighborhood.
I worked with the organization and its neighbors to restore neighborhood peace. In the process, I met Bob Knight and his nearby neighbor’s Merry and Duane Elg, who together would become my closest friends and advisors during my city council days.
Bob was gay, and while it may be trite to say so far more sensitive to style than me. I’ve tended to be sartorially challenged or perhaps more correctly, oblivious. One day early in my term, he was in my office and upon parting, confided his dislike for my choice of socks. I don’t remember exactly why — probably they didn’t match my outfit, possibly each other.
I liked that. When each council member was allocated funds to pay for a staff person, I asked Bob to fill that role on the theory that he would speak the truth to me.
Steve Endean, the Persistent Charm Offensive
I do not remember how I first met Steve Endean, whether it was through Bob or that Steve just made an appointment to see me. However, it occurred, it was during those heady first few weeks in office. Steve argued there was a need for Minneapolis to pass a gay rights ordinance, and I quickly committed myself to support an effort to do so.
Born in Iowa, Steve Endean was a recently graduated political science major from the University of Minnesota. A stocky, handsome man with a cleft lip scar that added to his rugged looks. He chose to wear a sport coat and ties and courted support for his cause with persistence and respect.
Almost daily throughout the first months of 1974, Endean would come to my office, if only to drop off his coat, and would then, as the opportunity presented itself, engage my fellow Aldermen in quiet conversation.
He became a common fixture for several weeks among the crowd that made up the hubbub of political energy that infused the council chambers. Always in coat and tie, always respectfully.
His first task was to breakthrough residual bias and, more importantly, fears consciously or unconsciously affecting people’s perceptions. Here was a polite, positive person who was gay and not a threat. Today, the importance of that underlying reality may be hard to appreciate, but it was an essential first step.
Once that base of trust was built, the more significant issue of explaining the need for an ordinance was next. Was this really an employment issue or just occasional bad behavior by bullies and drunks targeting people they did not understand? Not that that wasn’t bad enough in its own right.
Just how many people were gay? While the Kinsey Report suggested as many as 10% of the population are gay, most of my colleagues and I probably were aware of few, if any, besides Steve Endean and a handful of others in the media. In my case, I knew Bob and his partner Dave and perhaps one or two others.
The bulk of the gay community was closeted, the outs that were visible tended to the flamboyant or obnoxious side. There weren’t that many of them either. Locally, Alan Spear was the singular face of gay respectability. Many others would eventually emerge from their closets as time passed, and public acceptance grew. But they were few in 1974.
In the final analysis, Steve’s effort was the most important single factor in the ultimate successful passing of Minneapolis’ ordinance. His respectful individual effort reached out to each member of the council on a personal level and made clear the need and desirability of taking action.
After the successful passage of the ordinance, Steve would be appointed the city’s Civil Rights Commission in August of 1974 by Mayor Al Hofstede.
By late February, Steve became confident the votes were there. The main debating points revolving around whether or not the city’s existing ordinances already covered gays against discrimination?”
At least one member was a sure no vote. Others weren’t sure this was a topic they wanted to go on record about.
Notice of Intent
On March 14, 1974, a formal notice of intent to introduce an ordinance was read into the proceedings of the Council sponsored by myself, and Aldermen Keith Ford, Tom Johnson, Lee Munnich, and Walter Rockenstein. This constituted the first reading of the ordinance, which was then referred to the Council’s permanent committee on Health and Social Services.
While it was one thing to be in favor of an ordinance, it was another actually to write one. Keith Ford volunteered to work with Tom Johnson, on the task of drafting the new ordinance. In addition to Steve Endean, Jack Baker involved himself in the discussions, leading to a tussle over the choice of wording. Keith Ford remembers it being the breakthrough when the language “Affectional or Sexual Preference” was agreed upon and then added to each portion of the existing ordinance as a protected class.
Just what that term meant was not spelled out. That would come later and is where Minneapolis has a claim to being the first in the nation, although we may not have realized it at the time.
As the buzz grew around city hall, that the ordinance was in the works, some closeted city staff drew lots to choose which one would lobby the council’s lone Republican, Walther Rockenstein. Rocky remembers that they were afraid of being outed and risking their jobs. Their fear was a testimony to the need for the ordinance.
That brave lobbyist was happy to discover that Rocky was a long-time advocate for civil rights, coming from what I call the Lincolnian branch of the Republican Party. Too bad its numbers have decreased so significantly.
