LGBTQIA+ History on Hennepin

John Sullivan

John Sullivan wearing white and flag pole belt with a flag and sunglasses in right hand and left arm around his mom, both leaning in smiling for the camera.

John Sullivan, Secretary of the Mathew Shepard Foundation, with his mother at Pride.
Photo courtesy of John Sullivan. Circa 2015.

Although I was aware of being “different” for many years, I didn’t officially come out until I was in my early thirties. The good news is that once I relieved myself of the burden of hiding my true self, I was able to engage in numerous organizations and activities that support the LGBTQ+ community. This is my recollection of some of what I participated in.

After graduating from Notre Dame Law School in 1983, I began my legal career in the Twin Cities with the Oppenheimer Wolff and Donnelly law firm. After working there for six years, I accepted an in-house position at Cray Research, the maker of the world’s largest, fastest supercomputers, as their first in-house technology lawyer. After a couple of years in that position, I was appointed to the position of General Counsel, even though I was the most junior member of the legal team at the time. I mention this because being an out General Counsel, I was asked to sponsor, and ultimately obtained approval for, domestic partner benefits at Cray. This was a significant accomplishment at that time (early ‘90’s) for a company not based on one of the coasts.

We sold Cray to Silicon Graphics, and I moved to California to become Vice President and General Counsel of the parent company there. A few years later I was invited to move back to the Twin Cities to become Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Imation, a spin-off company from 3M. I continued to use my position as an out corporate executive to work with local law firms and businesses to adopt LGBTQ-friendly policies (at that time, inclusive EEO policies and domestic partner benefits). I took early retirement in 2011 and spent the next two years leading in the fight for marriage equality in Minnesota. I believe my early efforts with the legal and business communities made a significant difference when we asked them to support our efforts for marriage equality in Minnesota described further below. I returned to work in 2016 as the Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Carlson, Inc., a large privately-owned business.

I’ve had a great legal career serving as general counsel of 3 public companies and 1 private company, but I believe my greatest professional accomplishments are in my work in the community. As a young lawyer, because of my personal experience in the theater, I was invited to serve on the board of the Children’s Theatre Company in 1985 as the theater was undergoing a major challenge. I served two separate six-year terms on that board, helping guide the theater from nearly having to close to becoming the nation’s leading theater for young people and their families, including winning a regional Tony award. During that time, I also helped move a ballet company, James Sewell Ballet, from New York to the Twin Cities and served on their board for a number of years.

My first venture into publicly advocating for the LGBTQ community was in 1996 when my Catholic parish, St. Joan of Arc, converted its parish rectory into a care facility for people living with HIV/AIDS. The house, called Grace House, was home to four residents who were provided a place to live with 24-hour supportive care. In the early years, it was primarily hospice care for this community. I served on the Board of this organization, and eventually led an effort to build a second home (Grace House II) on the adjacent property. I also served as a volunteer at the house, cooking dinner for the residents one night a month, until Grace House I closed in 2012. As a personal challenge, I rode my bicycle from the Twin Cities to Chicago three years as part of the annual AIDS Ride fundraisers.

It the Fall of 1997, I was invited by Elizabeth Birch, the Executive Director of the Human Rights Campaign (“HRC”), to help form a group of corporate executives to advise HRC on how the corporate community could better support the LGBTQ community. There were very few “out” executives at that time, and this group eventually became the HRC Business Council. I chaired the Business Council when HRC introduced the first Corporate Equality Index, which has grown to become a signature program for HRC and a powerful force in engaging the corporate community in not only providing an equitable and inclusive work environment, but also in supporting equality in political and community efforts. In addition to serving on the HRC Business Council, I also served on the HRC Board of Governors as well as the HRC Board of Directors. As the only Minnesota representative on the HRC Board of Directors at that time, I was the local leader of the Twin Cities HRC organization for many years and helped build it into a strong local HRC chapter. I was also one of the original members of HRC’s Emeritus Council, a small group of former members of the Board of Directors providing ongoing counsel to the organization.

