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AIDS Conference Protest, St. Paul, 1987

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Rally flyer

Flyer advertising a rally against views presented at the AIDS Conference sponsored by the Berean League and held at St. Paul’s Civic Center on November 7, 1987. From box 22 (147.A.13.5B) of the Minnesota GLBT Movement papers, 1964—2019, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

On November 7, 1987, roughly 400 people representing Minnesota’s gay community—including allies and activists—protested an AIDS conference in St. Paul sponsored by a conservative Christian political organization called the Berean League. With over 1,500 people in attendance, it was the largest gathering in the state to date addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis. It was also a show of force for fundamentalist Christians and other conservatives who opposed gay rights.

When Minnesota’s gay community* became aware of the conference, a coalition of groups (the Minnesota Alliance Against AIDS, the Lesbian and Gay Community Action Council, the Minnesota AIDS Project, and the Minnesota Gay/Lesbian Freedom PAC) came together to organize a protest rally. The Gay/Lesbian Freedom PAC criticized the event as a pretext for fundamentalist groups to show their strength to the state legislature and also to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which was deciding a sodomy case filed by the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. Berean League Executive Director Wayne Olhoft noted in response that “homosexual political activists feel threatened by the conference” and that “the protest rally is designed to distract attention from the conference content and to limit political damage.”

The conference began on November 7 in St. Paul’s Civic Center with about 1500 people in attendance. Speakers included Dr. David Pence (a frequent Berean League spokesperson) arguing for closing bathhouses and adult bookstores. Minnesota State Representative Allen Quist advocated for all Minnesota students to receive HIV/AIDS education while decrying a “hidden moral curriculum” that promoted promiscuity and sodomy. In a forum with state epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, keynote speaker and divinity school graduate Gene Antonio accused media outlets of “covering up” HIV/AIDS because of their relationship with gay activists.

By evening, the protest rally had begun outside the Civic Center. Local lesbian comic Becky Kent served as the MC and Zoe Nicholie led the crowd in singing civil rights songs. Eight counter-demonstrators appeared wearing surgical masks and gloves, carrying signs noting, “AIDS: God’s Gift to Sodomites” and “Jesus throws sodomites into hell.” This group shouted taunts throughout the evening, but protest organizers maintained a peaceful, determined, and even joyful tone. Conference speaker David Pence observed quietly; Berean League representatives claimed they were not affiliated with the counter-demonstrators. Inside the Civic Center, meanwhile, the crowd had dwindled to fewer than 600 people.

Government officials, faith leaders, and activists spoke to encourage the crowd of protesters. Not all Christians, some noted, shared the Berean League’s values. Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights Stephen Cooper, meanwhile, promised that his department would protect human rights. Dr. Frank Rhame of the University of Minnesota, claiming that most people have “tolerance as their morality,” called on the audience to reduce HIV transmission and support public health efforts. Activist Jim Chalgren related that Berean-caused hysteria had led to the defeat of a gay rights amendment to the Mankato Human Rights Ordinance in September.

Minneapolis city council member Brian Coyle also spoke, musing that the local government response to HIV/AIDS would have been different if the virus had primarily affected straight Americans of Norwegian descent instead of gay men. He lamented how groups like the Berean League responded to HIV/AIDS based not on the severity of the disease, but rather the perceived social acceptability of its victims. Coyle took counter-protesters’ jeers in stride, encouraging rally attendees to remain politically active following the event. Other speakers included activist Robert Halfhill; Ken Solberg, director of Minnesota Clergy and Laity Concerned; George Moore, an HIV+ representative of the Coalition of People of Color Against Aids; and Emma Hixson, executive director of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights.

In the middle of these speeches, six people dressed in prisoner-of-war garments evoking Nazi Germany (blue and white stripes with pink triangles) and white face paint prepared to enter the Civic Center to conduct a silent demonstration. Costumed activist Leo Treadway rallied the crowd, saying, “We’ve got better looking banners. We’ve got better looking men and women. Our songs are better. And at least our chants rhyme. We’re also not wandering around trying to pick fights.” As those in costume silently processed into the auditorium, those outside sang “We Are a Peaceful, Angry People” and lit candles. In the auditorium, a conference attendee chided demonstrators for spreading hate and discounting those with opposing views. Demonstrators remained silent, holding signs comparing the dangers of quarantine and extinction to threats faced by Jews in 1933 Nazi Germany. Tim Cole (of the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights) noted to the crowd afterward that there were many empty seats in the auditorium, and outside, “we outnumber them [Bereans].”

Throughout the night, the protest rally remained peaceful. No arrests were made. After the conference, Wayne Olhoft explained that the Berean League had agreed to the silent demonstration ahead of time to avoid the “possibility of a less controlled situation.”

*Editor’s note: This article refers to “the gay community” in 1987 rather than the more inclusive “LGBTQIA+ community” in order to match the language in use at the time. Although people who claimed identities other than the “G” were vital to this community throughout the 1980s, mainstream terms failed to recognize them individually.

