Despite Grand Rapids’ reputation as a mecca for Minnesota lesbians, the Iron Range does not generally enjoy a wholly LGBT-friendly reputation in the rest of the state, so it may be something of a surprise that both candidates for Itasca County Sheriff, easily one of the most prominent offices in county, eagerly agreed to appear before LGBT voters at a forum organized by the Itasca GLBTA Alliance. While eager to please, though, activists say both candidates showed they face a steep learning curve as they try to serve the county’s LGBT community.
Due in part to Alliance President Andy Mundt’s significant involvement with former state House Minority Leader Matt Entenza’s recently-concluded campaign for governor, Nathan Bergsted told TheColu.mn, Mundt has been “recognized as someone not to take lightly.”
“To be in good with Andy acutally says a lot,” he added.
Bergsted is the Itasca Alliance’s Director of Communications, and a reporter for the Grand Rapids Herald-Review.
Bergsted said Alliance members and the 30-person audience at Itasca Community College quizzed Scherf and Williams on a number of issues, from the simple – Is sexual orientation a choice or not a choice? – to the intricate – Specific ways the candidates would work with the area’s sometimes-invisible LGBT population.
One of the best questions, Bergsted said, came from the audience: “A transgendered person pulls into the gas station to biuy cigarettes, but the person’s ID doesn’t match the gender they’re living, and they get denied the sale of cigarettes. How would you deal with that situation?”
Wililams, Bergsted said, looked like a “deer in the headlights” and after some thought, said he would have to look into the issue more.
Scherf had his own embarrassing moments Bergsted told TheColu.mn, in one such instance openly acknowledging his belief that members of the LGBT community choose their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Despite these mistakes, Bergsted said, both candidates were eager to correct their ignorance, and after the forum, Scherf approached Mundt about the possibility of creating an LGBT liaison officer in the Itasca Sheriff’s Department. Bergsted said this was the most significant part of the whole forum. “The fact that both of them genuinely wanted to learn more, because they felt foolish…that’s good!”
Still, Itasca GLBTA Alliance Treasurer Andria Strano told TheColu.mn, both Scherf and Williams revealed a troubling lack of understanding about what life was like for many in the county’s LGBT community.
“They said “well, everyone knows everyone,” implying [Itasca County’s] a safe place, but that’s also why no-one wants to come out” or even report bias incidents, Strano said.
She said her impression is that most bias incidents in the area were handled very quietly, if they were reported at all, making it difficult for the Sheriff and their deputies to address any homophobia or transphobia in the community
Indeed, both candidates’ reactions belied the contradiction that brought them to Itasca Community College. While none of the Alliance organizers TheColu.mn interviewed could pinpoint any recent high-profile hate crimes or bias incidents in Itasca County, Andy Mundt said safety is an emerging concern among members of the local LGBT community, prompting the Alliance to organize the forum in the first place.
Mundt told TheColu.mn that he has no specific safety concerns “other than the fact that I’m a gay man in rural northern MN.”
He said there were indeed some area bars he wouldn’t go into, but he said the reasons were complex. “[Is it] because I don’t feel safe?” Mundt asked, “or is it because I’m not from that part of the county, or I didn’t grow up in that particular part of the community?”
The Itasca Alliance plans to plumb the depths of the community’s safety concerns later this year, Mundt said, either through polling or focus groups, so they can adapt their activism for the coming year.
For now, Mundt said he was buoyed by both Scherf’s and Williams’ interest in LGBT-sensitivity training and Scherf’s post-forum suggestion for creating an LGBT community liaison officer in the Itasca Sheriff’s Department.
Correction: The original version of this article erroneously referred to the Itasca GLBTA Alliance as the “Itasca GLBT Alliance.” Many thanks to Andy Mundt for catching our error. Corrected at 10:08 AM, Friday August 27, 2010.