Turning anti-gay hate into love with a Loring Park memorial to Joel Larson

Friends and family of Joel Larson have started a campaign to remember the energetic and dynamic young gay man who lost his life to anti-LGBT hate in Minneapolis’ Loring Park in 1991.

Larson’s loved ones are seeking a park bench with the inscription, Let us turn our backs on hatred. Teach love, to be placed in Loring Park to remember him. It will also serve to remind visitors of a dark time in Minneapolis history for LGBT people and how love has made things better, safer, and less unequal in the Twin Cities.

“Yesterday, Joel’s sister Janet said to me, ‘Where do you begin to describe someone who was larger than life?’ That was Joel,” Larson’s friend Awen Briem told TheColu.mn. “I could elaborate about Joel’s out of bounds fabulousness, his dancing, his handsomeness, his beauty, his unmatched style… but at the core I was drawn to Joel because he showed up in the world authentically and he didn’t seem to care much what others thought… And if he did, he didn’t let it show.”

Larson, a handsome young man from Urbandale, Iowa, — a suburb of Des Moines — had moved to Minneapolis the January before his murder. He loved New Wave bands, Madonna, died his hair, and occasionally wore eyeliner, as was the style at the time.

(Photo via Remembering Joel Larson)

Larson’s sister, Janet, remembered his attention to detail. “Thinking back at all the great times we had with Joel is quite mind blowing. How we would all wait for hours on end until he had that perfect look and flawless aura before going out. But we were never bored, and though we complained and poked fun at him, we were always content to watch the transformation. Our favorite joke was that Joel would be late to his own funeral, and as it turned out, he was! So many people came to the service that the viewing line stretched outside and around the church. Everyone had to mess with his hair so it would be perfect, our little way of saying goodbye.”

Gabriela Moore knew Larson from his childhood in Urbandale near Des Moines.

“I met Joel in the mid 80s. The circle of friends we hung around was a circle made up of young adults from all different schools and small towns in Iowa,” she said. “We found places to hang out on weekends, could be the mall, driving around all night, Nolan Plaza or on Sundays to a teen club where we could all meet up and get one last chance to see everybody before Monday rolled around and we would all be in our own towns and in our own schools for the week.”

“After the teen club, as many of us would go to Perkins Restaurant and hang out before heading home,” Moore added. “We loved eating french fries with sour cream and melted cheese on the side for dipping.”

Moore and Larson would end up working at the Perkins, but at different times.

“Like any young adults out there, Joel loved food, clothes, most of all…his hair,” she said, recalling her and her friends picking Larson up to go to the teen club. “He was all about looking awesome and when we hung out he insisted that we all must look our most awesome! He would do your hair if it needed done and put together outfits for us out of whatever clothes we all had.”

She added, “There are times when I will be shopping for something and in my mind I will say to myself…’what would Joel think of this outfit if he saw it on me?’ He has saved me some money and embarrassment.”

Photo via Remembering Joel Larson

Larson lived less than a block from Loring Park. On July 31, 1991 at around 11:30pm, he was walking through the park when he was shot in the back and killed near the park’s Dandelion Fountain. He was 21 years old.

In the late-1980s and early 1990s, a rash of hate crimes hit Loring Park and other areas of the city where LGBT people gathered. 1990 alone saw 112 “gay bashings,” a number that spiked to 130 for just the first half of 1991. More than a dozen gay men had been murdered in the 5 years prior and Loring Park itself had seen five hate crimes in the month leading up to Larson’s murder, the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council told the press at the time. The Star Tribune ran with the headline, “For gays and lesbians, it’s been a scary summer.”

In Des Moines, where Larson grew up, friends, family, and LGBT community members held a memorial for him in early August. “The pain in his friends’ eyes was unspeakable,” one attendee remembered in a letter to Iowa’s LGBT paper, ACCESSLine. “Activists were angry; family members simply wept. Shaking hands with Joel’s father, I found myself at a loss for words.”

Friends, family, and community members held a vigil in Loring Park as well. Ken Darling, a member of Citizens for a Loring Park Community, remembered the vigil in a 1998 piece for City Pages which memorialized another victim of anti-LGBT violence, Matthew Shepard

“Standing in the rain at a vigil for Matthew Shepard a few weeks ago brought back images of the first gay man I knew who was killed by hate,” he wrote. “Seven years ago, in the summer of 1991, I helped organize a vigil for that young man, Joel Larson, who was shot to death in Loring Park while cruising.”

