Same-sex marriage was a landmark victory for staffers and volunteers of OutFront Minnesota, the nonprofit organization that fought for marriage equality for decades and in 2012 beat back a proposed constitutional amendment to ban it in Minnesota.
Since then, the public spotlight on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group may have dimmed a bit. But OutFront’s executive director said it’s pivoting to focus on the safety and rights of transgender individuals.
“The cultural change still has to happen. There is still work to be done,” said Monica Meyer. “There are dozens of anti-transgender bills in state legislatures across the country every year.”
In Minnesota, OutFront staffers are pushing back on legislation they say would erode LGBT rights and weaken the state’s 2014 antibullying law.
The group, which has an annual budget of about $1 million, is proposing new legal protections, offering services such as a 24-hour crisis line and hosting a youth summit this month for hundreds of teens and teachers at St. Paul College.
“We can’t sit back and say we’ve got this law passed and now we are done,” said Meyer, noting that years were spent fighting exceptions proposed to the state Human Rights Act.
A recent example, according to OutFront, is Rep. Duane Quam’s bill allowing religious exemptions for service providers. Meyer said it would allow people to refuse service to LGBT individuals; Quam, R-Byron, said it’s about not forcing people to do things that violate their religious beliefs.
The matter could be settled this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is weighing whether a Colorado baker has the right, on religious grounds, to deny a wedding cake order placed by a gay couple. The decision could throw parts of Minnesota’s human rights law into question.
OutFront is partnering with Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, and Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, on a series of bills to protect LGBT rights. One would outlaw conversion therapy — which tries to change sexual orientation with psychological methods — for minors and vulnerable adults.
Another bill would outlaw the “gay panic” defense, used by defendants accused in criminal cases of attacking an LGBT individual after learning of their identity in an encounter or relationship.
“The violence, the murder rates and the discrimination for finding housing or a job is such a huge hurdle for trans folks and gender-nonconforming people,” said Maye Quade, a lesbian who has volunteered for OutFront. “One of my duties as a queer woman is to know what the LGBTQ community needs as a whole and stand for them. Even if it’s not for me, it’s for us.”
On the opposite side from OutFront on a number of issues at the State Capitol is the Minnesota Family Council, which holds that the “transgender movement undermines the fundamental order divinely established by God.”
John Helmberger, the Family Council’s CEO, said that the transgender movement has leveraged cultural, legal and medical endorsements to go “from idea to trend” at the expense of the well-being of children.
“Individuals who are facing confusion in relation to their identity should receive compassionate accommodations; however, such accommodations can and should be extended in such a way that does not compromise the free speech, safety, privacy and dignity of all students,” Helmberger said.
“OutFront Minnesota’s legislative priorities reflect an agenda that is out of touch with law, medicine, science, real tolerance, and the vast majority of Minnesotans.”
“It’s not trivial for government to make people do something against their will,” Quam said. “If there is a need, it should be debated in the Legislature and be very clearly stated in the statute.”
Changing hearts and minds
OutFront is conducting grass-roots campaigns in outstate Minnesota to build support for the LGBT community, teaching in dozens of schools about bullying prevention. Meyer said the antibullying laws passed in 2014 have made principals and teachers more comfortable about inviting OutFront into their schools.
OutFront offers legal resources to people who believe their rights are being violated. For instance, an OutFront representative sits in the Hennepin County Domestic Abuse service center, which helped 800 LGBT people last year get restraining orders and other services including emergency shelter and counseling.
And the group has trained thousands of LGBT people to share their stories with co-workers, neighbors, fellow church members and other acquaintances, on the basis that personal stories rather than wonky policy talks finally change hearts and minds.
Such stories and connections helped to defeat the proposed amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2012, and OutFront officials believe the same strategy will play a critical role in securing transgender rights and protections.
While the acceptance of same-sex marriage now hovers around 62 percent nationally, a Pew Research Center survey found less acceptance for transgender individuals. The poll, taken last summer, found that 54 percent said a person’s gender is determined by the sex they were assigned at birth, while 44 percent believed that one’s gender can be different from their birth sex.
“The movement needs to figure out how to introduce more transgender people to other Minnesotans,” said Richard Carlbom, who led Minnesotans United for All Families, another group that fought the amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2012.
Bryana Smith, founder of the nonprofit Minnesota Transgender Alliance, said she’s pleased that OutFront is now focusing on transgender rights. Smith, a supervisor for Target Corp., came out as a woman in 2012 and said that simply knowing someone transgender can change people’s minds. She’s seen it in her own work.
“That makes a difference. People become human,” Smith said.