Queer in the Twin Cities
Next weekend, more than 100,000 people will watch a parade on Hennepin Avenue and raise high a universal symbol of gay liberation: the rainbow flag.
"The rainbow flag really helps people be able to show who they are," says Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota. "To come out, and have some kind of symbol around that."
In 1972, Gilbert Baker finished his term with the Army, settled in San Francisco, and bought a sewing machine. He had no money but wanted to dress like David Bowie, so he figured he'd go the cheap route and make his own glam rock clothes.
Pretty soon, word of Baker's skills spread, and he started getting requests to make banners for antiwar and gay pride marches. One day in 1978, Baker had a brainstorm: a rainbow flag, with each color representing an aspect of the gay community.
Baker and his friends spent hundreds of hours in San Francisco's Gay Community Center, washing 1,000 yards of fine cotton, slicing it into strips, and dyeing it eight vivid colors. Baker's friends ironed the fabric until it was smooth, then Baker pieced it all together with his sewing machine.
In June 1978, Baker and his friends hooked a 60-foot-by-30-foot flag to the pole at United Nations Plaza in the city's civic center, and watched as the wind unfurled the rainbow flag for the first time.
"To see the immediate reaction of the people was incredible," Baker recalls. "People just took one look at it and we owned it, just instantly."
Baker was inundated with requests for rainbow flags. Thirty-three years later, he's still making them.
"Flags are about power," Baker says. "This isn't just some artsy-craftsy thing—it has a meaning and a purpose. And that purpose is to identify ourselves as beautiful."
HOT PINK: SEXUALITY
Rocking a T-shirt that reads "Masturbation Not Mass Destruction," Jennifer Pritchett faces a wall of candy-colored dildos and vibrators.
"I've given this to everyone in my family," she says lifting one the shape of a coffee bean. "My cousins, my mom, my grandmother..."
"Yeah," Pritchett says nonchalantly. "My grandma's first vibrator at 78 years old. She loves it."
Prior to 2003, sex stores in Minneapolis all had the classic porn-palace look: sticky carpets and creepy back-room video booths. They sold the kind of dildos Pritchett keeps in a jar marked "Toys We Don't Sell."
While she was an undergrad at Minnesota State University-Mankato, Pritchett was just starting to explore her bisexuality. Not really knowing what she was doing, she simply went online and picked out some toys.
When she began experimenting with anal beads, she felt a terrifying sensation: a tiny snap. One of the balls had broken off inside of her. Mortified, she had no idea what to do next.
"I felt really alone in that moment," she recalls.
Although she managed to get the bead out herself, she never forgot the day that a cheap sex toy nearly sent her to the hospital.
"I don't want anyone else to have to feel that way; straight or bi or queer or gay or lesbian," she says.
The incident inspired her to create Smitten Kitten, the first store to focus on nontoxic sex toys. Her wares are all painstakingly researched to make sure they're nonporous, non-phthalate plastic, and well-made.
"It's queer-owned, but it's not just for queer people, it's for everybody," Pritchett says. "Someone once told me, 'You bring sex out of the closet for straight people too.' That's the point."
James "Andy" Anderson
James "Andy" Anderson leans forward in the Saloon's back office and scrutinizes the paperwork he must fill out to host the Pride Block Party.
It's Monday: vendor day. Right on schedule, a woman named Jenny pops in to the back office to collect the pull tab money. It goes to the Aliveness Project, which helps people living with AIDS.
"It's about $1,000 per week," Anderson explains.
Unlike his business partner, John Moore, who frequently dances among the revelers, Anderson is a rare presence in the nightclub.
Anderson never planned to go into the bar business at all. But four decades ago, Anderson's life took a dramatic turn in Loring Park.
Anderson and Moore were college students at the University of Minnesota, checking out men in the park, when they saw a young man running for his life.
The pursuers rounded a bend and disappeared. Anderson and Moore fled, but as they ran they heard the sound of a beating, and the victim's screams of pain.
