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Duluth Superior Pride returns, offering safe spaces for all ages

"One of the things that I love about Duluth is that we're such an open and loving city," said one artist involved with this year's events. "Kids do feel safe being who they are."

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Three young people were among the marchers in the 2021 Duluth Superior Pride Parade.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — "I've had conversations with people who would serve on the Pride committee in the past," said Abby Gannon, "and they've told stories about how they tried to go around to local businesses to garner support, even three or four years ago, and had doors slammed in their faces. This year, it seems like no matter where I ask, everybody is all in to join up."

Gannon is co-chair of Duluth Superior Pride, which returns this week with a slate of over 20 events. Pride officially kicks off with a Thursday reception outside the Depot and concludes Monday with an all-ages drag show.

Centered on Labor Day weekend, this year's festivities include a festival, a block party, a parade and more.

"These events are not just for queer youth, they are for all youth," said Nicole Barclay, Duluth Superior Pride secretary, referring to events including a Youth Pride Dance scheduled for Friday.

"They're especially beneficial," said Barclay, "for youth who have come from queer families who have one or more parents who are a member of the LGBTQ community, and be able to see families that look like theirs and other people who are like their parents, living and thriving and having a wonderful time."

"We see 800, 900 young people a year, and 20% of our youth identify in regards to being LGBTQ," said Jordon Eunison-Chisti, exective director of Life House. The Duluth nonprofit is hosting the Youth Pride Dance in its Imaginarium space.

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"I think they're really looking for space to come together, connect with other young people, know they have supportive adults around them," Eunison-Chisti continued. "This allows them to connect and recognize that they are part of a community, that they're not alone and isolated."

With a history dating back to the 1980s, Duluth Superior Pride is a labor of love for the volunteer organizers. "All of our funding is raised by us," said Gannon. "We don't live on government grants."

In 2006, the News Tribune reported that "a record 5,000 attendees" were expected at that year's Pride celebrations. Last year, according to Gannon, total attendance across all Pride events was double that number, with 5,000-7,000 attendees at the Bayfront party alone. This year's Bayfront event, free and open to the public, is scheduled for Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

This year will also mark the first Duluth Superior Pride since the June closure of Blush, a downtown establishment that "was an incredibly safe, welcoming, and caring venue for the LGBTQ+ community in Duluth that nurtured and held together the music scene," Emma Rothwell wrote in an email to the News Tribune.

t110217 --- Clint Austin --- 110917.F.DNT.BLUSH.C06 --- Blush, a cooperatively-run micro-venue and bar in downtown Duluth, that offers diverse and inclusive art and music to the community.--- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com
Blush, photographed in 2017.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Rothwell, a Duluth musician who performs as Emma Jeanne, added: "It was a space of Queer joy that I completely give credit to for igniting my performance career. With pride flags and skeleton installations hanging from the windows, it was an open space for experimentation and artistic expression that fueled so many musicians, photographers, and moshers alike."

The music venue and bar announced on social media that its lease will not be renewed.

The former Blush space, at 18 N. First Ave. W., is now part of the Life House Imaginarium, adjacent to the room where the Youth Pride Dance will be held.

"We're still exploring what that particular space will be used for," said Eunison-Chisti with respect to the former Blush, "but the whole idea behind the Imaginarium building is really focused around healing."

Eunison-Chisti noted the recording studio being built in the Imaginarium basement, a project partially funded by proceeds from a Cloud Cult concert that sold out the NorShor Theatre in April.

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Ollie Morris worked at Blush, and has since organized independent concerts featuring some of "the main Blush crew." When Duluth Superior Pride organizers reached out this year looking for artist suggestions, Morris said, "I looked through their lineup, and I was like, 'Yeah, you got most of them. Y'all did a pretty good job. You got most of them up on the stage, which is really good to see.'"

Barclay is general manager of the Duluth Flame, which hosted an all-ages drag show last spring. "It went really well, and kids had a wonderful time," Barclay said. "We decided we wanted to do another one for Pride; there's been a demand in the community."

