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Karen was born in 1945 in Oklahoma, but her family soon moved to a farm in Edgerton, Minnesota. Because her family were sharecroppers, Karen learned about economics and class. And because they were Irish Catholic in a heavily Protestant town, she learned about discrimination. She credits her mother with teaching her how to both stand up for beliefs and find common ground with others, lessons that Karen would apply frequently throughout her career.

Karen received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing from the College of St. Teresa in Winona, Minnesota. Soon after, she co-founded the Lesbian Feminist Organizing Committee (LFOC). Through her grass-roots organizing work with LFOC and the Farmer Labor Association, Karen became involved in electoral politics. In 1980, Karen was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in District 62A (South Minneapolis), the lowest income district in Minnesota. Over her nearly 40 years in this post, Karen championed LGBTQ rights, worker’s rights, and social, economic, and environmental justice for low income people, Native Americans, and communities of color.

One of Karen’s greatest achievements in office was the 1993 passage of an amendment to the Minnesota Human Rights Act (co-authored with gay legislator Allan Spear) to include gays and lesbians. In 2011, Karen spoke helped defeat the GOP-controlled Minnesota Legislature’s attempt to ban gay marriage; and in 2013, she authored the bipartisan House bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota. That year, President Barack Obama honored Karen as a “Harvey Milk Champion of Change” for her commitment to equality and public service.

In 2018, having become the longest-serving out lesbian legislator in the United States, Karen decided to relax a bit. In retirement, she plans on devoting more time to her partner Jacquelyn Zita, and the organization they co-created, the Women’s Environmental Institute (WEI).

OUTWORDS interviewed Karen Clark at the Minnesota State Office Building, on a day of intermittent snow flurries. Finding Karen’s office was easy; her door was the only one decorated with signs saying “Diversity Makes Us Great,” “No More Stolen Sisters,” and “Women’s Rights = Human Rights.” 
Betsy Kalin: [00:00:00] All right, great. Karen, if you can just start by saying your name, your birthdate and where you were born?
Karen Joy Clark: It's Karen Joy Clark. I was born July 23rd 1945 in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in a military hospital.
Betsy Kalin: That's great. Why don't you tell me a little bit about your childhood and what it's like?
Karen Joy Clark: Well, I spent my first nine months in Oklahoma where I was born, and then my dad who was in the Army
Karen Joy Clark: [00:00:30] and my mom was there with him, and with my older brother came back to the farm in Minnesota where ... I actually have a photo of the farm where I grew up, my parents were sharecroppers. We have California landlord who came in from Los Angeles every year, and he took two-fifths of anything that we may have made, and we lived on three-fifths of it, which was my first economics lesson as a child, but I love the farm. I totally love the farm, and there were several years in there where my family thought they'd have to move off.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:01:00] It's very hard to make a living when you don't own your land, and tough times for small farmers, small family farmers, but I just said, "I'm going to stay on the farm no matter what. You can move, I'm going to ..." I love the farm. Now, what's true is that in my volunteer life I help run an organic farm and do environmental justice work around that. It's rooting a bit to some of my childhood values, and I grew up in a very ...
Karen Joy Clark: [00:01:30] What did I say? I went to a public school, but it was a very anti-Catholic milieu for me. We were Irish Catholics, the only one in the whole town and the whole school, and again got some very early childhood lessons about the need for separation of church and state, because my brothers and I were very discriminated against in this public school by the Dutch reformed folks who were majority of the town people.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:02:00] It's very interesting, it took me until I got to college to really learn why they were so anti-Catholic. I guess the Catholics back in Holland were persecuting the people who were reformed. It was an interesting thing, but I had a really great childhood, a lot of time outdoors. I didn't really realize how poor we were until later, but when I went to go to college I certainly came face to face with that, learned a lot about class and class consciousness
Karen Joy Clark: [00:02:30] as I went forward, but it was a good time. I handled what was going on in school by just deciding to do the best I could. My mother, very early on said, "Karen, don't worry of those kids if they say they can't play with you because you're Catholic, just go find some other friends there. Do the best you can. Make friends there. Just feel sorry for those children, their parents are ignorant, they don't know any better, and make friends." It was the lesson of your lifetime.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:03:00] I've had to use some of that in the legislature, dealing with some of the issues here, just realize that some folks just don't understand and they need a chance to understand, which is of course what eventually happened even in my childhood. Those children who were so anti-Catholic and anti-farm kid actually even in those days, became some very good friends. Over the years growing up there I guess I'm grateful for my childhood.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:03:30] I had an older brother and a younger brother while I was living at home. Then when I went off to college there were two more children born, our family is really spread out over about 19, 20 years I guess, and we're still very connected with each other. I guess I got a very strong commitment to education. My parents who had both finished high school, but weren't able to get any further education, has just instilled in us
Karen Joy Clark: [00:04:00] the idea that, "Education is the way out of poverty, and go get it, and then when we're older you can help take care of us." That's actually what happened.
Betsy Kalin: I wanted to ask you too, you touched on this a little bit, but you ... like the roots of your activism, did it come from this first awareness of discrimination because you were Catholic?
Karen Joy Clark: I think so when I looked back on it. The tools that I was given to handle that, not to just passively accept it,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:04:30] but to move forward and do some ... In those days I don't think I was told, "Do education," but I was told, "Definitely go forward and be the best you can, and don't let that hold you back." I guess it was really the roots of it. It certainly gave me some strong foundations.
Betsy Kalin: Can I just ask you to just do that question again, and just say like the roots of your activism came from having faced discrimination? It's just because we're not going to hear my voice,
Betsy Kalin: [00:05:00] like when I ask you a question if you could just rephrase it in your own way?
Karen Joy Clark: Sure. Well, it's true that the roots of my activism probably came from experiences of a young child learning to stand up to religious discrimination and bigotry. My mother gave me lessons for a lifetime in how to handle that, "Just understand that there's ignorance and do the best you can and you can overcome that, and go forward."
Karen Joy Clark: [00:05:30] She was a very important voice in my childhood. She was an uppity woman from the moment, and probably that she was born, she was a child who lost her mother at a very early age, nine years old, and so she had to learn how to stand up for herself and she passed that onto us.
Betsy Kalin: Great. Do you want to ask [crosstalk 00:05:50].
Karen Joy Clark: Is that okay?
Natalie Tsui: What's that sound?
Karen Joy Clark: What do you need?
Betsy Kalin: We can hear it.
Natalie Tsui: [00:06:00] We can hear the sound that you're making. It's most [inaudible 00:06:01]. Thank you.
Karen Joy Clark: [Inaudible 00:06:05] your noise?
Betsy Kalin: Yeah.
Natalie Tsui: Since we're here, would you mind sitting more on that side of your chair? Great. Thank you. You can be in the center too.
Karen Joy Clark: Like that. Is that good?
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, that's fine.
Karen Joy Clark: You're sure?
Natalie Tsui: When you're leaning out it's like a little bit of the edge of frame.
Karen Joy Clark: Did I get you what you wanted?
Betsy Kalin: That was perfect.
Karen Joy Clark: Okay.
Betsy Kalin: [00:06:30] I guess I wanted to clarify maybe a little more. You were in a mostly Protestant area?
Karen Joy Clark: Yeah.
Betsy Kalin: You were a Catholic family, maybe talk about how that made you feel as a child.
Karen Joy Clark: Well, my brothers and I were the only Catholics in the whole 12 grades of school in Edgerton, Minnesota. It was a public school, but the town was very Dutch reformed and the basis for a lot of
Karen Joy Clark: [00:07:00] what went on in the school had a lot to do with people's religious background and religious heritage. I didn't understand it all at first, but I did ... they read the Bible in the public school in those days, and my mother just told me, "You sit down and you don't have to stand up." Right away, I experienced myself as different, and it was a real good lesson in religious bigotry, religious tolerance. Eventually some of my cousins came to the school,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:07:30] so all the Clark's were there, and we were the Catholic, Irish Catholics. Over the years there were many way in which that came forward, political elections like supporting Adlai Stevenson and those kind of things. Even supporting the Dodgers versus the Yankees because of racial discrimination and some of those issues. There were just a lot of lessons that were, maybe less overt to me in those days, I learned the words for them later, but they stuck.
