A record number of LGBTQ lawmakers are flexing their political power at the State Capitol this year, forming the Minnesota Legislature's first-ever Queer Caucus.
The DFL group's formation marks a significant milestone for a state that legalized same-sex marriage a decade ago and previously had only a few openly gay lawmakers serving at a time. The 12-member caucus — which includes Minnesota's first transgender and nonbinary legislators — is pushing to protect LGBTQ rights at a time when some states are rolling them back.
"It's going to be nice to have more eyes and more ears and more abilities to engage as we're fending off the heinous attacks on our community and our young people, which are only picking up in number and momentum," said state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who had just one LGBTQ colleague when he started as a legislator in 2001.
During a recent House committee hearing, two Queer Caucus members spoke in favor of a bill to prohibit mental health providers from performing conversion therapy — a discredited practice that seeks to change a person's sexual orientation — on minors and vulnerable adults. The bill is one of the caucus' top priorities this year and is expected to be taken up on the House floor in February.
"As a queer woman who has had the opportunity to live what I would call a moderately successful life, and certainly very fulfilling, I can assure you that being loved and valued for exactly who you are allows you to thrive," said Rep. Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul, the bill's sponsor. "This bill will help ensure that LGBTQ+ minors are protected from harmful practices that diminish their self-worth."
The House committee approved the legislation, but not before a Republican member unsuccessfully tried to amend it to "prohibit gender-transitional medical services for minors or vulnerable adults."
Minnesota's first transgender legislator, Rep. Leigh Finke, was quick to oppose the amendment.
"I am grateful to be trans, and I will oppose any effort to erase my community," said Finke, DFL-St. Paul, chair of the Queer Caucus.
Finke reflected on the exchange afterwards, saying it "was the first committee hearing I've been a part of that was directly relating to matters of my own fundamental right to exist."
Conservative lawmakers across the country are pushing to ban gender-transition medical services for minors. Such efforts won't be successful in Minnesota, at least for now, with Democrats controlling the House, Senate and governor's office.
Concerned about youth in other states, Finke has introduced a bill to make Minnesota a refuge for people seeking health care that affirms the patient's gender identity, known as gender-affirming care. The bill would protect families who travel here to give their children access to care that's prohibited in their home states.
"There are already a number of families who have relocated from Texas to Minnesota to receive trans-related health care, and we want to make sure that we're protecting those folks," Finke said.
Beyond advocating for certain bills, the Queer Caucus is seeking to make the State Capitol a more inclusive place for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Members are educating their colleagues on the correct use of pronouns, asking bill sponsors to include gender-inclusive language and sharing their life experiences in hopes of breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions, Hollins said.
They've also brought suggestions to legislative leaders on how to include more information on LGBTQ issues in legislator equity and inclusion trainings, Hollins said.
"The reality is, changing minds is a slow process," she said. "The best that we can do is provide real-world examples to help educate people about their misunderstandings."
Queer Caucus members hope their presence at the Capitol will inspire more LGBTQ people to run for public office.
Dibble said he never thought he could be a legislator until he saw former state Sen. Allan Spear and former state representative Karen Clark become the Legislature's first openly gay and lesbian members, respectively.
Dibble set a similar example for first-term Rep. Brion Curran, DFL-Vadnais Heights, the Queer Caucus' vice chair. As a teenager, Curran said she looked up to Dibble as one of Minnesota's only openly gay lawmakers.
"I hope that that translates to younger generations now seeing the work that we're doing and feeling inspired and empowered to move forward if they feel inclined to do this work," Curran said.