FIRST 25 YEARS OF TWIN CITIES PRIDE: 1972-1997

In order to understand the origins of Twin Cities Pride, we need to travel back to 1972, the year of the first Pride march and picnic. That year, the Vietnam war was raging. Men were still being drafted to fight, and antiwar protests were at their peak. President Nixon won a second term in a true landslide – the last time Minnesota has gone red in a presidential election, in fact – and “gay,” to most Americans, still meant “happy.” Women were regularly wearing pants for the first time, and they were frequently plaid. Microwave ovens were cutting edge and a rare curiosity.

The decade prior was tumultuous. In 1972, Martin Luther King, Jr. had only been dead for four years, and Malcolm X for seven. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, along with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, had happened only nine years before, in 1963. Feminism was in full swing, lobbying for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and Roe v Wade was still being decided. The Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) race riots in North Minneapolis and across the country had happened only five years prior, and never quite ended. 1972 was just eight years after the Civil Rights Act ruled segregation unconstitutional: although 1972 was the year that Ruby Bridges graduated high school, the fall of 1970 saw violent clashes over school desegregation throughout the country, as well as the shootings at Kent State. MPD officers frequently turned a blind eye to assaults of gay men in Loring Park and elsewhere, and often participated themselves.

It is in this environment of civil unrest, unease, and social justice activism, that Pride began. Although the first Pride march in Minneapolis happened in 1972, the LGBTQ community in Minnesota had already been organizing for a few years: Fight Repression of Erotic Expression (FREE) was established at the University of Minnesota months before Stonewall, making it the first LGBTQ organization in Minnesota and among the first in the country. When that first group of fewer than twenty-five gays and lesbians decided to march down Hennepin for the first Pride, on the sidewalks because they hadn’t thought to acquire a permit to march in the street, most onlookers dismissed them as just another of the various protest groups of the time. The marchers met up with the other half of the group who had waited in Loring Park with bail money in case of mass arrests, and there was a picnic of about fifty people. There were no arrests that day, and plans were put in place to march – and celebrate – again the next year.

Prior to the Stonewall riots in 1969, and the many other displays of resistance to police brutality in the late sixties, being gay was something that remained hidden. These violent events – mass arrests of suspected gay men, brutal raids on suspected gay bars, beatings – brought that cultural shame to a head and signified an important turning point in LGBTQ history. No longer would being gay be considered a dark secret or painful condition; instead, a source of pride. The more queer people who came out, the thinking was, the more normalized being LGBTQ would become. Signs at the 1973 Twin Cities Pride march read, “Gay is Proud,” “Gays demand the right to work,” and “Better blatant than latent.” Members of Gay House, a local organization, printed the first Pride Guide on a single sheet of paper that could be easily discarded, since possessing gay paraphernalia was still a crime. About one hundred and fifty people attended that year, and activities extended for a whole week, including softball, a picnic, a march, and canoeing.

Over the following few years, LGBTQ rights seemed to be gaining traction. Minneapolis and St. Paul both passed nondiscrimination ordinances, the first out gay state Senator, Allen Spear, was elected (although he was elected before coming out), and Gay Pride Day was established in Minneapolis. President Nixon had resigned in shame over Watergate and was pardoned by President Ford. There was a massive oil supply shortage which caused gas stations across the country to simply run out of gasoline, and the economy was quickly changing from manufacturing to service-based, meaning plants closed and jobs were lost. The LGBTQ community in the Twin Cities was becoming more and more cohesive, and the annual Pride festival, for some, had begun to feel like a celebration rather than resistance. By the end of the decade, however, cultural backlash had begun. Conservatives developed a strange, unjustified concern that queer men and women were attempting to recruit children into the LGBTQ community through the public school system, and began campaigns to protect the children from such abuse. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same rhetoric being used currently in Florida, Texas, Ohio, and elsewhere.) St. Paul, Minnesota, and Miami-Dade County, Florida both reversed their antidiscrimination ordinances in response, leaving gay teachers no protection from termination or slander. Twin Cities Pride 1978 was held in Mears Park, St. Paul in retaliation, and that year attendees danced in the rain. 

Tensions between Minneapolis Police Department and the gay community were also high during this time, from the violent bathhouse raids in 1979 to the many unsolved homicides of gay men in the mid-80s. Although the department had been investigated by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in 1975, and the findings showed deeply racist hiring and recruitment practices, in 1980 Chief Tony Bouza still remarked that MPD was “damn brutal, a bunch of thumpers.” Queer people were still targets for violence.

Despite these setbacks, the theme for Twin Cities Pride 1980 was “Cruising into the 80s,” and enthusiasm was high, although not everyone was pleased with the cheekiness of the theme. Support for LGBTQ people was slowly growing, Prince was still in his explicitly sexy phase, and David Bowie was topping the charts in his gender bending glory. Women could now qualify for a mortgage loan without a husband, the Vietnam war was finally over, and rapidly rising inflation was every American’s top priority. With the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the United States looked forward to a new age of prosperity and modernity, the now well-established LGBTQ community included. But as we know, less than a year later, gay men began dying of an unknown cancer. HIV/AIDS had arrived, and with it, the renewed need for activism.

By 1983, Twin Cities Pride had shifted back from celebratory to militant, with the theme of “Taking it to the Streets.” As more and more gay men fell ill and died from this mysterious disease, the cultural backlash against LGBTQ grew stronger, and the need for Pride again became about survival. With the passing of the Adolescent Family Life Act in 1981, Congress had prohibited any federal funds from going to schools unless they taught abstinence only sex education. This meant that students weren’t taught that condoms help prevent the spread of AIDS, or even what causes pregnancy. The LGBTQ community had to create their own infrastructure in order to teach people how to keep themselves safe. 

Captain Condom made his first appearance at Pride in 1986, when the AIDS Project took over organizing Twin Cities Pride due to the impact of AIDS on the Pride Committee – many had died, or been called to bedsides. The theme that year was “Forward Together,” a nod to the lesbians who cared for their gay friends as they died; this was necessary because many nurses and families refused to give care out of fear of contagion. This was also the year that the US Surgeon General recommended comprehensive sex education in public schools to help stop the spread of AIDS, although the federal government still, in 2022, continues to provide funds for ineffective abstinence only sex education because of religious objection. ACT UP! organized protests at Minnesota churches in the late 1980s, attempting to get their help in ending the pandemic, but many remained in opposition to teaching sex education in schools.

The theme for Twin Cities Pride 1991 was “Together in Pride,” and emphasized the experiences of bisexual and transgender people who had often been overlooked in the past. More than twenty-five thousand people attended that year, and more than fifty thousand attended the next. That year, 1992, Governor Arne Carlson signed an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation for state employees, and in 1993 that was amended to include both sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as extended to cover housing, employment, social services, insurance, hospital visits, and more. Twin Cities Pride that year brought us “A Family of Pride,” celebrating diversity and unity in the community. The festival had grown to include film screenings, a block party on Hennepin, picnics, political rallies, several dances, lectures, and even corporate sponsors. By 1996, there were over three hundred vendors and entertainment booths at Twin Cities Pride and attendance was over one hundred thousand. Treatments for HIV became more effective, and the community began to heal. 

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