Rainbows were everywhere in Borderland Saturday, and there wasn't even a cloud in the sky.
The LGBTQ2A symbol took over Smokey Bear Park that morning as part of the Passport to Pride March, a 1-mile trek from the park, down Third Street, and across the border to the Civic Centre in Fort Frances.
LGBTQ2A stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and two-spirit community and their straight allies.
The march wrapped up a full week of pride events in International Falls and Fort Frances. Marches and celebrations of pride have long been part of cities across the country and world, and for the first time, the border communities can make their mark on history.
“We were pretty blown away by the public interest in these events,” said Douglas Judson, co-chair of Borderland Pride. “It has been personally fulfilling to see the community come together to show its support for LGBTQ2 people, and LGBTQ2 young people in particular. It’s also been very rewarding to hear from LGBTQ2 people from the area — often people whose negative experiences drove them away — who have been so touched to see all of the love on display in their hometown on social media this week. Their stories have been very moving. I hope that through these events and our positive message, we can repair some of that hurt.”
The display shown brightly as many businesses and private residences on both sides of the border had rainbows in their windows – something Caitlin Hartlen thought she'd never see.
The morning show host at 93.1 The Border radio station in Fort Frances, served as the master of ceremonies for Saturday's Passport to Pride march, and said after being offered the job, she was nervous about moving to a small town. She grew up in a community that didn't have a large population and worried she wouldn't be accepted and would be forced to hide who she really was.
“Thankfully, these fears turned out to be quite unfounded,” she said. “I was welcomed with open arms by the people of these communities and I can proudly live my truth among them, so thank you for that... Society has made massive, great sides in just tolerance, and acceptance, however, there is still a lot of work left to do."
Hope Johnson of the Falls, said Saturday's event allowed her to celebrate being gay and the pride she has for it.
“This is the best thing ever," she said.
Samantha VanHeel and Alyssa Mathis, also of the Falls, joined Johnson and were equally as enthusiastic as their friend. With rainbow-colored garb from head-to-toe, VanHeel said being part of a community that celebrates pride offers a welcoming atmosphere.
“You can just be you,” she said.
It was the first time the week was recognized by the border communities, and organizers were unsure of what to expect.
“We set out to offer a small program of activities to test the waters— starting small — but the public support and enthusiasm for Pride has truly amplified our ambitions,” Judson said. “We offered a family-oriented program with something for everyone. The attendance figures speak for themselves.”
People traveled near and far for Saturday's march, some individually and others as part of an organization. Diane Tomevi of Minneapolis, is a Delta Airlines employee who came to Borderland with her co-workers for the event.
“My brother (David Tomevi) lives in the Falls and he sent me the Facebook announcement of pride,” she said. “I talked to our committee and said even International Falls and Fort Frances are having a pride celebration and thought we should go up... Love is love and you go wherever you can to support. We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go on both sides of the border.”
Katie Trigg, branch manager of the TD Bank on Fort Frances, distributed rainbow-patterned sunglasses and arm bands to marchers Saturday and said she was excited to be part of the first-ever pride in the area.
“It's really amazing to see in a small town that so many people are getting together to support the LGBTQ2A community,” she said.
Religious leaders were also present to offer their support. Frances Flook, of Emo, serves as a clergywoman for the United Church of Canada, which 30 years ago declared sexual orientation was not a barrier to church membership.
“We're a denomination that celebrates God's diversity and that includes sexual orientation and gender identity,” she said. “We're on a 30-year journey and we're here to show support... (This celebration) is wonderful... there's not one way of being a Christian.”
Local elected officials also spoke Saturday morning before the march began.
International Falls City Councilor Harley Droba got personal in his address to the crowd, expressing honesty in a struggle to accept a gender transition in his own family.
“A couple years ago my sister-in-law, keeping true to herself, made the transition to a transgender male,” Droba said. “Carrie has become Joey and that was very hard for me. The name Joey didn’t roll off the tongue, my mind couldn’t replace she for he. Somewhere inside I thought all the common ground that had been gained was gone.”
But, Droba said he grew to be more accepting of his family and others in the LGBTQ2A community, of which Joey is an activist for.
“(He) works with a group to help prevent suicide for those in the transgender community. I couldn’t be prouder,” Droba said.
“We, as a community, are better seeing those we love, interact, and work with here today. Being seen in your community breaks down walls of us and them... So please keep up the good work and be patient to those, like me, that take a little longer. Acceptance is a two way street. We can't rush change.”
Rep. Rob Ecklund spoke Saturday, and letters of support from Congressman Rick Nolan and Sen. Tina Smith were also read.
There was little physical opposition to the effort Saturday, but Judson acknowledged knowing its out there.
“We are mindful of the fact that people are entitled to express their views,” he said. “I think there's a rabid minority out there that has missed the memo on some of these topics and what year it is, but that's the reality of the LGBTQ2 community.”
Judson said he and others will continue to organize pride events to educate others and provide resources to normalize LGBTQ2 identities.
“Education is part of it,” he said. “We are moving forward in a positive way.”
Mathis said she felt it come down to understanding and expected protest of some kind Saturday.
“All the negativity is blinded by positivity,” she said.
Judson said Borderland Pride will commit to another pride celebration next summer, and will continue to offer smaller, periodic events throughout the year. Organizers would like to improve their footprint in International Falls and reach a point where all of the municipalities in the area can proclaim the week as Pride Week and be part of the events.
“We are working from a very strong foundation moving forward but continue to look for opportunities for growth and outreach,” he said. “We have said many times that Pride is about building bridges between communities. We were so proud to see people from Canada and the U.S.; of Indigenous, settler, and Métis descent; and of LGBTQ2 and ally identities come together in common cause this past week. Pride knows no borders and we are committed to keeping that spirit alive in Borderland.”
Area residents interested in being involved with future Borderland Pride events or initiatives are asked to email firstname.lastname@example.org or to message the organization through its Facebook page. Feedback about this year’s Pride Week events can also be directed to those points of contact.
This story originally appeared in the International Falls Journal.