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.

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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.

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

Find out more about Crossing the Barriers.

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