Koreen Phelps, longtime LGBT activist, died in St. Paul last week according to the Star Tribune. She was 58. Phelps was responsible for creating a significant and positive change for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Minnesota beginning in the late 1960s.
In May, 1969, Phelps, then 20, and friend Stephen Ihrig, 21, organized a course at the Free University on the West Bank to bring homosexuality out of the shadows and start a dialogue on the issue. The course, called the “Homosexual Revolution,” was attended by more than 100 people and sparked the founding of FREE (Fight Repression of Erotic Expression), the first LGBT rights organization in Minnesota and the Midwest. Shortly after its founding, FREE became a registered student group at the University of Minnesota and still exists today as the Queer Student Cultural Center.
The group’s mission from the beginning was both political and social; it provided a space for LGBT people to socialize, as well as engage in political advocacy. “We were not just a social organization. Our main responsibility was to fight for civil rights,” Phelps told Lavender Magazine in 2004. “I felt we needed to have a strong organization that was political,”‘ she said. “We knew the only way to get our rights was to get out in public.”
One of the first actions was for the group to attend, or rather, crash a dance at the University. “I don’t even know if I danced. I don’t even remember. We were afraid. We were really scared. We thought we could be beat up if people didn’t like the idea. I guess I was kind of surprised that nobody reacted. They just kept on dancing,” Phelps said.
Another dance, hosted by the group on Thanksgiving in 1969, made national news when NBC covered the event. Phelps helped organize a series of other actions with the group, including successful petitioning of Minneapolis and St. Paul for anti-discrimination ordinances, protests against workplace discrimination and working with Minneapolis police to end brutality against LGBT, which was common at the time.
According to friends, Phelps lived a fiercely open life and fought hard to make things easier for LGBT people. “You knew you were up against a powerhouse,” longtime friend Ted Page told the Star Tribune. “You knew that this person had a strong conviction, that you could not discriminate against another person based on who they loved.”
According to the Star Tribune, Phelps worked as a chemical dependency counselor for 20 years and was involved in political advocacy for many years.
Phelps reflected on the LGBT movement in 2004. “FREE was started as a political organization to fight for our rights. It’s important that the movement see the necessity for doing this now. That’s the tradition that we need to remember.”
Phelps suffered from kidney disease and diabetes. A memorial service will be held at noon Aug. 11 at Lakewood Cemetery, 3600 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis.