My Turn/Rudy Renaud: Memories of Pride

  • Rudy Renaud

Friday, June 30, 2017

I was 24 and looking for myself by moving to a place where I had no past. I had never even been to this Midwestern city before I decided to move there in 1994. I was looking for a new home that had a thriving queer community, was affordable and contained nobody I went to high-school with. I needed a place to comfortably come out, and according to all the gays I knew in Boston, I had three choices. I chose the place with the coldest climate and the nicest people.

Arriving in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., on Interstate 94, I am struck by the flatness that has followed me since I crossed the western side of New York on my way from Boston. The endless fields of corn standing at attention; tall silos of grain lean against long farm barns; a big, big sky sinking toward a horizon with no end; skinny white birch trees instead of the hearty maples of my home; and various assortments of larger-than- life flannel-wearing Paul Bunyan statues erected off the interstate.  

Being behind the wheel in the Midwest is unlike the East Coast. Defensive driving is what I was taught, a skill that proved useless here. In my new home, drivers slow down, wave others into their lane with smiles. The on-ramp is not a place where only the strong will survive. Everyone gets their turn in an orderly fashion made easy by traffic lights directing cars coming onto the highway.

The skyline of Minneapolis is shiny and clean. Clear-cut lines divide the buildings. The streets are arranged in a very practical way. Finding my destination was not the least bit difficult. Parking spaces were abundant and free. This was not home, but a haven.

After getting settled in the city, I found work at a coffee shop called Café Wyrd. The smell of coffee, the thick smoke in the air, the gay men looking so beautiful and always on the make. This was the early ’90s. This was a safe place for all of us to be.

The women I worked with mostly dressed in Doc Martins, leather vests and sported short- cropped hair sometimes with one side completely shaved. Soon enough, that became my uniform.

Each month, we spent time painting the white walls of the coffee shop to cover up the yellow smoke stains. Once the paint dried, new artists hung their paintings with pride on the glimmering walls.

When night fell, we always kept the lights low. This way, those kissing in the corner felt safer.

The married men who came in, brandishing their BMW key rings, double breasted suits and perfectly knotted ties found temporary love here. Usually, this love looked like kids in their 20s — fresh-faced run-aways, mostly from a small Midwestern town, asked to leave their homes because they came out.

Eventually, one of those young pretty boys who spent his youth frequenting the café, went on a killing rampage ending in the death of his idol Gianni Versace. Days leading up to his arrest, we all feared he would come into the Café, looking for revenge in the place where it all began, where he didn’t want the love he found with a married man to be temporary.

I’ll never forget getting ready at the café for my first Gay Pride with a group of colorfully dressed young men and women, excited, drunk before noon to calm our nerves, listening to an endless loop of Depeche Mode in the background. We missed the parade, but made it to the all-night party.

We danced until dawn in a bar that smelled like stale beer and sweaty men. The windows were painted black and the floor turned sticky long before midnight.

There were waves of women all around the city that pride weekend, with eyes wide open, who I know had just driven in for the day from Bible Belt towns in Nebraska. They usually had bi-level haircuts, fanny packs and tapered jeans. This was their day to be who they were really meant to be.

In the morning, they had to return to their small towns and “straighten” up. Twenty-four years ago, I felt grateful that the only place I would return to in the morning was our refuge.

Minneapolis was an oasis in a Midwestern desert dotted with conservative small towns stretching from Nebraska, west to Idaho, north to Duluth and east to Wisconsin.

In the middle of nowhere, I found myself.

Rudy Renaud is an at-large Greenfield town councilor. She submitted this piece in celebration of the town’s first ever Franklin County Pride on June 24.