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Small-town gay pride picnic prompts protest

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The Associated Press

PINE CITY, Minn. - The organizers of what is probably Minnesota's smallest gay pride gathering say all they want is a low-key afternoon picnic in a quiet park on the river in this small town.

But the gathering today is not without controversy, prompting a small group of locals to stage what they're calling a pro-family picnic a few blocks away.

The gay pride picnic is the third annual being put on by the East Central Minnesota Men's Circle, a group of about 75 gay and bisexual men who live from Isanti to Duluth. One member said they formed to counter the isolation that gay people often feel in rural communities.

"We pay our taxes; we're regular citizens; and we're proud of the fact that we can meet together and talk about mutual problems," said Gary Skarsten, a founding member. "And we want to reach out and let the community know they have nothing to be afraid of from gay and bisexual men."

But Patrice DeGray, a rural Pine County resident, said some residents were offended by picnic advertisements circulated locally, including one that said, "It's okay to be GAY in Pine City." The ad featured a pink boa around the neck of the town's voyageur monument.

"They've become brazen and bold," DeGray said. "They say in their ads that this is possibly the smallest (gay pride) picnic in the world. Well, is that what Pine City really wants to be known for?"

What everyone agrees on is that Pine City, about 65 miles north of Minneapolis, and its surrounding areas aren't used to this sort of controversy.

"This is a fairly small community," said Rudy Takala, an 18-year-old who's chairman of the Pine County Republicans. "And we aren't used to this sort of activism. Up here, we have a lot of people who are pretty laid back. They don't pay a lot of attention to politics in general. They're all church-going people and very family-values oriented, though. And this is just kind of a new thing."

Gay residents of the area first started meeting in 1999, when a group of men met once every two weeks at Tobie's Restaurant in Hinckley to establish a support network and increase awareness of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The group has grown, and still meets regularly to discuss everything from men's health and human rights to politics and religion. Today about 75 men are part of the group's e-mail network.

Skarsten, 63, a retired high-school teacher from Braham, is a regular. So is Don Quaintance, 66, a retired director of customer service and purchasing who lives in Isanti.

Members see the group as "one way to educate and bring awareness to the rural community," Quaintance said. "Our hope is that it will bring more tolerance and less hate."

The group's first summer picnic in 2005 was such a success that last year, it was opened up to the area's entire gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community. Skarsten said the first two picnics were mostly uneventful, though he said last year a carload of teenage boys drove by shouting slurs.

Skarsten said the group realizes that some conservative groups believe it's sinful to be gay. "But the greater community I think is kind of passive about it," he said. "They know it's there and let each person live their own life."

Scott Cummings, a former Pine City council member, greeted picnic-goers last year on behalf of the city. He said local reaction has been mixed, but mostly subdued.

"Everybody has their own perspective," said Cummings, owner of a muffler and welding shop. "For me, it's not a big issue."


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