Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Rethinking the American children's picture book

Children look at picture books at school in Santa Clara, Utah, in October 1940. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Associate professor of English at Pacific Lutheran University and author of Suspended Animation: Children's Picture Books and the Fairy Tale of Modernity.


The New York Times recently published a piece on children’s reading that caused much grumbling and debate among my colleagues and students. In Julie Bosman’s “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children” (7 Oct 2010), which cites a downturn in picture-book purchases, adults report that children now grow out of (or are forced to abandon) picture books at an early age. “We’ve accelerated the graduation rate out of picture books,” says a children’s publisher, suggesting a public perception of onward-and-upward intellectual growth and of picture books as inconsequential. Although another publisher points out picture books’ interactivity, hinting at playful practices like reading aloud, sharing the reading experience, and toying with the visual-verbal text, hers is a minority viewpoint among those who want children to sit down, shut up, and read quietly.

According to the article—which admittedly neglects factors like the current economy, picture book prices, the rise of comics, and the allure of e-readers like the NOOKcolor—picture book storytelling lacks practical applications. Rather than explore the complex meanings of interdependent words and pictures, becoming fluent in what some call multimodal literacy, children are encouraged to esteem text-heavy material and to think of illustrations as frivolous decorations. Competency with words alone, Bosman’s article implies, means children need not seek meaning in pictorial sequences or play with word-picture pairings. Further, since standardized tests do not test for critical literacy involving words and pictures, picture books are deemed pointless. In a particularly painful example, as far as I am concerned, a Texas mom requires her six-year-old “reluctant reader” to stick to chapter books and laments: “He would still read picture books now if we let him, because he doesn’t want to work to read.” He doesn’t want to work to read!

Now, you may be thinking I balk at the idea of children working at their educations, or that I have an idealistic belief that we can restore children’s lost leisure time by prolonging the sweet, easy fun of picture books. Not quite. My attitude toward the picture book is not sentimental, although it does arise from deep concerns about past, present, and future generations’ critical literacy. In Suspended Animation: Children’s Picture Books and the Fairy Tale of Modernity, I discuss perceptions of picture books as simplistic, apolitical, and timeless. I reconsider picture books as either sophisticated or, at the very least, influential in multimedia culture. By looking at examples of American picture books of the 1920s through early 1940s—books with anachronistic perspectives—I examine how ideology and culture inhabit the 3D form and artistic/literary content of every children’s text. By rereading these surprising word-and-picture sequences of the past, readers see how adult authors and illustrators present attitudes and biases in ways calculated to inform and amuse young readers.

For instance, by rereading popular picture books like The Story about Ping, The Story of Ferdinand, or Curious George, we now can see animals serving as substitutes for nonwhite or non-English-speaking people in stories taking place outside the United States. These books’ interdependent words and pictures give insight into 1930s ethnic and racial attitudes. Similarly, by looking at stories of friendly machines, like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel or The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, we can see how writers and artists imagined alliances between human beings and automata in the thirties. These word-and-picture sequences present early-to-midcentury anxieties and suggest how adults proposed to resolve them, for good or ill, in tales for coming generations.

Picture books deserve more scrutiny as cultural expressions and as worthwhile material for careful critical reading. Picture books are coded and (to put on my lit-crit cap) dialogic. Those who discount them miss out on opportunities for dialectical play, thoughtful inquiry, and occasional outrage. Suspended Animation sets out to revalue the sequential storytelling modeled in the picture book, to observe the material and analog format of the text, and to consider the complexities inherent in combining words and pictures.


Find out more in Suspended Animation: Children's Picture Books and the Fairy Tale of Modernity.

Monday, November 22, 2010

CITY feature: Edward W. Soja and justice struggles in the contemporary world.