Later they saw the victim's dead body being carried away. They looked for weeks for a newspaper article, but it never hit the press. They never even learned the victim's name.
"For me, it was an important moment in my growth with coming to terms with my own sexuality and identity, and having the courage to try to find some solutions," Anderson says. "Things had to change."
In 1972, Anderson attended Minnesota's DFL caucuses, and was nominated as a delegate to the state DFL convention. The last night of the convention, he stormed the stage demanding the DFL recognize gays as a legitimate part of the party. He still remembers the headlines describing the party: "Dopers, Fairies, and Lesbians."
Anderson's activism took much of his time, and to support himself, he worked as a bartender at the Saloon, which was then owned by a notorious mobster named Ron Pesis. In 1980, Pesis got caught bribing a city official and was sent to federal prison. So Anderson and Moore bought the place, becoming the first gay owners of a gay bar in Minnesota.
Their first order of business was to stop the stream of bribery associated with the nightclub. There was such a stigma about being gay that cops could easily pressure the bar's patrons and management to cough up some of the profits. But Anderson and Moore refused to bend. When two bouncers were beaten in retaliation, the bar owners hired a young attorney named Jeff Anderson to help them out. They won the case, and the pressure let up.
That year, they also hosted the first-ever Pride Block Party, a practice that has continued for 30 years.
"From there to today, it's a completely different world," Anderson says. "Gay people are everywhere. They're on TV, they're in the newspaper, they're in magazines. They're walking down the sidewalk. They're your next-door neighbors."
B.R. Simon Rosser
From his academic office at the University of Minnesota, B.R. Simon Rosser is preparing to leave for Europe, where he's been invited to speak on the latest challenges in the AIDS epidemic.
Next week, he'll be in Glasgow, explaining his ideas for stopping the spread of the terrible disease.
A prominent academic who studies the sexuality of gay men, Rosser has long been at the forefront of LGBT health. Two decades ago, he created the Twin Cities' Man-to-Man Seminars, conferences designed to help men come to terms with being gay.
"I remember one seminar, an older man crying," Rosser recalls. "He said, 'I'm in my 70s, and if I had the seminar when I was a young man, my life would have been different. It would have been so much better.'"
Rosser never expected to do this kind of work. As a young man in New Zealand, he was just beginning graduate studies in psychology when an article in the New York Times changed his life. The piece described a mysterious illness killing gay men in New York and San Francisco.
"I had a sinking feeling in my stomach," he recalls.
His gut told him that this disease was going to be important, but at the time, no one in New Zealand knew much about AIDS. So Rosser became the nation's expert.
"I couldn't find any decent studies on homosexuality, so I ended up doing the first Ph.D. in homosexual behavior and HIV risk in Australia and New Zealand," he says.
On the strength of his work, Rosser was offered teaching positions in the U.S., where he's lived ever since.
One of his key areas of research is the connection between psychology and sexual behaviors. When men are ashamed of their sexuality, he says, they're more likely to engage in risky sex.
Rosser, who married a man three years ago, says he's very optimistic about the future for gay rights.
"I grew up in a place where homosexuality was illegal—it was 12 years imprisonment," he says. "To go from that to seeing countries where gay men can get married and get on with their lives is huge social change."
Andy Birkey couldn't believe what he was reading.
Tom Prichard, the leader of the Minnesota Family Council—the main backer of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Minnesota—had just announced that the issue wasn't "personal" and that he hoped for a "respectful debate."
When Birkey read the quotes, his jaw dropped open.
For a year, Birkey had been aware of a hard-to-find document on the family group's website that spelled out how to respond to gay rights supporters. It claimed that gay people were dangerous to children, engaged in bestiality, and liked to eat poop.
With swift keystrokes, Birkey uploaded the choice passages of the document to the Minnesota Independent with the headline: "Family Council asks for 'respectful debate,' says gays are pedophiles who engage in bestiality."
Within hours, thousands of people had read Birkey's piece. By the next day, Prichard was forced to defend himself on Minnesota Public Radio.
