Interview with Dr. Walter Swan  

Interview with Dr. Walter Swan

Minneapolis, USA
12. November 1996

C.M-S: Who is Dr. Swan?

Dr. Swan: I am currently the President of the Minneapolis Board of Estimate and Taxation and an elected openly gay official in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I lived in the suburb with my now ex-wife and two children - and was very active in the Democratic Party there. Then I met Lyle and we got married at the March on Washington. We were the first gay male partners on the city register of domestic partner in Minneapolis. ...

C.M-S.: What does a board with this grand name do?

Dr. Swan: We get questions about whether political officials have spent the money properly - We also set the maximum level at which the property tax can be levied. We might set it at zero to 3% and they are constrained by our decision. It must be the same or lower than our decision. It's a separate check on the city council's ability to set the property tax which pays for most of the activities of the city of Minneapolis.

C.M-S.: How did you get to be head of this board?

Dr. Swan: Our city is predominantly Democratic Party. I ran along with a team and was endorsed by the Democratic Convention. I had been very active in the gay and lesbian caucus - as well as the feminist caucus, - and I worked with the Afro-American groups, and most other racial-ethnic minority groups in the city. My goal was to build a majority from the minorities. Four years ago I ran for the Board of Estimate and Taxation and got 33,000 votes - in second place.

C.M-S.: How did you get involved in the Democratic Party?

Dr. Swan: My involvement in the Democratic Party (DP) predates my involvement as an openly gay person. I helped to revive a DP state-wide gay and lesbian caucus and after that at the city level and helped to start a GLDBT - called the Brian Call caucus. ... As I got involved in the Democratic gay & lesbian activities, that's when I started to be interested in running for office.

Minnesota has three other openly gay officials and I'm the fourth - for the state of Minnesota. There is a total of about 80 openly gay & lesbian elected officials in the US. There are 450,000 elected officials in the US. So that gives an idea of the proportions. In the last elections all of the incumbent openly gay & lesbian elected officials in the US – those who ran for office again - were re-elected. About 3/4 Of those who ran were elected - so we added another 15 to 20 people this November. We were really quite successful this time.

C.M-S.: What's life like for people in the state of Minnesota - for gays & lesbians?

Dr. Swan: The state of Minnesota  is one of nine states in the US that has a sexual orientation protection law built into the states Human Rights Acts as do Massachusets, Connecticut, and Wisconsin - in a sense they have a different environment than other states. Typically in the US a high proportion of the gays & lesbians  have moved to the cities. In our state most of the people moved to Minneapolis, but then St. Paul also had such a law so there is also a large gay & lesbian community there. There are other groups around the state - there is the City of Rochester which is quite a conservative city - but has a good strong gay movement. I think the passage of that law has made people feel safer and more willing to be open. Before they were very afraid - many of us were.

C.M-S.: In South there are particularly big problems aren't there?

Dr. Swan: It depends on where you are in the South. There are strong gay communities in Orlando, and in Florida, and in Atlanta, and especially in New Orleans. We were recently in Atlanta at the Gay Pride Parade there. But the conservative areas in the US are in the south and the mountain states - Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, - but still they have strong gay movements.

Television and Internet and so on, have the potential to link together people who have been very isolated. People at a young age who recognise themselves as gay will connect themselves with an organisation - which didn't use to happen. We still remember what it was like when there was nothing. It wasn't even talked about.

C.M-S.: You have in certain areas a backlash in connection with Clinton - such as the Defense of Marriage Act.

Dr. Swan: This is the topic of the book which I just sent to the publishers - this cultural struggle – a struggle that as I see it has four prongs to it. The one is the issue of education. We started with G&L movements in colleges & universities - and now its moved into the kindergarten to 12 sphere, - where it is extremely controversial. (2) The second area is the issue of justice - the anti-discrimination statutes, criminal justice interventions workplace efforts.... Characteristic of Minnesota is that we have workplace groups in an enormous number and range of corporations and business and government agencies. There are over 50 in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Large corporations like Tilsbury Grand Metropolitan, and there's a group in the Post Office. But right-wing people have started to boycott the corporations which allow support for gay and lesbian people. So we've got a battle going on - in education, in discrimination issues, (and workplace policies.) And the final prong of this cultural struggle is in relationships. We have around 30 government agencies in the US which grant domestic partnership benefits to their employees. The number of businesses that provide domestic partners benefits is well into the hundreds. Again the right wing has found out and started boycotts and attacks on those companies.