The following is a guest post from Andrea Gibbons, co-editor at the journal CITY: Analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action. CITY's current issue features leading urban theorist Edward Soja and his most recent book, Seeking Spatial Justice (Minnesota 2010), in which Soja argues that justice has a geography and that the equitable distribution of resources, services, and access is a basic human right. Soja delivers a lecture today at University College London in connection with this special CITY feature (in which a number of authors respond to Soja's work) and also in connection with the launch of CITY's brand-new website.


Co-editor, CITY

Edward Soja has long been a recognized -- not to mention provocative -- presence in the field of geography. Known as much for his linguistic inventiveness as for his radical left critique of the radical (and not so radical) left, many of us have followed his work with interest from his first articles through Postmodern Geographies (1989), Thirdspace (1996), and Postmetropolis (2000). Soja has been both a contributor to CITY and a source of theory for other contributors seeking to bring together the cultural and the political. As always, in Seeking Spatial Justice (2010) we find a remarkable generosity in his work and a sense of excitement, which has been criticized by some and praised by others.

In our collection of responses from both academics and activists to his latest book, we wanted to open up the field to both critical reflection and inspiration, and a number of the commentaries are indeed critiques. We see the current special feature as an ideal and highly complementary follow-up to our previous special issue, ‘Cities for People, Not Profit,’ edited by Peter Marcuse, Neil Brenner, and Margit Meyer. Soja’s work has the merit of going beyond a dominant strain of political economy found at the center of the ‘New York School’ to add a very useful (sometimes extravagant) cultural dimension to urban thinking. He argues for an ontological rethinking of urban theory, one that privileges the spatial dimension as much as the historical or social, thereby creating what he calls a ‘trialectic.’

The discussion that this makes possible between more traditional explanations of injustice and social struggle have been invaluable, and we hope the debate sparked anew within December’s pages of CITY will not only help enrich various strands of critical theory, but also bring the worlds of practice and theory closer in dialogue.

Seeking Spatial Justice has indeed been useful to this end, given its focus on the activism, organizing, and coalition building now taking place in Los Angeles. There are two responses in the upcoming issue from community organizers who were present for the founding of the U.S. Right to the City Alliance (and more to follow in later issues). Both explore, and not uncritically, the meaning of geography in their own struggles for justice in L.A. and Virginia, and both set forward topics around which theory and practice could fruitfully be brought together.

It is fair to say that inspiration truly overflows throughout, with the ideas in Soja’s work refracted back through multiple theoretical lenses and practical struggles. There is a piece on the London campaign for the living wage in all of its complexity, and a second on the unlikely partnerships of unions and community groups to preserve green space in Sydney. Another response looks at the rise of the BNP in Britain, and demands we attempt to understand how the far right is thinking spatially and organizing the working class. The final piece moves far beyond Soja’s work itself to engage with Hardt and Negri, and explore the meaning of the commons.

It has been a very exciting feature to pull together, and in every sense fulfills CITY’s tagline, as the analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action.


Read the latest issue of CITY.

Find out more about Soja's Seeking Spatial Justice.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

M. Bianet Castellanos: Tourism in Cancún and its social and economic effects on indigenous communities.

Beach in Cancún, Mexico. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As a free trade zone and Latin America’s most popular destination, Cancún, Mexico, is more than just a tourist town. It is not only actively involved in the production of transnational capital but also forms an integral part of the state’s modernization plan for rural, indigenous communities. Indeed, Maya migrants make up more than a third of the city’s population. Today, M. Bianet Castellanos discusses tourism to this popular destination and its impact on local indigenous communities.

Assistant professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota and author of A Return to Servitude: Maya Migration and the Tourist Trade in Cancún.


How does Cancún's popularity as a tourist destination impact indigenous communities?
With more than 3 million visitors annually, Cancún is one of Latin America’s most popular tourist destinations. Tourists are drawn to Cancún not only because of its beautiful beaches and warm climate, but also by the ancient remnants of Maya culture. Although tourist visits are brief (typically no longer than a week), they leave a deep impression on the indigenous communities surrounding Cancún. By their sheer numbers, these visits translate into service jobs, many of which are occupied by Maya migrants who make up approximately a third of Cancún’s population. Indigenous workers interact with tourists in hotels, on the street, and in airports. These encounters produce ideological shifts that transform local cultural practices. I offer two examples here.

