Election 2024

Rep. Brion Curran explains how the key to legislative success is empathy

Minnesota State Rep. Brion Curran
Minnesota State Rep. Brion Curran Photo: Brion for House

State Rep. Brion Curran (pr. their/her, first name BREE-on) is one of the Minnesota legislature’s most prolific lawmakers in a state that prides itself on activist government.

She’s the author of literally dozens of pieces of legislation in her first term and has been instrumental in passage of the state’s trans refuge declaration, conversion therapy ban, trans panic defense ban, legal cannabis legislation, and more.

One source of Curran’s success: Minnesota Democrats are enjoying a trifecta of unified government right now, with control of the House, the Senate and the governor’s office.

Curran, 39, is running for election to a second two-year term in November.

On the morning we spoke, they had just appeared at a rally in support of Cobalt Sovereign, a trans teenager attacked in a boys’ bathroom at a local high school the week before. As of this writing, no one has been charged in the assault.

Curran spoke from outside the high school where the attack took place.

Rep. Brion Curran: I learned from a colleague yesterday that a trans teenager that goes to Hopkins High School here in the Twin Cities was assaulted at school, and bad enough that they were left with a broken jaw that required surgery, but no ambulance was called. Police weren’t called.

Certainly, the lack of response from the school is concerning, and they didn’t really have a response to it until they learned of a large rally that was planned, just about overnight. Hopefully, they hear and see that we support our trans kids. Don’t mess with our family, because we’re watching and we’ll hold people accountable.

LGBTQ Nation: Last month, Minnesota banned the queer panic defense, in large part because of your persistence and pushing the issue. Describe what the queer panic defense is, and share why you think it finally fell in Minnesota.

The queer panic defense, or trans panic defense, as we call it, is a tactic used in court. When someone assaults another person based on that victim’s perceived gender identity or orientation, there have been cases across the country where the alleged assailant will say this person that I attacked turned out to be trans, or I found out that they were gay, and it freaked me out, and so I hurt them.

And while that’s not something that typically would get somebody out of any charges, it gives jurors a perception that there may have been some rationale for that person’s violent behavior. And then what happens is a person might receive a lesser sentence. It’s damaging and harmful, just even bringing up the idea that it might be defensible to hurt somebody because of their identity, and it shouldn’t be allowed in a courtroom.

So that’s the basis of the law. In Minnesota, we see people being assaulted and sometimes murdered because of their identity, and we want to make sure that our laws are strong around our queer community. While there’s not a large number of cases where this defense has been used, this is a situation where we want to prevent it from being used.

You were also a vocal proponent of making Minnesota a trans refuge state. What was the need and what’s been the result?

The need, I think, is not just specific to Minnesota, right? It’s a need that we, unfortunately, have across the country. We wouldn’t necessarily need to do this if people in other states, and in Minnesota, weren’t offering such abhorrent legislation that is very clearly anti-queer. And so when we have the opportunity here in Minnesota with the Democratic trifecta, we have to really take a deep look at what we can do with that power. Oftentimes, political power can be used for good.

Last month Gov. Tim Walz signed legislation essentially banning book bans in Minnesota. Describe how groups like Moms for Liberty — which are responsible for the vast majority of book bans and the accompanying hysteria over the last few years — are affecting the self-esteem of queer kids in your state.

Negatively, in short. They’re not doing any good for self-esteem, period. And that goes for queer kids and non-queer kids. Refusing to give people information, when you’re only giving them the information that you want people to know, you’re diminishing anyone’s ability to see the world for what it is. I’m so glad that we got that done.

And as a side note, when it came to some difficult times on the floor at the Capitol, when we had some Republicans who would stand up and start going on and on about inappropriate books or educating youth on things like queer history — I carry a copy of Genderqueer [Maia Kobabe’s memoirs, an often challenged book] in my bag, and so I would proudly set it on my desk. And then if somebody was doing a speech and they were looking in my direction, I might decide to just hold my book up and read it while they were talking. It’s important that people can see we’re hearing what’s being said.

You spent 20 years working with developmentally disabled folks.

I did.

How important is empathy when relating to people different than we are? What lessons did you learn?

What I see from a political standpoint when it comes to empathy is, as soon as someone experiences something for the first time, or somebody close to them does — it could be someone in their family comes out of the closet, or this person gets in a car accident and now they have a permanent disability — if people don’t have a perspective of empathy for groups or people that are different from them, oftentimes, they will gain that perspective of empathy when they’re placed in a similar situation. They have to experience it for themselves in order to understand how it affects other people.

Some people don’t need to experience something in order to have that level of empathy, but when we look at politics, I think it’s very true that we see people change their minds once they have an experience with a queer person, or they have an experience as a person with disabilities.

Are you having that effect on your fellow legislators?

I certainly hope so. I like to hope that there is always room for conversation and getting to know people on a personal level, but it can be pretty hard to do that. A lot of colleagues on the other side of the aisle, they’ll stand up and say these vile, terrible things on the floor, but when it comes to behind-the-scenes, they might be just sweet as pie. And it’s a really difficult thing to balance, just as a queer person walking through the world.

As much as I try to have good relationships with folks, sometimes it’s not possible just because of the sheer determination that they have to take us down.

It’s some strange combination of performative and I don’t know what. Like, one minute they’re on the floor spewing hateful language, and the next they’re like, Hey, you want to go for a burger. Um, you just said that I shouldn’t have rights. So, no, thank you.