It wasn't the first time Birkey had exposed an ugly truth. In 2005, he published photos of Michele Bachmann hiding in the bushes at a gay rights rally. Overnight, his blog, eleventh-avenue-south.com, gained national exposure.
But Birkey never intended to become a journalist. He came to Minnesota to study trees.
Growing up in Illinois, Birkey spent a lot of time camping with his dad, fishing at a creek near his house, and building forts in the woods with the neighbor kids.
"We didn't have cable or Nintendo," Birkey recalls. "My dad thought there were better things to do with your time."
In community college, Birkey decided to study environmental science. When he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, he chose the urban forestry program.
He also began volunteering at the Minnesota AIDS project, where he was eventually offered a full-time job as a health education coordinator. In the meantime, Birkey blogged about LGBT rights simply because he cared.
When the Bachmann photos became national news, American Independent Media offered him a part-time gig blogging for Minnesota Independent. Last year, Birkey became a full-time reporter.
The online pub doesn't have an office, so Birkey spends his days in jeans and flip-flops at Fireroast Mountain Cafe in Longfellow, about a block from his home. He also runs a local website, thecolu.mn, specifically for LGBT news.
"I think that helping Minnesota get towards equality for LGBT folks is really important to me, and something I will probably do for a long time," Birkey says. "Once we get there, I'll go back to trees."
Dressed in a purple T-shirt and black jacket, Katie Burgess stepped up to the podium.
It was late January, and a transgender woman named Krissy Bates had just been murdered. Bates was a recent transplant to the city, and her boyfriend had killed her in a fit of rage.
"Take these streets back and make them safe," Burgess urged the mourners, "so that we don't have to do this again."
As an activist and leader of the Transgender Youth Support Network, Burgess is used to delivering speeches. But this time, it was especially personal—because it wasn't so long ago that Burgess's life looked a lot like Krissy Bates's.
In college at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Burgess came to the overwhelming realization that she was transgender. She dropped out of school, and her life took a dramatic turn.
"I found some friends who were already living on the streets, and moved into a different kind of life—to not deal with my life for a few years," she says.
Burgess became homeless, traveling from city to city on buses and trains. To support herself, she sold drugs and did sex work. She bounced around the country for five years, unwilling to face her life.
Eight years ago, Burgess stumbled into the Twin Cities. She landed a safe place to live and a job at Spokes Pizza Collective, a bicycle-delivery pizza joint.
Most importantly, she met Alex Nelson, a facilitator at a support group for transgender youth. Every week, Nelson picked Burgess up from her home and drove her half an hour to the support meetings.
"Those 30-minute drives were what really formed a strong bond," Burgess says. "He helped guide me through a lot of different areas."
As Burgess sobered up and began accepting her life as a transgender woman, she felt a desire to help others who'd experienced similar struggles.
Now, as executive director of the nonprofit, Burgess participates in a wide variety of advocacy roles. But her most important work is being a mentor and a friend.
"Often times, it's just sitting and listening," Burgess says. "That can be the most powerful thing: Somebody who is trans, who is just a little bit older, and who is capable of listening and understanding what is going on in their lives."
At just past 11 p.m., Dan Luedtke flips a switch that projects a huge wall-size mural filled with dazzling patterned shapes that swirl in the muggy night air.
Welcome to Madame, an LGBT community arts center founded by Luedtke and some friends. For Luedtke, a prolific printmaker, the space represents his personal answer to modern gay activism: a place for LGBT artists to work and host raucous parties.
"A lot of people think if you're an activist you get up early and get a clipboard and go to the Capitol," Luedtke says. "Gay politics is kind of like a struggle to define pleasure. So it makes sense to have places to be frivolous and have excess."
Luedtke trained for years as a classical pianist. But he tired of the starched collars and quit to begin performing with an experimental rock trio called Gay Beast.
As the band toured, Luedtke played many community arts spaces run by young activists. He began fantasizing about owning a similar space for LGBT art in Minneapolis.
Finally, late last year, he found just the right place—two adjoining upstairs apartments on Chicago Avenue South.
