When the Mankato Area Gay Consciousness Group first proposed a simple ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1976, it would set off a chain of events that would be felt across the state of Minnesota decades later.
It started with six men of the group being kicked out of the Trader and Trapper Discoteque in 1976 for the simple act of dancing together. This and other incidents would lead Jim Chalgren (founder of the Jim Chalgren LGBT Center) and allies to push for a non-discrimination ordinance in Mankato.
Unfortunately, the Mankato city council would simply table the issue. Then Mayor Herb Mocol would famously dismiss the issue by claiming that such incidents were rare in Mankato. He would be proven wrong almost immediately when two members of the Mankato Police Explorers Post were kicked out a few weeks afterwards for being gay. This incident was notable for being the first time two members of a Boy Scouts of America program would be expelled for their sexual orientation.
Other incidents of anti-queer discrimanation took place in Mankato following these events but there was no major push to pass an ordinance in Mankato until 1987. That was the year that Mankato City Council member Mary Lofy proposed an expansion of Mankato’s Human Rights Ordinance to include sexual orientation.
Once the ordinance was proposed, it ignited a veritable maelstrom. Supporters of the proposal found themselves at the center of a fierce, months-long debate. Several supporters were targeted withdeath threats and harassment.
To add further fuel to the fire, two murders of gay men took place during the debate over the ordinance. In New Ulm, the owner of Jake’s Pizza, Bill Schaefer, was murdered by his employee John Miller. Then in Mankato, David Wagner was murdered by Carl Wayne Davis.
Mayor Vernon “Sarge” Carstensen came out against the ordinance. This meant the ordinance needed four members of the city council to vote in favor of it in order for it to pass. Two members, Lofy and Claire Faust, came out in favor of the ordinance in advance.
By the time the Mankato City Council was ready to vote on the ordinance on Sept. 28, tension was at an all time high. On that night, 59 people testified at the city council meeting.
“All of us who testified were very nervous, except for Jim probably, and when we got in there it was packed,” said Jeanne Burkhart, who had worked with Jim on the ordinance and had testified herself at that meeting.
Unfortunately, there weren’t enough votes and the proposal failed, with Lofy and Claire Faust being the only members of the city council voting in favor.
“It was heartbreaking, we thought that we had the votes that we had needed,” Burkhart said.
Chalgren announced he was leaving Mankato for St. Paul that very night.
“There’s no reason for me to stay here, it’s a very inhospitable environment,” Chalgren is quoted as saying in The Free Press in a speech he gave following the vote.
However, the effort to pass the ordinance wasn’t entirely in vain. By bringing attention to the issue of anti-queer discrimination, Mankato activists can be given some credit for helping lead Minnesota to becoming the first state to pass legislation banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in 1993.
The lesson here is that the fight for LGBTQ rights is rarely straightforward. What began as a simple proposal made after six men were kicked out of a discoteque ultimately became part of a much larger fight for human dignity.
Header photo: Photo of the Mankato City Council meeting from September 28, 1987. (Reporter Archives)
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