A look at your biography reveals you’ve had experience on both sides of a lot of circumstances. You’ve been married and divorced, you’ve been a cop and a convict, you’ve been a mental health advocate and a PTSD survivor. How do those experiences on both sides of so many issues inform your work and your outlook on life?

I think all of those experiences, good or bad, have shaped the way that I look at legislation and shape the way that I look at the world. Going back to empathy and understanding, I’ve been through some circumstances that I hadn’t experienced or understood before, and now I have a better perspective. And again, whether those experiences are for better or worse, I have personal experience to offer. When it comes to the process of creating a bill and getting it across the finish line, having those personal experiences is really key to building trust with the people around you. People take that seriously.

After many years in different law enforcement capacities, last October you were arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and served two days in jail. What was that like for a former cop, and what did you take away from your time behind bars?

As a former police officer, I understood the process. I knew what to expect, and I was able to go through that situation with less fear than someone else might have. As regretful as I am about the choices that I made, it opened my eyes to what the other side looks like.

Moving forward, I have another perspective to operate from, but I regret my actions. I wish I made different choices that night, and my actions certainly endangered myself and others, and I am so, so glad that no one was hurt. But now I have to ask myself, what am I going to do with that? What am I doing to help other people?

You retired from your local sheriff’s office in 2018 after developing PTSD following responding to a “traumatic incident.” Are you comfortable describing what happened in more detail?

I am comfortable describing the overall picture, sure. In 2018, I was about halfway through field training with the Chicago County Sheriff’s Office, and toward the end of my time there, there were two suicides within about a week or so of each other.

The first that I went to was a young man who was experiencing some difficulty with peers at school and ended up taking his own life and was found by family. As the first responder, obviously, that’s a terrible, tragic situation to respond to. By the time that I was there, there was clearly nothing more to be done other than just try to comfort the family and gather some information about what may have prompted that action.

And then, like I said, there was another suicide. About 3, 3:30 a.m., I was going home at the end of my shift, and my radio went off. Most officers know that nothing good ever happens after 2:00 a.m., so when you get those calls, you know it’s not going to be a call to go find somebody’s cat or a parking complaint. It’s probably something serious.

This time, when I arrived on scene as the first officer, there was, again, a young man who had attempted to take his life and was still with us when we arrived but did not make it into the ambulance. In the moment, you know, you use your training, you rely on what needs to be done, and you work as quickly as you can, and you do everything you know within your power.

But the aftermath of that was completely unexpected to me. My brain just stopped working the same way, and it hasn’t worked the same way since. You know, I realized that with the rates of suicide of first responders, I did not want to become another statistic, and I knew that if I continued, I would probably become another statistic, so I decided to leave and get some mental health care. And now I find myself in a much better space than I was back in 2018.

Tell me about life in 2024. You are newly single. Are you dating?

Yes, yes, absolutely, yes. I have a wonderful girlfriend. We are very committed. Her kids are amazing. Couldn’t be happier.

What was your journey to they/she pronouns?

Oh, yeah, that’s a great question. So growing up, I was what my mom would call sort of a butch child. I liked to dress like my dad, and I was certainly not a stereotypical little girl who dressed like a princess. That was just never me. I wore my jeans and my T-shirt tucked in and put a hat over all the hair that I had so that I could be as masculine-looking as I could. And at that time, we didn’t have words for that. That’s just, you know, who Brion was as a kid.

And it sort of took me, really, until probably about 2022 to realize that, you know, I don’t feel like I’m not a woman. I also feel that that doesn’t describe wholly who I am as a person.

And I just started doing some reading and learning more about the queer community, learning more about identity, and I thought, Oh my gosh. How could I have missed it? I’m nonbinary. It was like, “Honey, how did you not hear this? How did you not see this?” And I started talking to a couple friends of mine who are trans and nonbinary, and they’re like, “Yes, absolutely welcome to what we probably already knew.”

It’s been really great. It’s refreshing.

Define “Minnesota nice.”

Ooh. “Minnesota nice” is putting the worst meal you’ve ever had in your mouth and telling the cook, “It was delicious.”

Where do you come down on Minnesota’s new state motto, “Bring ya ass.”

Oh my gosh.

And please use it in a sentence.

“Bring ya ass, and buy our new flag.”

That’s right, Minnesota has a new flag, too.

Yeah, “Bring ya ass, buy our new flag, enjoy our new laws, because they’re liberating.”

You serve as the vice-chair of the Sustainable Infrastructure Policy Committee in the Minnesota House. What’s the single most important thing the world should do to address the climate crisis?

Educating people.

On a scale of one to ten, how effective do you think compulsory national service in the military or Peace Corps or public service would be for young people in the country?

Ooh, I’m not a fan of compulsory service. So my choices were 1 to 10?

Yeah. Sounds like you’re going low.

(Laughing) Can I give it a one?

(Laughing) That’s fine.

Who do you think Donald Trump will pick as his running mate? And who would you like him to pick as his running mate just for the laughs?

Man, for laughs, I think it would be really funny if he just ran without one.

It’s Debate Night in America later this month, and magically, you’re standing at the lectern across the stage from Donald Trump. What do you say to him?

I’ve had dreams where I tell this man off. I’m not sure where to start.

What’s the best thing about serving the constituents of House District 36B?

My community is amazing. This might sound strange to say, but our community is so involved in community. We have a lot of service-minded people living in the district, and I think that really shows, if we’re talking politics, when people are going to the polls.

I’m really proud of the work that we’re doing in Minnesota, and it’s my hope that people will look to us and if they’re living in a state that isn’t where Minnesota is at right now, that they can at least see that if you run for office and you fight like your life depends on it, we can get there.

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