U leader is Pride parade marshal

Paul Sanders

Beth Zemsky is not afraid to speak her mind, even on a topic as seemingly mundane as a list of University student organizations.
“This is very interesting and actually speaks to part of the problem,” Zemsky said about trying to find the Association of Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Transgender Student Organizations and Their Friends on a list of student organizations printed by the Office of Student Activities.
“It’s listed under ‘special interest.’ It should be listed where the other ethnic minorities are,” said Zemsky, the program director for the University’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Programs Office. The GLBT is both a political and a cultural organization like other student cultural centers, she said.
Zemsky, a public figure both at the University and in the local gay, lesbian and transgender community, is a grand marshal for the 1996 Pride parade. She will speak at the event Sunday.
The Pride parade is part of Pride Week, which is being celebrated nationally this week. Locally, organizations are presenting educational and entertainment events to celebrate the Twin Cities’ gay, lesbian and transgender community.
Being categorized as a member of a special-interest group is just one issue that Zemsky feels adamant about.
Zemsky helped establish the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Programs Office in 1993. The program has come a long way since it started, Zemsky said. “There was a key taped to the door and boxes piled to the ceiling. We started completely from scratch. No computers. No staff. No mission statement.”
Diane Deerwood, a psychology major, remembers her initial meeting with Zemsky. “The first time I ever met her was at a (University Lesbians and Bisexuals) meeting,” Deerwood said. “And she came in and said, ‘Hi, this office is for the students. Tell me what you want this office to be.’ “
Deerwood, who belongs to a student and faculty advisory board for the programs office, said Zemsky’s most important contribution to the University has been programs that have successfully linked the University’s gay, lesbian and transgender students to the local community. “People have really converged on her programs and workshops,” Deerwood said. “They’ve been amazing.”
Ruth Debra, a board member of the 1996 Pride Committee, said Zemsky was a unanimous choice in a committee vote for grand marshal because of her extensive work within the Twin Cities’ gay, lesbian and transgender community. “Her record speaks for itself, and she’s out there in the line of fire,” Debra said.
Zemsky’s involvement in gay, lesbian and transgender issues goes back to her days as a volunteer at a gay and lesbian hot line while attending graduate school in St. Louis.
Zemsky moved to Minneapolis in 1986 to become a therapist for gays and lesbians. She has since been involved in a number of gay, lesbian and transgender organizations. The University offered her a position to start the programs office to improve the on-campus climate for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders.
The frustrations Zemsky encountered in establishing the office are similar to those faced by everyone in the University community, she said. “The University is huge, and it’s extremely hard to get the word out,” she said.
The Internet proved to be an ideal way to spread her message, Zemsky said.
Zemsky, who said she was computer illiterate when she started at the University, created a Gopher site. The site aims to distribute community information and research assistance to students studying topics related to gay, lesbian and transgender issues. These topics included AIDS, adoption issues and legislation. This February, her office established a World Wide Web page featuring a research guide linked to the Gopher site.
Zemsky said one of the hot issues at this year’s Pride festival is the Defense of Marriage Act, currently being debated by Congress. The act would allow states to ban same-sex marriages and deny certain federal benefits to same-sex marriage partners.
Groups like the Minnesota Family Council support the Defense of Marriage Act because legalizing same-sex marriages would redefine the family, said Tom Prichard, executive director of the Minnesota Family Council. Federal benefits would have to be extended to same-sex partners if their marriages were legalized, Prichard added. “If we extend the definition of the family to include same-sex marriages, then where do you draw the line?”
Zemsky said she deals with problems that result from the current ban on same-sex marriages on a regular basis.
“All the time in this office I get international students who come in who have been in this country from four to six years who are in long-term, committed relationships,” she said, explaining that same-sex relationships often must end when an international student’s visa expires.
“They and their partners are trying to figure out where in the world they can possibly go to be together, and there’s no place,” Zemsky said.
“This isn’t about special-interest politics,” Zemsky said. “These are basic human rights issues. And people need to realize that.”