Betsy Kalin: [00:08:00] Great, that's fantastic, thank you. Can you talk about your brother going off to Vietnam and what that experience meant to you?
Karen Joy Clark: Yes, my older brother Larry went to Vietnam and he ... I remember walking through the airport with him, sending him off his wife and little daughter, who I think was about two or one and a half at the time.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:08:30] When he came back she was almost three and a half, four, I think. He was my big brother and he liked, my brother two years younger than me, were farm boys, who the only way they got to college in those days was to sign up for the ROTC, the Reserved Officer Training Corp. He was a very bright man. He was passionate.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:09:00] He was poor, let me just say that, and he had to go to Vietnam right after graduation. I think he had a year of working, he was a chemical engineer, he worked for about a year then he went. He wrote letters back to us. I was in college at that time in St. Teresa's College, and was part of the growing anti-war movement. Often when I was marching in the street and helping create the coffee house that we created there and so on,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:09:30] to have discussion about peace and justice, and just the whole Vietnam War scene, he came to mind. He was my big brother, he would write back agonizing letters about what was going on there. He compared some of the little children there to his own daughter, and he, like a lot of soldiers during those days, the military gave them alcohol and who knows what other drugs, and when he came back he was horribly addicted to alcohol. He only lived about a year and a half after that.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:10:00] He had very bad PTSD, and we did not have the words post-traumatic stress syndrome in those days, we didn't know, but he described things that happened to him that are clearly PTSD. It was very, very hard to lose him. It was a tragedy for my family. At the same time I was involved in the anti-war movement, and involved with people who were going to prison for burning draft files,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:10:30] and that sort of thing. I had gotten involved with a women's movement that grew out of the anti-war movement. As we said in those days, any self-respecting woman involved in anti-war has to become a feminist and join the Independent Women's Movement. Later on a stage for me was any self-respecting lesbian involved in the Women's Movement has to join the Independent Lesbian Feminist Movement, but in those days the war weighed heavily on my family.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:11:00] My father who had served in the military when I was born and so on, at first was in support of the war, but by the time my brother had died and the family was involved with supporting me and some of my anti-war activities, my whole family came to understand that it was an unjust war and were very supportive of ending the war. My second brother, I mean the brother two years younger than I,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:11:30] became an anti-war activist too, and the way that happened is very interesting. I didn't discover all of it until some 20 years later. I was able to get a Bush Fellowship and went to the Kennedy School at Harvard and was writing a paper for one of the Kalb Brothers reporters, and he covered the war extensively. One of our assignments was to write a personal essay, and I chose to write about what the Vietnam War meant to my family, and I talked about my older brother
Karen Joy Clark: [00:12:00] and what his life and death had meant to our family. I pointed out that, that was one of the first televised wars, and the media had so much to do with people understanding what war was, and what that war was. Credited that for some of the reason that my younger brother didn't go to war, but I brought that paper home on a holiday and shared it with my family. They read it and my younger brother said to me, "Oh, you're missing a whole part here."
Karen Joy Clark: [00:12:30] What he told me is that my older brother had written him a letter. My younger brother Eddie had said to his older brother, "I'm quitting school. I'm going to come out and join you. I want to be there with you and we're going to fight together," and so on, and my older brother said, Larry said, "Don't you dare. Don't you dare come to this war. War is hell. I don't want you here. Cut off your finger, go to Canada. You are not coming here." That helped my younger brother re-evaluate and he became another war activist
Karen Joy Clark: [00:13:00] after that with me, and the rest of the family really. There were dear friends of ours of Minnesota 8, one of the people who I was involved with at that time, were all people who helped us see what was going on. It was part of the fabric of social change, resistance, all that in those days.
Betsy Kalin: You kind of talked about that as your first foray into activism. Is that true? Do you see yourself as an activist and do you see the anti-war activism as the beginning of that?
Karen Joy Clark: [00:13:30] Well, it's part of the beginning. As I said, women who were involved in the anti-war movement really had to come to terms with what was going on with bias against women. When I came to Minneapolis I had actually spent ... I graduated from St. Teresa's, I spent the first summer working in the migrant labor camp out, working as a public health nurse with the migrant workers in those camps in Western Minnesota.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:14:00] I would say that would be one of my first kinds of opening my eyes to some sort of activism that later evolved in around labor justice, and some of those issues, but I was just starting. Yes, the war and what was going on with that was a very deep dive into political activism and street marches. When our Feminist Women's Group started meeting,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:14:30] before there was the Lesbian Feminist Group that I would be a part of , yes, we took on some of those issues very, very deeply, and it was ... Many of us were in the streets marching. Since my background was in nursing one of the things I did is something they called medical presence in those days, which is those of us who had healthcare backgrounds would carry a bag of medical supplies to be used in the event of teargas or injuries or police injuries or whatever might happen. I did a lot of that.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:15:00] It was a time of really understanding what it takes to make change through political activism.
Betsy Kalin: How did you go from being part of the feminist community to part of the lesbian feminist community?
Karen Joy Clark: Well, first thing I did was come out. That was an amazing time. I fell in love with my girlfriend. We both came out together.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:15:30] I came into a very loving feminist community, a lesbian feminist community. I have to say I was very lucky at the time. I decided ... My family were rural farm people, I decided that I needed to have them understand who I was and who I had become. I took 10 days and went home and became their support group for my coming out. It was the right decision,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:16:00] and it was really wonderful. My mother's first words out of her mouth ... First, I said, "Mom, let's go have a picnic." We went and had a picnic somewhere out in the field. I can't remember, in the pasture I think, and her first words out of her mouth was, "I will always love you." It was just so wonderful and that never went away, and it only grew. It grew with the understanding and with the love they had for the people I brought home for them to meet and so on. My dad was very similar,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:16:30] he wasn't quite so expressive, but he only had positive things to say. I was more worried about him, and actually what most worried me is I had two young siblings at home. I was afraid if I didn't figure out a way to really have this conversation with them that created a positive outcome, that they wouldn't let me have my little brother and little sister come stay with me, which they did, for they did spend a week every summer with me up here in the cities, and that was never the result.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:17:00] They continued to come to stay. I'm not saying it was totally easy, but it was certainly positive, and I'm grateful for that time, and I'm grateful for them. I have a photo over here of them marching with us in the 20 ... 1993 we passed a law here in Minnesota, that added those really dangerous words, sexual orientation to the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:17:30] They came to march with us, my mom and dad, that June. It was amazing, they were part of the Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays. They weren't right next to me, they were with that group of folks, some of whom have become my friends, and who we had worked with so much to get that language passed into law. When I met up with them afterwards my mother said, "I just cried all the way through.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:18:00] People were so wonderful to us. They were so happy." They were carrying the sign, along with some others that you can see in the photo that says, "Our homosexual children should have the same rights as our heterosexual children." Years later, I don't know, maybe 15, 20 years later, in the little town where they lived, they moved off the farm to a little village of 90 people, and the town had a centennial celebration. My mother made sure that,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:18:30] that sign was there to be seen along with the other things that they had from our family. That's the kind of development that can happen, and it's one of the basis for my understanding how many people here can go through changes, and have over the years, many of my colleagues in the legislature.
Betsy Kalin: That's a beautiful story. I think that just ... to have that much support when you come out.
Karen Joy Clark: Yeah, it's amazing.
