Sunday, May 12, 2013

Karen Clark's Revolutionary Act: "Daring to Believe That People Can Change Their Hearts and Minds"

Last Thursday saw the historic passage of marriage equality legislation in the Minnesota House of Representatives. The chief author of this legislation (HF 1054) is State Representative Karen Clark (DFL, District 62A).

Karen is a longtime political advocate for a range of social justice issues. She's also the longest serving openly lesbian member to serve in a state legislature in the United States.

Nine years ago Karen was the keynote speaker at the 2004 Annual Community Meeting of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), the organization to which I've served as executive coordinator since 2003. Karen was also a recipient that evening of CPCSM's 2004 Bishop Gumbleton Peace and Justice Award.

CPCSM co-founder David McCaffrey wrote the following about Karen and her keynote address for CPCSM's Fall 2004 Rainbow Spirit journal. As you'll see, along with providing a picture of how Karen's Catholic background has shaped her life and her political reputation for working tirelessly on behalf of the disenfranchised, David's article also provides an insightful snapshot into the state of LGBT rights and activism in Minnesota a decade ago. And with marriage equality legislation set to become a reality this week, thanks in large measure to Karen Clark, it's quite astounding to think of the advances that have been made in the past ten years.


Karen Clark and CPCSM's Annual Community Meeting

By David McCaffrey

Rainbow Spirit
Volume 6, Issue 2 – Fall 2004

"That's the really revolutionary act – to dare to believe that people can change their hearts and minds."

With these powerful words of inspiration, Karen Clark summed up the theme of her keynote presentation, entitled "Full Inclusion and Equality for All LGBT Families: The Struggles That Lie Ahead," at CPCSM's 24th Annual Community Meeting.

Karen prefaced her talk by sharing how much she was struck by the depth of CPCSM's current projects.

"Listening to the summary shows me that you are a vital organization, and you give me courage and nourishment to keep going," she told the audience.

She then began her keynote address by pointing out how her own entrance into political life in 1980 – as an openly lesbian state legislator – coincided with the founding of CPCSM. She highlighted other ways in which she felt connected to CPCSM and the wider Catholic community.

Karen spoke, for instance, of her Catholic background and the positive effect its social justice teachings have had on her life. She also noted how her experience at the all women's College of St. Teresa in Winona helped her become a strong and independent woman.

Karen's Catholic background, however, also resulted in her first experience of discrimination. While growing up on her family's sharecropper farm near the southwestern Minnesota town of Edgerton, she and her brothers were from the only Catholic family in the local public school dominated by students from anti-Catholic Dutch Reform backgrounds. As a result, she and her siblings endured much harassment from their classmates because of their Catholic identity.

When she sought advice from her parents about the harassment, they urged her to take a peaceful, nonviolent approach.

"Feel sorry for those kids because they don't know any better," they told her. "Their parents have been giving them bad information, so it's not their fault. Be nice to them and eventually they may come around."

From that first experience of discrimination Karen learned a lot about being a member of a minority group and a lot about how to peacefully deal with injustice – lessons that would serve her well in her later career as a champion of the rights of the marginalized and the voiceless.

During her keynote address, Karen summarized high points in the 20-year history of LGBT human rights legislation in Minnesota. As the only 'out' lesbian in the Minnesota legislature, she has played a major role in this history.

Karen emphasized the extensive and diverse organizing necessary during those years to arrive at the great success of 1993 when LGBT persons became a protected group under the state's human rights laws.

The movement's early organizers began by first focusing on the hate crimes that LGBT persons were suffering and by encouraging Governor Perpich to form a commission in 1987 whereby such crimes could be documented throughout the state during public listening sessions. Karen also spoke about how she would often listen into the private sessions that followed the public hearings. It was in these private sessions that most of the testimony took place. She recalled the painful stories of numerous LGBT persons and their family members as they described the grief they endured while either suffering discrimination or harassment themselves, or in watching their loved ones suffer such injustices. The findings of the Pepich task force eventually led to the passage in 1988 of a hate crimes bill that would protect LGBT persons and increase penalties for such crimes.

