Minnesota is Queer

It is hard for me to understand an everyday life experience of not being “out,” and I will be the first to say that comes from a place of privilege.

June marks the beginning of Pride Month, one of my favorite months as a queer person, but also one that needs to be looked at with a critical eye. The first Pride parade started as a riot in June 1969 at Stonewall Inn in New York City. Led by trans women of color, queer folks stood their ground as police officers raided the beloved queer sanctuary in Greenwich Village, NYC. This act of love sparked a monumental change in the fight for LGBTQ rights. The 1960s marked a time in which same-sex lovers and those identifying outside of their assigned gender flocked to gay bars as one of the only places to find community and acceptance. Pride started as a political demonstration to voice demands and to show visibility for LGBTQ folks. The origins of Pride should never be forgotten, and the fight for queer liberation is far from over.

These past few months I’ve had the joy of working with the Tretter Collection—one of the largest LGBTQ archives in existence, housed in the Archives and Special Collection Library at the University of Minnesota. I am exploring historical queer spaces in the area, discovering where my queer Minnesota ancestors felt seen, safe, loved, and dreamt of a ‘queertopian’ future where people like me could be out and proud.

Digging into the Tretter Collection has expanded my historical concept of queerness in this state. I learned that the Powderhorn neighborhood of Minneapolis, where I call home, was once nicknamed ‘Dyke Heights,’ due to the high concentration of out, visible lesbians who lived on Oakland Street and throughout the area. I learned that Minnesota is home to Jack Baker and Michael McConnell, the first gay couple in America to apply for a marriage license in 1970, which was denied by Hennepin County, then by the Minnesota Supreme Court. And I learned that Alison Bechdel, whose graphic novel, “Fun Home,” which inspired the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist, lived in St. Paul with her girlfriend. (Listen to “Ring of Keys” if you want to cry happy tears.) These are just a few examples of how queerness has seeped into our landscape, and how Minnesota has been a place of exploration for LGBTQ people.

Let’s be clear, I am not saying that all is rainbows and glitter in our state. Acceptance is different for everyone. Skin tone, class status, gender expression, what city you live in, the places you frequent—all these major factors must be noted. Minnesota is a predominantly white state, and the majority of queer spaces cater to white, cisgender, gay men. These are hard truths in being a queer person here. But this state is also filled with people trying to explore queerness through different lenses, people who care and challenge how our community is talked about, dance nights dedicated to queer people of color where I know I can dance and dance some more, lesbian godmothers who offer advice on everything from love to career opportunities, and it’s the place I fell in love for the first time.

On nights when the heaviness of heteronormativity, whiteness, and the patriarchy overwhelm me, I walk around my Powderhorn neighborhood and think about the people of color, queer folk, and lesbians who paved the way for me to hold these multiple identities in one body. I hope I can offer a bit of that magic to future generations, and use my queerness as a tool towards liberation.

Pride has a rich history of resilience and resistance. I hope to honor that legacy — to fight for injustice, and for visible queerness in all its forms – and I hope those who read this will join me in this goal.

Johnnay Leenay

Author: Johnnay Leenay

Johnnay Leenay is the first Curatorial Fellow at the Minnesota Museum of American Arts, with a passion for how the arts can be used as a medium to have conversations around social issues. She is currently an Artist in Residence at the University of Minnesota’s Archives and Special Collections working exclusively with the Tretter Collection (the LGBTQ Archives), mapping out historical queer spaces in the Twin Cities.

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