Betsy Kalin: It's amazing. Now I'm going to move to you hearing Elaine Noble speak in Boston, and what that meant for you.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:19:00] Actually I heard Elaine Noble speak at a retreat that I was at, which was like a six-week retreat, that came kind of a turning point in my life. I was working as an OB-GYN nurse practitioner at Hennepin County Medical Center, and I had come out. I was part of the Lesbian Feminist Community, but we hadn't really organized specifically into a real organization yet in Minnesota,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:19:30] but we were always reading all the newspapers that came from California and Denver, and the East Coast, and West Coast, so on. I just thought, "I got to figure out what I'm doing with my life." I decided to take a break, a sabbatical I called it, from my work, and go to this feminist retreat that was in Vermont. Elaine Noble, was at that time a partner with Rita Mae Brown. Rita Mae Brown who was one of our teachers brought Elaine Noble to the class.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:20:00] Rita Mae Brown was teaching a class on class consciousness. It was really an important awakening for me in terms of learning the words to my previous experience I didn't have. Elaine Noble came and spoke one day, and she talked ... she was in the legislature, state legislature at that time in Boston, and she talked about her district, and she talked about that lesbians should think about running for office, it can happen. She was the very first person, openly lesbian person who'd gotten elected doing that.
Betsy Kalin: [00:20:30] I'm sorry we're going to have to pause one second. We have a plane.
Karen Joy Clark: Okay.
Betsy Kalin: I know where you are. I'm sorry.
Karen Joy Clark: Okay.
Natalie Tsui: It's still up there.
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, I hear it.
Natalie Tsui: Let's just back up a little bit too, because we started on that.
Karen Joy Clark: It is loud, isn't it?
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, it's always the howling ... It sounds like howling wind.
Karen Joy Clark: Yeah, you're in Minnesota.
Natalie Tsui: [00:21:00] Maybe it is howling wind.
Betsy Kalin: No, it was a plane. I think it's gone now.
Natalie Tsui: There's still another sound. Can you hear it?
Betsy Kalin: I think that's the-
Natalie Tsui: That's the howling wind.
Betsy Kalin: It's the heat ... heating system.
Karen Joy Clark: Yeah, I don't think we can do anything about that.
Betsy Kalin: Too bad we can't.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, we can't.
Betsy Kalin: You can just go back to where you say that who Elaine Noble is and talk about that.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:21:30] Elaine Noble was the first openly lesbian state legislator in the country, and I always like to honor her for that because she really did plant the seed in my mind of like, "Oh, maybe that's something I could do," or we could consider helping someone do. I hadn't necessarily put it into my own plan or anything, but she described her district, and it sounded a lot like my neighborhood at the time, a diverse community, racially diverse, lots of older people, and she talked about how she had worked with a lot of the elders,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:22:00] and so on in her community. She was very important to me, and I stayed in touch with her. She came to Minnesota ... Well, after she stopped being a state legislator, because she ran for Congress, she and Barney Frank were vying with each other as I understand it, for the endorsement of their party. Barney won and went, and he's a good friend today. I'm still in touch with him. I'd lost a little bit of touch with Elaine, but I've never lost the message that she gave me.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:22:30] I mean she was so powerful in just saying, "This is a possibility, it's maybe even a duty that some of us should consider going forward." She was just so positive about it that it felt ... it planted that seed of possibility.
Betsy Kalin: Did she said ... When she said, "Okay, this is maybe a duty and this is something that you can do," did you think like ... did you immediately started thinking, "Oh, I can go into politics?"
Karen Joy Clark: [00:23:00] No. No, I didn't. It wasn't an immediate thing for me, no. I have to say there was a lot more things we had to do before we could do that, and one of them was create an organization that could be the basis for our work in the community. When I came back from Sagers? it was called, we started something called the Lesbian Feminist Organizing Committee, LFOC. I was one of the founders along with my dear friend Janet Dollum. We've actually eventually became organizers for it,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:23:30] but it was an organization that was built on certain principles. We had like principles of unity and they included things like class consciousness, racial justice, we had an FBI Committee, because in those days the FBI was infiltrating lesbian groups looking for whoever. We had a number of different groups. One of the things that we did was look at the issue of, "Should the Lesbian Feminist Organizing Committee get involved in electoral politics or is it too dirty for us?"
Karen Joy Clark: [00:24:00] You know, politics are dirty, we should not do that. We organized a forum at the women's coffee house, which was an essential part of being a lesbian feminist being a feminist in Minneapolis at that time. It was in a church basement, Plymouth Congregational Church, I like to give them credit. They're still there and they opened up every Saturday, then we set up those coffee house and then took it down. Candace Margulies was the wonderful organizer of that.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:24:30] Anyway, we had a forum and I was the moderator, and my friend Janet was, "No, we should not get in electoral politics," and my friend Kerry Woodward, who actually moved out to California said, "Oh yes, we should get involved in electoral politics." We had this forum, I moderated it, we had, I don't know, a couple hundred people there to look at whether or not LFOC should get involved in electoral politics. We took a vote. We're a very democratic populist organization. We decided, "Yes, we will start a committee on electoral politics," and so we did.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:25:00] What we did was organize lesbian feminists all over the state to go to precinct caucuses, and that's the system we have in Minnesota, where the party endorsement happens. We put together a 22-item agenda of what we stood for and took it to the caucus, and when we did that we drew incredible attention from other progressive groups who looked like, "Whoa, who are these lesbian feminists?
Karen Joy Clark: [00:25:30] They have everything from fair prices to farmers, childcare, racial issues, housing, environmental issues, who are these women?" Out of that LFOC was invited to become part of an organization called the Farmer Labor Association, FLA. In Minnesota, you may know we're not just a democratic party here with a Democratic Farmer Labor party,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:26:00] and that F and L, putting those back into DFL, is what that party, that caucus was about. I became the delegate from LFOC to the FLA. I got to give a speech for a woman who was running for governor at the time, Alice Chip, she was just amazing. In that speech, which was to the state convention of the DFL, I came out as a lesbian supporter of her,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:26:30] and of some of the principles that we were working on and our agenda. It was very interesting because my parents were farm people who were involved in the farmer DFL, farmer labor party at the time, and they were there, and so were their friends from rural Minnesota. It was like, "Oh my goodness, my parents are coming out as parents of a lesbian woman," and that's really exactly what happened. It had repercussions at home, people who didn't know that about me
Karen Joy Clark: [00:27:00] and didn't know that about my parents, all began chattering and talking and stuff. My little sister called me up, I don't know it was a couple of weeks later and just was in tears. She was I think nine years old at the time and said, "They're saying to me you must be a lesbian, you're sister is a lesbian," and that kind of thing. I just had to comfort her the best I could, and she was wondering and I just said, "Cindy, this is not something you need to think about right now, you know. I'm always going to love you.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:27:30] We can always love each other. Just don't let that bother you if you can help it." She rose to the occasion. We're 19 years apart in age, it was really interesting, she and I are close today and she lives up here in the cities, but I digress here. I guess just to say the Lesbian Feminist Organizing Committee was my basis and my kickoff point,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:28:00] and people from the Farmer Labor Association approached me a few years later. It was in 1980, 79 or 80, they said, "We would like you to run for a state legislature." At that time we were talking about the Senate, and I just laughed. I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I'd heard. I'm much more comfortable in the street and organizing, behind-the-scenes with my lesbian feminist community, with the feminist community, with people in my neighborhood, we were working on affordable housing and renters rights, and like, "What?"
Karen Joy Clark: [00:28:30] After I got done laughing and they kept asking me, and made it clear they were serious, they held a debate between me and the chair of that organization, and they declared that I won. I don't know, that's all they said, "Okay, you're our candidate." I said to them, "Are you sure that you are going to be able to stand with me on this? Because it means the Farmer Labor Association is supporting a lesbian feminist woman the first time ever,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:29:00] there's never been a lesbian, open lesbian elected in the state to any office. Are you sure you're going to be with me?" Almost all of them said yes, there were a few who said, "Oh yeah, I don't know if we can do this," but in the end they decided, and once we decided then we went for it. It was a lot of fun. The thing that was really clear was that all those years of organizing were what helped us win. We didn't have computers to keep track of things in those days.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:29:30] My very good friend Zoe Nikolai had a little recipe box that had all the volunteers in it, their names, addresses, phone numbers, there wasn't email. We organized like crazy and we took over the precinct caucuses in our community. Without going through all of the different parts of it I can say eventually I decided to run for the House and not the Senate, and we won handedly in the end.