Then there is the Hawaii case - the Baeke versus Mieke Case. That is the case where a couple wanted to be married in the state of Hawaii. It was passed to a lower court with the Supreme Court decision that unless there was some compelling state interest that would forbid this granting of a marriage licence it should be done.... I'm told by a lawyer friend in Hawaii that it will probably go back to the Supreme Court. It will be a long and contorted process, but the odds are good that there will be a 4 to 1 vote in our favour. This triggered attacks in 11 states and in 16 they have passed laws prohibiting the reciprocal recognition of marriages from such states. What we'll probably have to do is go to the US Supreme Court - because under the 4th Amendment to the constitution you should be able to recognise a contract in one state and reciprocally recognise it in another. But we'll probably have to fight from state to state. So we've got a cultural struggle going on really a wide range of fronts in the US.

C.M-S: Is the backlash so clearly rightwing fundamentalist Christian, or is it political?

Dr. Swan: It depends of the issue. If you are talking about gay marriages for  instance it is very clear that right-wing fundamentalist religious groups are opposed to it, but you also have to point out that only 28 per cent of the American people support the idea of gay marriages. So it is not just the religious right. At this point in time it is the preponderant majority of the American people. But this is the first time that the issue has been on the political agenda in the US. ... Sometimes in public policy things are voted on three or four times before you get a positive result in the interests of the group that wants it adopted. In agriculture it might take five times before you get a vote in favour of a crop subsidy. This is the first time the public has ever seriously looked at it, but it is going to take a lot of persuading. And a lot of gay & lesbian people are not ecstatic about the idea of same-sex marriage - they would rather have domestic partners benefits. I see it as a process.

We are much further along the road in the US as employment non-discrimination as a federal guarantee - what's known as the Employment Non  Discrimination Act (ENDA) we missed getting that adopted by one vote in the  Senate. We would not have got it through the House of Representatives, but just getting  the Senate of the US to come very close to adopting it means we have a lot more support there than we have on same-sex marriage where we only got 21  votes in the House of Representatives - out of 435 ! The level of public support is much higher for non-discrimination, so our national organisations have tried to focus on things where we have a chance of winning. And at least 70% of the US people  support employment non-discrimination so it makes it much more palatable to a politician.

C.M-S: Will Clinton's re-election bring anything concrete for US  gays and lesbians?

Dr. Swan: If Clinton had lost we would have lost all of the openly gay and lesbian  people in appointed positions; we would have lost our initiatives on HIV; we  would have lost the hate-crimes efforts; we would have lost all of the work of  cabinet officers on gay and lesbian issues. Bob Dole has never voted positively on a gay and lesbian issue in Congress. For the first time the Democratic National Committee had a gay and lesbian Liaison Officer, and a group working with local groups trying to mobilise gay and lesbian support in the cities. We are a big piece of the Clinton victory.

The Clinton Administration tended to be reasonably supportive of gay and lesbian issues. They've done a lot of positive things and also a few negative ones that have caught our  attention - like the President signing the Defence of Marriage Act at 12.50 in the morning! Then there was the gays in the military battle. Those have been negatives - but there has also been a lot of positives from the Clinton Administration. They have been very supportive of funding for HIV and AIDS issues. They have hired many openly gay and lesbian appointed officials. They have worked on hate-crime reporting statistics. But typically the negatives are the ones which catch our attention and of course we are pounding away to try and change those as well.

The most important thing is that the gay and lesbian movement in the US is very diverse yet it incorporates groups - for instance in Minnesota - which was the first to pass a sexual orientation law that included gay and lesbian, bi, and transgender persons. We see that as very important that we have a law on the books that protects the rights  of all sexual minorities. Increasingly people are coming to terms with  including racial and ethnic groups within the gay and lesbian movement. As in the past -  as perhaps in other countries - the has been an emphasis on gay men spearheading the movement. But in our state especially the close collaboration between gay and lesbian, bi and transgender groups and increasingly involving racial and ethnic minorities which are glbt. That has been a real struggle. What has happened in the last five years is that we are working closely with racial and ethnic minorities - African-American, Hispanic, Native American. The GL  Action Council in the twin cities St. Paul & Minneapolis has been wonderful. It  has empowered those groups and working with the political movements has  made a lot of progress of inclusiveness, between the different groups. That  would be my message - the importance of inclusion and collaboration between  different groups.

Colin de la Motte-Sherman

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