He continued, “It was a very different time. There was no outpouring of support from the straight community. The media treated the shooting, and the murder of John Chenoweth a few weeks later, as a gay freak show. Many GLBT crime victims were too fearful of the criminal-justice system to report acts of violence. Minnesota had no openly gay cops. Queers were not protected by state anti-discrimination laws. The nation saw gay people almost exclusively as victims of AIDS.”

For a glimpse of the times, the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran with the headline, “Homosexuals say threats up after murder.” Much of the discussion of the violence against LGBT people laid blame at the LGBT community’s collective feet. Cruising for sex in Loring Park became a topic for some of the local papers’ more colorful stories with police noting that maybe gays should just stay away from the parks at night.

In August 1991, Minneapolis’ LGBT community was again horrified when a gunman shot 19-year old Cord Draszt of Coon Rapids and former state Sen. John Chenoweth at Bare Ass Beach on the banks of the Mississippi River. Chenoweth died of his injuries.

The investigation into the murders of Larson and Chenoweth went unsolved for the rest of 1991 until a man who had robbed the Saloon, one of Minneapolis’ popular gay bars, was arrested for Larson’s murder.

Police and the LGBT community got a shock in early 1992, however, when a unnamed person sent a six-page letter to the offices of the Pioneer Press, KSTP-TV, GLC Voice, Equal Time, and the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council — the precursor to OutFront Minnesota. It claimed that the police had the wrong man. Calling themselves the “AIDS Commission,” the letter-writer condemned the LGBT community for the HIV epidemic.

“We know this because we committed those crimes ourselves,” the letter said stating that Larson ran for a nearby basketball court after the letter writer attempted to kidnap Larson. The letter said “the chairman” fired at Larson. “It was not until Mr. Larson shouted, `Somebody help me! I’m hit!’ or some such thing that the chairman realized he had hit his mark…It was only after watching the news the next day that we realized we were murderers…We had only intended to abduct Larson…Our secretary suggested that since Mr. Larson’s death put Loring Park out of business for a couple days, no doubt slowing the spread of AIDS to the general population, another lesson might have even more effect…The rather obvious purpose of this letter is to advise members of the gay community to avoid public places. If you must (have sex) and kill each other, do it privately…You’ll never catch us. It’s too late on the Larson and beach cases. Murders are seldom solved after so long.”

“It’s a shocking letter and…a very real threat to us and the gay and lesbian community,” Ann DeGroot, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council, told the Star Tribune at the time. “It says basically that, if (gays) continue to go public, particularly related to public sex, we’re going to kill you.”

Attempts to solve Larson’s murder meant police and the LGBT community would have to work together. The police had been harassing the LGBT community for years in Minneapolis; the community was not ready to trust them.

“Extra police protection in Loring Park is a mixed bag,” Tim Campbell, editor of the GLC Voice, told the Star Tribune at in 1991. “You have more cops and you have the potential for more harassment of gay cruisers. Extra traffic tickets of gays around Loring Park would never have stopped the murder of Joel Larson.”

The Minneapolis Police Department had no openly LGBT officers at that time, and the murders had brought unwanted attention to Minneapolis’ LGBT community.

“It seems like every person who harbors any animosity toward the gay and lesbian community is coming out of the woodwork,” Patti Abbott, a crime victim advocate for the Gay and lesbian Community Action Council told the Pioneer Press in August 1991. “It’s a very dangerous time for us.”

In the fall of 1991, the community began a lavender ribbon campaign to raise awareness about violence against members of the LGBT community.

Loring Park’s iconic dandelion fountain. Photo by Jeremy Keith.

But as the investigation dragged on, cooperation became key in catching the killer: Jay Johnson.

Johnson had kept a journal of his anti-LGBT activities, and had anonymously called the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council several times during the course of the investigation. Police were able to trace the call and arrest him. He plead guilty and is spending his life sentence in prison in St. Cloud.

Johnson was a closeted man who had recently been diagnosed as HIV-positive. His father was a vice president at Bethel College, a conservative Christian college in the Twin Cities suburbs.

A former high school classmate told Equal Time that he had run into Johnson at the Saloon a few years before the murders.