In 1992 Karen and her colleagues prevailed upon Governor Carlson to create another task force to study the discrimination that LGBT persons were experiencing in jobs, housing, and public accommodations. The findings from this task force became a springboard for the lobbying efforts that occurred in 1992 and 1993. These efforts culminated in the 1993 Human Rights Amendment that added LGBT persons to the list of groups protected by the Minnesota human rights laws.

In acknowledging COCSM's important lobbying efforts and the support for the legislation from the Minnesota Catholic Conference, Karen emphasized the coalition-building that played an essential role in getting the 1993 legislation passed. She also noted that the greatest influence came from local religious, labor union, and racial minority leaders and organizations.

Another significant element of the Minnesota LGBT movement's early success was the personal relationships that Karen formed with other legislators – especially those who were personally affected either by hateful and bigoted comments from constituents when they showed support for pro-LGBT legislation or by the sufferings of these legislators' own LGBT relatives and friends.

Karen's working relationships, however, have also involved tragic stories. She recalled, for instance, working with colleagues who were themselves parents of LGBT children. Yet either because they were too fearful or too hardened in their beliefs, these legislators were unable or unwilling to support or even acknowledge their children by casting a positive vote on crucial LGBT human rights issues.

Karen's message about what is needed to continue the human rights movement as marriage and family issues emerge for legislative consideration is to keep on with what has worked in the past – deep and broad-based organizing and the building of coalitions and personal relationships.

However, she warned that even harder work will be needed in the coming months. The recent attempt in the Minnesota Senate (following an overwhelming passage in the House) to place on the ballot in the fall elections an anti-LGBT referendum that could amend the state constitution, was prevented by "the smallest thread." The wording of this recent bill aimed to outlaw not only LGBT marriage but also and "legal equivalent of marriage," such as civil unions.

"It's very clear that Governor Pawlenty's agenda of the extreme right-wing is to get their so-called 'Anti-Gay Marriage Amendment' passed," said Karen. She also pointed out that the danger of passage is not yet over for this year, given the possibility of a special legislative session. "I really urge you to contact your own legislators, especially your senators, and urge them to hold strong on their current position of not allowing the vote to be brought to the full Senate," she said. [To read of what became of this first attempt to place an anti-gay "marriage amendment" on the ballot in Minnesota, click here. For information and links relating to the defeat of a similar amendment that was placed on the ballot in 2012, click here.]

On a more hopeful note, Karen pointed out that some of the recently elected right-wing Republican legislators whose numbers have resulted in a "super majority" in the House had won their elections by margins of only a few hundred votes. It would not take that much effort, she reassured the audience, to win back those seats. If LGBT rights supporters would ask their friends and families living in these districts to share their own stories or the stories of LGBT persons they care about, they could begin to turn the votes, one at a time.

By the end of her keynote address it had become clear that Karen's whole political life – one imbued with hope and passion, especially for those living in her impoverished south Minneapolis district and for the LGBT citizens of Minnesota – has been an embodiment of her inspiring words: "Dare to believe that people can change their hearts and their minds."

In light of this it was a fitting conclusion to Karen's appearance at CPCSM's Annual Meeting that she – along with Kathy Itzin and Catholic Rainbow Parents co-founder Mary Lynn Murphy – was awarded CPCSM's 2004 Bishop Gumbleton Peace and Justice Award.

The inscription on Karen's award reads as follows: In recognition of your selfless, untiring, steadfast, and loving service in working for the full and equal participation in society of all LGBT citizens through the passage of just laws; your station as an outstanding national and local role model, a beacon of hope and a symbol of unity and pride for the whole LGBT community; and your ever faithful example in teaching us all how to be compassionate advocates for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the voiceless.


