Monday, October 13, 2008

Remembering Allan Spear (1937-2008)

Although I never knew Allan Spear, I nevertheless recognize and appreciate the great contribution he made to the lives of all Minnesotans.

Furthermore, a number of people I know and respect, such as CPCSM co-founder, David McCaffrey, and longtime community organizer and former CPCSM board member, Gerry Sell, knew and worked with Allan Spear. I've heard only positive and inspiring things about his life and work.

Spear was the nation’s first openly gay man to serve in a state legislature, and his 28 years of dedicated service in this role ensures that he will always be remembered as one of Minnesota’s most influential lawmakers.

In the early 1990s, for instance, he played an important role in the successful efforts to amend the Minnesota Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

According to the Star Tribune reporter Jon Tevlin, Spear “wanted to be known not as a gay legislator, but as a legislator who happened to be gay who fought for justice.”

Although gay rights were not central to Spear’s legislative career, Star Tribune columnist Lori Sturdevent nevertheless notes that, “through the years, his openness about his sexual orientation helped make Minnesota a better state for others.”

Following is the Pioneer Press’ Jeremy Olson’s informative and touching obituary for Allan Spears.


Not two hours before his death, Allan Spear was at it again — talking passionately with friends around his hospital bed about politics and the prospects for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

How did the polls look? Are they going to hold up? What if people don’t vote the way they are saying?

“A conversation like always,” close friend Lee Greenfield said.

Spear’s condition declined rapidly and surprisingly, though, and he died Saturday of complications following heart surgery. The 71-year-old left a legacy as one of Minnesota’s most influential lawmakers and as the nation’s first openly gay man to serve in a state legislature.

Friends and colleagues remembered him as a unique and persuasive speaker. The former University of Minnesota history professor blended charm and detailed knowledge few could match. It served him well as he fought in the Legislature for civil rights, argued for crime prevention over more punishment, and gained the respect of so many colleagues that they voted him Senate president.

“You put all of that together, he will go down as one of a handful of truly great legislators in the history of the state," former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe said. “In that arena, knowledge is power, and everybody knew Allan Spear was one of the most knowledgeable senators on any subject.”

Greenfield has many fond memories — as the manager of Spear's first campaign, as one of several friends who took calls at Spear's home the day his sexual orientation became public and as a family friend who shared a love of cooking and music.

Spear was behind in his first campaign in 1972, Greenfield recalled, when he was asked to prolong a speech at the University of Minnesota until featured speaker George McGovern arrived. It was a defining moment.

“When it was over, he won the election that day,” Greenfield said, his voice cracking at the memory. “All of a sudden, we had volunteers that we didn’t know what to do with. He turned around the entire thing.”

Two years into his first Senate term, Spear decided to tell a Minneapolis Star reporter he was gay. At the time, only a Massachusetts lawmaker had made a similar declaration about her orientation.

“He just felt it was the right thing to do and the right time,” Greenfield said.

While he earned broad respect among lawmakers over time, his fight for gay rights was never easy. In 1977, he lost a fight to block job and housing discrimination. In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic complicated all related legislation.

Spear spent the 1980s working on crime prevention issues and various liberal causes, such as improving access to child care, protecting vulnerable adults and adding the contributions of American Indians to the state’s school curriculum.

After earning the Senate presidency in 1993, Spear gave one of his most impassioned and personal speeches.

“I’m a 55-year-old gay man, and I am not just going through a phase,” Spear told the Senate, stepping down from the podium to the floor.

The Legislature voted that year to amend the Minnesota Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Spear combined the zeal of a 1960s hippie activist with a shrewd understanding of history and the legislative process, friends said. When conservative lawmakers sought more prisons and tougher sentences, he agreed, on the condition that an equal amount of money and effort would go toward crime prevention.

“He knew how to build coalitions,” said current House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, “often quietly, and often effectively.”

Spear earned a doctorate in history from Yale University and penned a 1967 book titled Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto. His uncommon knowledge of Chicago’s black communities is partly what has fueled his interest in the Obama campaign.

Beyond elected office, from which he retired in 2000, Spear was a gourmet cook and a lover of classical music. He served on the boards of the Schubert Club and the Shir Tikvah Synagogue. Spear's travels took him to France, Italy, England, Ireland, Japan, Africa and Eastern Europe.

Kelliher said Spear was a role model when she worked in his office in the 1990s. Mentor and mentee had lunch two weeks ago. They talked politics, of course, and also about getting old and raising families. Spear had a few words of encouragement, too.

“I will treasure that,” she said. “I’m so glad that I had that time with him.”

Spear is survived by life partner Junjiro Tsuji; a brother, Richard Spear, of Washington, D.C.; and other friends and relatives. A private burial has been scheduled, and a public memorial service will be arranged.

Jeremy Olson
Pioneer Press
October 13, 2008

Recommended Off-site Links:
Alan Spear Remembered for Fairness, Courage - Andy Birkey (Eleventh Avenue South, October 12, 2008).
Spear’s Risk Made a Difference - Lori Sturdevent (Star Tribune, October 12, 2008).
Longtime State Senator Allan Spear Dies - Jon Tevlin (Star Tribune, October 13, 2008).
Ex-Minnesota Legislator Allan Spear, Gay Pioneer, Dies - Elizabeth Dunbar (Associated Press, October 12, 2008).
Allan H. Spear - Rest in Peace - Minnesota Campaign Report, October 12, 2008.

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