Image via Wikipedia
Image via Wikipedia

Former congressman Martin Sabo, who represented Minneapolis in Congress from 1979 to 2007, died at the age of 78 on Sunday. An early supporter of LGBTQ rights in Congress, he co-sponsored hundreds of pro-LGBTQ bills and voted against anti-equality measures. Here are some ways that Sabo supported the LGBTQ community during his time in Congress.

As soon as he was elected to Congress, he started work on LGBTQ issues. In 1979, German citizen Karl Kinder was blocked from entering the country by INS agents in Minneapolis because he identified as a bisexual. The Immigration and Naturalization Service would automatically reject applications from LGBTQ immigrants on the grounds that they were “sexual deviants.” Sabo’s office investigated and put pressure on INS to change those rules.

He supported LGBT non-discrimination across three decades. In 1979, he cosponsored a bill that would have added sexual orientation to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He would continue to support the bill for the next two decades as it morphed into the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Sabo worked to block anti-LGBTQ bills. In 1996, he was the only member of Minnesota’s congressional delegation to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act. Even progressive hero Sen. Paul Wellstone voted in favor of the law which would be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015. “Traditionally the definition of marriage has been a state issue, and I think it should remain so and we should not override it,” he told the Star Tribune. In 1998, he voted against gutting Clinton’s LGB nondiscrimination order for federal employees. He voted against legislation banning LGB adoptions in the District of Columbia in 1999. He voted against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2004.

He was no friend to the religious right. His voting record earned him poor marks from anti-LGBTQ groups, and high marks from LGBTQ groups. In 1982, he got a zero rating from the “Christian Voice.” In 1994, he got a zero rating from the Christian Coalition. He was one of the only members of Congress to get a 100 percent from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 1988, the GLC Voice, a Minneapolis LGBT newspaper, wrote at the time.

He led on HIV issues. In the 1980s, he sent information about HIV to his constituents and lobbied for funding for HIV prevention and care. For example, in 1987, he sent a newsletter to his constituents with prevention information. “When it comes to AIDS, education can truly save lives,” Sabo said according to the Star Tribune. “Everyone should know what it is and what it is not.” When a Dutch man living with HIV was jailed in Minnesota under a law that barred people living with HIV from entering the U.S., Sabo spoke out calling his detention “utterly ridiculous” and worked to get the man — who was on his way to an HIV conference in San Francisco — freed. Sabo continued to support HIV prevention and care organizations until his death.

Sabo backed many pro-equality bills and spoke out on LGBTQ issues. He backed a 1987 hate crimes bill, and supported subsequent hate crimes bills. In 1992, he co-sponsored a bill that would have prohibited discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military. “As long as gay and lesbian individuals in the armed services perform their duties, I will support their right to serve our country,” Sabo said according to the Star Tribune. He advocated for the Permanent Partners Immigration Act of 2000 which would have allowed LGB citizens to sponsor their foreign spouses.

With a political career spanning four decades, his record on equality was not spotless. In the early 1970s, Sabo voted for a bill as a member of the Minnesota House that defined marriage as between “a male and a female person.” He wasn’t alone in that vote as many other progressive DFLers voted against marriage equality, an issue many at the time hadn’t given much thought to. Jack Baker, who sued Minnesota in 1970 for the right to marry, didn’t blame Sabo or any other DFLer. He told the Minnesota Daily: “I don’t blame them. They couldn’t have voted the other way and gotten away with it with their constituents. Voting against the bill would be like voting against motherhood or apple pie.”

He’s being remembered as an effective progressive Congressman. Former Minneapolis City Council member Gary Schiff remembered Sabo in a post on Facebook:

“Rest in peace former Minneapolis Congressman Martin Olaf Sabo. Thank you for decades of public service, strong support for gay rights long before the rest of the Democratic Party, and for the leadership that brought light rail to the Twin Cities. His legacy is proudly remembered with the Sabo Bridge, connecting the Midtown Greenway over Hiawatha.”

Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota DFL, released a statement that read:

“The Minnesota DFL family is saddened to hear of the death of long-serving public servant former Congressman Martin Olav Sabo.
“First elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives when he was 22, at that time the youngest person ever elected to the Legislature, Sabo rose to Speaker of the House and went on to serving 28 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. Sabo grew to become a power-player in both state and national politics. He was widely respected in Washington, D.C. for his work to bring fiscal discipline to the federal government and in Minnesota for obtaining funding for transit, housing and veterans.

“Sabo’s quiet leadership style and dedication to his district are a true inspiration. He showed us the progress that can be made when Democrats and Republicans work across the aisle for the common good. I call on our elected officials to honor the memory of Martin Sabo by coming together to make progress on the issues that will support stronger families and build a stronger nation.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Sabo family.”

Rep. Keith Ellison, who won Sabo’s seat in 2008 after he announced his retirement, also released a statement on Sabo’s death:

“This is a sad day for our country. For more than 40 years of public service, Martin Sabo stood up for every Minnesotan – no matter their age, race, or economic standing. He was a true progressive, and cared more about fighting for the American people than getting his name in the press. He was a man of substance who worked tirelessly to preserve Social Security, take care of our veterans, improve our public infrastructure, and pass budgets that were fair to working Americans.

“We owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for his service. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

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Andy Birkey

Andy Birkey has written for a number of Minnesota and national publications. He founded Eleventh Avenue South which ran from 2002-2011, wrote for the Minnesota Independent from 2006-2011, the American Independent from 2010-2013. His writing has appeared in The Advocate, The Star Tribune, The Huffington Post, Salon, Cagle News Service, Twin Cities Daily Planet, TheUptake, Vita.mn and much more. His writing on LGBT issues, the religious right and social justice has won awards including Best Beat Reporting by the Online News Association, Best Series by the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and an honorable mention by the Sex-Positive Journalism awards.

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