First, to capture tourist dollars, rural communities have altered traditional gender roles in which men migrated in search of work and women remained at home. Prior to 1991, only two women left Kuchmil (a pseudonym for a rural Maya village studied in A Return to Servitude) to work as domestic servants in private homes because unmarried women who worked outside the home placed their reputations at risk. Today, the stigma once associated with migration has disappeared. To fill the demand for indigenous domestic servants, unmarried Maya women migrate to Cancún in almost equal numbers to that of men. Their earnings have granted these young women a greater decision-making role in the household and this earning potential has convinced them to postpone marriage for a few years. Twenty years ago, women were married by the age of twenty-five. Otherwise, they were considered old maids.

Second, ideas of leisure in rural communities that previously centered on spending time with family and attending religious festivals have been expanded to include local tourist consumption. Modeling themselves after the trope of the universal tourist (as sightseer and always at play) portrayed on television programs and visible in Cancún, indigenous migrants spend their leisure time visiting national tourist sites like Chichén Itzá in Yucatán and the Agua Azul waterfalls in Chiapas. Car ownership, a recent phenomenon, has made this type of leisure possible and affordable. Families also join group tours organized by their friends, neighbors, and work colleagues to places like Mexico City. But travel is not just confined to road trips. One young couple took a vacation without their children—a practice that is practically unheard of in village life—to visit the city of Puebla. They happily recounted their experience flying for the first time and shared photographs with friends and neighbors of the tourist sites they visited. Not surprisingly, they relied on the same practices (e.g. visiting historical sites, traveling on a guided tour bus, staying at hotels), and technologies (e.g. cameras and video cameras) to “consume” tourist places. For many Maya migrants, this type of leisure is associated with modernity and marks their transformation from peasant to cosmopolitan citizen. However, this type of leisure was not available to most migrants, given their tenuous economic circumstances.

How do threats to Cancun's tourism industry -- such Mexico’s drug war and last year’s swine flu scare -- impact these rural communities?
Cancún depends on the labor of the rural indigenous communities. Conversely, after land redistribution ended with the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and as agricultural production has declined, rural communities have also come to depend on tourism. This interdependence has been highlighted over the past few years as Cancún has faced hurricanes, a flu pandemic, a global economic recession, and the drug war’s escalating violence. After Hurricane Wilma devastated the city in 2005 (more than two-thirds of the hotels were shut down), many indigenous migrants lost their jobs or took a pay reduction. Hotel and restaurant workers depend on tips from tourists to supplement their minimum wage salaries. Tips can double and sometimes triple monthly salaries. Migrants’ reduced income had repercussions for the countryside because they could no longer send remittances to their rural families. It took migrant families approximately one year to recover economically from this disaster, only to then face another drastic reduction in tourism beginning in April 2009 when the swine flu pandemic broke out in Mexico City.

Few cases of swine flu were documented in Cancún, but the panic that ensued kept tourists away. Since the pandemic occurred during the low tourist season, Cancún’s economy could have recovered quickly with the onset of the high tourist season in December. Hotel workers put aside funds to get them through the low season. Then within months, the global economic recession followed. Tourists stayed away because they could not afford or were afraid to spend money on a vacation. Mexico lost more than $2 billion in tourist income in 2009. It was an especially difficult year for Cancún’s Maya workers. Like everyone else, they were dealing with the fall out of the banking crisis, but given their already marginalized economic existence, the lack of tourism left many people unemployed and with few options to find work. They quickly depleted their savings before the end of the year. Many returned home to their rural communities to seek financial help or eke out a living on farm work.

