Susan Allen, First American Indian Lesbian in State Legislature, Fights for Social Equality

A story about Susan Allen, the first American Indian lesbian to be voted into a state legislature.

Susan Allen recently became the first American Indian woman elected to serve in the Minnesota State Legislature. She is also the first Indian lesbian elected to serve in any state legislature, so she has plenty to talk about, and many people are eager to get a quote from her. A month after winning her seat, she is still buffeted by the wave of a media attention—she says she spends four hours a day just answering e-mails from the press.

Allen, a partner with Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan LLP and a political newcomer who ran as a member of the state’s Democratic Farmer Labor [DFL] party, says her first priority in the legislature is to bring jobs and job training to her south Minneapolis district, where too many of the children live in poverty.

In a candid interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, she spoke openly about growing up in the Pine Ridge and Rosebud communities and how coming out changed her life. She also spoke about being bullied, about dealing with discrimination and about how her experiences will make her a good legislator.

How long have you been active in politics?

I am a political newcomer. I am, however, a lifelong Democratic voter. I believe my progressive values are aligned with the DFL party’s values of equality, opportunity and fairness. The DFL values are also consistent with my cultural values of generosity and inclusiveness.

What prompted a newcomer to run for a seat in the state legislature?

I want to work for economic and social justice. In our community and in my district there are unmet needs. Half of the children live in poverty. There are disparities in wages, there is an educational achievement gap, and this is something I initially wanted to work on for tribes when I became an attorney.

I am a progressive candidate from a district in which I do not have to hide. I can be outspoken on a number of issues. I will be using my professional experience as an attorney who has designed tribal tax systems. When I entered this campaign, I was concerned about becoming part of an institution that is predominantly male and white, but there are many legislators committed to working for social and economic justice. I will be able to use my skills and my professional and life experiences to benefit my constituents, and the American Indian community in general.

What’s your next step as you start your new career as a state legislator?

Learning how to govern, and to do that I am going to Camp Wellstone in Minneapolis this weekend. I am in training on how to govern progressively. I ran as a progressive Democrat because I believe there is a role for government in creating more social, economic and racial justice.

What is Camp Wellstone?

It is a program for progressives. I attended its How to Govern as a Progressive training session, where we learned how to counter the dominant, antigovernment agenda; how to use elected office as an extension of the community and build power within the community; how to work with allied groups outside the legislative process; and how to build relationships to advance a progressive agenda. The Minnesota legislature has been taken over by the Tea Party Republicans. I believe we can reverse this conservative dominance by mobilizing the support of our grassroots organizations to start a new area of progressive governance in Minnesota.

Allen had never run for office before, but she quickly enlisted some of the top local campaign advisors when she decided to get into this race.

Allen had never run for office before, but she quickly enlisted some of the top local campaign advisors when she decided to get into this race.

Your mother and father are from the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations. Did that background shape your feelings about social and economic justice?

Yes. Two of the counties on Rosebud and Pine Ridge were in the top five of the 100 poorest counties in the country according to the 2000 census. I have more than 20 first cousins who live on the Pine Ridge reservation. Going back there often and seeing that extreme poverty has had a huge impact on me. The conditions that American Indian people were living in the 1960s and 1970s just seemed to me to be a struggle for political existence. Indian people were basically starving. It was a very, very dire situation.

I saw this at a young age. My parents were very involved in organizing people to pay attention to American Indian people living in urban areas and reservations throughout the country. They fought discrimination, which they faced every day—in social settings like restaurants or in getting access to health care.

Have conditions improved on the reservations since the 1970s?

I don’t think we have come very far in alleviating the extreme poverty, high unemployment, low graduation rates, or high rates of alcoholism and drug abuse and crime on most reservations. I do believe that there are many positive aspects of reservation life, including strong kinship and community systems and the opportunity to live a more traditional way of life. There is also evidence that tribal governments have made some improvements regarding access to health care on reservations and that the quality of housing, water and sanitation has also improved. Nonetheless, I believe that economic development is extremely difficult due to the isolation of most reservations. We need to find new ways to finance infrastructure investments to support economic growth and improve the quality of life on reservations.

