How Minnesota's First Small-Town LGBTQ Pride Survived and Thrived

Minnesota Pride

This June, a large crowd is expected to gather in celebration of the 15th Anniversary East Central Minnesota Pride in the town square of Pine City. When the event began in 2005, no one else dared stage a public celebration of LGBTQ+ people in rural, small-town Minnesota.

Pine City makes a woodsy getaway just 65 miles north of Minneapolis-St. Paul. With its forests, river, and lakes, the area appeals especially to outdoor enthusiasts, but recent Census data reveals that it also has a high concentration of likely same-sex coupled households. 

As mind-boggling as it was that little Pine City (pop. 3,200) would host a gay Pride back then, people turned out by the hundreds in this historically blue-collar, conservative-leaning community.

What was there to worry about?  After all it was — and largely still is — your quintessential summer picnic, featuring brats, burgers, and bars (a "Bold North" dessert) with a side of live music. But it also was — and to a lesser extent still is — a groundbreaking public statement: We’re here. We’re LGBTQ+, and we invite the respect of our neighbors.

Plenty of collaborators from regional lesbian, bisexual, and transgender groups help put on Pride now, in addition to the group of primarily gay men (called the ‘Men’s Circle’) who pioneered the event. A diverse group of volunteers roll up their sleeves and go to work. Area businesses kick in. Today, it’s a well-oiled machine.

There were glitches, however, early on. While a certain amount of “live and let live” allowed everyone to coexist, some brazen and emboldened residents held counter-protests across town in a separate park and billed them as “pro-family” events. This group of rural neighbors wasn’t so neighborly, claiming they were offended by a Pride advertisement that said, “It’s okay to be GAY in Pine City," featuring a pink boa on the town’s iconic monument, François the Voyageur.

Controversal Past Pride Ad

The controversy didn’t stop there. One year, a small group stood on the highway looking on, holding signs and reading from the Bible. Another year, someone tried to book the park to keep Pride from using it. Then, people in power tried to squash Pride. Pine County Commissioner Mitch Pangerl called Pride organizers “bad apples” at a 2014 county board meeting for using a community sign on school property to promote the event. Pine City School Board Member Robert Shuey repeated the derogatory expression. Over 20 community groups and nonprofit organizations used the sign referenced until East Central Minnesota Pride (also a nonprofit) wanted space to promote its event. Then, the school voted to use the sign only for school-related events. That year, buttons circulated at Pride with the words “Bad Apple” on them; coincidentally, it was both Pangerl’s and Shuey’s final year of serving in public office.

Community resources weren’t altogether blocked for Pride. The city kindly allowed Pride to hang a 30-foot banner across its Main Street beginning in 2015. That was one example of how Pine City began celebrating the diversity and culture of the community and embracing its people. Another example was when area mayors threw themselves into building visibility and support for the annual festivity. North Branch Mayor Kristen Kennedy and Pine City Mayor Carl Pederson have each delivered welcomes, on behalf of their respective cities, to visitors from around the region. Pine City was beginning to be recognized beyond its city limits as a welcoming community. That courage was recognized at the Minnesota State Fair, when the event was nominated by the City and was given the Minnesota Community Pride! Showcase Award. 

The five sprawling counties that make up East Central Minnesota — Pine, Isanti, Chisago, Kanabec, and Mille Lacs — began to feel less isolated as the LGBTQ+ community banded together. Considered one of the most rural regions of the Gopher State, and comprised of small towns ranging in size from miniscule Denham (pop. 35) to the largest city, North Branch (pop. 10,600), it has no real regional center to speak of. Braham (pop. 1,800) is approximately the geographic center and it is located 15 miles to the southwest of Pine City, where Pride is held. 

Only two cities in the region, Pine City and Cambridge (pop. 8,900), have places of higher learning. Pine Technical and Community College (PTCC) has a tremendous social impact on Pine City by being present there. Many cultural and educational opportunities that are typically only found in larger communities can be found in Pine City thanks, in part, to PTCC. Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Cambridge has an active GSA (Gender-Sexuality Alliance) that has been involved in Pride for the past few years.

After 15 years, the event and community have come a long way. The first Pride was essentially a fifth-anniversary gathering of the East Central Minnesota Men’s Circle, a discussion and social group of gay, bi and questioning men living in the region.  Organizers invited the women’s counterpart group, the Purple Circle, and the general public. There was skepticism but, to everyone’s amazement, people stepped forth to meet others in a public place, at a city park. Word spread and both groups grew. A local chapter of PFLAG (parents, friends and family of lesbians and gays) also formed.

Early Pride Stage W Hay Bales

Members of the Men’s Circle approached Mora-area residents Barb and Phil Schroeder about forming a regional chapter of PFLAG in 2008. The Schroeders now lead the organization and, as part of their fundraising efforts, pull into a plethora of area festivals — including Pride — with a festive and familiar red popcorn snack-wagon.

The Men’s Circle was started just four years after a Pine City High School graduate, Wally Lundin, a gay man, was found hogtied and strangled to death in his Minneapolis apartment in 1996. It was part of a string of hate crimes against gays in Minnesota, and the case wasn’t solved for 13 years until DNA evidence implicated Rommal Bennett, who pled guilty.

That series of events shocked Pine City, and the region, and launched a dialog about homosexuality. It was the fourth year of East Central Minnesota Pride when the crime was finally solved. The perpetrator wasn’t connected to the hate crime for so long, a Pine City kid had reason to fear coming out.

Today, thankfully, there’s a more "out" younger generation in East Central Minnesota that is attending the Pride events. The Pride helped pave the way for acceptance, in changing hearts and minds in the small towns of the region. A couple of area high schools now even have GSAs of their own. 

This year’s event theme is "Pride in the Park: 15 Years of Positive Change."  It marks 20 years since the Men’s Circle began in April of 2000.    

East Central Minnesota Pride knows the work is not complete as there are many people still in the closet and scared to come out. Though East Central Minnesota Pride was the first small-town pride in Minnesota and the second in the nation, it certainly isn’t the only rural pride now.  Thankfully, other small towns across America have begun to hold Prides of their own: Bisbee (AZ), Bend (OR), Moab (UT) and others. 

Keep it going, small-town LGBTQ+ America!

DON QUAINTANCE, GARY SKARSTEN, and RANDY OLSON are founding members of the East Central Minnesota Men’s Circle and East Central Minnesota Pride. JULIE REDPATH is a founding member of the East Central Purple Circle and East Central Minnesota Pride. PHIL and BARB SCHROEDER are founding members of East Central Minnesota’s PFLAG chapter. Learn more about the 15th anniversary of East Central Minnesota Pride at www.eastcentralminnesotapride.org.

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