Mankato Proud – South Central Minnesota Pride Unlocks the Key City
In south central Minnesota, there stands a tree that is more than a tree.
The tree is a golden ginkgo—in early September, its foliage looks like a giant, honey-colored snowflake. The tree is not the tallest seedling in the area, not by a long chalk, but it’s firmly rooted, its future rich with xylem and promise. The golden ginkgo is surrounded by a green commons, and the green commons is surrounded a town and a river. The town and the river are surrounded by fields of corn and wheat and soybeans. The river flows, the wind blows, the billowed water and the willowed air whispering to the tree in the same golden voice.
Under the tree’s bole, a bronze plaque reads:
In memory of Jessica Flatequal
Nevertheless, she persisted.
In love, pride, and power.
This tree is the living commemoration of a Mankato queer icon, dedicated by her widow, Maria Bevacqua. “I chose this location because Pridefest was held in Riverfront Park for many years, under Jessica’s direction,” Bevacqua explains. “She had a great relationship with city administrators and staff, which helped make Pridefest such a successful annual event.”
That’s putting it mildly. South Central Minnesota Pride’s first Pridefest was little more than a Walton family picnic, minus the Blue Ridge Mountains: in 2002, 150 folks made a social statement against bias with watermelon and Wonder Bread. Although that was no small achievement in and of itself, the indefatigable energy of Executive Director Jessica Flatequal, abetted by many other energies, transformed the humble, bighearted pipsqueak of a soiree into an event that attracts thousands of people and spans several days during the ninth month of each and every year.
A key to Flatequal’s success was her natural knack for building win-win bridges between South Central Minnesota Pride and the city of Mankato. “I think one of the things that Jessica left behind with her legacy was as an example–she set an example as a leader, like always acting unselfishly,” current South Central Minnesota Pride committee member Jeremy Redlien posits. “She was a tireless leader, completely devoted to LGBTQ rights, somebody who is always going to be fighting for people. for everybody.”
Flatequal died of liver disease at the tragically-young age of 46, but her legacy, Pridefest, still grows within Riverfront Park…just as surely as does her tree of life. This year, late on the morning of September 9, during the Pride Parade—or, more precisely, during the Jessica Flatequal Pride Parade–school boys and school girls and queer folk and straight allies will jig down Mankato’s Riverfront Drive, happily nudged by a marching band beat.
Expressions of Pride won’t be visible just in front of parade spectators, though—those expressions will be visible behind the spectators, as well: rainbow flags will have been distributed as tokens of gratitude to the local businesses who will willingly shutter their shops for one day in deference to the parade route, in support of Pride. Notes South Central Minnesota Pride committee member Megan Poehler, “When you’re walking down the parade, and you see all the businesses have flags in their windows. They’ll keep it up year round.”
The bliss-kissed anarchy will terminate at Mankato’s Riverfront Park where Pridefest 2023 will unfold in earnest. That shindig is scheduled from noon to 4:00 pm and will include, according to the website, “A Drag Show, Vendors & Food, a Kids Activity Tent, and more!” An entire weekend-plus of events will tether to this tent pole, including a cause especially dear to Flatequal who, during her day job, served as the Director of Gender and Sexuality Programs and adjunct professor at Minnesota State University. “This year, as an organization, we look to continue to grow our efforts in educational programming,” declares Charlie Johnston, the current board chair for South Central Minnesota Pride. “We’ve done a lot to partner with other organizations throughout the community.”
In a mostly-rustic environment like South Central Minnesota, the need for Pride’s benefits are perennial…so South Central Minnesota Pride’s work is perennial, as well. “We try to do at least one event per month,” Johnston reports. “We host a Queers and Beers event once a month, as well as a Queers and Coffee event where people can just get together and connect with other people and a way to make new friends, to find LGBTQ+ friendly, welcoming businesses around town. We see a lot of success with our monthly social events.”
Currently, this welcoming is most sorely needed within a specific demographic. “I think that as we continue to focus on youth programming, that’s going to expand,” predicts Lisa Wood, another South Central Minnesota Pride committee member. “We’re pretty excited about that because when you go to some of these events and see the youth having a safe space to be, and understanding what that means for them, it all starts at home.”
Some of Flatequal’s work remains undone, some hearts hardened and some minds unchanged…for now, anyway. “There are people who are not there yet,” Johnston admits. “That helps us to remember that we still have work to do and still want to continue that education to change people’s minds and help people understand that it is okay to be a welcoming, safe environment.”
But no matter how welcoming or safe its environment, a tree can’t have lengthening branches without dependable roots. “We [South Central Minnesota Pride] continue to see growth every year,” Johnston says. “Last year was our biggest for the parade, biggest for the number of vendors that we had in our park, in the festival, as well as the highest attended festival, so we’re excited to see that grow, continue each year and see more and more people come.”
Jessica Flatequal’s twin legacies of Pridefest and the golden ginkgo—both alive and lively, both rooted in Riverfront Park—will stretch into the future…simply because each has to. “As we think about the legacy in the organization that Jessica helped to build,” Johnson concludes, “I think it was a groundbreaking effort at the time to really think about what we can do to make sure the community is inclusive to everyone.”