Above: Rep. Karen Clark at OutFront MN's annual Lobby Day – April 14, 2011. (Image: Michael J. Bayly)

This event made history as it saw the first sitting Minnesota governor address participants. Governor Mark Dayton declared “I stand with you,” and vowed to block any efforts to curtail LGBT equality. Dayton also shared his belief that people should be free to marry the man or woman they love. “I believe that day will come,” he said.

For more images and commentary on this day, click here.

Above: A somber Karen Clark is joined by House Democrats and Senator Scott Dibble moments after the Republican-controlled Minnesota House of Representatives voted May 21, 2011 to place the 'marriage amendment' on the November 2012 ballot. (Image: Michael J. Bayly)

For more on this momentous development and the events leading up to it, click here, here, here, here and here.

Above: In November 2012 the 'marriage amendment' was rejected by Minnesota voters. Three months later Rep. Karen Clark and Senator Scott Dibble introduced their bill for civil marriage rights for same-sex couples. At a February 28, 2013 media conference they were joined by three couples and their children and spoke of strengthening families by allowing gay and lesbians the equal rights of recognition of their families under Minnesota state law. (Image: Terry Gydesen)

Above: Karen Clark speaking to the media after the March 12, 2013 passing of HF 1054 by the MN House Civil Law Committee. (Image: Michael J. Bayly)

Right: I had the honor of testifying as Executive Coordinator of Catholics for Marriage Equality MN (aka CPCSM) in support of HF 1054 at the House hearings on March 12, 2013.

For more about this important step forward for marriage equality at the Minnesota Legislature and to read my testimony, click here.

Above: Rep. Karen Clark and her partner Jacquelyn Zita leave the Minnesota House chambers after the Minnesota House passed HF 1054, the 'gay marriage bill' of which she is chief author – Thursday, May 9, 2013. (Image: AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Recommended Off-site Links:
In Just Two Years, Gay Marriage Makes Dramatic Turn in Minnesota – Doug Belden and Megan Boldt (Pioneer Press, May 12, 2013).
Marriage: How Minnesota Got From There to Here – Lori Sturdevant (Star Tribune, May 12, 2013).
An All-Out Push Set Up Shift on Gay Marriage – Baird Helgeson (Star Tribune, May 12, 2013).
Minnesota House Passes Same-Sex Marriage Bill – Paul Tosto (Minnesota Public Radio, May 9, 2013).
Marriage Equality Victories Show How Change Happens, One Step At a Time – Gar Alperovitz (Yes!, May 9, 2013).

UPDATE: White House to Honor State Rep. Karen Clark as 'Harvey Milk Champion' – Joe Kimball (MinnPost, May 21, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Two of the Most Inspiring Speeches of the Historic Minnesota House Hearing and Vote on Marriage Equality
Drawing the Circle Wide
At the Minnesota State Capitol, Two Big Steps Forward for Marriage Equality
"It'll Be Legal August 1st"
Both 'Marriage Amendment' AND 'Voter Photo ID Amendment' Rejected by Minnesota Voters
In the Struggle for Marriage Equality, MN Catholics are Making a Difference by Changing Hearts and Minds
The Minneapolis (and Online) Premiere of Catholics for Marriage Equality
Marriage: "Part of What is Best in Human Nature"
A Head and Heart Response to the Catholic Hierarchy's Opposition to Marriage Equality
In Minnesota, Catholics Sing Their Support for Marriage Equality
"A Thoughtful, Entertaining, and Inspiring Event"
Lisa Cressman's Concise, Reasonable Answers to Marriage Equality Questions

1 comment: said...

My biggest memory of Karen Clark, who represents my District and has for all of the 21 plus years I have lived here, is so very simple but says so much--I had called her office asking for a window sign, and she personally drove over to my apartment building, met me and some of the neighbors who lived below me, and presented it to me.

Yes she is a politician. They do such things. But I had initiated the request and fully planned to just drop by her office or something to get the sign. She instead wanted to meet her constituents, and in it won the hearts of the people who lived below me too.

I am both humbled and proud to have her in my corner, and in the LGBT corner, during this historic time in MN. She is a one-person tour de force. Then again so are you Michael.