Betsy Kalin: Can you just say that made you the first lesbian in the Minnesota House?
Karen Joy Clark: [00:30:00] Yeah, first open lesbian, I mean there may have been others that we're not open. I kind of wonder about a few people, but no, there was never anybody who had been ... well, for any office whether it was local, city, county, state, but I'm glad you asked me about Elaine Noble earlier, because I really like to credit her as the first openly lesbian legislator. We were open while we were running. It wasn't like some of my dear friends came out later, Senator Allan Spear for example, was in office first,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:30:30] Congressman Barney Frank was in office first, and then came out. It was unusual in that there's no way I'm going back into the closet to run for this office. It was a big step for progressive politics in Minnesota at the time, it still is. I have to say I'm retiring in January, at the end of this session and I have endorsed one person, and she's been lesbian baited because I'm supporting her.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:31:00] She's not a lesbian, but she's a fabulous progressive woman. It's not ever done probably, bigotry and discrimination is still underlying a lot of issues, and of course our presidential leadership at the time has stimulated a lot of that sort of attitude and divisiveness, but I would say the general public is a whole different place. I'm very hopeful about
Karen Joy Clark: [00:31:30] where we're going with LGBTQ rights. In those days, it was just lesbian and gay, now we have the whole part of our community as one force going forward, and I think we're in pretty good shape.
Betsy Kalin: That's great, thank you. Oh my God, that was a beautiful story.
Betsy Kalin: [00:32:00] I also read that other legislators tried to block you once you were elected. Do you want to talk about that?
Karen Joy Clark: I can tell you what I know. Well, I didn't find out 'til about a year later, that the day I was sworn in apparently there was a motion put forward by some of my Republican colleagues to bar me from taking office, and I guess my caucus protected me. I never knew about it. The motion was not brought forward,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:32:30] but apparently it said something about that I should not take the oath of office because I must be an immoral person being an open lesbian. There were little hints of that sort of thing from the moment I started walking these halls here at the Capitol. I'll never forget, and this is a story of transformation if I can just tell it. One of my colleagues from Saint Paul, Saint Paul had just gone through a referendum.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:33:00] They had had a human rights act that included gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people, and what happened was I was told ... I mean, they lost the referendum on it, and I was told by a colleague of mine one day when I was just trying to figure out, "Where is my office?" I was just brand new, and I hadn't been sworn in even yet, I don't think. This guy whose name was Tom walked past me in the hall, and this is kind of his manner anyway, he said, " Clark,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:33:30] if you think you're going to come here and pass a gay rights stuff, you just better get another thought coming. We just defeated that over here in Saint Paul, and don't even bother." I said, "And you are who? What is your name?" Then he introduced himself, Tom Osthoff was his full name, but that's all he said and he went on. It was kind of his way. But I have to tell you that later on in 1993,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:34:00] when I was trying to add those really dangerous words sexual orientation to the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and we have a very comprehensive approach. We included bisexual, transgender people in a way that had not been included in any other state legislation that added sexual orientation. I think we were the ninth state. Wisconsin was like 10 years earlier, if you can believe that now. Anyway, Tom Osthoff became one of my strongest allies, and it's because he went through his own changes with his own constituents,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:34:30] who were getting more and more active. I don't know all the personal parts of his story, but I can tell you that happened over and over. One of the best stories I could tell you is about a farmer, a farmer legislator, Leo from Austin, Minnesota and Albert Lea, I'm not sure, but it included both of those towns, came up to me one day shortly after the session started, it was 1993.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:35:00] I believe that's right, and he said to me, "Karen, are you going to bring that Gay Rights Bill up here again?" I said, "Well, yes, Leo, I am and I'm hoping I can get your vote," and he said, "Of course," he said, "I want to be the co-author." I said, "Really? Leo, what happened?" Because he voted against all of those kinds of measures for years, and he'd been here, I don't know, quite a long time, 15, 20 years. I'm not sure how long at that point
Karen Joy Clark: [00:35:30] but he was one of our elder legislator, statesman and that's a shock of white hair and he was a rural legislator. He said, "Yup, I'm going to ask you to put me on that bill." I said, "Well, so what did happen, Leo?" He said, "Well, you know, I go to this Catholic church and some very good friends of mine, close friends of mine invited me to a
Karen Joy Clark: [00:36:00] Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays meeting," and he said, "I went." He said, "These are good friends of mine and they told me about their daughter who, at the time lived in I believe it was either Washington or Oregon, and there was a referendum there that said that if you are suspected of being lesbian or gay, and you are a public employee you will lose your job." It was a really amazing referendum, and he said, "Karen, you need this law so that doesn't happen here."
Karen Joy Clark: [00:36:30] I said, "Thank you, Leo. Do you want to be the chief author?" He said, "No, but I want to be right there," and I said, "That's terrific." Actually Leo helped me get probably five or six rural farm votes, and that's the way it happened. He had gone through his changes, his understanding had evolved. I mean he'd voted against every bill like that before, and believe me, when I first got here we started right away trying to add sexual orientation to various laws.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:37:00] Hate crimes law that took us until 1989, this was 1993, and it was ... and that had being worked on, adding the sexual orientation to our own civil rights, human rights law in Minnesota for about 20 years. Then another 20 years jump ahead and we get the marriage law in 2013, but that's the way it happened. I think that is the way progressive, difficult change can happen
Karen Joy Clark: [00:37:30] when people have personal transformations of encounters or something in their life helps them understand, that where they had put these ideas is no longer relevant. It's the kind of thing that makes this work worthwhile. It really is.
Betsy Kalin: Great. That Human Rights Act I just want to back up a little, because some people aren't going to know what the full bill. Can you just talk what it is and what it encompasses, and why it was so radical to have that pass?
Karen Joy Clark: [00:38:00] Well, in 2013 we did pass in Minnesota the addition of sexual orientation to the Minnesota Human Rights Law, and that was a whole process that had been in the works for years. There was an understanding by that time that in order to make that kind of change you got to have a grassroots movement that demands it, and that helps create the support for people who are in the legislature who are going to vote for it.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:38:30] There was a group, now the group is called OutFront Minnesota, at that time the campaign was called It's Time, Minnesota. Organizers were hired by It's Time, Minnesota, and in fact if you get a chance to meet Senator Scott Dibble, he was one of the people who helped us work on that as a young activist at the time, but we went all over the state of Minnesota. I, and Senator Allen Spear were the chief authors
Karen Joy Clark: [00:39:00] and we went with organizers to small towns, big towns and so on. Actually, I should back up a bit, the governor, a Republican governor at the time had asked us to put together or he appointed a task force on gay and lesbian rights as he called it, and it went around and had hearings around the state. This was a sequel to a task force that had been there in the 80's on hate crimes. The hate crimes task force when it had hearings all over the state came back,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:39:30] and finally in 1989 we passed a bill that included sexual orientation, but that was like about the sixth or seventh try to do that. What happened with that governor's task force is that the people that came forward and talked about hate crimes were mostly people of color, American Indian people, and lesbian and gay people. In those days that's mostly how people identified themselves, some bisexual, but mostly lesbian and gay,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:40:00] and the stories they told were so horrific kind of discrimination and violence that they faced in their communities. That became the basis for our Republican governor later saying, "Let's have a gay and lesbian task force." It did the same sort of thing, traveled around the community, had hearings in little towns and regional centers. People came forward and they were able to speak anonymously, because sometimes it wasn't safe to really talk about what your experience was in those areas, but built a case for discrimination and
Karen Joy Clark: [00:40:30] built a case against discrimination of gay and lesbian, bisexual, transgender people. When we were having that discussion here in the Twin Cities in particular, we opened it up and just said, "Let's figure out what the words of the law should say." We had a bulletin board and we'd write the words up and tried to figure it out, and eventually what we came up with was an all-inclusive definition that talked about identity and sexual orientation,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:41:00] but not ... we didn't name lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, we made it a category that included for the first time all those people. Ooops.