The first event at Madame was a reaction to the censorship of a gay art retrospective at the Smithsonian. A video installation of "Fire in My Belly" by David Wojnarowicz was removed after outcry from conservative Christian politicians.
Madame's answer was satire. Luedtke covered himself in balloon ants and performed a Judy Garland song while the actual "Fire in My Belly" film was projected against a wall.
It was just the first of many absurdist art parties and shows to come.
"I am less inclined myself personally to be on the front lines at a lot of protest things," he says. "I think my role is more of a facilitator and creating space for meetings and creating unlikely art happenings that make you think."
In her black cocktail dress and bright red pumps, Oskar Ly watched from stage right as Summer Thao accepted the crown.
"That moment itself was really touching because not a lot of parents of Hmong LGBTQ individuals are very supportive," says Ly.
Growing up, the expectations from Ly's family were clear: She should be a good student, then a good wife and mother.
Instead, Ly became a fashion designer who lives with another woman and has labeled herself "queer."
"My family was very awkward about it," Ly says. "My sister, who was married, questioned whether or not I should be around her children. My younger brother—all my brothers—questioned me and wondered if it was a phase."
Hmong culture views homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender identity as a problem that has plagued its people as a result of Westernization. But as interim executive director of Shades of Yellow, Ly is working to change that.
In 2003, two gay Hmong men founded Shades of Yellow as a social group for connecting with other men like themselves. Its mission is increasing acceptance of LGBT people in the Hmong community, as well as helping Asians gain acceptance in the broader LGBT community.
The group's most visible effort is its annual New Year's banquet and pageant, which mimics the traditional Hmong New Year. The contest used to be a drag show, but these days it's open to all LGBT categories. Rather than king or queen, the winner is crowned "ambassador."
At the end of the banquet, Ly went home with her girlfriend, exhausted but incredibly happy. She couldn't stop thinking about Summer Thao.
"It was just the fact that her mother was there and proudly took the stage with her daughter," says Ly. "It was just really beautiful."
Rev. Mary Albing
In the sunlit sanctuary of her church, Pastor Mary Albing stands at the pulpit in long white robes and recalls her struggle to be installed after coming out.
"When I was first called here eight years ago, when the bishop came to somehow get me off his hands, I said, 'Uh-uh,'" she says smiling. "You can't un-Lutheran me."
The crowd—a mix of snowy white heads, Togolese immigrants, same-sex couples, teenagers, and young parents—chuckles appreciatively.
Almost two years ago, the church's legislative body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, voted to allow partnered gays to serve openly. Albing became its first officially recognized lesbian pastor.
But it had been a struggle. For seven years, the governing body had essentially pretended Albing did not exist, listing her as "on leave" and the church's pastor position vacant.
Since the 1990s, the ELCA had struggled internally with how to allow gay, lesbian, and bisexual clergy to serve within the community. Openly gay and lesbian pastors could serve if they stayed celibate, or lived in Don't Ask, Don't Tell-type secrecy.
During this confusing time, Albing's life was in upheaval. She was married and living in Grand Forks with two children when she and her husband decided to lead a church in Minnesota as a couple. Albing left her best friend Jane behind, but missed her with such an intense emotional pain that the two started questioning the nature of their relationship.
Over time, Albing realized she and Jane were actually in love. Albing moved out of her roles as wife and pastor and Jane moved to the Twin Cities. Albing began serving, as many gay clergy members did, as a hospital chaplain, an out-of-the-way post she found unfulfilling.
"My heart is in parish work," she explains.
A congregant at Christ the Redeemer recommended her for its vacant parish position and she couldn't resist applying. Nor, as it turned out, could they resist her. She was selected and began serving in open defiance. Only one parishioner left in protest.
Finally, in 2009, the scales within the ELCA tipped. A measure to allow gays to serve openly passed the national assembly and Albing's bishop, who by this time had become a supporter, signed her call in May 2010.
"Real change doesn't happen in any organization except from the inside," says Albing. "If I leave and go someplace where it's easier, that's not producing any change."
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