Our Rides: A Pride Road Trip to La Crosse

Photos by Randy Stern
Photos by Randy Stern

In order to find LGBTQ Pride, you have to search to celebrate it. 

In the months since the COVID-19 Pandemic put all of us in lockdown, our community has been scrambling to restore a sense of “normal.” That normal included Pride celebrations around the world—and right here at home. 

In July, Twin Cities Pride returned to Loring Park in Minneapolis. We returned to the park, either in celebration or with trepidation. We thought we were in the clear within the window of opportunity we had to do so safely and out in the open. 

Other Pride celebrations were rescheduled for September. The thought behind doing so was that the original COVID-19 virus would be well under control by that time. Little did we know of the curve ball that was being thrown. 

A new strain of the COVID-19 virus began to spread. The Delta variant hit mostly unvaccinated patients, but everyone was not immune. Masks were reintroduced in various places across the country for indoor spaces. No one knew what would happen next, even as resistance to a new set of guidelines also began to grow. 

For us, LGBTQ Pride is an outdoor celebration. We celebrate in parks and on the streets. If we go to the local bar, we would have to adhere to any guidelines for indoor activities. Yet, there is nothing like a celebration of our community with the sun shining upon us. 

With that premise, I decided to take a road trip to one of our “out-of-town” Pride celebrations. This time, I pointed a 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE (supplied by Toyota) to La Crosse, Wisconsin.

La Crosse is a popular destination for us. Usually it’s a day trip, but we also could spend a getaway weekend there. Just about a 2.5-hour drive from the Twin Cities, the venue for La Crosse Pride is right on the Mississippi River. Riverside Park is a perfect central location for not only LGBTQ residents of the city, but the outlying region stretching across southeastern Minnesota into western Wisconsin and the northeastern tip of Iowa. 

Unless we have friends or family in town or nearby, finding La Crosse’s LGBTQ community may take some searching. 

It starts with the Center: 7 Rivers LGBTQ Connection in La Crosse. The community center serves as a hub for the region, connecting various services to its population. These programs include serving LGBTQ youth, adults, trans, parents and allies, HIV/AIDS, and rainbow families. They also have an Alcoholics Anonymous group, as well as activities-based programs. You will also find a group for LGBTQ people with non-traditional and Earth-based beliefs. 

The Center itself may look like an old tavern on the outskirts of downtown La Crosse. What you’ll find is energy and a very warm welcome. Once inside, you’ll find a room with computers to safely connect to the internet, a library, and a clothing closet for those in need. 

The Center had its own challenges through the COVID-19 pandemic. Alesha Schandelmeier, the Executive Director for the Center, explains that she’s “doing online trainings [with school personnel, public safety departments, and interested parties in La Crosse County], but they’re just not quite the same rapport and just don’t have the same interaction with people as when you’re standing there in front of them.”

Schandelmeier points out that they had to move their entire programming to Zoom calls throughout the pandemic. In recent months, the Center opened up on Saturday for some programs, including the clothing closet. Now they’re open two days a week to fulfill the needs of the community the Center serves. Their main focus these days has been to educate the community about the LGBTQ population within the region. That continues to be a challenge during this pandemic. 

One of those challenges came this summer in La Crosse itself. “Recently,” Schandelmeier explains, “we’ve had several issues with anti-[LGBTQ] vandalism. Unfortunately, a young trans boy was attacked in one of our parks, physically assaulted by an adult individual who is currently out on bail.” 

That attack at La Crosse’s Copeland Park this past July did not deter people from attending this year’s Pride. Instead, they came to Riverside Park, located just south of downtown La Crosse along the Mississippi River.  

There were adjustments made to La Crosse Pride. An indoor event was cancelled for the sake of safety. However, the festival at Riverside Park went on, as planned. 

Digging deeper into the La Crosse community, I had a chance to chat with Will Van Roosenbeek, the Director of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Pride Center. He runs an on-campus space located at their Student Union, which serves the students, faculty and staff of the university. 

As a long-time leader in the La Crosse LGBTQ community, Van Roosenbeek gave me a bit of history about their Pride celebration. “The first Pride that we had was at the Oktoberfest grounds and we had three nights of events,” explains Van Roosenbeek. “The first night there was a church outside of Madison that came and spent the whole three days with us. Friday night we had, I think it was an art show, and they were outside handing out pamphlets and chanting, and all of that. They came to Pride the next day at the Oktoberfest grounds. And they only came the one year. After that, we just had much smaller groups. The [Pride] events have always been very well-attended by the LGBT community here, but also by our allies.”

Today, the Pride Center at UW-L continues to serve its community in the face of campus closures during the worst of the pandemic. “Last year our center served over 6,000 people,” Van Roosenbeek says. “That’s coming to our events, and that includes coming in and seeing myself, or our grad student, or any of our peer educators.” 

Van Roosenbeek adds: “We also provide those services for faculty and staff, and I get a lot of calls from them about, ‘My kid is coming out’ or ‘My brother just came out. Can you help?’ And we’re there to support those folks as well. I would say over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a very big increase of LGBT faculty and staff that have been hired, which is really exciting. So we have the faculty and staff there to show support to the students that they’re welcome here. And they want to be out and be a part of the community too.”

Will Van Roosenbeek Executive Director Pride Center University of Wisconsin La Crosse

La Crosse may be more welcoming than you think. You can tap into the services that the Center and UW-L’s Pride Center have to offer. Even if you do not know anyone in town, you can find ways to make your journey down to La Crosse a fun one. 

There are a couple of ways to get to La Crosse from the Twin Cities. You could take U.S. Highway 61 along the Mississippi River through Red Wing and Winona for more scenery. Or, you can rush down 52 into Rochester and onto Interstate 90 for the rest of the way.

As for the Highlander XSE, it did its job sending me to this lovely Wisconsin community of 52,000 to attend their Pride festival—and comfortably. 

If you have an inkling to visit La Crosse, check out what the Center and UW-L’s Pride Center have to offer. Come down to their Pride. Meet new people. You know the drill by now. 

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