It would be hard to name a color of hair or nail polish, a length of skirt or eyelash, a rainbow placement or fishnet-stocking design not represented among the thousands of visitors to the Twin Cities Pride Festival on Saturday. As always, many of the ensembles in the crowd were eye-popping.

This weekend's festival returned to Loring Park in a big way after the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to limit last year's celebration to online-only content. Saturday's kickoff marked 756 days since the last gathering, held in June 2019.

Some flagship events like the LGBTQ+ March (formerly known as the Ashley Rukes LGBT Pride Parade), the Saturday night concert and the fireworks show were canceled this year, but daytime activities still drew large crowds.

The size and enthusiasm of the attendees underscored how eager people were to reconnect and celebrate, especially on such a beautiful summer day.

"We're really excited to get everyone back together and make everyone feel welcome, and celebrate in a way that we weren't able to last year," Felix Foster, chair of the Twin Cities Pride board of directors, said Friday.

Many participants said they feel the culture at large is becoming increasingly welcoming to the LGBTQ community.

Rhyan Wesen, 39, of Coon Rapids, was just hired by a company whose internet job posting said "LGBTQ+ encouraged to apply." And in perhaps another sign of Pride mainstreaming, she and her family had to go to three Target stores to find rainbow-adorned overalls in stock.

As for the presence Saturday of booths representing corporations, major league sports teams and other mainstream organizations, "I absolutely love it," Wesen said. "I love seeing the places we go to every day just show up and represent."

As Pride celebrations have grown bigger, drawing more media attention and corporate dollars, there's been a growing debate nationwide over whether Pride should return to its activist roots. Some people also take issue with "pinkwashing," where corporations and businesses broadcast pro-LGBTQ messaging without taking tangible action to stand up for their LGBTQ employees and customers.

"We don't think corporations should be at Pride," said James Brueckel, 21, of Minneapolis, who was handing out Socialist newspapers Saturday from a table whose sign held the names of recent transgender murder victims.

Brueckel works at a store that handed out Pride-themed tote bags this year, he said, adding, "But at the end of the day, the entire capitalist system is oppressive to LGBTQ people."

Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, doesn't see the issue of activism vs. celebration as an "either/or" decision. "Pride itself is activism. The very existence of it is activism," said Carlbom, who is gay. "It wasn't more than 20 years ago where people were afraid to go to that festival or go to the parade, because if certain people saw them, they could be fired from the job, or could be outed, or they could have devastating consequences within their family."

Carlbom said he finds it odd that people criticize corporations for getting too involved in Pride. He remembers in 2012, when the fight for marriage equality was at its peak, many companies refused to show up.

"In 2012, we were begging corporations to be involved. So now that they're involved, we shouldn't complain about it," he said.

Minnesota state Sen. Scott Dibble said Pride can play many roles for many people.

"For some, it's an opportunity just to relax and be happy and celebrate," said Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, adding that for other people, it's a time to protest and speak out about what change still needs to happen.

In the 52 years since the Stonewall Uprising, LGBTQ Americans have won major victories socioculturally and politically. Most notably, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry, and many states, including Minnesota, have passed nondiscrimination laws. In 2019, a majority of Americans, 61%, said they support same-sex marriage, according to Pew Research.

Last week in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order that restricted conversion therapy for youth.

Despite all of this progress, though, there's still much left to do, Dibble said.

"The danger we need to guard against is looking to the Pride celebration and experience as some evidence that we've arrived, all is well with the world, and our work is done," he said.

Dibble and Carlbom both emphasized the importance of protecting transgender people, especially children. Several states introduced more than 75 bills in 2020 and 2021 that targeted the rights of transgender youth, according to an ACLU count.

Pride organizers across the country are re-evaluating what their organizations look like and how they prioritize their efforts.

Boston Pride, the group that organized the city's festivities for the past 50 years, voted to dissolve after its board faced accusations of excluding people of color and transgender people.

In Durham, N.C., longtime Pride event organizers NC Pride faced similar scrutiny about inclusion and finances. The LGBTQ Center of Durham took over the event planning in 2018 with a vow to make it more accessible and inclusive.

Foster said Twin Cities Pride has also heard criticism from those who have felt unheard and excluded from Pride, including communities of color, the differently abled community and the sober community.

Such feedback prompted the group to overhaul its strategic plan in 2019 to not only make the festival more inclusive of those groups, but also to make sure its board, staff and volunteers reflected a diverse range of identities. Foster said it plans to introduce more year-round programming and step up its activism.

Eventually, he said, Twin Cities Pride wants to open an LGBTQ center with office space for organizers, a health care facility and places for people to gather and relax.

The pandemic forced the group to scale back its grand vision, but Foster has high hopes for the coming year — especially since 2022 will be the 50th anniversary of Pride in the Twin Cities.

"The plan is really to try to grow as much as we can between now and next June, and then have a huge launch that really pays homage to the original birth 50 years ago and how we're going to move forward," he said.

Over her decades at Pride events, Colleen Schmidt, 63, of Minneapolis, has witnessed a lot of cultural change. She's optimistic about the future.

"This is kind of back to where we started — more connected to each other," she said.

She said she and her wife see passion for change in their grandchildren's activist circles. "I love their enthusiasm and wanting to make change. ... I agree we're not done. But I've seen the progress." • 612-673-7086 • 612-673-4583