“Johnson would say that he was deeply closeted and he gave me this speech that it was his right to be closeted,” the classmate told Equal Time. “He was really afraid that I would tell anyone that I saw him there.”

He was a volunteer with the Republican Party who identified with the religious right. Johnson cited internalized homophobia and the hate preached by conservative Christians as his motivation in a documentary about the case, Licensed to Kill.

“I was disgusted with what I was doing,” said Johnson. “And quite frankly, I just thought to myself, ‘If I shut these places [parks where gay men met each other] down, my temptation to do that would be less.’ I would think to myself, ‘This is a constructive, moral thing to be doing.’ And I certainly didn’t just come up with that idea. I watched The 700 Club sometimes with Pat Robertson — they’re constantly talking about gays.”

As a result of the investigation, Minneapolis police and LGBT activists forged a lasting relationship. The police instituted trainings around LGBT issues, and LGBT groups worked with police on hate crimes.

It was cooperation between Minneapolis police and the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council that helped solve the case. “I can’t emphasize enough how important the relationship (between) the police department and the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council has been in this case,” Minneapolis Police Chief John Laux told the Star Tribune.

“I hope this is a sign of future things to come,” LGBT victims advocate Patti Abbott said. “It became apparent we would have to sit down and talk and be able to work together.”

It would be another 6 months before police would put into place an LGBT sensitivity training, and 2 years before the first openly LGBT officer.

Cynthia Scott, editor of Equal Time, told the Pioneer Press in 1992, “It sure speaks to how far we’ve come; I don’t know if it says we’ve arrived to where we need to be.”

Larson’s friends and members of the Loring Park community are seeking support to remember that chapter in Minneapolis history — and more importantly Joel Larson — with a bench in Loring Park.

“Joel had no idea the impact he had on my life,” said friend Awen Briem. “I lost the chance to tell him when he was taken from us. Indeed rarely do we realize the life changing effect we have on others.”

Briem recalled, “We were young and queer in the midwest in the 80′s. It was with Joel that I learned we create our own community and it was Joel that taught me that there is a place for us in this world. Sometimes we just have to claim it.”

Larson’s sister, Janet Larson said, “One thing is for sure, life with my brother was never boring.”

“Life with Joel was always a roller coaster. You know that song from the Sound of Music, ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?’ Yeah that kind of sums it up. How can one person be so dynamic yet irritating, creative yet infuriating? Fun and crazy, fabulous and entertaining.”

Janet Larson said the two fought like sibling do. “I never knew that other people looked up to him like I did. I never had the chance to let him know how much he meant to me.”

The pain that that one hateful act in July 1991 has had on the Larson family will never be forgotten. “How was I to know that one act of hate would rip my family apart and inflict a pain I never knew existed?” said Janet Larson. “Hurt by a stranger who was raised to hate others, who was told his whole life that God hates Gays – and that hate festered and grew. It took hold and disfigured a mind. People say ‘sticks and stones’ but they don’t realize how much words can hurt.”

On Facebook, friends and family have a memorial page to share memories, some poignant, some hilarious like one shared by his friend Adam.

Joel and some friends took jobs phone banking for George H.W. Bush ahead of the 1988 Iowa Caucuses.

“Joel, being blind as a bat ditched the provided script and created various personas when calling people, I recall “Everett” being one of his favorites. He had such a natural gift of gab he could talk to anyone. Most of his time in the phone bank he was just talking to the people on the other end about their pets, farms, etc. Once he lured them in he’d tell them to save their money rather than give it to Bush. If they were insistent he’d take the donation info and then give them the wrong speaking locations. It was so fun just to listen to Joel riffing with these people in some crazy persona voice.”

For Joel’s sister Janet, it’s stories like that that celebrate Joel. “I am still amazed that after all this time, I can find people who’s lives have been touched by Joel. We keep him alive in our hearts and in our memories. Every story makes me smile.”

“It will be twenty three years in July since we lost Joel,” Briem said. “For twenty three years our LGBTQA communities have been gathering in Loring Park to celebrate Pride and for twenty three years there’s been no visible remembrance of Joel. I believe that honoring him with a memorial bench in Loring Park will not only show respect to this dynamic young man, but will also honor our community as a whole, celebrating and encouraging people to remember. To show up. And to turn our backs on hatred and to teach love.”

The campaign to make the park bench memorial for Larson ends Pride weekend on June 29.

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    Andy Birkey