Rep. Karen Clark is one of Minnesota’s greatest pioneers for LGBT rights. As the longest-serving openly gay legislator in the country, she has spent the past 32 years on the front lines of the battle for equal rights in our state, winning several crucial victories along the way. Her long and arduous crusade culminated this session by helping make Minnesota the 12th state to legalize gay marriage — an outcome that seemed impossible just last year, when voters faced a ballot referendum to amend the state constitution to include a same-sex marriage ban.
Clark was born in Oklahoma in 1945, and grew up in a Catholic family on a sharecropping farm in rural Rock County, Minnesota. She attended the College of Saint Teresa, a since-closed women’s school in Winona, where she earned a B.S. in nursing. In her early 20s, she moved to Minneapolis to work as a public health nurse, and quickly made a name for herself as a public activist.
Clark was first elected to the House in 1980. She was at the time the only openly gay legislator in Minnesota other than Allan Spear, and the first to be elected while already out. This was so controversial at the time that, as Clark later learned, there was talk amongst other legislators of trying to block her from being sworn in. Though no lawmakers acted on the threat, it’s telling of how dramatically times have changed since Clark’s first year in office.
Despite her contentious entrance into Minnesota politics, Clark proved to be an effective legislator. She’s authored 60 major laws in her three decades at the Capitol, many aimed at helping underserved groups, such as the poor and elderly. In the ‘80s, she championed a law requiring businesses to reveal toxins to which their employees could be exposed.
Among Clark’s greatest political victories was the passage of the Human Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination against Minnesotans based on their sexuality. Spear had been pushing various versions of the bill since the ‘70s, and with Clark’s help in the House, the two narrowly helped get the controversial legislation to pass in 1993. It was a turning point for gay rights in Minnesota.
In 2011, when the GOP-controlled Legislature voted to put the amendment to ban gay marriage on the ballot, Clark was among the bill’s loudest opponents. She publicly condemned the measure, calling it a “sad day for the state of Minnesota” and a “step closer to discriminating against Minnesotans simply based on who they love.”
After helping defeat the amendment, Clark authored the House bill to make gay marriage legal in the 2013 legislative session. Rep. Susan Allen, the first openly lesbian Native American Minnesota representative, co-sponsored the bill, while Sen. Scott Dibble – also openly gay – was chief sponsor of the legislation in the Senate. The bills passed handily in both chambers, and Gov. Mark Dayton signed the final version into law in front of thousands on the Capitol steps in May. For her lifetime of public service and commitment to change, Clark was honored by the White House in May as a “Harvey Milk Champion of Change,” named for the first openly gay politician to be elected in California.