Copyright 2004 Star Tribune
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
September 21, 2004, Tuesday, Metro Edition
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1B
LENGTH: 1310 words
BYLINE: Paul Levy; Staff Writer
LOAD-DATE: September 21, 2004
For this GOP member, usual labels won’t fit
Dennis Sanders is used to shattering stereotypes as a gay, black Republican.
The Rev. Dennis Sanders laughed at the suggestion that he’s your typical gay, black, Republican minister.
“No, I’m more of a moderate, old-style Rockefeller Republican, which makes me even more of an oddity,” said Sanders, 34, a vice president of Minnesota’s Log Cabin Republicans and a minister at Lake Harriet Christian Church in Minneapolis.
The Rev. Terry Steeden, senior minister at Lake Harriet Church calls Sanders “an anomaly,” describing the Flint, Mich., native as a man who “encompasses some very meaningful old traditions, but, on the other hand, is a rebel … with a cause.”
“Dennis defies stereotypes,” added Joe Grubbs, the retired minister at First Christian Church Disciples of Christ who helped with Sanders’ ordination. “You wouldn’t want to label him.”
But this is a story about labels. Black. Gay. Republican. Minister. Let’s throw in tall and good-looking while we’re at it, Grubbs suggested.
“Labels at least help identify who a person is,” Sanders said. “It’s only a problem when the labels basically become the people.
“People who have labeled me have asked, ‘Why would you stay in a party that doesn’t want you?’ Well, I’m a Republican, but I hope people don’t think all Republicans sit and listen to Pat Robertson.”
The only child of retired auto-factory workers who urged him at an early age to question things, Sanders studied journalism at Michigan State University. He spent one summer in Washington, D.C., as a congressional intern, working for Rep. Dale Kildee, a Michigan Democrat. Sanders said that in the 1992 presidential primary, he voted for Paul Tsongas, a Democratic reformer from Massachusetts.
Sanders came to grips with his sexuality when he was 22, “concluding that this wasn’t a terrible sin,” and says he has many black and gay friends who are Democrats. He says he is a Republican by choice, not by default. He is affiliated with a political party that, he acknowledges, remains outwardly uncomfortable with gay marriages in an era when TV shows like “Will and Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” are celebrated in mainstream culture.
“The attitude of the gay community is if you want equal rights, you’ve got to have Democrats,” Sanders said. “But it would be dangerous for the gay community as a whole to put all our eggs in one basket. To me, equal rights should not be a partisan issue.”
A military issue
Sanders became interested in the Log Cabin Republicans, a small organization that backs gay-friendly Republican candidates for office, in 1992, when gays in the military was a big issue.
Minnesota’s governor at the time was Arne Carlson, whose political career defied stereotypes and labels. Carlson, a longtime Republican, campaigned for governor in 1990 as an independent. He was elected with the blessing of Republicans only after the party’s endorsed candidate, Jon Grunseth, withdrew from the race just weeks before the election after being accused of sexual misconduct involving adolescent girls.
Eva Young, president of Minnesota’s Log Cabin Republicans, recalled telling Carlson in 1992 that “we wanted an executive order that would ban discrimination against people in state employment.
“We got it,” Young said recently, because “Carlson wasn’t afraid to stand up and do what needed to be done, even if other Republicans might not agree.”
But Republicans have never been easy to stereotype and are continuing to change and become more diverse, Carlson says.
“I’ve never met Dennis Sanders, and while a gay, black, Republican minister may sound unusual, it doesn’t surprise me,” Carlson said. “Look at how the Republican Party has changed. What happened to the party that was cautious about war? Talk about flip-flops! It’s the parties that flip-flopped.
“Who defines what a Republican is? Tim Pawlenty? Norm Coleman … a former Democrat? The Republican Party is becoming the party of the South. Nobody challenges a new breed of Republicans in love with deficits. Rudy Giuliani and [Arnold] Schwarzenegger are keynote speakers at the Republican Convention. No, the party is changing.”
Changes in the party are obvious in the Twin Cities. Peter Bell, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, is well-known for his conservative views. Bell is black. And a Republican.
Carleton Crawford, co-chairman of the Fifth Congressional District, is black, a Republican and an admirer of Sanders.
“Joining a political party is not about being accepted,” Crawford said. “It’s about trying to make changes. Being accepted is essentially determined by what you do.”
If any label need be applied to Sanders, it’s “determined,” said his partner, Eric Doughty. “And maybe a little stubborn.”
Wanted to write
Sanders became a Republican because, in part, as a gay, black man, the party could not ignore him.
“Political parties are tools to get things done,” he said. “But before you can get things done, sometimes you have to be noticed first.”
Sanders’ visibility as a gay, black man, has given visibility to Minnesota’s Log Cabin Republicans, Young said.
“Dennis has been a godsend to us,” she said. “He’s good at what he does because he has ideas and energy. Those are his identifying characteristics.”
Those traits might be on display in Michigan or Washington, D.C., had Sanders been able to find a newspaper reporter’s job right out of college. When he didn’t, he went to Washington to write for a Capitol Hill newsletter. He longed to return to the Midwest. When an uncle in Minneapolis offered to help him, Sanders came to the Twin Cities in 1996.
Raised as a Baptist, Sanders said he has been fascinated by the ministry since he was 12. By the time he had settled in Minneapolis, he had written off the possibility of a career in journalism. Drawn toward a lifelong journey in the ministry, he studied at Luther Seminary.
“I don’t think that was part of his rebellious spirit,” the Rev. Steeden said. “I think he chose Luther because he wanted a broader understanding of Christianity. And he was assured he would have the support of this community.”
Steeden, the senior minister, credits Sanders with helping save a church whose membership dwindled to 20 six years ago and was nearly closed. Lake Harriet Church now has nearly 80 members.
Steeden said Sanders would love his own congregation, but there are fewer than 10 Disciples of Christ churches in Minnesota, said Grubbs, the retired minister.
Sanders will move at his own pace. He told Star Tribune columnist Doug Grow that coming out as a Republican was tougher than publicly revealing his sexuality. But the truth is that he has never discussed his homosexuality with his father and can only “assume he knows.”
“I’ll admit that I don’t know of any other gay, black Republican ministers in Minnesota,” said Sanders, who recently began doing legal research for a Minneapolis law firm.
“If there are other gay, black Republicans, I hope they’re doing what they can to shape public policy. But I don’t want to start labeling anyone.”
Paul Levy is at email@example.com.
Church affiliation: Associate minister, Lake Harriet Christian Church, Minneapolis
Hometown: Flint, Mich.
Education: B.A., Michigan State University
Political party: Republican. Political parties are tools to get things done, he said. We think we can get things done in the Republican Party.
Political philosophy: “I’ve always had kind of a pro-business outlook. I’m concerned with poverty and hunger but also with the deficit.”
Domestic status: Partner Eric Doughty describes himself as a liberal who usually votes for Democrats.