Betsy Kalin: An alarm?
Karen Joy Clark: I think it's my phone, not my cellphone, it's this phone.
Betsy Kalin: Do you want to get it?
Karen Joy Clark: Sorry. There's no way to stop that.
Betsy Kalin: Come back a little.
Karen Joy Clark: What?
Betsy Kalin: Forward, towards me. You slid backwards.
Karen Joy Clark: Did I?
Betsy Kalin: [00:41:30] The chair.
Karen Joy Clark: Oh, the chair, okay.
Natalie Tsui: We'll just [inaudible 00:41:35] again.
Betsy Kalin: Okay.
Natalie Tsui: Then you have to sit back actually.
Betsy Kalin: [Inaudible 00:41:39], just leaning forward to talk.
Karen Joy Clark: Okay.
Natalie Tsui: One second.
Karen Joy Clark: Am I on the right side of my chair now?
Betsy Kalin: You're fine.
Natalie Tsui: You're fine.
Betsy Kalin: There are some people who ... Actually, would you mind looking right at Betsy?
Natalie Tsui: I just got to get focus in the eyes, just keep looking.
Karen Joy Clark: Is that good?
Betsy Kalin: [00:42:00] That's good.
Natalie Tsui: That's great, got it. There are some people who talk in our interview that just really lean all over.
Karen Joy Clark: Was I doing that?
Natalie Tsui: No, you're perfect.
Karen Joy Clark: Not too bad.
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, you're great.
Karen Joy Clark: All right.
Betsy Kalin: There it goes again.
Karen Joy Clark: Let me see if I can ...
Natalie Tsui: Can we unplug it?
Karen Joy Clark: I don't know. Let's see if it makes a noise when it does that. It might start beeping.
Natalie Tsui: Also, I think ... Let me just try to unplug it.
Karen Joy Clark: Oh, that's the right way to do it.
Natalie Tsui: Because I think ...
Betsy Kalin: [00:42:30] It's a nice ring. It's like music.
Karen Joy Clark: Yeah, not too bad.
Betsy Kalin: As far as like phones go.
Natalie Tsui: There.
Karen Joy Clark: There, okay.
Natalie Tsui: Hopefully this hasn't moved too much in frame so it's not daunting the background.
Karen Joy Clark: I think you're okay.
Natalie Tsui: [Inaudible 00:42:54].
Karen Joy Clark: I will, on the book I love him.
Natalie Tsui: [00:43:00] We're still rolling.
Betsy Kalin: Okay. I think just go back to where you were talking about the Human Rights Bill and how it ... you just finished the hate crimes and just gone into it.
Karen Joy Clark: We held these series of meetings around the Twin Cities area, and also in rural Minnesota, and one of the things we started doing was actually putting the language of the bill up for discussion in the community. As a result, we came up with this language that was very broad,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:43:30] it didn't say lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, but it included all of us in that. It did that by being broader in terms, and to this day, as I understand it, is the only state law in the nation that includes bisexual, transgender, gay and lesbian, and people of all gender identities. We used the word identity and it was strong, and even perceived identity I think was part of it too.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:44:00] It has served us well, and just like every other state, especially in these days there's a big attack on the transgender community, and our law protects our transgender community well so far. Sometimes there's efforts to just take that part out or say, "This doesn't include transgender people." We've always been able to stop it so far and I hope we always will.
Betsy Kalin: Are there other ... I mean it's just amazing that you got this bill. I believe it was before other states.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:44:30] Yeah, well, we were the ... I think we were the eight or, no, sixth, maybe or seventh. We weren't the first by any means in terms of that, but we were the first to have this broader coverage of our whole community, yes.
Betsy Kalin: Then are there other pieces of legislation that you want to talk about that you're really proud to have authored or gotten through?
Karen Joy Clark: In terms of our community or in general?
Betsy Kalin: I think in general.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:45:00] Okay, oh my goodness. Yes, I have some that are done and then I have others that are still in process, but I think one of the first bills, and kind of an ongoing theme that Ive worked on over the years, is the whole issue of environmental justice and the issue of worker's rights around issues of the environment and community's rights. I was a pretty new legislator, I think it was my second year I introduced a bill called The Worker's Right to Know Toxic Exposure.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:45:30] It may sound shocking, but in those days in Minnesota, and most every state I think there were just a few handful of states that said if you were working in a job and there were toxins there that you are being exposed to, there was no right to even know it, be protected, have equipment to protect yourself, any of that. I was, like I say a pretty brand new legislator, I think it was my second year I introduced the bill. It took me one more year. We passed it in Minnesota. It became one of the earliest states to do that and did it with a very strong law.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:46:00] I think partly maybe it took them a little bit by surprise, because I was an organizer, and we organized all over. Actually, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers out in California helped us.
Betsy Kalin: I'm sorry, there is a plane.
Natalie Tsui: Well, maybe it's ...
Karen Joy Clark: I don't hear it.
Natalie Tsui: You know it's just the AC, [crosstalk 00:46:24], let's turn it off, okay.
Karen Joy Clark: All right.
Natalie Tsui: All right, continue, sorry to interrupt.
Karen Joy Clark: The Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers out in California helped us. They sent a video
Karen Joy Clark: [00:46:30] or we got a video from them, and it was a very visual image, they flashed on this library of books that were in a stack in the office of the company, Monsanto, I believe it was at the time, that described impacts, health impacts of a particular toxic chemical that was being used, and being created, being manufactured there.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:47:00] That book that they focused in on had the documentation of the impact on men who worked there, they became sterile. I brought that piece of information, that video to my colleagues here, and even like today most of the legislators are men, when they heard that men in the workplace did not get to find out that they were being sterilized against their will, they had no idea, it helped me pass the bill.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:47:30] I always thank California and the OCAW for that. That was one of the early bills. To this day, the issue of environmental toxic exposure is really important. One of the bills that passed maybe about seven or eight years ago related to that, is a bill that affects just a small part of actually the district that I represent, and it's called ...
Karen Joy Clark: [00:48:00] Let me just back up a bit. It has the ability to allow my neighborhood, this part of my neighborhood to have a different threshold for toxic exposures than any other community in Minnesota or actually in the nation. People at the EPA and somebody out in California asked me, "How did you pass that?" What the law is that if there's a business that wants to come into our agency, that wants to come in to this particular neighborhood in South Minneapolis,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:48:30] and if they create air pollution in their business, they have a new threshold to meet, and it's called Accumulative Health Impact Analysis. What that means is the people who live in that neighborhood already are burdened with toxic exposures. In my neighborhood, oh my goodness, we have arsenic on the ground, childhood lead poisoning, asthma, some of these issues that are very much related to environmental toxic exposures. We passed this bill and it has helped us stop three or four, five different businesses
Karen Joy Clark: [00:49:00] from either coming to my neighborhood or expanding their business, and it has protected our air. There's still so much to do, just even in this little part of this neighborhood, it's called East Phillips. As a matter of fact tonight, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is coming out to the neighborhood to talk about the fact that there's a foundry and an asphalt plant that are right next ... I live about a block and a half from them, excuse me, and they still pollute the air, and how can we use that law to
Karen Joy Clark: [00:49:30] change the permit that they now have. It's an ongoing kind of thing. That whole theme of environmental toxic exposure from an individual in a workplace to a community, in this case a community majority people of color and Native American people, that's a theme that has been something I've worked on a lot in the legislature. Also, in my private life I ... Can I just clear my throat here?
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, sure. Do you want some water?
Natalie Tsui: [00:50:00] Do you want some water?
