OutFront Minnesota became LGBTQ rights powerhouse under departing leader

Patrick Condon, Star Tribune
·5 min read

Monica Meyer is leaving OutFront Minnesota at a very different time for the cause of LGBTQ equality than when she took over the organization more than a decade ago.

It was 2010, amid a growing push across the country to ban same-sex marriage. Nearly 30 states had done so by statewide vote in the preceding few years.

"They were just passing everywhere," Meyer recalled. Then, ten years ago next week, Minnesota Republicans used new House and Senate majorities to put a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the statewide ballot. "We were very aware of how difficult it was going to be," Meyer said.

So she helped conceive and build a coalition that made Minnesota the first state to defeat a same-sex marriage ban, in November 2012. Months later, the state Legislature, now led by Democrats, legalized same-sex marriage. Two years after that, the U.S. Supreme Court made it legal nationwide.

A Gallup Poll last June found that two in three Americans now support same-sex marriage. Republicans who once counted on the issue to activate religious voters no longer brandish it to attack Democrats. "It's a settled issue," said Jennifer Carnahan, who chairs the Minnesota Republican Party.

Still, as Republicans in statehouses around the country — including Minnesota — pursue legislation to ban transgender athletes from participating in women's sports, advocates say there's still an urgent need for groups like OutFront with leaders who see the next battles coming.

"Our freedoms will always be at risk," said Richard Carlbom, a DFL operative who managed the successful campaign against Minnesota's marriage ban as well as the legislative push to legalize it. "They're still going after abortion rights after 50 years. We can't let ourselves think that would never happen to us."

Meyer, 51, joined OutFront in 2001 as its policy director. She was born into a large Catholic family in St. Paul; they later moved to Blaine, where she graduated high school. As an undergraduate at Hamline University, she got involved with Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, or MPIRG, a student-led grassroots advocacy organization.

"I think I learned that I loved organizing when I learned that there's so many people who have great ideas and experiences that should be shaping our policies, and they want to be part of that but don't know how to get their voice heard," Meyer said. "So I became about getting those people engaged, about expanding democracy."

Meyer worked on environmental justice, on welfare policy, with young single parents and others. But she had a particular affinity for, and a personal stake in, LGBT activism. Meyer came out as a lesbian in college, but said it took her years to build up the confidence to get to that point.

"Even as a little kid I knew something was different about me. I couldn't quite put my finger on it," Meyer said. "But I thought, I love my family so much that I'll probably just hide the part of me that's different. And I stuffed it away for a long time."

Meyer's first decade at OutFront coincided with the wave of successful same-sex marriage bans around the country. By 2010, the nonprofit founded in 1987 was in rough financial shape.

As Meyer was taking over, "they actually didn't have the money to keep the lights on. For two months," said Erin Maye Quade, a former DFL legislator and a co-chair of OutFront's board of directors. "Now we're hiring staff, we're adding to programs, we're getting grants. We're lucky to be at a place that a lot of nonprofits aren't right now."

The process of defeating the constitutional amendment and then passing same-sex marriage at the Legislature helped OutFront build a durable donor base and forge ties to some of the state's most powerful companies. Subsequent political victories included a crackdown on bullying in public schools, and to assure participation for transgender athletes in school sports. OutFront has also successfully advocated in a number of Minnesota cities for local bans on what's called conversion therapy, a treatment process that purports to "cure" homosexuality. The practice is still legal under state law.

"I can't overstate Monica's role in terms of what we've achieved," said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the Legislature's senior LGBTQ lawmaker. "She's very quiet, very humble. Not an attention-seeker, just a doer."

Meyer will formally step down as OutFront's executive director at the end of May. She's planning some time off before revealing what's next. Maye Quade said OutFront will announce an interim leader soon, while the board embarks on a lengthy national search for a permanent replacement.

Meyer said she's leaving not because the job is done but because it's time for a new generation of civil rights leaders to lead the organizations that work on their behalf. Maye Quade said priorities for whoever replaces Meyer are likely to be issues around transgender equality and racial equity, both within the LGBTQ community and more broadly.

In late April, the Republican-led Minnesota Senate passed an education spending and policy package that includes a provision intended to prevent transgender athletes from playing on girls sports teams. Lawmakers in 34 states have pushed similar proposals this year, and six states have enacted such a ban in 2020, including neighboring South Dakota by executive order of Gov. Kristi Noem.

"We know trans people already face more violence, more discrimination than other LGBTQ people do," Meyer said. "To target children for discrimination — it's just wrong."

It won't happen in Minnesota this year, given opposition by Gov. Tim Walz and the House's DFL majority. But Meyer said it shows that even as she prepares to leave it to others, the work of equality never stops.

Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413