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AIDS Health Education and Risk Reduction Program files, 1986–1988
Division of Disease Prevention and Control, Minnesota Department of Health
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Records documenting early efforts to implement a statewide program of AIDS health education and risk reduction including a draft discussion paper related to “noncompliant” HIV carriers.

Berean League Fund. Berean Statesman 1, no. 1 (July 1983): 1.

Cope, Lewis. “1,500 Hear Debate on Sex Education and Homosexuality at AIDS Conference.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 8, 1987.

Cox, Craig. “Words to Live By?” City Pages, October 14, 1987.

Jefferis, Michael. “Gay Leaders Blast ‘Non-Compliance’ Plans of MDH." GLC Voice, January 19, 1987.

Martin, Judy. “Gays Clash with Pence at October 10 Forum.” GLC Voice, October 19, 1987.

——— . “400 Protest Berean League Conference.” GLC Voice, November 16, 1987.

Minnesota GLBT Movement papers, 1964–2019
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Description: Correspondence, agendas, meeting minutes and so on collected by Leo Treadway, a leading gay rights activist. Includes correspondence with Berean League officials, protest planning documents, and other organizing work related to the AIDS conference.

Olhoft, Wayne. “AIDS Conference Will Be Protested.” Twin Cities Christian, November 5, 1987.

Parker, Walter. “Berean AIDS Forum Stirs Debate, Draws Protesters.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, November 8, 1987.

——— . “Doctor Says Fight Against AIDS is Not Tough Enough.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, October 3, 1987.

"Raw Footage: Berean League Protest." Brad Theissen’s papers and records of GAZE-TV and GAZE newspaper. University of Minnesota Libraries, Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies.

Ritter, John. “Mankato Defeats Gay Rights Amendment.” Equal Time, October 28, 1987.

——— . “Rally Planned Against Berean League Conference.” Equal Time, October 28, 1987.

Trouten, Doug. “AIDS Conference Draws Professionals, Protesters.” Twin Cities Christian, November 19, 1987.

Van Cleve, Stewart. Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

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Turning Point

Two weeks prior to the conference, professional boards revoke the education credits the Berean League had previously promised to medical workers planning to attend. To justify their decision, they cite the speakers’ lack of credentials; the league offers refunds of the fifteen-dollar registration fee in response. The move reveals doubts about the conference as a legitimate source of information on HIV/AIDS.


January 19, 1983

Seventy evangelical Christian leaders form the Berean League to “carry out a Christian’s stewardship responsibilities for civil government” and address the “void of Christian leadership” in the Minnesota legislature following the 1982 elections.

May 1983

The Berean League celebrates advocacy work leading to the defeat of a bill sponsored by state senator Allan Spear that would have prohibited discrimination based on “sexual or affectional orientation.”

April 29, 1985

Gay and lesbian organizations host a community forum at the Hennepin County Government Center to address the Berean League’s publication of Are Gay “Rights”, Right?, by Roger Magnuson.

November 10, 1986

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) circulates a draft discussion paper on “Noncompliant AIDS Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Carriers.”

January 15, 1987

MDH meets with gay community leaders at Wesley United Methodist Church regarding proposed legislation. GLC Voice editor Tim Campbell criticizes MDH for downplaying the effectiveness of condoms and mishandling noncompliance cases.

May 26, 1987

Senate File 1046 becomes law, giving the Commissioner of Public Health authority to quarantine noncompliant carriers of HIV/AIDS. Sponsors argue this reduces MDH’s quarantine powers; activists counter it legalizes broad discrimination against gay people.

June 1987

The AIDS Cover Up, a book by Gene Antonio, is promoted in Fire Reserve Focus (the Minneapolis Fire Department’s newsletter). Minneapolis public health officials later correct misinformation about the spread of HIV.

September 28, 1987

The Mankato City Council votes down an amendment adding sexual orientation to an existing human rights ordinance forbidding discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, and services. Defeat is attributed to lobbying by the Berean League.

October 3, 1987

Dr. David Pence of the Berean League defends the use of police-enforced quarantine to combat HIV during a Minnesota Press Club debate with Frank Rhame (U of M) and Michael Osterholm (MDH). Minneapolis Public Schools Radio broadcasts the event.

October 10, 1987

Grand Avenue Church in South Minneapolis hosts a community forum on HIV/AIDS. Radiology resident David Pence advocates for contact tracing, forced quarantine, and the closure of gay bathhouses.


The Berean League publishes Values in public education: AIDS education, the Trojan horse of the sexual revolution: common sense, good health, and moral discipline. The title is part of a project launched at the 1987 conference.

May 1989

A school district in Mora, Minnesota, suspends its sex education curriculum as a result of pressure from Concerned Parents for Abstinence (CPA), a local parent group receiving support from the Berean League.


The Berean League changes its name to the Minnesota Family Council.


The Minnesota Human Rights Act is amended to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.