Further compounding these problems is Mexico’s escalating drug war. Since 2006, more than 28,000 people have died as a result of drug-related violence. According to the media, Cancún remained untouched by this violence until recently. On August 31, 2010, a local bar in Cancún was bombed, leaving eight people dead in what investigators have said is a drug-related attack. In spite of international media coverage of this incident, tourism has not declined and is showing signs of recovering from the flu pandemic and economic recession. Although the drug violence has tempered tourism to other parts of Mexico, Cancún has been spared because the bar attack occurred in a working-class neighborhood located far from the tourist zone. Given the Mexican government’s and transnational corporations’ dedicated efforts to police people’s movements in and out of tourist zones, urban violence usually takes place beyond tourist zones, making local residents, not tourists, its targets. Tourism, in spite of its seasonal flows and vulnerability to economic and natural disasters, remains central to the Mexican government’s plans for economic recovery. For example, after Hurricane Wilma, the Mexican government stepped in immediately to provide aid and help businesses re-open within six months. This is a good thing for indigenous communities because it means that tourist centers like Cancún (and the jobs they provide, even if they are minimum wage jobs) will continue to be bolstered during tough economic times by government funding.


For more information, check out A Return to Servitude, which is part of University of Minnesota Press's First Peoples series. Castellanos will discuss her book at 4 p.m. on November 30th at the University of Minnesota Bookstore.

This post was published in partnership with First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Michael Fabricant: Disturbing trends in public education and why charter schools aren't the answer.

This image was created by public-school art teachers Donna Barnard and Carol Dvorak of Oklahoma. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Professor in the School of Social Work and executive officer of the Ph.D. program in social welfare at Hunter College, City University of New York. He is author of Organizing for Educational Justice.

The present public education policy conversation is focused on exit and blame. Very rarely do we hear about how an unequal investment in our students influences academic performance. We’re talking about an inequality in the investment in, for example, suburban schools relative to their inner city school counterparts and about the U.S. having the one of the most unequal student per-capita investment records in the world. The discrepancy between the U.S.'s investment in poor and more affluent children is dramatic by any measure. Simply throwing money at problems is not a solution. As Linda Darling-Hammond and others note, we know what works in improving academic performance. Yet, targeted investments in teacher support, parent engagement, and after-school programming are simply not being made.

We are in a moment in which charter schools are being heralded as the answer. The back-story regarding charter policy and testing is twofold; on one hand, charter schools offer an opportunity to privatize and capitalize yet another public asset. Equally important, the policy further denigrates on the basis of disinvestment and systematic propaganda all things public, particularly schools. Testing adds a veneer of both scientific legitimacy and social justice to policies of school closings. Bad or low-testing schools close because they are not meeting the needs of low-income students of color. Thus testing is described as an instrument of social justice and equity.

These narratives turn social and political realities on their heads. Firstly, testing as a singular form of accountability is limited. Secondly, charter schools' academic performance (as measured by a cross section of surveys) is no better and perhaps a bit worse than public schools. Thirdly, the media has disregarded this data and continued its very loud drum beat for charter schooling as an alternative to public schools. Fourthly, despite evidence that current testing formulas are misused and flawed and that charters are not producing better results, public money is being rapidly reallocated to these initiatives. Fifthly—many social entrepreneurs are making significant profits from both testing and charter schooling which, in turn, reallocates money from the classroom into private pockets. All of these trends are disturbing.

But most disturbing of all is that our schools continue to fail our poorest students and students of color. About that there is no question. Present policy does not address the basic breakdown of underinvestment in these schools and an unwillingness to use empirical evidence to both track and shape targeted programming. It simply does not reflect a belief that public schools can work. Consequently, charter schools and testing are held up as the best and most inexpensive answers. This twinning of scientific legitimacy and an ideology of market choice to gut public investment, close neighborhood schools and redistribute dollars and authority to social entrepreneurs is simply the most disturbing trend today. It assures the continued failure of public education, radical restructuring of public institutions and redistribution of public assets. These cynical policies ultimately rob all of us of the hope of seriously undertaking the complex yet ultimately possible work of improving public education for all of the poorest student of color.

