Feature Stories/ Contents

Message from the Conservatory of Music


Around Tappan Square

Professor Norman Craig says farewell

In Brief

Student Perspective


Healing Power of Shakespeare



The Last Word

New Yourker cartoonist Bob Blechman '52 on reunion reality

Staff Box

One More Thing


www.oberlin.edu HOME




Write to : alum.mag@oberlin.edu


From Back-Bencher to Mr. President

When Senator Allan Spear '58 retires as president of the Minnesota State Senate this winter, he will be remembered for many things: his influential legislation; being the first openly gay senator; and, let's not forget, his steadfast defense of mourning doves.

"Over the years, a certain senator has tried to legalize the hunting of doves," explains Robert Whereatt, a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter who has covered the Senate for two decades. "Senator Spear opposed making a peace symbol a target for hunters. But instead of being heavy handed, he would rise in opposition and give a recipe for serving doves. He'd talk about the miniscule amount of meat you get from them and that you'd need a huge number of these lovely birds for a dinner party. By the end of the speech, you'd have senators who'd heard it many times before rolling in the aisles." It was funny, and effective: So far, Minnesota hunters are still forbidden to bag the beloved birds.

Such finesse has not always been Spear's forte. In fact, when he began his career in the State Senate in 1972, he was anything but congenial. "I wanted to be a voice for, what at that time, were radical concerns," says Spear. Having rallied for civil rights at Oberlin and against the Vietnam War at Yale, where he earned his doctorate in African American history, Spear was teaching at the University of Minnesota when he ran for and won a Senate seat as a member of the Democrat Farmer Laborer (DFL) Party, Minnesota's equivalent of the Democratic Party.

"I saw myself as a gadfly, which is how I was perceived. For example, when the issue of bonuses for Vietnam vets came up, I suggested we also give bonuses to conscientious objectors," he says drolly. "Such things weren't likely to pass."

In 1974, in a gutsy move for the times, he announced he was gay. "It seemed to me it was going to come out anyway. I chose the reporter I gave the story to," he says. The response from his constituents? "Surprisingly mild," he recalls, though his bombshell drew national attention and the usual amount of hate mail.

Even so, his revelation did not hurt him politically, and in 1992 he became chair of the State Senate's Judiciary Committee. Later that year, he was elected by his colleagues as Senate president. That was also the year he passed his most important legislation--the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) Human Rights Act, outlawing discrimination against these groups in housing, jobs, and other areas.

"That was a 20-year struggle," he remembers, noting that tireless lobbying on his part, as well as a shift in social attitudes, made the law possible. "The times changed. In 1978, St. Paul rejected a citywide ordinance guaranteeing such rights. But in 1991, voters there passed it."

That cleared the way for a new statewide law. "People realized the world was not going to end, and I was able to put together a coalition [in the Senate] to pass a state law that I hadn't been able to do before."

As he nears retirement, Spear reflects on his own shift from back-bencher to political player. "I've maintained my voice for progressive causes, but I have become more of an inside player," he says. "Unless you learn and respect the process, you are not going to accomplish what you want to do. You have to use it for your own goals."

In the next few months, his goals will shift radically as he retires from teaching and lawmaking.

"I like to cook, travel to Europe, read a lot, and listen to music," he says of his plans. He also wants to spend more time with his partner, Junjiro Tsuji.

Alas, the mourning doves are on their own.


<<< Previous Page___________Next Page >>>