Organizers and attendees of ECMN Pride participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony, kicking off Pride Month in Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of ECMN Pride)

Across the country, LGBTQ+ pride celebrations are springing up after more than a year of hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In rural Minnesota and Wisconsin, many small towns have inaugurated their first ever pride picnics and parades, while others, like Pine City, Minnesota, have resumed their long-standing programming. 

Pine City—population 3,100—is home to the East Central Minnesota (ECMN) Pride celebration, which, at the time of its founding, was known as one of the only two existing rural prides in the United States. ECMN Pride was the first pride gathering held outside of a metropolitan area in Minnesota and is currently gearing up for its 16th annual iteration. 

Throughout the past 16 years, the momentum of ECMN Pride has not faltered, especially as it has been joined by other rural pride celebrations in the region, many of which are happening for the first time this year. 

One such pride celebration was Lake Pepin Pride in Stockholm, Wisconsin — population 66 — which took place the weekend of June 11. Co-organized by Stockholm residents Jennifer Lindahl and Alan Nugent, Lake Pepin Pride was inspired, in part, by rural pride celebrations like ECMN Pride. 

A former Pine City resident, Lindahl—who identifies as an LGBTQ+ ally—saw pride as an opportunity to bring the community together and build a safe space for Stockholm’s LGBTQ+ residents and allies. “This is a moment to step out and say that we’re inclusive,” she said. “It’s a moment to step out and say, we want change, and we’re going to make change.” 

Planned in seven weeks, Lake Pepin Pride spanned a whole weekend, featuring guest speakers, performers, vendors, and even a strawberry festival gala. The event attracted more than 200 people—over three times the population of Stockholm. 

To Lindahl, Lake Pepin Pride would not have been possible without the support and guidance of other rural pride celebrations, several of which reached out to her as she began the planning process, including ECMN Pride. She said that this kind of direct support is not always easy to get from larger, metropolitan prides. “It’s really great when you can lean on other small communities,” Lindahl said. “There’s so many small towns that are participating in pride, and I’m so proud of that.” 

By crafting supportive community spaces in predominantly rural areas, pride gatherings like Lake Pepin and ECMN Pride offer a counterpoint to dominant assumptions that rural communities are uninhabitable for LGBTQ+ people. Interestingly enough, Pine City and its surrounding area holds one of the highest concentrations of same-sex couples in non-metropolitan Minnesota. ECMN Pride—and the groups which comprise it—honors the LGBTQ+ communities that have existed and persisted in the region for decades. 

“I think that’s what pride is—it’s a learning opportunity for everybody, especially in small communities,” said Jennifer Lindahl of Lake Pepin Pride. “When you have small communities that tend to be seen as homophobic… that’s not every community, and that’s not everybody in every community.” 

Rory Briski, who grew up in Pine City, described how important it was to see so much support and representation at ECMN Pride: “It’s not some sort of city thing, or a ‘young people only’ thing,” they said. “It’s like—we have proof now. You can’t pretend that this [community] doesn’t exist here.” 

An ECMN Pride banner hangs over Pine City’s main street. (Photo by Dani Pérez)

East Central Minnesota Pride was borne out of a strong legacy of local LGBTQ+ organizing. The first picnic was held in 2005, in honor of the fifth anniversary of the East Central Men’s Circle—a community and support group for gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning men in East Central Minnesota. One of the founders of the Men’s Circle was Don Quaintance of Cambridge-Isanti, Minnesota, who first found LGBTQ+ community in the area through the Rural Aids Action Network (RAAN), a Minnesotan organization which has sought to provide services and support for people living with HIV and AIDS outside of the Twin Cities metro area for the past 25 years. 

“There was an article in the paper about RAAN and AIDS in the community. People were dying of isolation—not even letting their families know that they had AIDS,” said Quaintance. “I decided to volunteer for RAAN, and I started meeting a group of gay people. That’s when we decided to start the men’s group.” 

Since 2005, East Central Minnesota Pride has expanded into a much broader community of LGBTQ+ people and allies, as groups like the East Central Purple Circle, a group of lesbians in the region organized in 2007, and East Central Minnesota Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) have joined the planning efforts. In spite of several instances of resistance from local groups and businesses, many Pine City residents have provided significant support for the pride celebration over the past 16 years.“We’ve won some battles, and we’ve lost some battles,” said Nathan Johnson, a member of the ECMN Pride planning committee. 

Today, the Pine City Pride picnic is a staple part of Minnesota’s pride tradition, drawing in more than 500 people each year. 

As newer rural pride celebrations continue to form and evolve, it becomes clearer that each small-town pride has its own ripple effect across LGBTQ+ and rural communities—and the ripples never stop. Lake Pepin Pride is currently in the process of putting together a planning committee for next year’s celebration. Meanwhile, East Central Minnesota Pride is thinking ahead to how they can build more partnerships with younger generations of LGBTQ+ people, who they hope will keep their tradition going.