The recent high-profile documentary Waiting for Superman reinforces these trends and beliefs through its resistance to tackling the complex causes and foundational solutions for solving “the public education crisis.” According to the documentary, teachers and their unions are responsible for school failure; those who work outside the system, no matter their record -- like Green Dot’s Steve Barr or the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Geoff Canada -- are the heroes; and charter schools (and neighborhood school closings) are the answer. Like John Wayne in The Searchers, these outsiders will be able to create another way of solving problems. This rather simplistic propaganda fails to address persistent limitations of the successes of its “heroes,” the difficulties of scaling up innovation and the unimpressive aggregated performance of charters. Equally important, the intersection between targeted investment and teacher performance is ignored. Not to mention that the relationship between those financing the film and charter-school economic and political interest groups is a powerful reminder of how propaganda is created.

In the midst of this turbulence I would posit that the best hopes for improving public education in the poorest neighborhoods are the parents of the children in these neighborhoods. Parents as a collective force are most likely to be able to break through the tissue of presumption and propaganda masquerading as effective policy-making. Their expertise and direct experience with what is working and what is not is the only needle capable of lancing the present poisonous boil of an education policy that emphasizes exit and school closings.

It is within this context that parents in the South Bronx came together and created the Community Collaborative to Improve District 9 (CC9). The campaign both provided support to teachers in very low-performing schools within the neighborhood and was later scaled up to reach across the city. Critically, the program birthed by the campaign helped to produce significant improvements in test scores within neighborhood schools. CC9 built another source of power as a corrective to established political power. It built that power through strategic collaboration and its own internal democratic practices. This story is critically important in a moment when we are being told no new money exists for public education and that ever deeper cuts will be exacted. The only way of resisting cut-back policy, promoting substantial targeted investment and restoring our public space is to create alternative sources of power that challenge the presumptions of dominant discourse and policy. Those are precisely the lessons of CC9. Now, more than ever, those lessons are the only ones we can trust to help guide us through the threatening maze of self-interest, propaganda and privatizing policy.


For more information on CC9, take a look at Michael Fabricant's Organizing for Educational Justice.

"Everyone who is interested in authentic, deep school reform—the type of school change that will make a difference in the lives of children—should read this book."
—Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Peter Smith: Have you got a case of the Central Standard Blahs, too? Chin up.

Downtown St. Paul, MN, at dusk. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Regular MPR contributor and author of A Porch Sofa Almanac.

There’s something about the first few days after we change the clocks back in the fall that gets your attention, gives you reason to pause and take inventory, and serves as a kind of spiritual tipping point.

It’s all downhill from here. We’re on a bobsled ride to Blahsville in deep December, where we’ll begin the long, slow climb toward spring all over again.

These first few days on Central Standard Time wear like a new pair of corduroy pants. There’s a not-broken-in-yet weight and friction to them—an oddly-familiar unfamiliarity you’re not quite sure how to feel about.

Thankfully it doesn’t last long, but while it’s with us, everything feels just a little different. Our routines don’t change, but they sure as heck jostle. Everything and everyone looks a little surreal in the strange new twilight.

The after-work crowd on the sidewalk—people who, only weeks ago, breezed by on their way to warm-weather activities—are still on their way somewhere. But, like those new corduroy pants, they, too, feel strange, They’re not breezing through late afternoon sunlight these days. No. They’re trudging under the streetlights like so many citizens of Moscow, trudging in heavy coats with heavier-still looks of resignation on their faces.

Last week, we drove home from work in daylight. Tonight we’ll make the trip with the headlights on—with oncoming headlights stretching to the horizon in front of us, and headlights in the rear view mirror as far as the eye can see.

Once home, once inside the house, we’ll sense all that uncompleted autumn yard work, (the last few leaves to be raked, the garden hoses to be coiled and put away for the winter), calling to us, nagging from out there in the dark.

