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Minnesota Human Rights Act

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Governor Harold Levander signs the Minnesota State Act Against Discrimination

Governor Harold Levander (seated) signs the Minnesota State Act Against Discrimination into law in 1967. It was renamed the Minnesota Human Rights Act in 1973.

Minnesota enacted its first major human rights law in 1967. That statute made it unlawful to discriminate against people based on race, color, creed, and national origin in unions, employment, education, public services, and public accommodations. Over the next twenty-five years DFL legislators tried and failed six times to amend the law to add sexual orientation. They succeeded in 1993.

The 1967 Minnesota State Act Against Discrimination consolidated and strengthened existing anti-discrimination laws and created a new state Department of Human Rights. It was sponsored by Conservatives in the legislature (party designation was banned at the time) and supported by other prominent Conservatives, including Governor Harold Levander, future US Senator David Durenberger, and future federal judge Robert Renner. The law, which forbade discrimination based on race, color, creed, religion, and national origin, had support from both political parties and passed easily. The inclusion of gay rights was not considered—nor was the category of sex added until 1969.

In the 1973 legislative session DFL senate majority leader Nicholas Coleman, on his own and without notice, proposed to amend the law to add people of “homosexual orientation” to those protected. His amendment narrowly passed the senate but was removed in conference with the House of Representatives. However, the categories marital status, status with respect to public assistance, and disability were added that year. The law’s name was also changed to the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA).

In the 1975 legislative session Coleman re-introduced the gay rights (“affectional preference” in this version) amendment to the MHRA that had failed in 1973. This time it got a vote first in the House of Representatives, and lost there 68-51. Coleman then withdrew his Senate bill. Factors in this loss were divisions in the gay community and radical demonstrations in the capitol that repelled some legislators.

Senator Allan Spear, elected in 1972, worked only behind the scenes on the 1973 and 1975 bills, but he took a more active and public role after coming out as gay in December 1974. He was the first Minnesota legislator to do so. In 1977 Spear took over as chief sponsor of the MHRA gay rights amendment, which was defeated again.

By now, conservative religious and anti-gay groups had organized effective opposition to gay rights proposals. Then, in the early 1980s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic added an element of fear and condemnation to the gay community generally. Still, in 1980, voters in Minneapolis elected Karen Clark the first openly lesbian member of the state House of Representatives. In 1983 she and Senator Spear tried again, but their MHRA amendment failed again.

No one introduced gay rights legislation in the sessions 1985 through 1989. In 1990, DFL governor Rudy Perpich appointed a Governor’s Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Minnesotans. The resulting report concluded that “gays and lesbians are the targets of considerable discrimination in the State of Minnesota,” including job loss and violence, and recommended that Minnesota “prohibit discrimination against any person because of sexual orientation.” Nevertheless, a gay rights amendment to the MHRA failed in the 1991 legislature.

Its proponents brought up a new version in the 1993 session. A new lobbying group, It’s Time Minnesota, had organized broad popular support for it and enlisted labor unions, businesses, universities, and prominent civic groups like the League of Women Voters. Republican Governor Arne Carlson had supported the proposed legislation for years. The bill passed in the senate by 37-30, aided by the Senate’s Republican minority leader, Dean Johnson, who made a passionate speech explaining his support (five Republicans voted for it, thirteen DFLers opposed.) The bill passed easily in the House, 78-55, and was signed into law on April 2, making Minnesota the eighth state to enact such a statute. Another factor in this success was dogged persistence over more than twenty years.

The revised, 1993 version of the MHRA prohibits discrimination in employment, labor unions, housing, education, public services, government services, credit, business services, and public accommodations because of “race, color, creed, national origin, sex, marital status, disability...[and] sexual orientation...” The categories age, familial status, and status with regard to public assistance appear in only some of the prohibitions. The statute’s definition of sexual orientation includes transgender people through the language, “having or being perceived as having a self-image or identity not traditionally associated with one’s biological maleness or femaleness.”

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Chanen, David. “Some Legislators Say Time Is Right for A Gay-Rights Bill.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 12, 1993.

Chapter 363 (Department of Human Rights). Minnesota Statutes.

“Gay-Rights Bill Cleared.” Minneapolis Tribune, May 7, 1975.

