The Fight For LGBT Rights In MN: The Pride Celebration

Summer in the Twin Cities isn’t truly complete until the arrival of the Pride Festival, the weekend-long celebration of LGBT culture that both inspires and honors the LGBT community. The MN Pride Festival is the ideal place to acknowledge the sacrifices and hard work that the LGBT community and its allies have put in over the years, but is also an opportunity to let your hair down and join in on an all-out celebration of life.  It’s a moving and exciting two days full of history, hope, and some pretty amazing costumes.

Though the Twin Cities Pride Festival, now includes a concert, a 5K, a family picnic, and the ever-popular parade, it was not always a place of carefree celebration. In fact, the first Pride parade held in Minnesota wasn’t an all-out street party but a protest. Established as a show of solidarity with the LGBT community in New York City, where the Stonewall Riots had recently occurred, the first MN Pride “parade” involved around fifty people, about half of whom marched while others waited in Loring Park in case they needed to bail the marchers out of jail, should they get arrested.

Despite this fear of arrest, the marchers who participated in the protest bravely made their way down Nicollet Mall, a path that is now traversed by thousands of people each year during the annual Pride Parade. LGBT historian and original marcher Jean-Nickolaus Tretter said in an interview with the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, “I think some people were hoping we’d get arrested” but that the event still resulted in “joy and happiness.” That same joy and happiness is still seen and felt each year when the Pride Festival, a much-anticipated summer event for many people, kicks off in the Twin Cities.

If you want to check out the Pride Festival and all the history, happiness, and hope that it has to offer, make sure to plan ahead and figure out what events you’re interested in attending. More information can be found on the official Pride Festival website, and be sure to keep an eye out for the Minnesota NOW booth.




The Fight for LGBT Rights in MN: Amending the Minnesota Human Rights Act

Much progress has been made in the fight for equal rights for LGBT Minnesotans, particularly in the last 25 to 30 years. In the 1970’s the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis amended city ordinances to prohibit discrimination against gay men and lesbians. St. Paul’s ordinance was repealed a few years later (and eventually successfully amended again in 1989) and Minneapolis made theirs trans-inclusive in 1975. Though the State of Minnesota had anti-discrimination laws on the books since the 1960s they did not protect LGBT people. It wasn’t until 1993 that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals were guaranteed the same protections as all other Minnesotans. The basic human rights of employment, housing, education, and public services that should be afforded to all could, before this amendment was made, be denied under the law. State Senator Allan Spear and State Representative Karen Clark helped lead the fight to include protections for LGBT Minnesotans in anti-discrimination laws. 

Both members of the LGBT community, Spear and Clark were the first openly gay and lesbian members of the Minnesota legislature. They made waves with their annual attempts to introduce an amendment to the Minnesota Human Rights Act that would protect LGBT individuals. For many years their efforts were thwarted by fellow legislators, but they remained determined to succeed. Even the recommendations of a commission appointed by Governor Rudy Perpich could not sway legislators.

A second commission, appointed by Governor Arne Carlson, toured the state and held listening sessions that included sharing stories about the lived experiences of LGBT Minnesotans. These efforts, along with the grassroots organizing of the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council (which has evolved into the influential OutFront Minnesota organization) and the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action, mobilized a large number of people from different walks of life to support protections for LGBT Minnesotans. Alexa Bradley, who cochaired the grassroots campaign known as “It’s Time Minnesota,” said, “People went all over. We went to rural gay softball leagues, to labor unions o women’s organizations—anyone we could think of that we thought might possibly be allies”.

Legislators began to take notice, and word eventually reached Republican Minority Leader Sen. Dean Johnson, who gave a passionate speech on the floor in support of the amendment. His support cost him his own career in governmental politics; he eventually moved to full-time civil rights work. With the combined efforts of all of these individuals and groups, so many people coming together to fight for the rights of many, the amendment to protect LGBT individuals in Minnesota finally passed in 1993. This was a huge step for minority rights in Minnesota, and set the bar for other states in terms of human rights advancements. Due to the passion and determination of legislators, activists, and volunteers, Minnesota is a safer and more respectful place for all, leaving a legacy that is still wholly visible today.