Karen Joy Clark: Let me just ... There we go. When I'm not in the legislature one of the things I do is I work with something called the Women's Environmental Institute. I'm a volunteer, but I work a lot, a lot with that and I have helped us to do a number of things. One of the things that helps my life come together is with the Women's Environmental Institute one of the things we decided to do early on was to develop an organic farm.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:50:30] I'm back to my farm roots in some ways. When I was growing up we grew everything organically. It was shortly after the war when they needed some place to put all those chemical, pesticides and herbicides that took over farming, but my dad was, like I say a low-income farmer, didn't do that, he used manure. On our organic farm we have, with the Women's Environmental Institute,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:51:00] really figured out how to do a lot of things that allow us to not only grow good for ourselves, but we've become an education facility for urban farming basically. One of the things I'm most proud of that I was able to accomplish during these years in the legislature, was to add the words urban farming to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's mission. I think we might be the only state in the nation that actually has that. Last year I actually passed a bill that put funding into urban farming,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:51:30] and it's not just in the metropolitan area here, it's urban farming throughout Minnesota. There's a requirement that at least 50% of the money go to low-income people of color and Native American farmers, urban farmers. Sometimes you start one thing and it takes a few years or actually a couple of decades to bring it all the way around. There's been a lot of discussion lately about the Me Too Movement and all that. One of the bills, again, as a pretty young legislator that I brought forward
Karen Joy Clark: [00:52:00] because it was the time Anita Hill and others were coming forward. A little bit before that actually I had an intern, and I like to thank my interns who have worked with me over the years, they've been some amazing interns, some of them have gone on to get elected to public office themselves, but one of them helped me, a University of Minnesota student, put together the language of sexual harassment. We defined it in Minnesota. I actually gave that bill to another legislator who was new
Karen Joy Clark: [00:52:30] and wanted to take on something strong and go forward, and she did a great job, but I held on to the part that said that if you are sexually harassed in your job you get unemployment compensations. Minnesota is one of the few states that has that and I can take some credit for that. It's certainly so timely today. Just a couple of weeks ago when the legislature started here in Minnesota 2018, we had an in-service training for all legislators on sexual harassment.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:53:00] That's another issue I guess that I'm pleased I had some part in. There's just numerous things. Maybe you have one that you want me to talk about.
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, I want to actually talk about the getting same-sex marriage equality through the legislature as compared to the Supreme Court decision. You, in Minnesota took it a different way than the rest.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:53:30] Yeah, well, and again, the credit here goes to an incredible grassroots momentum that was created to try to discuss what same-sex marriage means. Oh my goodness, we came to it in kind of a hard way. The year before we had to deal with a bill that was passed that put a constitutional amendment on our agenda, and in 2012
Karen Joy Clark: [00:54:00] I and everyone else was running for office, in addition to trying to seek our own office had to deal with these two constitutional amendments. One of them was to ban gay marriage in the state of Minnesota, and the other one was to require photo ID's at the polls. They both have incredible bias as part of what created them in the first place. One of the things that happened is this grassroots movement to
Karen Joy Clark: [00:54:30] make gay marriage a possibility, and stop that amendment was tied very closely to the grassroots movement to stop the photo ID, so that we would not be preventing particularly low-income people of color and others from being able to vote. That's the way it pans out, that's the way it works out. There was a strong connection between labor and civil rights groups, and women's groups, and people of color organizations, and GLBTQ groups, and we just really worked hard.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:55:00] But the way that the folks that were steering the gay marriage amendment approached it was to talk about love, and to talk about this is about love, rather than saying this is about a civil rights issue. Now, I myself am very connected to the civil rights part of it, but I also saw the power of the discussion that love is love,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:55:30] let's talk about this and let's talk about what your experience is. The thing again that over the years it was true, is that people looking at their own families, their own relationships and so on, began to really start to get that, and it was an amazing, amazing campaign, millions of phone calls people making. I don't remember the number, but it was like several million and just a lot of people talking to their families, talking to their friends, talking to their colleagues at work,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:56:00] talking to the people in their faith community. It was an amazing grassroots campaign that happened. Once that happened the very next year, which was 2013, the legislature came back and we had some new people elected who had campaigned with us on that, and one of them was a very young man, he was 27 years old.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:56:30] I remember when our DFL caucus of the house was meeting, the elephant in the room was, "Okay, we stopped that constitutional amendment. We stopped that hateful, bigoted amendment from becoming a law in Minnesota, so now why don't we talk about whether or not we're going to have a gay marriage." It was like, people were really nervous about it, and I was thinking, "Come on, let's get going," but several other people before I even spoke,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:57:00] spoke up and one of is this 27 year old man, Joe Radinovich . He will always be a hero of mine because he said, "I'm 27 years old. I just got elected, of course I'm going to support gay marriage. Let's get going on this." Something like that. He's a rural Minnesota legislator and he said, "If I lose my election over this it will have been worth it." The sad thing is that the next election he did lose, and I'm not sure that was the only thing, but it certainly played a role. I was so sorry to lose him. He's gone on to do other great things in Minnesota.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:57:30] I think he's even running for Congress now. He's one of the heroes, other colleagues who've been around a long time, like I mentioned Alice Hausman who said, "Oh Karen, of course we're going to do this now. We shouldn't be waiting. We should go forward." We talked about it and the house caucus decided, "Yes, that's what we want to do." Again, it wasn't a given, there were people we didn't have all the votes to start with. We had to make sure that people really felt comfortable.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:58:00] My colleagues need to be reassured that if they stood with us that there would be folks coming to be with them on their next campaign, and help them deal with that issue. Like I said, Joe and a few others lost, but that could maybe be attributed to that, maybe two or three unfortunately, but most other people came through. The main message, again of love is the law, as our governor Mark Dayton,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:58:30] who I give a lot of credit for helping us pass this bill. He was amazing, he just signed the law and he said, "You put this on my desk I'm signing it. I want it to pass." He was a very strong supporter. It was an amazing experience. For myself, I can tell this little story. My partner and I had been together, let's see, I think 26 years at that time,
Karen Joy Clark: [00:59:00] and we didn't get rushed out to get married right away. A lot of people did, next morning there was a big ... at city hall there was a huge turnout. As soon as the law took effect in August 1st there were a whole bunch of folks down at city hall in Minneapolis getting married, but we took our time. The story I like to tell is my partner had retired from the University of Minnesota, she was very involved in the Gender, Women and Sexuality Department.
Karen Joy Clark: [00:59:30] She had been a chairwoman of that, and she also was one of the people still teaching there, but she had decided to retire, and she had a five year phase-out plan. Well, she is very involved with the Women's Environmental Institute, she's our main farmer. You put her on a tractor and she's totally happy. She was one of the folks who really made a transition a little bit later in life and decided to retire even earlier. She said,
Karen Joy Clark: [01:00:00] "After one year I'm done. I'm out of here. I want to devote my time to the farm, Women's Environmental Institute, the work we're doing, so I'm going to tell them I'm leaving after one year." That put us into a crisis in terms of, okay, so we fought to have this civil rights opportunity that we could have insurance and healthcare, and all the other things that come with legal marriage. We decided, "Oh my goodness, we probably better take care of this right away." I like to joke that after that, like at 26 years we had a shotgun wedding
Karen Joy Clark: [01:00:30] because we had to get married within a three month period of time so that she could go into my health insurance. It was so important, it's really important, and it just was my living example of why we needed to pass that law. Let's see, I want to-
Betsy Kalin: I think ... I know, for me when, actually I'm in California, but my partner's from another country,
Betsy Kalin: [01:01:00] and so it made a world of difference for us just to have it, but I think having a feminist background we weren't really sure about marriage.
Karen Joy Clark: Absolutely.
Betsy Kalin: Right?
Karen Joy Clark: Absolutely.
Betsy Kalin: [Inaudible 01:01:14] want to talk about that one?
Karen Joy Clark: Well, yeah, it was a question a lot of us who were promoting the civil rights aspect of marriage between partners of the same gender, I think we did come from a feminist standpoint. That's why I mentioned
Karen Joy Clark: [01:01:30] that the civil rights part of it was always a really important part of it, but I learned and I honor the folks who brought all this forward so strongly that we really needed to help people understand more than just the legalities of it, they needed to understand the love that's there. I always said, "I don't need the state to sanctify my love. I'm loving the person I chose and that's it," but it was quite wonderful I have to tell you.
