Stockholm, Wisconsin is genuinely cute. It is probably the cutest of the many tiny towns lining Lake Pepin, the largest natural lake on the Mississippi River. This village of 66 offers gastropub cuisine, jewelry and craft boutiques, art galleries, and celebrated homemade pie all in a couple blocks of refurbished Victorian-era storefronts. Largely abandoned after World War II, it was reimagined by artists and what the town’s website refers to as “urban outsiders” starting in the 1970s.
The short drive from Minneapolis wound along the Mississippi River, flanked by wooded bluffs. As I came into town, I turned away from the quaint commercial zone and drove toward the lake. I pulled into what appeared to be an RV park. I wondered if the campers I saw knew they were about to have a gay ole day. They did not look Queer, though one must be cautious in the Midwest since suburban hockey moms and some older lesbians are indistinguishable at first glance. I parked alongside a central picnic area with a covered pavilion and small wooden stage with a rainbow “Lake Pepin Pride” banner. Vendors were just starting to set up.
Jennifer, the organizer I’d connected with, met me on my approach. This was the first Pride Jennifer had ever been to, let alone organized. Over email, she had wanted to be sure I understood this would be a family-friendly event. (I think she’d seen some more than PG-13 pictures on my website.) After I made a joke about my older, subdued appearance, she showed me to my spot between Henry, a Minneapolis artist who’d reluctantly put his art on t-shirts so people would buy it, and Tina, another author who’d written a book chronicling the history of PFLAG in nearby Red Wing, Minnesota.
After the face-painting and rock-painting stations were set up (mandatory at small town Prides) the Minneapolis chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Ladies of the Lakes, spilled out of a small sedan, smoking and trailing fairy dust. The Sisters are a charitable and activist organization, created over forty years ago, who use camp and religious iconography to critique conservative values and norms. Their arrival signaled a Queer blessing to the day’s events. They immediately began distributing joy and taking pictures with early arrivals.
From her place on the stage, Jennifer welcomed the crowd, telling them she was pretty sure Stockholm was the smallest community to ever organize their own Pride. A Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) candidate for State Senate offered a speech. Lisa, a curator for the Tretter Collection, an LGBTQ+ archive at the University of Minnesota, gave a stirring history of Pride in America. Then, to christen this tiny hamlet’s first Pride, the drag show began. The caliber of drag for this event was high and put everyone in the Pride mood.
Jacqueline approached my table. She wanted me to know she was Trans, too. She and her partner, Hannah had just moved to Maiden Rock, another small river town just to the north, to find land and a quiet community.
An elder butch came up to me and started recounting her experiences of coming out in the 1970s in Minneapolis. She’d lived in San Diego and Alaska, but came back to Minneapolis because she missed the people. She found her partner and they eventually moved to a property outside of Maiden Rock.
Paula was 86 and came out in 1976. She, too, had lived in Minneapolis, but she and her partner now live on a farm outside of Stockholm. She used to manage the forest herself, but she gave it up a few years back when it became harder for her to use the saw. As she was recounting another charming tale of her former prowess, an older gay couple came up to join us. They’d known each other for years.
I looked up from my table and realized the crowd was heavily weighted toward gays and lesbians who were even older than me. I realized that given our proximity to Minneapolis, and the number of cute, well-appointed arty shops in town, Stockholm was likely a cottage core retirement town for Queer folk who’d left behind their gay life in the big city. Stockholm certainly seemed gay-friendly in a way that many other small Wisconsin towns may not be. This Pride started to feel like a tribute to the elders that gave the town its current personality.
Just when I was having my private, corny old Queer moment, a forty-something woman walked up to my table and looked at my book. She asked me if I used to be a woman. When I told her yes, she asked if I liked women and, if so, when I had known. I told her I had come out as a teenager. She started to tear up and told me very softly that she feels like she’s missed out on something. She was married with three children, and she’d never questioned her life until recently. She looked down and pulled on a scarf in the colors of the bisexual flag she was using as a belt. She said lately, she’d been having intense discussions with a female friend of hers. I asked her if she had a crush on her friend. She began quietly sobbing and I put my arms around her. She said I was the first person she’d told.
Just when I thought I had this Pride all figured out, I was reminded what Pride is for. There will always be new Queers who need to find bravery, surrounded by community. I was also slyly gifted a rock, painted like a strawberry, by a young person who might be thinking about their own gender expression someday soon.
Lake Pepin Pride might have been the shortest Pride as well as the smallest. As things wound down, Jennifer agreed to sit for an interview. When I asked what prompted her to organize her first Pride, she explained she’d been exhausted by the politics of the last five years. Even though she was straight, she was trying to learn from her daughter about new ideas about gender, and she wanted to create a positive experience for her. There had also been a recent racist incident at the local pie shop, and she wanted to showcase the diversity and tolerance of her town.
Jennifer did encounter some opposition to her event. There was a letter from concerned citizens trying to stop her from renting the venue. The letter cited “people in cages, being whipped” as a reason for their concern. No wonder she wanted to make sure I knew the event was family-friendly. She knew all the people who had signed it and couldn’t believe they would think those things about her. She described herself as the peg who fit and who now has a more informed understanding of pegs who don’t.
She told me the owner of an art gallery in town had introduced her to a drag queen upon learning she was organizing a Pride. This led to more queens and a quality show at this tiny Pride. She said, “They’re staying at my house. My daughter told me there was so much makeup, she could taste it.” She had recently gotten out of an unfulfilling marriage and was just discovering what makes her happy in life. “A drag queen helped me see how to be myself.”
Queers are magic, even in the middle of an RV park.
Next stop: Motorama Auto Museum and Event Grounds in Aniwa, Wisconsin.