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Wisconsin's small towns, including Viroqua, celebrate LGBTQ communities with Pride events

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Mineral Point Pride

This photo from 2018 shared on the Pride 53565/Mineral Point Pride Facebook page shows a view of Mineral Point's High Street, where rainbow flags hang in storefronts and across the hillside. Mineral Point restaurant Tequila Point (43 High St.) will host its third annual Pride celebration from Aug. 8th to 11th.

Anney Tripp has been waiting for this day since 2014, when she left Madison for rural Westby to live with her future wife.

“I ended up here because I found love,” Tripp said.

But she had left behind the city’s thriving gay culture. In her new town, about six miles north of Viroqua, she struggled to find LGBTQ people or events, and the closest Pride celebration was 45 minutes away in La Crosse.

“There is no support out here for anyone,” Tripp said of the environment she encountered. “I had zero community at all."

But on Aug. 24, Viroqua will celebrate all that has changed since Tripp arrived five years ago. Following years of organizing by Tripp and others, the city will officially hold its first Pride festival.

Viroqua Pride is launching on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, a catalyzing event for the gay rights movement. It's that 1969 incident, in which patrons of New York City gay bar the Stonewall Inn fought back against a police raid, that Pride parades mark each year. Now, as Pride festivals in Milwaukee and Madison enter middle age, a new generation of celebrations are coming to some Wisconsin small towns.

In Viroqua, 'not just rainbows and butterflies'

It wasn’t until she helped organize the community’s first LGBTQ dance party that Tripp realized how many people were in the same situation as she was.

“Seeing how many rural queers there are... sparked what we have now,” Tripp said.

While residents had put on casual events in previous years, fellow organizer Jennifer Morales credits new Viroqua Mayor Karen Mischel with making this year’s Pride celebration a reality by helping the organizers reserve the city park and aiding them in the licensing process. 

As plans for the First Annual Viroqua Pride got underway, Tripp wondered how the community would respond. The well-known organic farming hotspot embraces some types of alternative culture, Tripp said, but “it’s not just rainbows and butterflies.” 

Several years ago, when local high school students organized a “Diversity Day” and invited a gay speaker, Morales said they were met with an “uproar." The first LGBTQ dance party did not receive broad support, and just last year there was a controversy over Confederate flags at the county fair.

But Tripp said the community has been surprisingly supportive.

“We’ve had minimal pushback,” Tripp said. “There are a lot of people who probably are not interested in what we’re doing here, but for all of those people, it seems there’s almost 900 people more who are interested in our event,” she said, citing the nearly 1,000 people who have registered interest on Facebook.

On the Facebook event page, one Viroqua commenter marveled at how Viroqua had changed since he and his husband arrived 27 years before as “the first out couple.” 

“We were very hated and people even came and did damage to our property,” he wrote, recalling angry mail and hate-filled graffiti. “Then when we adopted children we received all kinds of hate mail… and our kids were bullied at school. Now 27 years later the community is much more accepting.”

Viroqua Pride will take place in the city's Eckhart Park, 500 W. Decker St., and will include live music, vendors, workshops, a photo booth and a space where “LGBT-affirming” clergy will offer blessings to attendees. The festival will also offer events geared toward youth, including games organized by Youth Initiative High School and a meet and greet for families of LGBTQ youth.

Having a local celebration is especially important for Viroqua’s younger residents who can’t drive themselves to the La Crosse celebration, Morales said. “This is a way for us to bring Pride close to home for those kids,” Morales said. 

“It’s been stereotyped that somehow magically gay people and trans people only sprout up in the cities,” Morales said with a laugh, “but that’s not true at all. We’re definitely seeing a lot of young people who need to learn how to have a healthy, happy life as a queer person.”

In Mineral Point, Pride runs deep

Mineral Point has been home to a Pride celebration since 2017, when the owners of a local restaurant and coffee shop decided to host their own. Richard Baumeister-Apuzzo and his husband Timothy Apuzzo had previously owned a guest house in Chicago’s Boystown. 

“The annual Pride parade was literally in our front yard,” wrote Baumeister-Apuzzo in an email. Six years ago, when they opened Tequila Point and the adjoining Café 43, they began discussing starting a pride celebration in their new home. The plan became reality three years later.