Karen Joy Clark: [01:02:00] When we got married, June 13, it will be almost three years now, I couldn't stop smiling because the love that was being shared there was very moving. I don't know if you've had that experience, but I just ... I'm grateful on another deeper level beyond the civil rights aspect. I'm just grateful for the affirmation. I didn't think I needed it, but I sure am happy to have it and I love it.
Betsy Kalin: [01:02:30] I totally ... the same thing, as a radical feminist I'm like, "I don't need marriage. Who needs marriage?" It's a heterosexual construct, women subjugation.
Karen Joy Clark: Right.
Betsy Kalin: But then when you're married you're like, "Oh, this is so nice." It's amazing.
Karen Joy Clark: Well, and it says a lot about heterosexual privilege. When we got our rings I was conscious of wearing it, it feels like this does ... I was signing a check one day and I thought, "This sends a little message to that person who I'm signing the check for that
Karen Joy Clark: [01:03:00] I never really thought about before," but it is a certain kind of privilege that has been denied us, and now we can claim. Interesting.
Betsy Kalin: That's great. Do you want another drink of water?
Karen Joy Clark: Maybe I will, yeah, thank you. Are we doing on time okay?
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, what time do you need us to leave?
Karen Joy Clark: Well, around 10:30. What time is it?
Natalie Tsui: We'll leave at 10:30.
Karen Joy Clark: Well, no, no, I mean I got somebody coming. You don't have to be out of here.
Betsy Kalin: [01:03:30] Because we need to do portraits with you.
Karen Joy Clark: Oh, you do.
Betsy Kalin: As well.
Karen Joy Clark: Okay.
Betsy Kalin: Maybe we should wrap up in the next 15 minutes and ... Let me go press-
Karen Joy Clark: I was just trying to think if there's any other pieces of legislation I should ... Oh yeah, there are a couple of things.
Betsy Kalin: I want to get to-
Karen Joy Clark: But I can skip them.
Betsy Kalin: Okay. We have some more questions. I want to talk about I guess your ...
Betsy Kalin: [01:04:00] I think you had a phrase about turning lemons into lemonade, talk about that change and how you can look at the political situation.
Karen Joy Clark: Oh, charley horse, ouch. Just let me stand up a minute, okay.
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, just be careful of the mike.
Karen Joy Clark: Okay. Aw-aw, I don't know how I got that.
Betsy Kalin: Charley horse?
Karen Joy Clark: Yeah. Okay, it's all gone. Okay, what was it now?
Betsy Kalin: It was like the lemon of the attempted Minnesota constitutional amendment that turned into lemonade,
Betsy Kalin: [01:04:30] it's like a good metaphor of how change happens. Then if you can kind of think about whether we're in another lemon into lemonade moment like today in the present, because you're one of the most hopeful people that we've spoken with.
Karen Joy Clark: Oh is that right?. Well, lemons into lemonade, I guess that you could call the constitutional amendment, I mean, in a way people have talked about the fact that this hateful amendment actually spurred,
Karen Joy Clark: [01:05:00] and probably it fast forwarded gay marriage in the state in a way that would not have happened, maybe even for another decade if we hadn't had to face that. Today there are so many lemons that we have to turn into lemonade. One of the issued I worked a lot on because of the wonderful immigrant community that I represent, are things like the driver's license for undocumented workers. Oh my goodness,
Karen Joy Clark: [01:05:30] we came within one vote of passing it about three years ago. It's just heartbreaking that we have not passed that. However, I do know that people have organized really hard and we have a governor who has, this is his last term and his last year with the legislature, and he has come out this year. In fact I just called his office this morning before this interview to request a meeting with him, because he not only talked about
Karen Joy Clark: [01:06:00] how we need to pass the driver's license bill as a matter of public safety. He used the word racism as a reason that this needs to be confronted, so I'm hopeful that terrible lemon ... it gives a bad names to lemons, lemon is actually a very good fruit, but turning it into something really positive, it could happen. It could happen, that's one example. There's so many things like that, like the difficulty in my neighborhood with toxic exposure for example,
Karen Joy Clark: [01:06:30] we've been able to move forward with environmental justice in a way, identifying a whole community that's at risk of health impacts from toxic exposure. We've been able to move it forward, and now we're talking about clean air that we want and deserve, and demand, and the struggle for that belongs to the community, which is what makes me hopeful. As I leave this work one of the things
Karen Joy Clark: [01:07:00] that makes me hopeful is to know that people in the community have made some of these struggles their own. They own them. They know the words. They know the language. They know how to organize, and they're going to keep fighting no matter who the next person is to take this seat. I'm going to probably be beside them, more on the street again, but I don't know if that's exactly what you're thinking, but there are numerous examples I can think of over the years where something really bad happened.
Karen Joy Clark: [01:07:30] I can tell you I've had my times of tears, there have been early on in the legislature. I was just telling the chief clerk the other day, who has been here two years longer than I have, that I remember a couple of times when some really hateful anti-gay things came up on the floor, and I thought, "Who can I talk to about this?" There was one friend who I could kind of talk with, that has supported me coming in, but mostly I didn't have any close friends in the legislature at that time.
Karen Joy Clark: [01:08:00] I would go back to the retiring room, open the door that opened to go outdoors, and you could close it behind you and just stand on the balcony and just sob...just cry. Those days are past, now I have some very close friends. Some of my closest friends are people here, but in those days it was kind of like, "Where do I go with this pain and this sadness?" Besides fighting back I need to take a moment and just have this grief.
Karen Joy Clark: [01:08:30] It's been an interesting journey, and I do think, like way back when my mother told me to feel sorry for those kids and take it, and turn it around and go be the best you can, it's kind of what I had to do. In fact, I gave that story about my mother to the whole legislature in 1993 when I was trying to pass the rights bill, because one of the things to know is that, and I said this in several different occasions.
Karen Joy Clark: [01:09:00] I always say something like, "I know that many of you sitting on the other side know that this is the right thing to do. This is a change in the law that you personally would support, but you have come to my office and sat with me, and told me even though you have a brother, a sister, a child, a niece, a nephew, who is gay or lesbian, you're not going to vote for this because you're afraid you would lose your election, and would I forgive you?" Then basically I just said,
Karen Joy Clark: [01:09:30] "I can't forgive you. You can figure out how to forgive yourself, but I need your vote." In enough cases, people did come forward and changed their votes, but there were those-
Natalie Tsui: I'm sorry we can hear you talking from right here.
Karen Joy Clark: I'm sorry.
Betsy Kalin: [01:10:00] I think you said that you needed the vote and then in many cases people ...
Karen Joy Clark: In many cases, people did come forward and eventually changed their vote. There were folks who stood up, I remember there was a farmer, Charlie Brown, who stood up on the floor in 1993, and he looked up to the balcony and he said, "I promised my mother when I came here that I would do the right thing," and he said, "This may cost me my election," he was a farmer from farm country Minnesota, " but you know what, mother, I'm going to vote for this bill because it's the right thing to do."
Karen Joy Clark: [01:10:30] It was powerful and Democrats and Republicans alike did that, he happened to be a Democrat, several Republicans did that. It happened with the marriage amendment too, we had incredible speeches, people talking about how their own difficulty with this was something that was actually inspiring them to turn around. I remember I got a couple extra Republican votes that I hadn't counted on for the marriage bill. I didn't know for sure if I had them, and afterwards I called up each of the four Republicans
Karen Joy Clark: [01:11:00] that had voted for it and to personally thank them, and one of my colleagues was ... I said, "Where are you?" He said, "I'm out walking in the field," and I said, "Really? Are you okay?" He said, "Well, I'm just walking around and I just need to figure out what in the world I just did," and I said, "Well, you did the right thing and I'm so grateful. Thank you." He said, "Yeah, I did but I just have to figure out now what I have to do." He's a very conservative guy in some ways.