Saturday, we’ll promise ourselves. We’ll get to the yard work next Central Standard Time-shortened Saturday.

And, softly and gently, carbohydrates are calling from the kitchen. Thick soups. Buttered breads. Mashed potatoes and brown gravy. All of it topped off with another piece of pie, all of it helping us ward off a vague sense of seasonal trepidation.

Chin up, Minnesota. Remember, it’s “Spring ahead-fall back,” not “Spring ahead-fall back into an abyss of seasonal affective depression.”

The “Change-the-clock-willies” only last a day or two. Have faith. We will break in these new pants. Normalcy will return.

In the meantime—are you going to finish that piece of pie?


Peter Smith is author of A Porch Sofa Almanac. Click here to find information about his upcoming readings in Minnesota.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A dramatic sequel to the 2008 MN Senate recount, you say? That's unlikely.

BY JAY WEINER, author of This Is Not Florida: How Al Franken Won the Minnesota Senate Recount.


"So," people are asking, "you gonna write a sequel?"

"Actually," I reply, "no way!"

The sequel, of course, would be about this incredible second potential recount in Minnesota within two years, this time for the governor's post.

But there are major differences between 2010 and 2008.

First, the gap. At this point in 2008, Al Franken's deficit was sliding toward 215. Today, Tom Emmer's is closer to 9,000. That is an enormous difference mathematically and politically.

Secondly, the potential "mining" of absentee ballots has been eliminated by changes in the state election laws during the 2010 legislative session. We were told Wednesday that a mere 3,000 absentee ballots have been rejected out of 126,000 cast. In 2008, 12,000 absentee ballots were rejected, and eventually 1,347 were ruled to have been wrongly rejected. At that rate -- and I think we'll have fewer mistakes by election officials this time -- but at that 2008 rate, we'll have about 360 or so more absentee ballots to examine. And not all of them will go for any one candidate.

For Republican Tom Emmer to "flip" this election, he needs a tsunami of found ballots or wrongly tallied precincts. I don't see that.

So, this will become highly political. When will Emmer and the GOP realize that the votes aren't there? Will they try to game the system somehow so that a recount or court cases extend the fight into January, thus preventing Mark Dayton from being sworn in?

I hope not. That would be over-reaching and would jeopardize Emmer's longterm political future and even the aspirations of Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Does he want to be the governor who worked to halt the clear path of democracy in Minnesota?

But let's just wait. All the counties are doing their vote auditing beginning Friday, and for the next week. Let's see where this stands then. If Dayton keeps his lead in this 8,000 to 9,000 range, the pressure will build for Emmer to stand down.

Democracy is a slow and deliberate thing. And that's good.

This I know: No sequels from me on recounts. Mostly because I believe this 2010 rendition won't have the drama of 2008.


Stay tuned this weekend as Jay Weiner's appearance airs on Book TV. His University of Minnesota Bookstore talk will air Saturday at 7 a.m. CT and Sunday at 5 p.m. CT.

For a review of events within the 2008 recount's 35-week-long run, visit and click on the timeline infographic. You'll also find a discussion guide, a book video, and a link to the This Is Not Florida discussion on Facebook.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Remembering Allan H. Spear

Allan H. Spear was elected to the Minnesota Senate in 1972 and served for 28 years, retiring in 2000. He was one of the first openly gay state legislators in the country, and he fought to amend Minnesota's Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. He was associate professor at the University of Minnesota from 1964 to 2000, and was named by the Minnesota Historical Society as one of 150 Minnesotans who shaped the state. He passed away in 2008. His memoir, Crossing the Barriers: The Autobiography of Allan H. Spear, was published this month by University of Minnesota Press.

Then-state senator
John Milton speaks
at an anti-war rally
in front of the Capitol,
early 1973.
John Milton was elected to the Minnesota Senate in 1972 and 1976, where he was a colleague of Allan Spear's. He writes the stirring afterword to Spear's memoir, and has written a few words about Spear's legacy to share today.


