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Twin Cities' first Pride parade, in 1972, was more protest than fest

MINNEAPOLIS -- This year's Twin Cities Pride Festival parade on Sunday may be a celebration for the GLBT community, but the first gay pride parade in Minnesota was really a protest march -- with only about half of the 50 people who showed up hitt...

MINNEAPOLIS -- This year's Twin Cities Pride Festival parade on Sunday may be a celebration for the GLBT community, but the first gay pride parade in Minnesota was really a protest march - with only about half of the 50 people who showed up hitting the pavement.

The rest waited in Loring Park in Minneapolis ready to bail out the marchers when they got arrested.

“When we started out, we were fearful. We were sure we’d be arrested by the police,” said Jean-Nickolaus Tretter, an activist and historian from St. Paul who marched that day.

It was the last Saturday in June 1972, Tretter recalled. Some young members of the Twin Cities gay community wanted to hold a protest to mark the third anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots, a spontaneous rebellion against police oppression in New York City that’s widely regarded as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.

In response to Stonewall, other big cities in the country began to hold gay pride events.

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“We wanted to do something here,” Tretter said.

So following a picnic lunch in Loring Park, a small band of protesters marched down Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. There were chants and homemade signs, but the marchers stayed out of the street, Tretter said.

“We had to march on the sidewalk,” he said. “We didn’t have the know-how to get permits.”

Tretter remembers that only about 10 people made it all the way to Fourth Street and back at the inaugural version of what would become one of the largest LGBT celebrations in the country.

Twin Cities Pride now draws tens of thousands of people. But the public response that first year was mainly puzzlement, according to Tretter.

“Most people didn’t have any idea of what we were saying or why,” he said.

“People just didn’t understand it. People didn’t know what gay power or gay pride meant,” Tretter said. “It was, ‘Oh, gay pride. They’re proud of being happy.’ ”

Tretter said references to lesbians were misinterpreted as referring to people from Lebanon.

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“Either from Lebanon or Greece,” he said. “It was a complete mystery. So we didn’t get arrested.”

Tretter also said the event probably didn’t raise more eyebrows because it was just another protest.

“Protest marches were much more common back in the 1970s,” he said. “Here’s another bunch of kids protesting something, you don’t know what.”

“I think some people were hoping we’d get arrested,” Tretter said of that first march. But he said the reaction after it was over was largely “joy and happiness.”

They had made their point and stayed out of jail, although the media largely ignored the event.

There were only a few lines about the march, in the Minnesota Daily, the University of Minnesota student newspaper, he said.

Tretter, 69, would go on for many years to be among the organizers of the Twin Cities Pride festival. He also became an authority and archivist of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender history. His collection of books, documents and memorabilia is now housed at the University of Minnesota.

He said only a handful of people who were involved in that first march are still around. For many years, Tretter ran an exhibit on gay history at the festival. At the 25th anniversary of the first pride march, he set out a book asking people to sign their names if they marched back in 1972.

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“One hundred and twenty-five people signed that book,” Tretter said. “Everybody wanted to let everyone else know they had the courage to come out.”

Tretter will be at the Twin Cities Pride festival again this weekend. He expects crowds may be larger in reaction to the massacre at the gay nightclub in Orlando this month.

“We have to go this year. We can’t let Orlando and fear scare us away,” he said. “We want to make sure people know we’re not going to sink back into the closet.”

As a historian, he also wants people to know that what happened in the Pulse nightclub in Florida is just the latest incident in which gays and lesbians have been targeted for deadly violence.

“Pulse isn’t the first time,” he said. “It’s part of our history. It’s part of what we’ve had to go through.”

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