Eddy Felien remembers Baker lobbying his support for the ordinance in a city hall elevator encounter, which led to the committee hearing before the Health and Human Services Committee, which he chaired. Felien recalls, “It was a lively hearing with fundamentalist ministers ranting about the devil.” My recollections of that meeting have faded, I think, because there wasn’t an earth-shaking public reaction one way or the other.
The final passage
After the committee hearing, a decision was made at the DFL caucus meeting to schedule the eventual final passage on a day when Russ Green would be absent. Mostly out of respect for him, as our most senior member and a sure no vote. Keith Ford would also miss that council meeting, but we were by then confident of the majority, although there were more than a few members nervous about the potential political repercussions.
On the day of the vote, March 29th, 1974, I remember lobbying Dick Miller, the other single male on the council, with a public opinion poll that showed majority support for “gay rights.”
Alderman Sam Sivanich (Ward 1) was among the more nervous, and when the ordinance came up on the agenda, he moved to refer it back to committee for additional public hearings. That motion was seconded but failed.
The final vote was ten ayes, no nays, with Sivanich not voting and two absent.
Upon passage, Council President DeMars’s suggested we all be listed as sponsors of the ordinance. I was a bit taken back as I had all along considered this to be my baby, but let that ride, and besides, it was a case where we would all either hang together or take credit down the road. And while that to passed, it was not officially recorded in the council’s official proceedings, which do not always list authors of ordinances.
The ordinance was approved by Mayor Al Hofstede on April 4th, making Minneapolis one of the first major cities in the nation to take similar action.
It was some weeks later that I received one of the few thankyous I got as a result of the ordinance passing. It came in the form of a letter from a man in Duluth, Minnesota. It seemed that he had been hired as a telephone installer in Duluth as a result of our ordinance. Northwestern Bell, the then local phone company, headquarter within spitting distance of City Hall, had changed its personnel policy as a result of the law, not just for the city of Minneapolis, but its entire operating area, including Duluth. Their prior policy would not allow the hiring of gays for any position that put them into people’s homes.
It was gratifying to know that our effort had reached beyond our borders.
But wait there is more.
The original solution of adding the language “affectional or sexual preference” was a short term breakthrough. It did the trick and got the ordinance passed, but just what did the phrase mean and who was covered and who was not.
Increasingly other council members and I were approached by transgender and transvestite people who wanted assurances that they too were included.
Here my memory of events fades a bit. But in September of 1975, the official proceedings of the City Council report that Alderman Rockenstien, DeMars, Johnson, and Quillan introduced another amendment to the ordinance which was referred to the council’s Government Affairs Committee, chaired by Tom Johnson.
I was not on that committee and cannot speak to details, but the proposed change added a new paragraph X to the ordinance defining the phrase ‘Affectional Preference.’
(X) Affectional Preference. ‘Affectional Preference’ means having or manifesting an emotional or physical attachment to another consenting person or persons, or having or projecting a self-image not associated with one’s biological Maleness or one’s biological Femaleness.
This amendment was passed unanimously by the city council at the final meeting of our two-year council term on December 30, 1975.
An MSNBC article by Emma Margolin from June 3, 2016, noted that this established Minneapolis as the first city in the country to pass protections for transsexuals. http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/how-minneapolis-became-the-first-city-the-country-pass-trans-protections?fbclid=IwAR1ewcA15PHJaVK1XEZnFeYE1R22vXMr4nay_7tkRLuO01lQggpdjlRpJ7w
The Unspoken Fear
As a politician, there was always a fear that supporting a Gay Rights ordinance might backfire electorally. This is the standard stuff of everyday life for elected officials — the balancing act that informs the democratic process. Some only act when they are confident of support; others will pursue ideas, passions, and ideologies until they crash and burn. Most of my colleagues seemed to strive for the middle course. To progress without getting derailed. Preferring a half loaf and the chance to continue to serve versus purity and potential political death.
This tempered approach gives politicians a bad name among zealots interested in any given issue. A politico’s caution is seen as a lack of commitment, if not outright sabotage. Often, even the valiant are seen as merely doing what they should be doing, with little credit for the bravery required.
But on the issue of Gay Rights, there was a second layer of fear. A personal one, the fear of being thought of as gay. This fear may have been particularly acute for myself and another council member who was also unmarried at the time.
I was championing a cause but did so as quietly as I could in the background. Continually monitoring and cheering Endean’s efforts, comparing notes but not playing an obvious role in lobbying colleagues. I suspect that fear was shared to some degree by the entire council (all male by the way.) The times may have been changing, but just barely.
In hindsight, while I am proud of many other endeavors pursued during my two terms in office, this particular effort is the one of which I am most proud, maybe mostly because it required taking a stand while afraid. That I understand is known as courage.