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When the weather starts to warm in Pine City, a giant banner invites visitors on Main Street to a big summertime event: "Pride in the Park / Minnesota's Small-town LGBTQ+ Pride!"

The 30-foot vinyl sign is advertising East Central Minnesota Pride, an annual event in Robinson Park that calls itself "the first rural Pride." This year's gathering is happening on Saturday, June 1.

Just off Interstate 35, about an hour's drive north of the Twin Cities, Pine City is a small county seat on the Snake River. A reader asked Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's community-driven reporting project, how the tiny city became home to the earliest rural gay pride celebration.

Historians say it is impossible to prove whether it is in fact the first rural Pride. But the event has a unique place in Pride history.

"Pine City Pride is a total unicorn," said Ryan Murphy, associate professor of history and women's, gender and sexuality studies at Earlham College in Indiana. Rural places have been a part of queer culture for a very long time, Murphy said, citing the lesbian back-to-the-land communes in the South and the resort town of Guerneville, Calif.

"But most of those places are comprised of urban queers relocating the culture to the country," he said. "Pine City is straight-up small-town Pride."

Started in 2005, the event began as a small picnic to celebrate the fifth anniversary of a support group for rural gay men in the area. It has since weathered some local pushback, widened to include all LGBTQ folks and grown to become an established event with live music that brings hundreds of people to Pine City — population just over 3,000 — on the first Saturday in June.

The first Pride in Pine City brought about 80 people to a riverside park.
The first Pride in Pine City brought about 80 people to a riverside park.

East Central Minnesota Pride

That first gathering was described as "one of the world's smallest organized Pride celebrations ... in one of the state's least populated regions," by Stewart Van Cleve in his book "Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota."

Rural LGBTQ Pride

There are now several hundred small-town and rural Prides across the U.S., said Beck Banks, an assistant professor of communications at Warren Wilson College who researches queer life in Appalachia and other rural places.

That wasn't the case when East Central Minnesota Pride began two decades ago. Back then, Pride events marking the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York had shifted from protest marches to jubilant parades celebrated with rainbow flags around the world. But they largely happened in big cities.

Twin Cities Pride began in Minneapolis in 1972. A few other Minnesota cities created events in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including Rochester in 1998 and Mankato in 2002. Many suburbs now have their own celebrations, such as Golden Valley Pride Festival, which began in 2016.

The idea of rural Prides, however, has taken off in recent years. A former Pine City resident started Lake Pepin Pride in tiny Stockholm, Wis., in 2021, and there now are Pride events in Minnesota towns including Fergus Falls, Virginia and Marshall. Lavender magazine publishes an annual "Regional and Small-town Pride Guide."

"I'm impressed by how early Pine City started its celebrations," Banks said. "To say it's the first rural one is near impossible to know. Pine City, take that mantle; it's a great claim to make. I can't find anything to refute it."

A picnic in the park

Don Quaintance, an 83-year-old Navy veteran, was part of the core group that founded Pine City's celebration.

Quaintance grew up in rural Iowa and lived in Minneapolis in the 1960s before moving to Isanti. After his partner died in 1997, Quaintance began volunteering with the Rural AIDS Action Network. That led him and four friends to found a support and community group for gay men in the area, called East Central Minnesota Men's Circle. They began meeting in 2000, often gathering at Tobies restaurant in Hinckley.

Don Quaintance, far right, and other members of his men's circle gathered in Hinckley in 2007.
Don Quaintance, far right, and other members of his men's circle gathered in Hinckley in 2007.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii / Star Tribune

"After five years, we thought, well, we should celebrate that we've lasted that long," Quaintance said. "And so we decided to throw a picnic in the park there in Pine City." They picked the town because it was convenient for all the men's circle members and a central spot in their rural area.

The men's circle founders worked to put it all together, creating a flyer to distribute in the five-county area that read: "This invitation goes out to all GLBT people in the community. PFLAG, Rainbow families as well as friends and family. Be proud of who you are!"

"Randy [Olson] supplied most of the food: Hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad and some bars. I had paid for a lot of advertising," Quaintance said.

He remembers feeling proud to see about 80 people show up. "I believe this was the first [Pride] that many in the rural area had attended," he said.

At that first picnic, folk singer Barb Ryman performed. She had played a few times at Twin Cities Pride before and felt the Pine City committee was "very brave and courageous," she recalled in an interview.

"I remember it having that small-town friendliness and everyone being so welcoming and appreciative of the music," she said. "I've attended their Pride a few times since that first one, and it's been so fulfilling to see how it's grown and become a tradition."

Folk singer Barb Ryman performed at an early East Central Minnesota Pride.
Folk singer Barb Ryman performed at an early East Central Minnesota Pride.

East Central Minnesota Pride

Through the decades, the event moved from Lions Park by the river (now called Voyageur Park) to its current home in the heart of town at Robinson Park. Its host sponsors have grown far beyond the men's circle — and now even include Pine City itself.

Dueling celebrations

The ride has occasionally been a little bumpy.

"There were some people that were against us and so we had to deal with that," Quaintance said.

As the third annual East Central Minnesota Pride approached in 2007, organizers created a flyer reading "It's Okay to be Gay in Pine City" that showed the town's landmark 35-foot wooden voyageur statue "Francois" wearing a hot pink feather boa.

In 2007, the Pride flyer featured the town's voyageur statue wearing a boa.
In 2007, the Pride flyer featured the town's voyageur statue wearing a boa.

East Central Minnesota Pride

The flyer spurred a local resident to organize a counter "pro-family" picnic with Christian music groups at the same time, according to coverage in the Star Tribune.

A Star Tribune reporter who attended both picnics found "an equal number of people, an equal number of American flags, a black dog apiece in the crowd and enough sloppy joes, brats and potato chips for everyone."

The event has evolved from a small picnic to one that draws hundreds of people. Then-gubernatorial hopeful Mark Dayton made it a campaign stop in 2010. As the state debated same-sex marriage two years later, the event flyer featured a voyageur canoe with the words "Just Married" on the side.

Performers have included Chastity Brown, the Voice semifinalist Kat Perkins and former Viking Esera Tuaolo. In recent years, the local brewery, Three Twenty Brewing Co., created rainbow T-shirts and Froggy's Bar & Grill started hosting post-picnic drag shows. For 2024, organizers booked 70s-style rockers Rebel Queens and food trucks.

When East Central Minnesota Pride's giant banner first hung above Main Street in 2015, the planning committee got an e-mail from a closeted teenager who was visiting grandparents in the area.

"I just wanted to say thank you," the kid wrote. "On behalf of so many closeted teens, the downtown banner is so epic and eye catching, we drive underneath it all the time, and I can't help but grin."

This year's planning chair, Aaron Bombard, moved up to Pine City from Apple Valley when he was 21. He didn't realize there was a Pride in Pine City until after moving north, he said. But he appreciates the way it now feels like a town event — and he knows that it has a wide impact.

"I was like, 'Wait, there's a whole community here,'" he said. "It did make a difference in how you feel accepted in your town."

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