The Least Famous Politician You Should Know About

by Paul Hogarth on January 20, 2011

I’ll admit I never heard of Allan Spear before reading his newly released autobiography, Crossing the Barriers, published just two years after his death. But the former President of the Minnesota State Senate was one of the first openly gay politicians in America – and his story captures much of how the LGBT movement evolved in the 1970’s to gain political power, and the struggles of pushing a progressive agenda on the inside. “Allan Spear is one of the great unsung heroes of the LGBT movement in the United States,” writes Barney Frank in the book’s Foreword. “But his very important role in the fight for LGBT rights is far less known throughout the nation than it should be.” Spear was a history professor at the University of Minnesota in the 1960’s, before the anti-war movement plunged him into electoral politics. But it was his later personal coming out in the early 1970’s where he truly made his mark. Progressive politicos – gay or otherwise – can learn much from reading Crossing the Barriers.

Allan Spear retired from the Minnesota Senate in 2000 after a 28-year career, and began writing his memoirs five years later. He died before finishing it, though, and the book’s major flaw is that he never got past 1988 – before Spear’s colleagues elected him Senate President, and before he passed his crowning accomplishment: the Human Rights Act, which extended Minnesota’s non-discrimination law to sexual orientation and gender identity. The book’s Afterword skips through the latter part of his career, giving the reader a fuller picture of his legacy. Ironically, Spear had procrastinated on writing his memoirs because, he said, “who would want to read it? My story isn’t that interesting.”

Nevertheless, Crossing the Barriers does a good job chronicling the life of a small-town Jewish boy who first made his mark in the academic world as a professor of African-American History (when most universities didn’t have such a Department), and his evolution to an anti-war demonstrator on campus. Spear got involved in electoral politics in 1968, and pretty soon made his first run that year for the Minnesota State House. “I no longer trusted the Democratic Party as an instrument of social change,” he writes. “But the other forms of political activism I had tried proved to be dead ends, and with the collapse of the New Politics convention there was really no alternative.”

In fact, a recurring them in the book is about Allan Spear’s evolution from a left-winger from the college campus community in Minneapolis, to a “mainstream” liberal statesman – as he becomes frustrated with the sectarian politics of opposition. Spear lost his first race in 1968, but won a seat to the Minnesota Senate in 1972 – where he stayed for 28 years. When speaking about his frequent clashes with militant gay activists, Spear writes “I agreed that [their] advances now had to be consolidated and that could only be done by winning a place at the table, electing gay people to office, changing the laws, and gaining acceptance for gay rights as a legitimate civil rights movement. My own career pattern reinforced these convictions. I was no longer the outsider I had been in 1968.”

But the most touching part of the book is Allan Spear’s evolution from a closeted liberal politician, to a proud gay man in 1974. Spear struggles with his coming out – for fear of being marginalized as the “gay politician” – but realizes that the times demand it. In fact, it was a good friend and political mentor – State Senate Majority Leader Nick Coleman – who helped him come to this realization. Before Elaine Noble was elected to the Massachusetts State House as an open lesbian, and Harvey Milk won his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Allan Spear was the first openly gay elected official in America.

San Francisco readers will find it notable that Allan Spear did not endorse Harvey Milk in 1977, but went with his gay opponent – Rick Stokes. After members of the Alice B. Toklas Club told Spear that Milk represented “the same kind of confrontational militancy I had been battling in Minnesota,” he endorsed Stokes – without knowing anything else about San Francisco. It’s a decision that Spear later regretted, and chalks up the mistake to getting involved in local politics more than 2,000 miles away. But what I found more interesting is that Spear understood a distinction between Milk’s confrontational tactics – and the sectarianism of the far left he dealt with. “Harvey was more pragmatic than ideological,” he writes, “and there was always a long-range strategy behind his actions.”

And while the book clearly shows how a Sixties radical went “mainstream,” Allan Spear did not let pragmatism get into the way of progress. Like Barney Frank did on ENDA, Spear had resisted efforts in the 1970’s to include “gender identity” in his landmark civil rights bill – telling the base to be patient. But by the early 1990’s, when passage of the legislation was finally on the horizon, Spear had come around on the issue – and the final bill that passed in 1993 included both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Crossing the Barriers will introduce many gay progressive activists who had never heard about Allan Spear to the life of a remarkable person who was both a pioneer in the movement and a role-model. It’s just a shame that Allan himself never got past 1988, and other writers had to finish telling the story.

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