The myth of ‘Minnesota Nice’

Our Norwegian past impacts gay pride in the Twin Cities.

Spring Pride Week begins today on campus with activities sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Programs Office. If history serves as an indicator, organizers can expect the rumblings of dissent for years to come. The Twin Cities are the liberal oasis of the Midwest, drawing thousands each June for the Pride Festival. But unlike other states, gay advocates in Minnesota face a unique challenge – a socially accepted and mythological assertion that our Norwegian tradition discourages public celebrations of ourselves.

Ask any native Minnesotan, and he or she will tell you, “We’re just shy.” Garrison Keillor made the personality type famous in his monologues. His poem “I’m a Lutheran” reads, “We do not go for whooping it up/ Or a lot of yikkety-yak/ When we say hello, we avert our eyes/ And we always sit in the back.” Such a philosophy is an obvious impediment to gay pride, or for that matter any self-conscious assertion of identity. However, it is worth noting that Keillor himself is not actually a Lutheran.

In fact, most Minnesotans can no more trace their roots to Norway than Laos, but the argument persists nonetheless. Bring up the topic of gay pride and you are likely to hear a quasi-historical, indefensible argument against it that dances around its prejudice with the notion of shyness and modesty. As the Letters to the Editor section of The Minnesota Daily demonstrates, there is a vocal Christian-right contingency vehemently opposed to equal protection of the GLBT community. But the Norway defense is a peculiarly liberal argument in Minnesota.

It has a simple leftist elegance – we support gay rights, but singing and dancing about them is against our “culture.” The argument has some merit. The University was the first in the nation to offer domestic partner benefits to staff and students. But as the debate over gay rights heats up, Minnesotans must increasingly speak to their political views. This year the State Legislature might bring us a referendum on gay marriage. If so, we will certainly find that the story of Norway can no longer defend our culture of silence.