By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
We elect our president. We elect our senators. We elect congressional representatives. But when it comes to the national GLBT movement, it's less clear who's leading the charge. Activists from New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have long dominated the boards on national gay and lesbian organizations. For much of the nearly 30 years since Stonewall, Minnesota has largely been considered a "flyover zone" among queer activists.
Until recently. Long known as a state with a reputation for social tolerance, Minnesota has emerged as a model for the nation in many matters pertaining to GLBT issues. When it comes to progressive change, we can tout a state human-rights law that protects transgender individuals from discrimination. We can point to a university system that recognizes GLBT people as an important part of its community, worthy of a voice in matters large and small. We can beam about having one of the only antiviolence programs in the country that addresses the needs of GLBT persons.
We can also stand proud of our representation at the national level of queer-issue activism. Four women who shape our local landscape--Minnesota Public Radio reporter Karen Louise Boothe, University of Minnesota GLBT Programs administrator Beth Zemsky, OutFront Minnesota director Ann DeGroot, and Minnesota AIDS Project executive director Lorraine Teel--also bring Minnesota's concerns to the national agenda. These unelected, unofficial representatives serve as a reminder that queer issues exist between the coasts and that, quite often, Minnesota remains a frontier outpost in the struggle against anti-gay violence, HIV/AIDS, and bigotry. Q
Five years ago, Beth Zemsky was a general without an army. The newly appointed executive director of the University of Minnesota's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Programs Office arrived on campus in the fall of 1993 and quickly discovered she had no phone, no computer, no staff, and only a tiny budget. Her office, located on the fourth floor of Walter Library, was filled to the ceiling with boxes. "People would say, 'Is there a fourth floor at Walter Library?" Zemsky recalls.
But Zemsky took seriously her mandate to change campus climate for queer students and staff. The activist-cum-administrator now oversees several employees and an operational budget of $140,000. One of just a handful of GLBT campus programs in the country, the U office runs a speakers bureau, coordinates employee and alumni groups, awards small grants, and organizes an annual GLBT college fair and graduation ceremony. The program received its biggest boost in 1997, when a gay alum donated $10,000 and promised an additional $500,000 bequest to support queer curriculum development and programming.
Such growth has made the program the envy of activists nationwide--and helped earn Zemsky a seat on the board of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The Twin Citian says she's long admired the work of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, but only recently decided to accept an invitation to join its board of directors. "The way NGLTF looks at queer issues within the context of other issues coincides with my own views," Zemsky says. "They're very interested in social justice, issues of race and class. They're committed to helping local organizations deal with their communities rather than everything coming down from Washington."
Likewise, having another Midwesterner on the board will benefit both NGLTF and Minnesota, Zemsky says. "Most of the people on these national boards are from California, New York, or D.C.," she notes. "Part of my goal will be to infuse the conversation with issues that are important to us in the Midwest. We know things, and it's important for the national organization to have such information. It's important for Minnesota to participate."
Those words might warm the heart of Goldie Gopher, but don't mistake Zemsky for a North Star State native. After growing up on Long Island, Zemsky attended Cornell College in upstate New York before moving to St. Louis to attend graduate school. "I figured I'd finish my degree and get out of there, back to the coast," she recalls. Instead, after working in a battered women's shelter and volunteering with the local gay and lesbian community-services group, Zemsky moved to Minnesota in 1986. She worked as a psychotherapist and as an organizer with the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council (now OutFront Minnesota) before landing at the U in 1993.
NGLTF executive director Kerry Lobel says Zemsky's knowledge and experience dovetails nicely with the organization's current efforts to promote campus activism. "We've been organizing on campuses for many years," Lobel says. "So often around the country, campuses are the center of gravity for changes that affect our community."
It was the late '60s, and Lorraine Teel didn't know what a lesbian looked like. She'd always known that male homosexuals existed, but gay women remained an enigma to Teel, a straight woman then attending the University of Minnesota. So when she learned that there was a lesbian who hung out as a particular coffeehouse, Teel and a friend ventured across town to check things out. "All we saw was a woman with long hair sitting with a man," Teel says. "There was no way to tell if she was lesbian."