After Joan Dressen learned her son was gay in the early 1980s, she immediately started looking for resources and support for her child and her family.
Finding none, Dressen and husband, Roger, sprang into action. They were part of a group that started the first Minneapolis chapter of PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
"My parents were instrumental in starting the Minneapolis PFLAG Chapter," said son Roger Dressen Jr. "They were instrumental in the early movement for gay rights."
Joan Dressen was a champion of LGBTQ rights for the rest of her life, marching in the Minneapolis Pride parade each year. She also volunteered with the homeless and was a tireless champion for social justice causes.
After a long battle with cancer, Dressen died Dec. 9. She was 86.
Joan Elaine Peacock was born Jan. 11, 1934, and grew up in south Minneapolis. Her mother struggled with mental illness, so Dressen and her three siblings were raised by their father. Growing up in a father-led household made her feel different from her peers.
"She felt like an oddball growing up. It was a personal feeling of not fitting in," said daughter Jennifer Payne.
That sense of otherness as a child fostered a deep compassion and empathy for outsiders that shaped the rest of Dressen's life.
"She grew up extremely compassionate and nonjudgmental. That was one of the most amazing things about her," said daughter Lori Christian.
Dressen graduated from Washburn High School in the early 1950s and then worked as a typist and clerical worker in downtown Minneapolis. She met her husband on a blind date arranged by friends. They married in 1954.
The couple settled in Hopkins and had three children. When her children were older, Dressen returned to work as a typesetter at Associated Lithographers in St. Louis Park. Over the years, the couple took in foster children.
Roger Dressen Jr. said his parents took him out to breakfast when he was in college and asked him if he was gay. He said yes, and his mother began seeking out resources and support. They didn't exist, so she helped create them.
"My parents threw themselves into having a greater understanding," Payne said. "She felt it was a personal calling."
Dressen traveled around the Twin Cities and gave speeches about her family's journey in order to help other families.
"She influenced others through her truth and honesty," her son said. "She had a way of ripping off the veneer and speaking from the heart."
Dressen's children say their mother felt great joy when same-sex couples were finally allowed to marry and secured other rights. Dressen felt it was proof that average people coming together could make a difference, Payne said.
Joan and Roger Dressen eventually moved to Shorewood and later Minnetonka. They became active members of Excelsior United Methodist Church. They often volunteered to help serve meals to the homeless, and Dressen wrote an essay that won a free Ikea kitchen for the Simpson Housing Services shelter.
In her later years, Dressen took a world religion class at the University of St. Thomas to better understand Islam, a faith community she believed had been unfairly targeted in recent years, Christian said.
"She was so progressive in her thinking," Christian said. "She was not afraid to speak up against injustice."
In addition to her children Payne, of Victoria, Christian, of Eden Prairie, and Roger Dressen Jr., of Orlando, Fla., Dressen is survived by her husband, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held later.
Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804