I was serving on the Board of HRC when Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998. Judy Shepard became a member of the HRC Board and we became close friends. I supported the Matthew Shepard Foundation from its earliest days, and when the Foundation was struggling, Judy asked me to help get the Foundation back on more stable ground and more focused on its mission of “replacing hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance.” After spending a long weekend with Judy in Denver, she asked if I would please join the Foundation’s board. The initial members were Judy, her husband Dennis, and a friend of theirs from Wyoming. I found it impossible to say “no” to Judy and have been serving on the Matthew Shepard Foundation Board ever since (with Judy being the only current Board member having served longer than I have). I was truly privileged to join Judy, Dennis, and their son Logan for Matt’s interment at the National Cathedral in 2019.

My work in providing leadership in the creation of the Corporate Equality Index is one of my prouder moments, perhaps matched only by my work on marriage equality in Minnesota. Because of a very challenging work environment, I left my SVP and General Counsel position in 2011, not sure what my next step would be. At that same time, the Minnesota legislature passed legislation proposing an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution defining marriage as “the union of one man and one woman.” The matter was on the ballot to be voted on by the people of Minnesota in November 2012. I immediately discovered how I could best spend my newly experienced “retirement.” I did the original corporate work and helped create the Board and organizational structure that became Minnesotans United for All Families. I volunteered full-time for this organization, sharing time between providing leadership as a board officer and organizing the state-wide legal community in opposition to the measure. Minnesota became the first state to defeat a constitutional marriage amendment and then go on to pass marriage equality by the legislature the following year. We like to believe that this action in the heartland was a signal to the nation that marriage quality was the future for our country.

Of the many presentations I made during the marriage campaign, my favorite was to the students at the University of St. Thomas (my alma mater). They were opposed to any political speakers presenting on the subject, so I worked with the pre-law society and was able to be sponsored by them to present to a wide array of students on the legal implications of marriage – and how that impacted same-sex couples and families. It felt a little subversive, but I definitely had the support of faculty in providing a different perspective to the students – and believe I changed more than a few hearts and minds along the way. For more than 10 years, I’ve purchased a table for the LGBTQ students from St. Thomas so they can attend the local HRC dinner and experience a truly welcoming community.

I recently completed serving as a Co-Chair of the successful Capital Campaign for Family Tree Clinic. At the end of 2021, the Clinic moved into its new home in Minneapolis, providing sexual health and education to marginalized communities, including many in the LGBTQ+ community. It is the leading provider of hormone therapy care to members of the trans community. I also have provided significant counsel and support to RECLAIM!, a local organization providing counseling, and supportive housing referrals, to young members of the trans community.

I also served on the board of OutFront Minnesota, as well as on boards for a number of significant community organizations. I recently completed my term as Chair of the Board of Trustees for The Minneapolis Foundation, one of the country’s oldest and largest community foundations, helping guide the organization during the pandemic and a time of significant discord and unrest in our city. I also chaired the board of the Jungle Theater and The Regions Hospital Foundation. Although these are not LGBTQ specific organizations, I do bring an awareness of the needs of the LGBTQ community to each of the organizations on which I serve. For example, I make certain that LGBTQ healthcare concerns are addressed at the hospital and LGBTQ homeless youth issues are addressed by the community foundation.

In addition to the contribution of my time and experience to these organizations, I also provide significant financial support to numerous LGBTQ+ organizations. I am proud that I have been able to contribute to the commissioning of a number of musical works for our local LGBTQ musical organizations. I have funded works created for the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, One Voice Mixed Chorus and the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra (our local LGBTQ and Allies orchestra). This work included contributions in 2019 to underwrite two movements of Quiet No More: A Choral Celebration of Stonewall, which was performed by numerous LGBTQ choruses around the country.

I am humbled to have received the following recognition for my work:

  • June 2006 – Lavender Magazine Pride Award
  • May 2007 – Quorum (Twin Cities LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce) Lifetime Achievement Award (the first one awarded)
  • September 2007 – HRC National Leadership Award
  • June 2008 – Because We Care “Tony” award for service to the HIV/AIDS Community
  • March 2011 – Matthew Shepard Foundation “Essential Piece” Award
  • September 2011 – National Lavender Bar Association’s “Out & Proud Corporate Counsel” Award (the first one awarded in Minnesota)
  • February 2019 – The Minnesota Lavender Bar Association Equality and Justice Award
  • April 2019 – The Gay and Lesbian Alumni of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s Distinguished Alumni Award
  • October 2021- Association of Fundraising Professionals 2021 National Philanthropy Day Award

See all featured leaders for LGBTQIA+ History on Hennepin.