In the last 10 years, Minnesota saw a surge in the number of same-sex households, and the bulk of the growth, 80% of it, took place beyond Minneapolis and St. Paul—in the suburbs, exurbs and the least likely of small, rural towns…

…places like Pine City, which may not be “least likely” after all.  

According to the U.S. Census, which recently released its second-ever count of same-sex partners in Minnesota, the Greater Pine City area is home to some of the most concentrated same-sex coupled households of any non-metropolitan areas in the state.

There are 1,786 townships in Minnesota; the “gayest” of them all is Pokegama Township (pop. 2,743), which surrounds the city of Pine City on three sides.  White Bear Township (pop. 10,949) is the only township that has more by sheer numbers—just eight more gay households—but Pokegama by far has the highest percentage: 2.1% of all of households, which is more than twice the statewide average.  

Across Minnesota, there were 13,718 same-sex couples repoted in the 2010 Census, accounting for about one percent of couples. 

Pine City itself, within the relatively small municipal limits, has eight such couples, a 14.3% increase from the previous Census; even then, Pine City’s proportion of gay households was higher than the state average. The city had as many or more same-sex coupled households as several cities more than twice its size, including St. Joseph (pop. 6,534), Victoria (pop. 7,345), Big Lake (pop. 7,386), Baxter (pop. 7,610), Mahtomedi (pop. 7,676), Crookston (pop. 7,891), Cambridge (pop. 8,111) and Waconia (pop. 10,697), even higher than Hennepin County’s Minnetrista (6,384) (Minneapolis is also in Hennepin).

And, Rock Creek, just 1.5 miles down the road, has twice as many same-sex coupled households as Pine City. Yet just 20 miles to the west, in Mora, a community of similar size and distance from the Twin Cities, there were no same sex couples reported.  

As far as counties are concerned, only Hennepin, Ramsey, Mahnomen, and Lake of the Woods have higher percentages of same-sex coupled households.

Pine County comes in fifth of all 87 Minnesota counties.

Why Pine City?

The Greater Pine City community has a history of dealing with gay issues, stemming from 1996 when a hometown guy, Wally Lundin, was found in his Minneapolis apartment gagged and bound, left for dead, the victim of a gay hate crime. After many news reports made known the 1983 Pine City High School graduate’s death, the community acknowledged, publicly at least, that there were GLBT people living in Pine City.

Before that, in the late 1980’s, a few locals were able to get to know Hüsker Dü legend Bob Mould and his partner, who took up residency just south of Pine City in an old farmhouse, in what is considered Rock Creek.  It was there he would write the songs to make up his first and best-selling album, “Notebook.”

In 2005, Pine City became home to one of the first rural gay pride events in the country, East Central Minnesota Pride.  Hundreds of people turned out for the occasion, which continued to be held on an annual basis despite organized protests by some “profamily” groups.  (Never mind that nearly half of the same-sex couple households in Pine City and two-thirds of the same-sex couple households in Rock Creek are families, with children.)

Another reason for the concentration of gay couples in the Pine City area might be that the city lives up to its motto: “North. Nice and close.”  People are coming here from the Twin Cities area, primarily, because of the great quality of life. The town is home to a health food store, gyms, a community theater and an arts center—not to mention the recreational aspects of the Snake River and nearby lakes.  One can buy anything from hummus to sushi here.  

And while Minneapolis has been named the nation’s most gay-friendly city, Pine City has evidence of a community that embraces gay residents as well — such as East Central Minnesota Pride.

“It’s different than a lot of small towns” said Travis Peterson, who moved to Pine City from Mora immediately after graduating from high school there. “Pine City can offer the lifestyle and the comfort zone.  It’s a progressive city that’s been welcoming, and the word spreads.”

Moreover, the population of Pine City is aging, which runs against the assumption (myth?) that older people won’t accept gays into their community.

Yes, the Twin Cities is considered the gay mecca between the coasts, and Minneapolis accounts for nearly one in four same-sex couples, towering over the rest of the state in sheer numbers, but its dominance is overflowing to places like Pine City.  The Pine City numbers reported by the Census probably undercount the number of same-sex couples who live here.

“You wouldn’t believe how many gay people live around here,” asserted Rob Morrisette, owner of Rob’s Place Salon, downtown Pine City.  “I have a lot of local clients who are gay.”

Bottom line, as reported recently in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the increase since 2000 in the number of same-sex partners reflects three changes:   More gays and lesbians in the area; more choosing to live together; and more of them willing to identify themselves as gay.

True in the Twin Cities. True in Pine City.

Nathan Johnson lives in Pine City, Minnesota, where he is a city planner.

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