Karen Joy Clark: [01:11:30] Those difficult things, I've seen those personal transformations, and you just have to hope. There's some people that are not going to change, and I'm not saying there's not evil in the world that will still be there. I think at the federal level we're facing some of that, and I don't have a Pollyanna or light-hearted feeling about that. I think resistance in a very strong form is what we need right now, and we're going to need it for a while.
Karen Joy Clark: [01:12:00] I just know that we have to have hope, and hope is probably one of the most revolutionary and radical things we can do, with that change is possible.
Betsy Kalin: Fantastic. These last few questions, four questions, are supposed to be like only two to three sentence answers. If some young person came to you and wanted your advice on coming out, what would you say to them?
Karen Joy Clark: [01:12:30] Come out right now, as soon as you can. Get your ducks in order so you have your support system around you. It involves your family, really try to figure out how you can get them the support they need, but do it. It's the important thing you can do in your life in terms of making change.
Betsy Kalin: Great, thank you. Then, what is, talking about hope, what is your hope for the future?
Karen Joy Clark: Oh my goodness. My hope for the future.
Karen Joy Clark: [01:13:00] Well, I really do hope that the progressive movement will continue to grow and broaden, and remember all of our interconnections. We can't be lesbian feminists without fighting racism, without fighting income inequality, without understanding the values of our incredible immigrant community,
Karen Joy Clark: [01:13:30] and the need to fight back and how to be a part of a bigger, broader movement. My hope is that we will continue to grow and deepen those interconnections, without them life wouldn't be so great.
Betsy Kalin: That's terrific. Why is it important for you to tell your story?
Karen Joy Clark: Well, I do hope that we can keep stories of how the changes
Karen Joy Clark: [01:14:00] that I've been privileged to work on, and to keep those stories alive. I am already witness to the fact that young people don't know very much. They hardly know anything about the feminist movement, they have just some inklings and it may even be negative. They don't know ... and there's things to be positive and negative about all part of our movement. I'm not trying to say there isn't, but on the other hand if people don't understand how we got to where we are, as has been said, we can easily lose
Karen Joy Clark: [01:14:30] what we've gained because nothing is for sure. When we passed the marriage amendment here in Minnesota, the marriage law here in Minnesota, immediately the next year there were bills to try to rescind it, and it continues on and on and on. The same thing with adding sexual orientation, bills to try to take out transgender, nothing is safe. We need to keep remembering how we got to where we are in order to move forward, and even change, doing things differently than we did it of course,
Karen Joy Clark: [01:15:00] but I think unless we help ourselves remember we could lose a lot of ground. The work you're doing, I really appreciate, putting things together in an archive. Oh my goodness, I remember trying to research things about this women, as a young Minnesota girl trying to figure out like, "Okay, what happened here?" Farm women or urban people, "What happened? How did we do this?"
Karen Joy Clark: [01:15:30] Very hard to find, and not all the truth that was there either. What you're doing I think is you're telling the truth or you're trying to get at all of our truths, and preserving it in a way that I think is critical. I thank you for doing that.
Betsy Kalin: Thank you, that's actually the last question.
Karen Joy Clark: Okay.
Betsy Kalin: It's why is OUTWORDS important, and please OUTWORDS in your answer.
Karen Joy Clark: Okay, should I say more?
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, just use OUTWORDS.
Karen Joy Clark: [01:16:00] Okay. Well, I'm grateful that OUTWORDS is doing this work. I figure like you are helping our next generations not have to fight so hard to find out the truth about what came before them, and actually to help protect them to have that. Thank you for doing that.
Betsy Kalin: Thank you, that's wonderful. Natalie.
Natalie Tsui: Okay.
Betsy Kalin: She just got questions.
Natalie Tsui: Did we get the coming out story by chance?
Betsy Kalin: We got ... Yeah, she talked about coming out.
Natalie Tsui: Coming out or like when you realized that you're a lesbian. Did we get that?
Betsy Kalin: No.
Natalie Tsui: I don't know if we did get that.
Karen Joy Clark: When I realized what?
Natalie Tsui: That you're a lesbian.
Karen Joy Clark: Well, I think I said I fell in love with my girlfriend.
Natalie Tsui: [01:16:30] Was there a moment where it clicked for you, where you're like, "Oh, I'm attracted to women?"
Karen Joy Clark: Well, it was very personal. I mean, yeah, I mean I fell in love with my girlfriend and of course it was exciting. Those were the days of women's music too that was very much lesbian feminist music. I remember going around singing, "Any woman can be a lesbian," it was like, "Oh my goodness." These were real exciting times
Karen Joy Clark: [01:17:00] and I was fortunate to come out into that very positive lesbian feminist time. It wasn't there earlier and it was just joyous. What can I say? I felt like a new person at the moment.
Betsy Kalin: That's great.
Natalie Tsui: Great. One other question is you talked a lot about the importance of intersectionality, I think-
Karen Joy Clark: I didn't used that word, but yes. Yes.
Natalie Tsui: I was wondering-
Karen Joy Clark: I should.
Natalie Tsui: In particular-
Karen Joy Clark: I should use that word.
Natalie Tsui: [01:17:30] Maybe if you want to use it in particular, like you're a marginalized person and I feel like you advocate for the rights of marginalized people, can you speak to that, the importance of marginalized people running for office or getting into office so that they can advocate for each other's rights?
Karen Joy Clark: Yes. Yes.
Betsy Kalin: You can direct to me.
Karen Joy Clark: The issue of intersectionality of people who are on the margins supporting each other, fighting for each other, just demanding that the community, that the society understand that we are all part of one fabric, to me it's real-
Natalie Tsui: [01:18:00] Wait, there's a plane.
Betsy Kalin: Truck.
Natalie Tsui: Truck.
Betsy Kalin: I knew it's a truck.
Natalie Tsui: I can't really hear, I'm just like, it's just live ramble. Okay, it's gone.
Karen Joy Clark: Understanding that we are all part of one struggle is to me what makes life worth living, and without that we will fail. We just will not have the community that we want, unless we really understand that our future
Karen Joy Clark: [01:18:30] and our stake in this struggle is deeply connected to the others who are dealing with racism, with homophobia of all kinds, and identity politics. I mean there's just so much that needs to come together. I supported Bernie Sanders in this last election, and the reason I did is I thought he really did try to bring together the issues of class consciousness.
Karen Joy Clark: [01:19:00] He didn't always use those words, but I feel like understanding that people who are low income, who are homeless, who can't go to school, who have police brutality as part of their daily life, who are discriminated against just because of what they look like when they walked on the street or try to go into a job, he, I thought really tried to bring those together. I think numerous other political leaders have done that even more so recently.
Karen Joy Clark: [01:19:30] Then we have leadership at the top that just is trying to erase all that. To me, it's like we will not ... We cannot rest until we really win that battle of intersectionality, 'til we really win the connections that should not ever be broken. There's lots of forces trying to pull us apart, even within our communities I think that's just, it's really critical. I don't know if that's-
Natalie Tsui: [01:20:00] Great.
Betsy Kalin: Perfect.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, great.
Betsy Kalin: Thank you.
Karen Joy Clark: Is that enough of what you want?
Betsy Kalin: Thank you and thank you for the work that you do.
Karen Joy Clark: Yeah.
Natalie Tsui: Shall we do room tone?
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, yes, we have to be quiet for like 30 seconds.
Natalie Tsui: It's so weird.
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, I think-
Karen Joy Clark: I hear it too.
Natalie Tsui: Is there someone [inaudible 01:20:23] something? Oh, it's clicking. Could you mind just not typing for just like 30 seconds? [Inaudible 01:20:30] almost do that.
Betsy Kalin: It's just typing.
Natalie Tsui: It sounds like someone shaking a bottle with water opener. Okay, let's just ... Room tone.
Natalie Tsui: [01:20:30] I can still hear typing, okay.
All right, okay, three-two-one, room tone for two.
Natalie Tsui: [01:21:30] Okay.

Interviewed by: Betsy Kalin
Camera: Natalie Tsui
Date: March 05, 2018
Location: Minnesota State Office Building, St.Paul, MN