Molly Walz Huie, who runs Café 43, said it’s only fitting that Mineral Point honor LGBTQ folks since Robert Neal and Edgar Hellum, the two men credited with restoring many historic properties and transforming the place into the tourist destination it is today were gay, though that wasn’t openly discussed at the time.

And Huie said the business, located in one of the more prominent and historic downtown buildings, is a good fit to host the event.

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“It’s just become a meeting place for a lot of people,” Huie said, be they lifelong Mineral Point residents, transplants or tourists. “You bring people from all walks of life into here and they sit next to each other at the bar and it doesn’t matter. They all just have a wonderful time.”

For Mineral Point’s third celebration, Baumeister-Apuzzo said they wanted to do something special. When they learned they could display part of the AIDS Memorial Quilt they “jumped at the opportunity.”

“I’m sure you can imagine how difficult (and tragic) coming of age as a gay man was in the early 1980s,” Baumeister-Apuzzo said. “The quilt was something powerful and positive in an otherwise very dark period. We are very excited to be able to share it with our community."

Six squares of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, including squares honoring the loved ones of local residents, will be on display Thursday through Sunday at Mineral Point’s Boyoyoyboy Contemporary Art Gallery, 22 High St.

Huie said the quilt has also offered a learning opportunity for some of the restaurant’s younger employees who had never heard of it.

“A lot of the kids here… they don’t know hardly anything about AIDS at all,” she said. They “don’t even realize… how long it’s taken a community to be recognized in our world."

In addition to the quilt display, this year’s Mineral Point Pride will feature film screenings, food and a drag show at Tequila Point, 43 High St.

Huie called the community reaction to the annual celebration “extremely positive.” For proof, she said, just glance down the street.

“Last year, there’s a photo from the top of the hill of our main street, down the hill, and quite nearly every storefront had a rainbow flag,” Huie said, as did a number of homes. “It was very impressive to see.”

Some might be surprised to see a Pride event get traction in rural areas, Huie said, but she’s not.

“It’s not just an urban experience,” Huie said. “We do have a lot of our friends and neighbors who are in the LGBTQ community, and they live amongst us and they work amongst us and we all enjoy each other’s company.”

In Rock County, Pride goes public

In Rock County, Pride celebrations have been taking place for more than two decades — on private property.

In June 1997, one of the tenants at Janesville’s historic James B. Crosby House, often called the Sutherland House, decided to celebrate their 30th birthday by throwing a Pride party. Over the years, the Sutherland Picnic and Party grew, often drawing 150 to 300 guests, said tenant Robert Wendt, who has lived in the house — which he affectionately called a “gay-mune” for its shared spaces and community — since 2007. The event is posted publicly on Facebook but takes place in the house and gardens of the private residence.

But last year, organizers with the nonprofit Yellow Brick Road organized the first Rock the Pride, a public celebration in Beloit. When the second Rock the Pride occurs on Aug. 24 in Beloit's Telfer Park, 2101 Cranston Road, organizers say it will be only the second time that an official LGBTQ Pride event has been held in a public space in Rock County. 

Yellow Brick Road President Jennifer Schuler said residents were grateful for the chance to celebrate without having to drive to a big city.

“We decided… if Milwaukee and Madison can do it, let’s do it in our own county to help people come out and feel safe,” Schuler said.

The family-friendly event will feature “Drag Queen Story Time”; drag races in which participants run while collecting and donning wigs, costumes and accessories; and three pageants: Mr. Rock County, Ms. Rock County, and — for the first time — a gender-inclusive Mx. Rock County. 

Schuler said running a festival is still new to her and the other organizers. “We just hope to get bigger and better,” Schuler said.

But having the event in public is a turning point. Wendt said he was surprised not to encounter picketers when he attended last year’s celebration in Beloit. Where he lives in Janesville, he said, it might have been different. 

“As progressive as Janesville can be, they’re not quite as open-minded as some communities,” Wendt said, and they might not interpret the event as being “family fun.”

“A lot of people don’t see the gay community as a family value, and I don’t understand why because we make just as good parents,” Wendt said.

Schuler, who also lives in Janesville, is hopeful the city could one day have a Pride event of its own — in public — and she’s considering approaching the City Council for permission next year. 

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