Grow, Doug. “A ‘Quiet Dissident’ Among IR Senators Is Quiet No More.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 19, 1993.

Halvorsen, Donna. “Gay Rights Bill Passes House; Senate Expected to Give Final Passage Today.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 1, 1993.

Higgins, Thom, and Vicki Oace. “Carlson Wasted No Time Going to Bat for Gay Rights.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 3, 1991.

Milton, John W. For the Good of the Order: Nick Coleman and the High Tide of Liberal Politics in Minnesota, 1971–1981. St. Paul: Ramsey County Historical Society, 2012.

Minnesota Department of Human Rights. History.

“Chapter 22–H.F. No. 585.” Minnesota Session Laws: 1993, Regular Session. Office of the Revisor of Statutes, Minnesota Legislature.

Preston, Joshua. “Senator Allan Spear and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.” Minnesota History 65, no. 3 (Fall 2016): 76–87.

Governor’s Task Force on Lesbian and Gay Minnesotans. “Report of the Governor’s Task Force on Lesbian and Gay Minnesotans,” March 22, 1991. Minnesota Legislative Reference Library.

Spear, Allan H. Crossing the Barriers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Related Video

Related Images

Governor Harold Levander signs the Minnesota State Act Against Discrimination
Governor Harold Levander signs the Minnesota State Act Against Discrimination
Black and white photograph of Allan Henry Spear, ca. 1980.
Black and white photograph of Allan Henry Spear, ca. 1980.
Black and white photograph of Minnesota governor Rudy Perpich, c.1985.
Black and white photograph of Minnesota governor Rudy Perpich, c.1985.
Minnesota Representative Karen Clark
Minnesota Representative Karen Clark
Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson
Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson
It’s Time Minnesota button
It’s Time Minnesota button

Turning Point

In 1991 a Governor’s Task Force recommends legal protection for gays and lesbians. A new lobbying organization, It’s Time Minnesota, begins organizing broad popular and institutional support for gay rights legislation, enlisting unions, teachers, and prominent civic groups.



The US Congress passes the Equal Pay Act, requiring women and men to be paid equally for equivalent work.


The federal Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment, education and public accommodations based on race, color, creed, religion, sex, and national origin.


The Minnesota State Act Against Discrimination is passed. It covers (chapter 897) race, color, creed, religion, and national origin—but not sex—in housing, employment, public services, and education. It also creates the Department of Human Rights.


Legislators amend the Act Against Discrimination to prohibit sex discrimination in employment.


The DFL’s platform endorses gay rights. Allan Spear is elected a state senator from Minneapolis. In his campaign, Spear had pledged to work to amend the 1967 law to add protection for gay people.


DFLers in the senate pass a “homosexual rights” amendment, but it fails in the House of Representatives. The legislature adds the categories sex, marital status, status with respect to public assistance, and disability to the list of protected classes.


Spear co-founds the Minnesota Committee for Gay Rights. Both St. Paul and Minneapolis pass gay rights ordinances. Spear comes out as gay in December.


Nick Coleman sponsors an amendment to the 1967 law, now called the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) to add “affectional preference.” The bill fails.


Spear, as chief author, re-introduces the gay rights bill that had failed in the last legislative session. It fails again. Age discrimination in employment is made unlawful.


In a referendum, St. Paul voters rescind the city’s gay rights ordinance. Spear is elected to a second term in the state senate.


Karen Clark becomes the first out lesbian member of the Minnesota House of Representatives. “Familial status” is added to MHRA protections in the area of real estate.


Both Spear and Clark introduce gay rights bills in the legislature.Their bills fail again.


Governor Rudy Perpich issues an executive order banning Minnesota state government from discriminating against gay and lesbian people.


Minnesota enacts a “bias crime” law that makes an assault based on sexual orientation a misdemeanor.


Governor Perpich appoints a Governor’s Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Minnesotans. Spear and Clark are re-elected. St. Paul reinstates its gay rights ordinance.


Spear and Clark re-introduce their bill and it fails, even with Republican Governor Arne Carlson's support. Carlson renews the order banning discrimination against gays and lesbians. The state Republican Party reprimands Carlson for supporting the bill.


Spear is elected president of the Minnesota senate. A new gay rights bill, with different language, is introduced. The bill passes; Governor Carlson signs it into law on April 2.