According to Rand McNally, the distance between downtown Minneapolis and downtown Alexandria, Minnesota is 132.5 miles.
Actually, that’s completely wrong. Truth be told, the distance is more like a million miles.
This point was driven home a few weeks ago when I visited Alexandria to conduct training on statewide legal resources as part of my day job. The training involved speaking to representatives of more than a dozen organizations: social service agencies, religious centers, and various nonprofits.
Understand that when I show up as a nonprofit executive director, I’m all business. For the most part, I never talk about being a transgender woman, nor do I share about my personal story.
Thus, in Alexandria, I spent two hours covering how poor people have a limited ability to connect with lawyers; in turn, I spoke about legal resources that are available via the Internet or telephone. Attendees seemed appreciative for the information. More importantly for purposes of this piece, no one in the room appeared uncomfortable or judgmental about being in the presence of someone who looks feminine but has a voice that sounds all too dude.
Which of course is good for me. And, in light of what follows, somewhat ironic.
As the meeting was wrapping up, I realized that one of the organizations present was a western Minnesota GLBT-related advocacy group. (For confidentiality reasons, I can’t identify the specific group.) At that point, I departed from my standard practice and took the advocacy group person aside and related that I do a lot of speaking about transgender-related topics. I offered to come back to Alexandria to talk on what it means to be transgender, with the goal of fostering greater understanding and compassion for trans people and anyone else who’s “different.”
In response, I heard that such a talk in Alexandria would be “scandalous.”
For sure, when it comes to GLBT acceptance, I knew that Alexandria and greater Minnesota generally are far more conservative than the Twin Cities. As you’ve read here before, I refer to Minneapolis and St. Paul (and adjoining burbs) as a GLBT “oasis”. We take it for granted when we see two daddies or two mommies pushing a stroller down the sidewalk while holding hands. Likewise, here in the Twin Cities, being transgender doesn’t automatically exclude one from consideration in being hired as the executive director of a small nonprofit.
What I didn’t understand was how much different places like Alexandria are from our little oasis.
As the GLBT advocacy person related, it’s extremely difficult for a person to come out as gay or lesbian in Alexandria. In fact, the local high school has a policy of not permitting speakers on GLBT topics.
What’s worse is that discrimination against GLBT folks and persons of color is pretty rampant. Thus I heard about a man being refused a job because he’s both gay and black. Similarly, I learned of a transwoman of color who’s regularly harassed. There were other stories about marginalization of people who aren’t part of the straight, white majority of this small town.
Hearing this made me want to return to Alexandria as Ellie Krug, the transgender activist, all the more. The first step in any kind of constructive change is to talk about the problem. Of course, it’d be way better for someone local to do that talking; however, it’s equally clear that GLBT people outside the Twin Cities are afraid to advocate for greater acceptance of themselves or on behalf of others; it’s just not going to happen.
Hence why it’s often necessary for an outsider to show up.
The GLBT discrimination, marginalization, and fear that I heard about in Alexandria aren’t restricted to that area. In the last couple of years, I’ve talked to people from across greater Minnesota and heard similar stories. (I’m originally from Iowa and it too has this issue.)
Moreover, I’m not alone in wanting to tackle the “outstate problem”; the wonderful folks at OutFront Minnesota are going statewide in their advocacy for GLBT persons, particularly with respect to safe schools and transgender inclusivity.
Additionally, just last year, the Minnesota Lavender Bar Association (the state’s largest group of GLBT lawyers) announced creation of an annual $5000 fellowship to any lawyer practicing in greater Minnesota who’s out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, with the goal of giving GLBT persons legal resources while also normalizing that it’s okay to live as your true self. (Note: the MLBA is now accepting outstate lawyer applications for the 2015 Fellowship.)
With June being Pride Month — making it certain that Loring Park will be filled with people from many parts of the state — I urge you, dear Gentle Readers, to reach out to those from greater Minnesota. Reinforce that living authentically yes, has its price, but also its rewards. Similarly, remind your outstate straight friends and family of the need to have compassion for others.
Finally, I’ll put it out there: invite me to your greater Minnesota hometown to speak on that very topic: compassion and kindness for those who are “different”.
I promise to show up.
Ellie Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir About Love, Honesty and Gender Change. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org