'Shaking things up': Minnesota’s LGBTQ lawmakers see new strength at Capitol

Two people sit in committee chairs, listening.
Leigh Finke (left) and Brion Curran are members of the first queer caucus in the Minnesota Legislature. Finke chairs the caucus.
Courtesy of Catherine Davis | Minnesota House of Representatives

Sen. Scott Dibble was often the sole openly gay person in the room when he started out in politics. First elected to the Minnesota House in 2000, the Minneapolis DFLer was one of just three openly LGBTQ people at the time to serve in the Legislature. 

The three — including Allan Spear, one of the nation’s first openly gay lawmakers, and Karen Clark — never served together but jokingly referred to themselves as the Queer Caucus.

Two decades later, the jokes are over. Twelve LGBTQ lawmakers came to St. Paul this month following historic elections. Minnesota House DFLers formed a real caucus, including the Capitol’s first transgender lawmaker and first nonbinary member. 

The legislators say they are prepared to flex some of that new political muscle to secure access to health care, protection against violence and other priorities for LGBTQ people. On Wednesday, a bill to prohibit conversion therapy will get its first hearing in the House Human Services Policy Committee.

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“To have a dozen out queer legislators sitting here, giving a voice to the issues that affect our lives … is nothing I ever imagined,” Dibble said in a recent interview with MPR News.

Two men smile and hold a piece of paper
Sen. Scott Dibble (right) and his husband Richard Leyva on the floor of the Minnesota Senate on Jan. 3.
Courtesy photo

‘We’re in the room. We’re at the table’

The House DFL Queer Caucus marks the newest point on a 50-year arc from Spear’s 1972 election and his 1974 decision to say publicly that he was gay, to the state’s move in 2013 to codify same-sex marriage swiftly after voters rejected a constitutional amendment to ban it.

Caucus members in the new session will focus on health care access, equity and banning conversion therapy, said Rep. Leigh Finke, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the caucus.

“We are stepping into the space for the first time … no one like us has ever been there. That can be concerning,” she said. “I will be honest … I am nervous. I am often scared. I know that having this caucus around is something that will allow the work we do to move forward.”

Protecting queer youth in Minnesota is a top mission, she added, noting that conservative groups have pushed in the past to keep discussions of gender and sexual orientation out of schools. 

A woman sworn
Rep. Leigh Finke being sworn into the Minnesota House of Representatives during the first day of the 2023 legislative session on Jan. 3.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“We just need to safeguard the rights that we have in Minnesota for our community to access health care, to live fully and safely and without a fear of violence,” she said. “These problems aren't some other states' problems. They're issues that are right here in Minnesota, and we need to be prepared to take action to protect our community. Queer people are everywhere, every issue is a queer issue.”

The number of LGBTQ+ officials elected to the Legislature reflects the support and interests of Minnesotans, and that won’t go unnoticed, added Finke, the Legislature’s first transgender lawmaker.

Caucus leaders say that there are more than a dozen LGBTQ lawmakers now among the 67 senators and 134 representatives in the Minnesota House and Senate, and that the House caucus accounts for more than half of that. They say they won’t post a full roster of its members since some have not said publicly that they are in the LGBTQ community. 

A woman wearing a black shirt and blazer
“We’re in the room. We’re at the table. And guess what — we have a microphone and the gavels,” said Rep. Alicia Kozlowski of Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News | 2019

In Duluth, Rep. Alicia Kozlowski made history as the first nonbinary lawmaker. Kozlowski, a person of Ojibwe and Mexican ancestry, is also vice chair of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus and hopes to bridge the groups’ equity work.

“I wanted to run for office for my people,” they said. “Being the historic first I know that I am the first of many, many to come. But, I do carry a big responsibility for all those people who trusted me with their hopes and dreams.”

Kozlowski explained the need to keep one foot in the Capitol and one in the community. They want to be held accountable and get the results they campaigned on. It can be a scary proposition at times, but Kozlowski said they’re prepared to act.

“We’re in the room. We’re at the table. And guess what — we have a microphone and the gavels,” Kozlowski said. 

“When I take the microphone I am doing it with my aunties, the community is behind us,” they added. “Coming into the Legislature can be intimidating, especially as a nonbinary person. But you can feel it — we’re shaking things up.”