The National Agenda
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."
Indeed, the long-haired woman was gay, and she eventually became a close friend of Teel's. The man across the table became Teel's future husband. And Teel, a liberal and an activist, quickly became an outspoken advocate of gay and lesbian rights: When the pro-gay group FREE, or Fight Repression of Erotic Expression, got off the ground at the U, Teel decided to help out. "There I was, a straight married woman, staffing tables for FREE," she says.
For Teel, such advocacy went to the core of her beliefs. "I've always felt strongly that who you are--by virtue of your color, sex, sexual orientation, whatever--has no bearing on whether you're a nice person or a jerk," Teel says. "I've spent my whole life working to see that there's an end to oppression and that folks have an equal shot."
As the executive director of the Minnesota AIDS Project and an active member of Washington, D.C.-based AIDS Action, Teel remains in the trenches of battles for equality and fair treatment--this time for people with HIV and AIDS. Since beginning the job in 1990, she's seen a sea change in the way people think about AIDS and in the way AIDS service organizations and research are funded. Working on the national level is vital to securing dollars for local services, she says. As the cochair of AIDS Action's public-policy committee, Teel has helped raise such controversial issues as unequal distribution of federal funds (coastal cities continue to receive the bulk of the funds) as well as strategize ways to work with lawmakers. "HIV continues to be a visceral, hot-button topic in the U.S. Congress," Teel says.
AIDS Action executive director Daniel Zingale says Teel's greatest skill is her ability to run a meeting. "She brings people from diverse backgrounds to common ground," he says. "She is able to personally communicate the seriousness of the issue at hand, but her sense of humor creates an atmosphere of trust and a level of comfort."
That's no easy task, given that AIDS Action represents nearly 3,200 organizations that serve gays, women, communities of color, children, people with disabilities, and others. "I'm about process," says Teel. "I'm good at getting people to think through consequences and facilitating dialogue. These are difficult issues."
Advocating for Objectivity
Karen Louise Boothe recognized the power of the media early on. She was just 11 when the neighborhood bully pelted her dog with rocks. The wounded pooch suffered several lacerations, bit another child, and eventually was shipped off to live on a farm. Boothe was devastated. She scrolled paper and carbons into her father's typewriter and pounded out several copies of a newspaper excoriating the stone-hurling boy. "It was such an injustice," Boothe, now a reporter with Minnesota Public Radio, huffs.
As a journalist who has covered everything from Minneapolis City Hall to the state capitol to the recent gubernatorial campaigns, Boothe remains a community watchdog of sorts. But she's also got her eye on fellow members of the media: As president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, she's an outspoken voice for fair treatment of queers in news stories as well as in newsrooms. In addition to monitoring coverage of the Andrew Cunanan killings and providing straight journalists with advice and resources for covering the GLBT community, NLGJA has worked to win domestic-partnership benefits at such major news organizations as the Washington Post and Knight-Ridder. "A lot of what we do is behind the scenes," Boothe says. "We work on the industry from within."
Indeed, it's not always easy for journalists to be out in the newsroom, Boothe says. A reporter's ability to view a situation without bias--the journalistic grail of objectivity--may come under fire when he or she comes out. Gay reporters who pitch gay stories may be accused of pushing an agenda. "As long as our identities are politicized, our work will always be more highly scrutinized than other journalists," Boothe explains. "Whereas other minorities are considered an asset in the newsroom, we're considered a liability."
Elected as president of NLGJA last year, Boothe has taken the reigns of the national organization at a critical juncture. Founder Roy Arons stepped down from his position as head of the organization at the same time Boothe took over. "Those are tough shoes to fill," says NLGJA executive director Mike Frederickson. "Karen's really setting the model for all future presidents of the organization."
The first order of duty awaiting Boothe upon her election as president was overseeing the development of a three-year strategic plan for programming, fund-raising, and outreach. "Karen's really good at bringing different voices into a decision-making process," Frederickson says. The NLGJA board presented the plan to its membership at the organization's annual convention in Las Vegas in October.
Boothe has also taken the lead in cultivating the next generation of journalists, bolstering student membership in the organization and developing mentor programs involving students and professionals. When sailor Timothy McVeigh came out as gay while speaking at the Las Vegas convention, a student-run Web site helped break the news.
But Boothe, who has been out in the MPR newsroom for several years, knows there's still much to be done. When a student recently asked her if it was a good idea to list NLGJA membership on her resumé, Boothe didn't know how to answer. Her own ambivalence, she admits, only proves that organizations like NLGJA have their work cut out for them.
Leading by Listening
Twelve years after moving to Minneapolis, Ann DeGroot was hired as the executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council. Although she'd worked at the University of Minnesota and been involved in organizing several Take Back the Night Marches, DeGroot admits, "The truth is, I didn't really have a lot of experience."
Nearly a dozen years later, DeGroot oversees the largest GLBT advocacy and services organization in Minnesota. Recently renamed OutFront Minnesota, the nonprofit has a half-million-dollar budget and provides counseling referrals, legal assistance, antiviolence programming, education, and outreach to queers across the state.
DeGroot, meanwhile, has risen to a place of prominence among queer-community activists. "Ann is well-known for her level-headed, good-sense, calm ability to lead a room of strongly opinionated people through difficult conversations," says Richard Burns, director of the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City. "When Ann runs those conversations, people trust that they will be heard, so they don't have to scream."
In fact, when organizers of the Millennium March on Washington, D.C., drew fire for their unilateral approach to planning the march, they not only retrenched, they also asked De-Groot to cochair the planning committee. The activist's easy-going personality and Midwestern attitude (she grew up in Wisconsin) were viewed as a possible panacea to the problems of group divisions. DeGroot says Minnesota is in many ways a model of cooperation: On the whole, queer groups in the Twin Cities cooperate with each other to build coalitions and make things happen. "We share information with each other," DeGroot says, citing relationships with such groups as District 202, the U of M GLBT Programs Office, and MAP. "There are horror stories in other parts of the country about groups fighting over $10,000."
DeGroot has heard plenty of those kinds of stories. The Twin Citian helped found and now serves on the steering committee of the 60-member National Association for Gay and Lesbian Community Centers, which meets twice a year to exchange information and to network. She has met informally with other executive directors of GLBT organizations at an annual conference for more than a decade. This fall, the Human Rights Campaign awarded $5,000 to OutFront Minnesota and appointed DeGroot to its field cabinet, a tool it hopes to use to build grassroots support for federal legislative issues affecting GLBT people. "If something local happens, we let them know," DeGroot says. "If something national happens, they let us know."
Such national ties benefit not only OutFront Minnesota, but all local GLBT organizations, DeGroot says. "I now know people all over the country, so when something happens in Minnesota, we can network with people from all over. I think that really strengthens our work here at home."
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