Allan and I took oath as newly elected senators in January 1973, on a day when many of the Minnesota Senate's traditions were shattered. Spear and Jack Kleinbaum became the first Jewish senators. Bob Lewis was the first (and only, to-date) African-American. Sam Solon was the first (and only) Greek Orthodox member. Every other senator was white, male, and at least nominally Christian. There were no Latinos, no Native Americans, nor any members of the GLBT community, at least none that had come out. And for the first time in the 114 years since statehood, Democrats had control of the Senate.

From a demographic standpoint, Allan was the quintessential outsider, yet his achievements during 28 years in the Senate were remarkable. Though he was the first senator to come out in the entire country (and second state legislator), and though he was a leader in the fight for LGBT rights, Allan made it clear he'd resist being defined as "the gay senator." His expectations were far more broad.

Allan's intelligence and willingness to do his homework paid off in several areas, including corrections reform, criminal justice, and judicial reform. He played the key role in shifting the emphasis in Minnesota's correction system from punishment to prevention. And in 1983, he became the first non-lawyer to chair the Judiciary Committee. "By 1983, everybody knew how capable and bright he was, and how gifted he was as an orator," former majority leader Roger Moe later recalled. "He had learned the internal politics of the legislative process, and he'd learned that to get anything meaningful done, you have to have patience. And he'd learned the value of timing – when something would go and when it wouldn't."

The battle to include GLBT persons in Minnesota's Human Rights Act began the first year Allan was a senator. Back then, the chief author was Nick Coleman, the majority leader. (Allan wasn't out yet, though his Senate allies knew he was gay). By a vote of 35 to 32, Coleman's bill was the first in U.S. history to be passed by a state legislative body, but while there were enough brave souls in the Senate, the bill failed in the House. Allan came out the next year, and he took over chief authorship, but the wave of Reagan conservatism and the homophobia stirred up by Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell, and Phyllis Schlafly frustrated every effort.

Despite this, public opinion on LGBT rights began, gradually, to change. Wisconsin passed the first rights law in 1982, and several other states, mostly in New England and on the West Coast, followed. So it seemed time for what Allan called "regrouping in Minnesota." Moreover, the Minnesota Senate had been changing – for the better. (In the late 1970s, there were only four women in the Senate; the elections of 1990 and 1992 raised this to 19 female senators, 12 of whom supported GLBT rights).

After his sixth reelection in 1992, Allan was elected president of the Senate. The Judiciary Committee, now chaired by Ember Reichgott, included a number of liberal non-lawyers to smooth passage. The bill emerged from Judiciary without crippling amendments; with only one dissenting vote, the stage was set. On March 18th, the floor debate began. Allan handed the president's gavel to Reichgott and came down from the high desk in the front of the chamber to face his colleagues. "Madame Chair, and members of the Senate," he began, "Senate File 444 is a bill that you've already heard more about than you want to hear and I will simply try, I hope in fairly brief fashion, to tell you this morning what is in the bill, and what is not."

In a dramatic conclusion, he said: "Finally, I'd like to say something on the personal side about this bill and this is not something that comes easily for me . . . I've been told by many people that oppose this bill that sexual orientation should not be included in the human rights law because it is a choice, because it is a choice that people make, and if they make a choice, they can change that choice . . . well, let me tell you, I'm a 55-year old gay man and I'm not just going through a phase!"

He was followed by the minority leader Dean Johnson, a pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in the western Minnesota town of Willmar, and a general in the Minnesota National Guard. Johnson told the senators that passing the bill was "the right thing to do," and his speech was credited with shifting a few undecided senators. When the vote was tallied, there were 37 ayes and 30 nays, and the bill was passed.


Read an excerpt from John Milton's afterword to Crossing the Barriers at

Find out more about Crossing the Barriers.

Monday, November 1, 2010