Where are you enrolled?

I could have been enrolled in Pine Ridge and in Rosebud. I could have been enrolled in Yankton; my grandmother on my father’s side is a member there. I have a grandfather from White Earth. I am part Anishinaabe, Lakota and Dakota. My tribal affiliation is Rosebud.

There are high rates of suicide in American Indian communities, and the LGBT communities are trying to combat bullying. Are these issues you want to address? Growing up, were you bullied?

I recall being bullied in school because of my race—mostly derogatory remarks about being Indian. I remember feeling angry, but I learned to not react. I credit my parents for instilling confidence in me, and teaching me that my self-worth was not tied to what others thought of me.

You came out when you were 30. Was that a difficult thing to do?

I suppose it was, but once I made the decision, it was very freeing. The response was wonderful. It was a turning point in my life. I was

a young attorney, so there were some professional considerations as far as being out. The big difference now with all of this publicity is that not all of my clients knew. Your private life is not something you talk about with your clients, but I don’t know if I could be any more out now.

Was your family supportive?

My family has been supportive from the very beginning, and my son handled it very well. I think each generation gets better. However, as a young girl, I was very aware of gender issues. And I recognized very early on the inequality based on gender. My parents were not traditional in terms of gender. I was never taught that I had limitations based on my gender. Those were barriers I could overcome. There were educational disadvantages and economic disadvantages that I could see and I could overcome those. I had the support of my family and the abilities to do that.

Both of them grew up on reservations, and come from a long line of Episcopal priests. They were very accepting and welcoming people. My father said, “You should always listen first before you take any action.” I remember them in the community as always tirelessly working to organize programs whether it was after-school programs or recreational activities. I always saw them working in the community. I always picture them working from the time they got up to the time they went to bed.

Since you mentioned that you have a son, may I ask if you were married to a man before coming out?

I was never interested in marriage. I was, however, very deliberate about having a child in my early 20s. I raised my son as a single parent with the help of my extended family, and I now have three beautiful, incredibly smart grandchildren.

Because I believe that all families deserve to be treated with respect, I intend to join the fight to defeat the proposed constitutional amendment in Minnesota to deny marriage equality to LGBT community members and families. I also want to use my 2012 reelection campaign as a vehicle to bring out new voters who oppose writing discrimination into our state constitution.

Do you feel you are paving the way for others in similar positions?

I do, and that is based on some of the responses I have received, especially from Indian women. One woman told me that growing up as an Indian woman in the city, she never expected any Indian woman would be elected to a state office. Another Indian woman said, “If this works for you I am going to run in my city!” It can be done. Someone said to me that there are many reasons why so few American Indians have been state legislators in Minnesota, and all of those reasons are not good reasons.

Our district is very progressive, as shown by the fact that they elected a candidate who is Native American and does not necessarily have the typical face of a candidate, which is the standard polished, white male authority.

Something else to add to all of this is that I have been in recovery for the past 23 years, and alcohol is a problem in Indian communities. I have worked very hard to maintain my sobriety for 23 years. I would not be here today if it wasn’t for that. I got sober when I was 25 years old, because I understood that I could have a better life. Essentially, I had an awakening that time was running out and I could no longer tolerate the physical, emotional and mental damage caused by my drug and alcohol abuse. I was fortunate to have people in my life who cared about me and helped me completely change the way I lived.

Was being Indian a hindrance in your campaign?

Being American Indian wasn’t really an issue; nor was being a lesbian. This district has a large American Indian and LGBT community. A lot of times in our district white male candidates apologize for being privileged—that is how progressive our district is.

I think it would have been difficult in any other district for me to get elected. This really does say a lot about our district. But as far as what this means for Indian women, an American Indian friend of mine, Daniel Yang, went to the state capitol and looked at the pictures and said, “I want to be a state representative,” his African American friend told him, “You can’t—look, they’re all white.”

He was devastated; and he volunteered for my campaign. He told me that when his daughter grows up, she will go to the state capitol to be able to see someone that looks like her—that is when I knew that what I’m doing is really important.