‘It needed to happen’: Grand Rapids hosts its very first LGBTQ+ Pride festival

A drag performer faces the left as two flags are seen above them
Drag Performer Spectrum on stage during the Itasca Pride Fest on Sunday at Old Central School in downtown Grand Rapids.
Erica Dischino for MPR News

Karter Starling said that if he had a dollar for every time someone said there needed to be a LGBTQ+ Pride celebration in Grand Rapids, he could afford a new car.

The wait finally ended on Sunday when hundreds of people flocked to Old Central School in downtown Grand Rapids for “Itasca Pride.” While there have been pride events in Itasca County, Grand Rapids has refrained in the past, even though those at the event said allyship in the community is strong.

There was a small group of protesters at the event. Some recorded performances or took photos. A group of people held a sign across the street that read “Jesus is Lord over Grand Rapids.”

Partners Holly Hysjulien and Lori Gustafson were driving through northern Minnesota to their cabin on Sunday when they saw a sign about the event. They said they knew they had to pull over.

“We came to show our support of what’s happening, because everyone needs a safe space to be who they are and grow into who they are. When we were growing up there wasn’t a lot of that,” Gustafson said.

During the 2023 legislative session Minnesota lawmakers passed a bill making Minnesota a trans refuge state. This means that physicians who practice gender-affirming care in Minnesota and families and individuals who are seeking it can access treatment without fear of state laws.

Many neighboring states of Minnesota have limited access of health care for transgender people or banned access to gender-affirming care for minors such as North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa.

People sit in the grass
Hundreds of attendees came to the Itasca Pride Fest for food, music, games and drag performances.
Erica Dischino for MPR News

Starling is the treasurer for Itasca Pride and said the success of Sundays event should be a testament to the change happening in rural in Minnesota. He hopes as more LGBTQ+ people move to Minnesota they can find solace, no matter what region in which they choose to live.

“Minnesota has become a sanctuary state for queer people, and queer people are not flocking to the city, they are flocking to our rural communities,” he said. “So it is important that we invest in the rural queer communities and make sure that this is a place that they know they can be.”