Celebrating LGBT Pride Month

The month of June in Minnesota is commonly associated with the reappearance of the sun, a whole lot of fun, and more than a few no-wake zones. June is also National LGBT Pride Month, a thirty day-long celebration of LGBT history that was first established to honor the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. This historic event was a tipping point in the Gay Liberation Movement and led to the establishment of Gay Pride Day. In 2000, President Bill Clinton declared June to be “Gay and Lesbian Pride Month”. This celebration of the struggle for LGBT rights and its successes was expanded to include transgender and bisexual individuals in President Obama’s 2016 Presidential Proclamation, that proclaimed June to be LGBT Pride Month. In honor of LGBT Pride month we’re writing a series of blog posts about LGBT Minnesotans and their awesome activism, starting with the first same-sex couple to get married in Minnesota.

Decades before the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell wanted to get married. Baker and McConnell knew they had  their work cut out for them as same-sex relationships were viewed as deeply taboo by many communities in the 1960’s and 70’s. An attempt to apply for a marriage license in Minneapolis in 1970 was denied by Hennepin County and, eventually, by the Supreme Court itself. Instead of working within government regulations set forth for traditional marriages, they would have to outfox the opposition. Thanks to Baker’s education as a lawyer and substantial careful thought by the couple, Baker and McConnell were able to to obtain a marriage license in a series of three steps: McConnell legally adopted Baker in order for them to share legal protections, Baker changed his name to the gender-neutral title of “Pat Lyn McConnell” in order to put the marriage license clerk at ease, and they submitted their marriage application in Blue Earth County, where the adoption and name change were not known. The marriage license went through, and the two were finally wed by a pastor in Minneapolis on September 3rd, 1971.

What does Baker have to say about their expert maneuvering? “‘We outfoxed them,’ he said. ‘That’s what lawyers do: make the law work for them’“.

Baker and McConnell have been married for over forty years, and still live in Minneapolis. They were present when the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, and though notoriously private, they have had a huge impact as LGBT activists in the state, their influence ranging from the University of Minnesota to the state legislature itself. When asked if they would remarry now that same-sex marriage is officially legalized in Minnesota, the pair said they would not:  “To reapply now becomes an admission that what we did was not legal, and [we] will never admit that“. 

Well said, gentlemen. Well said.


A Great Resource: OESW’s Monthly Newsletter

Did you know that Minnesota has an Office on the Economic Status of Women? OESW advises the legislature and provides information and statistics on women in Minnesota. The office gathers information on population characteristics, educational attainment and enrollments, marital and parental status, household characteristics, labor force status and employment characteristics, and basic information on women’s legal and economic rights.

OESW publishes a monthly newsletter, and their May issue is a follow up to February’s, which included research findings about media coverage of women’s sports. Check it out below.



Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Letter in Response to MN NOW Award

At our State Conference on March 25th we awarded Hillary Rodham Clinton our Charlotte Striebel Long Distance Runner Award. While she was unable to accept the award in person, she did send us a lovely letter in response. Click the link below to read the letter.

20170326 MN NOW greeting

Women’s History Month, Minnesota Edition: Nellie Stone Johnson

In honor of Women’s History Month we’re writing a series of blog posts about famous (and not so famous) women from Minnesota history. Our second post in the series is about African American union and civil rights leader Nellie Stone Johnson.


Nellie Stone Johnson was born on a farm in Lakeville, MN on December 17, 1905. Her mother was trained as a teacher, though she spent much of her time working on the farm. Her father was a farmer, organizer, and a school board member in Dakota and Pine County. He helped organize the Twin Cities Milk Producers Association and was a member of the Non-Partisan League. Johnson and her family re-located to a larger farm near Hinckley when she was a teenager.

At the age of 17, Johnson left Pine County to finish her high school education by taking extension courses at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. She got involved with the Young Communist League while she was a student and used some of what she learned in her later work organizing labor.

Johnson got a job as an elevator operator at the Minneapolis Athletic Club in 1924, but was fired several years later for labor union activities. She moved on to the West Hotel, where she worked until new owners decided that they no longer wanted to employ African Americans. She returned to the Athletic Club in 1933 and started her (official) work as a labor organizer the next year when her employer decided to cut wages.

Johnson’s life was one of many firsts, despite her assertion that she was simply “a farm gal from Minnesota”. In 1936, Johnson was elected as the vice president of her local union, the Minneapolis Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. She was the first woman elected to that position. She was also the first woman vice president of the Minnesota Culinary Council and the first woman to serve on a national contract committee where she helped negotiate equal pay for women.

