He was one of the first public officials in the nation to acknowledge he was gay and one of the first prominent people, before Magic Johnson, to acknowledge that he was HIV positive. Before his death, Brian Coyle was a champion for issues that are now commonplace, such as domestic partner benefits and light rail transportation.
Coyle, whose legacy will be celebrated on Tuesday, was a student for Nixon as a teen, and the director of the Campaign to Impeach Nixon as an adult. He was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, which caused him to lose his job as a professor, and he pushed for rent control and tenant rights. Before being elected to the Minneapolis City Council, he fought to block power lines in rural Minnesota and publicly subsidized stadiums downtown.
He was also a snappy dresser, said his sister, Kathy Coyle.
Coyle died 25 years ago, on Aug. 23. His friends and family will hold a public tribute for him at 7:30 p.m. at Wesley Church Center, 101 E. Grant St., Minneapolis — the site of Coyle’s funeral.
Greg Renstrom, one of the organizers of the event, never met Coyle. But over the years the former minister began hearing tales of Coyle’s short but wildly ambitious and productive life.
“He was an unbelievable person,” said Renstrom, who wants to give friends a time to remember, but also introduce Coyle’s work to a new generation.
Kathy Coyle, who will speak at the event, said her brother became a community leader because of innate smarts, hard work and a passion to attempt big things. She can still picture him up at the cabin when they were young, sunbathing while reading a book on economics.
Coyle was also successful because his parents, Republicans, supported him even when they didn’t agree with him. They supported him when he refused the draft and was called a “pinko commie,” and when he revealed that he was gay, his sister said.
Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, worked with Coyle on many social issues and said Coyle didn’t care much about party politics, focusing instead on tough issues. “Everything he did in his life revolved somehow around economic justice,” she said.
Clark, who is lesbian, preceded Coyle in coming out, but said his decision to acknowledge he was HIV positive was courageous. “That was much, much harder because it was a time when the community was finding its pride,” she said.
When Coyle started his own political career, he started at the top, challenging U.S. Sen. David Durenberger. Durenberger said in an e-mail that he grew to admire Coyle because he had “the courage of his convictions” and spoke out for those who couldn’t.
Coyle lost that race, and also one for mayor and City Council before winning the Sixth Ward seat in 1983. As a council member, he focused on affordable housing, the environment and public transportation. Kathy Coyle remembers Brian taking former Gov. Rudy Perpich to poor areas of his ward to show him the blight, but also the possibilities of the neighborhoods.
Kathy Coyle said the family knew her brother was HIV positive long before he made it public, which he did with careful planning.
The way Coyle chose to announce his illness says as much about him as anything. He picked journalist David Carr to write a lengthy piece that included material from Coyle’s journals. Carr had struggled with drugs and lost jobs because of it. He was trying to prove to local editors he was reliable at the time.
“Brian knew David needed a hand up,” said Kathy Coyle. So, even though he was dying, he was thinking about someone else, she said. Carr went on to become a legend at the New York Times, and he credited Coyle with helping his career.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who will speak at the event, was 19 when Coyle won his election.
“It was big news that an ‘out’ gay man was elected to the City Council, but I didn’t know quite what that meant to me,” said Dibble, who was instrumental in getting Minnesota’s gay marriage law passed.
Asked if the law could have been passed without people such as Coyle, Dibble replied: “Absolutely not.”
Dibble recalls meeting with the artist commissioned to do a bust of Coyle for City Hall. Should he be portrayed as the idealistic young radical with long hair and a mustache, or the clean-cut council member with the nice suits who got things done?
The conflicting images were part of who Coyle was, so the artist included elements of both.