Duluth Superior Pride includes other drag events for adult audiences, including a Saturday show at the Duluth Flame and a Sunday fundraiser at The Main Club in Superior, but Barclay said Monday's all-ages show is also important as an opportunity for attendees who might simply prefer a daytime, alcohol-free event.

"We're doing a lot of different things to make it child-friendly," she said, citing "entirely appropriate" music and costuming featuring popular characters like Ursula from Disney's "Little Mermaid" and Elsa from "Frozen."

A large crowd of people of ages varying from young children to adults, some colorfully costumed, pose for a group photo.
Participants and attendees at an all-ages drag show posed for a photo at the Duluth Flame on May 14.
Contributed / Duluth Superior Pride

"Kids nowadays are starting to figure out who they are at such an early age, earlier than I figured out who I was," said Jordan McMillian, drag coordinator for the Duluth Flame.

"One of the things that I love about Duluth is that we're such an open and loving city," he continued, "that kids do feel safe being who they are."

"It really opens the door for a lot of people who want to be able to experience not just drag, but a variety of talents that are showcased during the show," said Barclay. "To be able to experience being with members of the queer community in such a positive way, doing something healthy and constructive. I had goosebumps for the entire last show. It was such a beautiful experience, and I'm excited to do it again."

With respect to support for LGBTQ youth generally in the Twin Ports, Barclay said: "There's certain areas of really great support and support systems, but overall, there's a lot of things that fall through the cracks."

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She praised Together for Youth, an inclusive group sponsored by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. "I was a member of that when I was a kid, and I can genuinely say that group saved my life."

Gannon was a chaperone for a prior Youth Pride Dance in 2019, "and what I saw was, teenage youth being able to be in a space and just be themselves," she said. "It was a very enlightening experience for me at the time." This year, "kids from Life House are actually part of the planning process."

This year's expanded programming, said Gannon, includes two venues for art exhibitions (Zeitgeist and the Duluth Public Library), a second stage at the Bayfront event, and, on Sunday on Tower Avenue, what she expects to be the biggest Duluth Superior Pride parade yet. Additional family-friendly events include a Drag Story Time at the Mt. Royal Branch of the Duluth Public Library on Friday, and a potluck gathering Sunday in Superior's Billings Park.

The "Foo Foo Choo Choo," a Pride-themed ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad, also returns Sunday. Various cities around the world have Pride-themed subway cars, but no other Pride celebration has a rail experience quite like Duluth's lakeshore train ride.

"Advance tickets are going faster than they ever have in previous years," said Gannon. "They're actually talking about, how many train cars can they add to this thing?"

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Julianna Fernandez, of Duluth, watches the 2021 Pride Parade along Tower Avenue in Superior.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Duluth's other most notable form of transportation, however, won't be part of this year's official Pride festivities. "'The Fruit Float,' as it was called, was given up some years ago," said Gannon. "The upfront costs of renting a private Vista cruise got to be too high."

Morris moved to Duluth from Mankato in 2020 in search of a vibrant art and music scene. At Blush, they found exactly that. "Everything you needed in a scene was right there," said Morris. "It was really cool to see everybody using their interests not just for themselves, but to lift everybody else up around them."

Push past sweaty, beer-soaked friends down the stairs of a well-loved rental and listen to your night unfold in power chords and swinging limbs. Feels like home, right?

While Blush is gone, said Morris, the community remains. "A lot of the people involved with the art scene and the music scene are wonderful trans people and nonbinary people," said Morris. "It's cool that they're the powerhouse of this, because we've been underrepresented for so long."

Jinx Dollens, who is McMillian's assistant, said: "The LGBTQ+ community here has basically become my family growing up."

"Starting at a young age," Dollens continued, "I didn't know how to feel about who I was or what I wanted to be when I grew up. And then when I came out as being trans, I found a whole new side of my family that I didn't know existed. I found people who accepted me and loved me for me, and who cared about me when things were bad and showed me that life isn't always bad, and you're not some terrible person for loving and being who you are."

For more information about Duluth Superior Pride, including event details and tickets where applicable, see duluthsuperiorpride.com.

This story was updated at 9:57 a.m. Aug. 30 to clarify a reference to organizers of Duluth Superior Pride. It was originally posted at 7:43 a.m. Aug. 30. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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