Johnson was active in the Farmer-Labor party in the 1930s and 40s and helped facilitate the merger of the Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties in 1944. She became the first African American elected to a city-wide office in Minneapolis when she won election to the Minneapolis Library Board in 1945. She helped create Minneapolis’ first Fair Employment Practices Commission, which was established by executive order by Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey in 1946, and also spearheaded passage of Minnesota’s Fair Employment and Fair Housing Laws in the 1950s.

Johnson opened her own business, Nellie’s Alterations, in Minneapolis in 1963. In 1972, she campaigned for Van White, the first African American elected to the Minneapolis City Council.

Johnson received an honorary doctorate from St. Cloud State University in 1995. She was a long-time member of the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women and served on the Minnesota State University Board for eight years. She was also a member of the National Coalition of Labor Women, the National League of Women Voters, the DFL Affirmative Action Commission, and the DFL Feminist Caucus, a former board member of the Minneapolis Urban League, and recipient of the Urban League’s Cecil E. Newman Humanitarian Award.

Nellie Stone Johnson died in Minneapolis on April 2, 2002, at the age of 96.


1. Johnson, Nellie Stone, and David Brauer. Nellie Stone Johnson: the life of an activist. Saint Paul, MN: Ruminator, 2001. Print.

2. “Who was Nellie Stone Johnson?” Who was Nellie Stone Johnson? N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

3. “Johnson, Nellie Stone (1905–2002).” MNopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

4. Minnesota, Barb Kucera Workday, and RUSA Leighann Wood. “A Nellie Stone Johnson Timeline.” Workday Minnesota. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

5. “A Brief History of Civil Rights Protection in Minneaplis.” Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

Women’s History Month, Minnesota Edition: Coya Knutson

In honor of Women’s History Month we’re writing a series of blog posts about famous (and not so famous) women from Minnesota history. Our first post is about political pioneer Coya Knutson.


Coya Knutson, born Cornelia Gjesdahl in 1912 on a farm in Edmore, ND, was the first woman elected to represent the State of Minnesota in the United States House of Representatives.

Knutson graduated with a degree in education from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN in 1934 and left for New York to pursue an education in opera at The Julliard School. She returned to the Midwest when her music career didn’t pan out, teaching high school classes in North Dakota and Minnesota. She married Andy Knutson in 1940 and re-located to Oklee, Minnesota, where she worked as a school teacher and helped her husband run a small hotel.

Knutson, like many other women who have run for elected office, got involved in politics through community activism. According to her House of Representatives biography, she “served as a field agent for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, investigating issues of price support. She helped establish the Oklee Medical Clinic, a local Red Cross branch, and the Community Chest Fund.”

She joined the newly formed Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party in the 1940’s and was appointed chair of the DFL’s Red Lake County organization in 1948. The DFL encouraged her to run for the state legislature; she did so and was elected to serve in the Minnesota House in 1950. After serving two terms she decided that she wanted to run for Congress, despite opposition from DFL party leaders. She self-financed her campaign and traveled the state to talk to voters. She beat the DFL-endorsed candidate in the primary election and then went on to defeat six-term Republican incumbent Harold Hagen in the general election.

Once in Congress, she served on the Agriculture Committee and advocated for policies that helped farmers. She also advocated for funding for cystic fibrosis research and a federal student financial aid program. A bill that she wrote, which helped establish the first federal student loan program, was included in the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) that was passed in 1958.

Days after the district convention in 1958, Knutson’s husband released a letter (believed to have been written by DFLers who held a grudge against Knutson) that called on Knutson to give up her bid for re-election and return home to care for her family. The letter received considerable media attention and it, along with rumors that she was having an affair with an aide, likely helped lead to her defeat in the 1958 election.

In 1961 Knutson was appointed as the liaison officer for the Department of Defense in the Office of Civil Defense, where she served from 1961 to 1970. She divorced her alcoholic, abusive husband in 1962. She attempted to become involved in electoral politics again in 1977 but was unsuccessful.

Knutson died on October 10, 1996 at the age of 82.

Sources: Minnesota Historical Society LibGuide: “Coya Knutson: Groundbreaking Conrgresswoman.” Web address:

United States House of Representatives History, Art, and Archives. Web address:

Halloran, Liz. “The Congresswoman Whose Husband Called Her Home.” May 10, 2014. Web address: