The Twin Cities has plenty of prominent lesbians—for example, polar explorer Ann Bancroft (first known woman to cross the ice to the North Pole), singer/songwriter Ann Reed (commissioned to compose a song for Minnesota’s Sesquicentennial), and Bonnie Bleskachek (for a brief and tumultuous period, the first lesbian fire chief of a large U.S. city).
And don’t forget Rep. Karen Clark (DFL-Minneapolis): the longest-serving openly lesbian state legislator anywhere in the U.S. Elected in 1980-when there were no openly lesbian or gay legislators in the country-Clark consistently wins 75 to 88 percent of the vote.
But what is Twin Cities life like for the lesbian “on the street”? Are we a dyke paradise?
A book could be written on the topic; a grad student could do a dissertation. Alas, deadlines and space limitations don’t allow us to interview thousands of local lesbians, each of whom would have a unique take on the question.
Here follow, though, the experiences and observations of a few dykes-about-town.
Legalities and lollipops
“I call it the 494/694 circle,” said Becky Heltzer. “When I’m in the city I feel safer than when I’m in Coon Rapids or Blaine. But I have [lesbian] clients who live in those places and they love where they live-they have great neighbors. Once people get to know us, they see we’re not so scary.”
Heltzer, an attorney, advises many LGBT couples about partnerships, adoption, foster care and breakup issues.
“The Hennepin and Ramsey courts have been fabulous,” Heltzer said. “If I’m up in Anoka I might be more nervous because of the perception that it’s [Congresswoman Michele] Bachmann country, but I can’t say I’ve ever had a bad experience” due to the LGBT factor. “The judges … really try to be fair,” she added.
April Conlee agreed. She and her partner, Kathryn, have a son who’s almost 6. When he was born, they went through the second-parent adoption process (needed to establish parenthood for a non-biological parent) in Hennepin County, and it was smooth sailing.
“The judge was new to children’s court, and he was so tickled to be dealing with a happy event. He handed out lollipops,” Conlee recalled. “We were two people who love this child, and it didn’t matter that we’re both women.”
Sanity and grace
Spiritually inclined lesbians have many options for worship-and leadership. For example:
• In 1984, Rabbi Stacy Offner became Minnesota’s first woman rabbi, but when she came out three years later, was asked to leave her congregation. Some congregants then formed Shir Tikvah, with Offner as founding rabbi. She’s now moving to New York to become vice president of Reform Judaism’s congregational organization, representing over 900 congregations in North America.
• In 2000, St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church called the Rev. Anita Hill as pastor in defiance of ELCA rules against gay or lesbian pastors living in committed relationships. (Hill continues to serve St. Paul-Reformation.)
Like many larger cities, Minneapolis has a Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a 30-year-old denomination formed by and for the LGBT community. All God’s Children MCC (AGC) recently called Rev. Robyn Provis to co-pastor alongside Rev. Paul Eknes-Tucker.
“I think the Twin Cities are a great place to be a lesbian pastor, or a lesbian, period,” Provis said. “The rich cultural and spiritual diversity here-that fires me up.”
Provis lives in Richfield with her partner, who’s a teacher in the Richfield schools. Provis returned to the Twin Cities-where she’d previously served as co-pastor at AGC-after a year in Austin, Texas. Earlier in her career, she served at Pikes Peak MCC in Colorado Springs.
“It’s probably easier to be a lesbian here,” Provis noted tactfully (Colorado Springs is home to the notoriously anti-LGBT Focus on the Family organization). “It’s a little harder there for women to find their way out into something that has both sanity and grace.”
The Twin Cities also boasts Reconciling Methodists, More Light Presbyterians, Wingspan Lutherans, and LGBT-outreach synagogues, to name a few. And although Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstadt has issued a statement that “those who encourage or promote homosexual acts … are guilty of mortal sin,” there are lesbian-friendly Catholic churches and organizations.
Lesbians can tie the knot at several local churches. Some Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ congregations perform religious marriages for all couples, regardless of gender. Some churches are so supportive of same-sex couples that they refuse to legally marry straight couples until all couples have the right under the law to marry. Such churches include: White Bear Unitarian Universalist (Mahtomedi); Lyndale UCC (Minneapolis); Mayflower Congregational (Minneapolis); First Congregational (Minneapolis).
But it isn’t all rosy in the religious community. Desiree Kempcke’s membership in the Lutheran church she’d attended for nearly 20 years ended when the church wouldn’t support LGBT couples or even, she said, “have a conversation about homosexuality.” This became especially important to Kempcke when she and her partner, Karen Duke, adopted a daughter. While some of Kempcke’s friends at the church were supportive, others were conflicted or faded away. Still, ending her membership in the church that had been part of her life for so long was painful.
Luckily, Kempcke had started attending St. Paul-Reformation Church a few years earlier, when she was in the process of coming out. “I was going to services [at both churches] every week,” Kempcke said. Not only was St. Paul-Reformation very LGBT-supportive, there was another, unexpected perk-Karen. Kempcke and Duke met in a Bible study class there.
April Conlee and her partner Kathryn’s 1995 wedding put them among the first same-sex couples to tie the knot at Lyndale UCC. For most of the past 20 years, Conlee has lived in the Powderhorn neighborhood, widely seen as the Lesbian Epicenter of the Twin Cities.
But as the parent of a young son, Conlee doesn’t get around much anymore. Asked about her current involvement in the lesbian community, she cited the Pride Parade and occasional Rainbow Families events. “Suddenly I don’t feel very lesbian anymore,” Conlee said with a laugh.
Minneapolis-headquartered Rainbow Families, founded in 1997, is among the nation’s largest regional LGBT parent organizations. Its programs and activities include school advocacy, a speakers’ bureau, Children’s Museum outings, an annual conference, which drew 1,200 this year, and a children’s choir (which Conlee’s son plans to check out soon).
“Having Rainbow Families around is pretty important,” Conlee said. “I feel really proud that it exists here.”
Their son’s school (Seward Montessori) has been “very welcoming,” Conlee said, and there’s not much name-calling among the kids (“except ‘poophead'”). Still, their son “has figured out that not everyone is OK with [his having two moms],” she noted. Sometimes … he’ll say “my parents” instead of “my moms.”
Day to day, Conlee doesn’t spend much time thinking about being a lesbian in the Twin Cities-she just is one. “But when we travel-say, to visit family in Virginia-I feel very grateful I live here,” she said.
Desiree Kempcke was used to being conspicuous at work-she was the only woman orthopedic surgeon in her 60-surgeon partnership-but she became even more so when she asked the partnership to consider granting medical issues to domestic partners of employees. This was a family issue to Kempcke and her partner, Karen Duke; the two women were planning to adopt a baby from Guatemala, and they wanted Duke to be able to stay home with their new daughter until she was fully settled into the family.
Armed with information about domestic partners benefits, including a list of local companies that offer them, Kempcke made her case to the two straight male members who represented their 10-member group on the governing board. They were sold, and made a presentation to the board. Reaction was decidedly mixed, Kempcke said. “There were some who worried about the financial risk. It seemed like there were more and more questions [after each board meeting].” It was hard for Kempcke personally: “I found it hard to hold my head up, I felt so exposed,” she said.
In the end, Kempcke’s request was approved, though just barely. “It took five or six months, which was longer than the board had ever discussed anything,” she said.
Putting things in perspective, Kempcke said, “I think we’re really lucky overall to live here.” The family lately has taken to spending spring break in Florida, something she has mixed feelings about. “I hate spending money there. People look through you with sort of expressionless faces.” And most importantly, she said, “If we lived in Florida, we would not have been able to adopt Naomi.”
Out at school
Friendly schools are no accident. Out 4 Good works to create safe, affirming environments for LGBT students, teachers, staff and families in the Minneapolis Schools. A similar program, Out for Equity, exists in the St. Paul Schools.
In addition, three Minneapolis elementary schools are piloting the Human Rights Campaign’s “Welcoming Schools” curriculum, an anti-bullying toolkit to help schools address violence against LGBT students. This, predictably, drew the ire of Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten. Perhaps less predictably, the Letters to the Editor that followed were largely supportive of Welcoming Schools.
On the post-secondary scene, the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus offers a Queer Studies minor. At Macalester last year, 16 faculty formed a work group to develop Queer and LGBT Studies courses. Some colleges, like Augsburg, offer gay and lesbian studies through the women’s studies program. In April, the University of Minnesota hosted the first biennial Queer Motions Conference, bringing scholars from around the world to address queer studies and queer politics.
Many local colleges have LGBT student groups. The U’s Twin Cities campus has a Queer Student Cultural Center and a plethora of groups, including Gopher Pride; Queer Women; Keshet, the Queer Jewish Student Alliance; and the Law School’s aptly named Outlaw group.
Some 20 years ago when she was a law student at William Mitchell, Becky Heltzer recalled, the GLBT group was very much on the down-low. “We were warned that we shouldn’t even acknowledge each other in the halls,” she said.
According to gay.com, the top cities in the U.S. for lesbians are New York, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco and Phoenix, which is noted for its gay bars and clubs.
Here in the Twin Cities, lesbian bars are less plentiful. Minneapolis bars (Gay 90s, Saloon, Brass Rail, 19 Bar, Bolt) draw mainly guys. Several St. Paul hangouts popular with lesbians have come and gone.
But now there’s Pi. With the slogan “So many women, only one Pi,” the south Minneapolis club opened in February 2007. Pi’s calendar includes karaoke, trivia, movies, screenings of the lesbodrama “The L Word,” and dildo bingo.
Some local organizations go back much farther. Out To Brunch (OTB) is one of the oldest. The group, which began in 1985 with a small core group, has a mission to “providing a safe, friendly, social network for all lesbian-oriented women regardless of race, creed, age or ability.” OTB’s recent activities include an art crawl, a writers’ group, pick-up basketball, country dancing, and a 60-and-older dinner.
Margareth Cecilia Miller joined OTB in its infancy, after moving to Minnesota. Though the group has provided a safe place for hundreds of women to come out and have fun, it’s also faced difficult times. At one point, an incident Miller terms a “misunderstanding” led to a number of women of color leaving OTB.
“It was a really dumb thing on the part of those organizing the group, and I so regret it,” Miller said. “I don’t know that we’ve quite recovered. I’d love [OTB] to be more diverse.”
She’d also like to see more younger women (most are in their late 30s to early 70s), but “they’re just so busy elsewhere,” said Miller, who thinks they may not feel the need for lesbian-specific groups.
“I love Out to Brunch-it has given me a chosen family, and for that I am so grateful,” Miller said. “People have told me after moving away from Minnesota, ‘I wish we had an Out to Brunch here.’ I say: ‘Then start one.” Is the Twin Cities a great place for lesbians? Miller’s response: “You make it what it will be for you.”
One recent Saturday evening, the Women’s Press interrupted (politely) several women who’d come to Pi for food, drinks, conversation and pool. Their thoughts on the State of Twin Cities Lesbian Life follow.
Lisa Lindberg, 32, of south Minneapolis: “I think the Twin Cities have a lot to offer, compared to a lot of more uptight places.” Lindberg has also lived in Duluth, Ft. Lauderdale and San Antonio. “I would say, honestly, this is the most lesbian-friendly place I’ve lived.”
Tammi Gauthier, Kansas City, Mo., (visiting the Twin Cities): “I love south Minneapolis,” citing such hangouts as the May Day Café, and the sea of rainbow flags. “You see no flags waving in Kansas City. We’re not out [there]. We’re out to friends and family, but that’s it.”
Cory Adams, who lives part of the year in Minneapolis and part in Tampa (guess which), making her first visit to Pi: “This is the only place [to be a lesbian]. I’ve traveled all over. It’s unbelievable how closeted it is in Florida.”
Tea Simpson, 27, Minneapolis: “It’s a really good place to be out and queer, but the women’s community can be tough because we don’t always know how to support each other.” She would like to see more support of women-owned businesses here, and “more people coming out to support queer women artists.”