Inconsistencies in Anoka parade's denial of gay youth group

Anoka Halloween parade
Parade watchers, many in their own costumes, line Main Street during the annual Halloween parade Friday, Oct. 28, 2011, in Anoka, Minn., which claims to be the Halloween Capital of the World.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

Organizers of the annual Anoka Halloween Parade denied the request of a gay youth group to walk in the parade in late September, claiming that the maximum number of "walking units" had been reached, but city records show organizers did not submit a request for a parade license until today.

Justin's Gift, a nonprofit group created to support gay youth after several suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, received a letter dated Sept. 25 denying their request to walk in the Oct. 27 parade. The letter is signed by the parade chair, who included only her first name, Liz.

"At this time we are unable to accept your application for the parade," the letter said. "We have reached our maximum for walking units."

However, the application for the parade license, obtained by MPR News, was not submitted until today — 15 days after Justin's Gift was told the parade was full.

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The application, submitted to the city of Anoka by Elizabeth McFarland, estimates the parade will include approximately 31,000 people, 250 parade units, 200 vehicles, 50 dogs and 12 horses. McFarland did not return a call seeking comment.

Anoka Police Chief Philip Johanson said he is not aware of any official limit on the number of parade participants, although he said the parade route needs to be approved in advance to allow enough time for public safety officials to redirect traffic.

About 30 students planned to walk in the Halloween parade and had selected a theme, as required by parade organizers, said Justin's Gift vice president Jefferson Fietek. They planned to dress up as their favorite fairytale characters.

"The kids are pretty upset," he said. "We're trying to show these kids that they're part of the community and unfortunately it backfired and sent a completely different message."

When he first received the rejection letter, Fietek said he did not want to think about the possibility that parade organizers had discriminated against the group.

"The whole basis of our organization is we really want to be positive, because the community went through two years of really a very public nightmare," he said, referring to problems at the Anoka-Hennepin School District with suicide and anti-gay bullying.

However, Fietek said, "As time goes on and the more people are digging and the just complete lack of cooperation from the Anoka Halloween Parade committee in regards to its own private citizens and reporters, it's starting to get harder and harder to sort of be positive about this, and I'm really starting to really question."

He added, "I want to be wrong in this thought, but the more information that gets presented to me, just the less and less this seems to make any logical sense."

The parade's website lists a phone number for the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce as its contact number. A receptionist at the Chamber of Commerce said Tuesday that the Chamber was taking messages for parade organizers. Parade organizers did not respond to a message left by MPR News. On Wednesday, the Chamber referred callers to an email address for parade organizers. No one replied to an email sent to that address seeking comment.

Justin's Gift was founded in August 2011 in honor of Justin Aaberg, a gay student at Anoka High School who committed suicide after his freshman year. His mother, Tammy Aaberg, said her son feared for his safety and was harassed and bullied because of his sexual orientation. She said the parade was an opportunity for the community to heal.

"That's why I think it's so awful that they were declined," Aaberg said. "A lot of kids, they're put down, and I'm sure that they're kind of depressed because this is something really exciting."

Justin's Gift plans to hold a Halloween dance as an alternative activity for the students who planned to walk in the parade.