Owatonna mayor pushes back on Pride; LGBTQ organizer calls for resignation

By: - July 14, 2023 2:51 pm

Rainbowatonna hosted its second LGBTQ Pride festival in Owatonna on July 8, 2023. Photo by Mady Boisen/Rainbowatonna.

LGBTQ organizers of a Pride festival in Owatonna were forced to change plans after pushback from prominent members of the community, including Mayor Tom Kuntz. They celebrated anyway. 

A church and a restaurant that planned on hosting portions of the day’s events both received hateful messages from community members, as well as visits from the mayor, who asked a church worker if there would be stripper poles in the sanctuary. 

Nathan Black, a chaplain and the lead organizer of Rainbowatonna, is calling for the mayor to resign over his actions, which came from “very intentional, premeditated bigotry.” 

Black said they were ready for harassment of vendors and organizers, but were blindsided by the involvement of an elected official. 

In a statement released Wednesday, Kuntz stated he “did what (he) thought was the right thing to do.” His term ends in 2024. 

The dust-up over Pride in Owatonna comes amid a wave of legislation targeting LGBTQ people across the country, often fueled by right-wing propaganda and largely based on misinformation about transgender people and drag performances. 

Twenty-one states passed anti-trans legislation this year, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker. Right-wing activists and politicians have latched onto drag shows in particular, approving bills in states like Florida and Tennessee that would restrict such performances. (Many of the anti-LGBTQ bills passed by state legislatures have been temporarily blocked by courts.)

Owatonna is a city of 26,000 people located 65 miles south of Minneapolis.

Rainbowatonna’s Pride events started with a service at the Associated Church featuring a message by Black. Then the event moved to Owatonna’s Central Park for food, music and a family-friendly drag show. After the daytime activities, organizers planned an adults-only drag show at a local bar and restaurant. 

Rainbowatonna moved the drag show from Torey’s Restaurant and Bar because of harassing messages that led management and staff to become concerned about safety, according to a statement released by Torey’s. 

Rainbowatonna had already decided to relocate the drag show when Kuntz showed up at Torey’s to ask questions about the event, Black said.

Associated Church also received several emails, a couple calls and a handwritten letter from Owatonna residents expressing disgust with the decision to host a Pride event.

When an unfamiliar man entered the church and started asking about the events planned for July 8th, Kesiah Winters, an administrative assistant there, was on alert because she’d already fielded some unfriendly calls and emails about the Pride service, she said. 

The man then introduced himself as the mayor and asked for the contact information for the person who would be giving the sermon, Winters said. As she was writing down Black’s email address, Kuntz asked whether there would be “stripper poles” in the church.

“I was like, ‘No, that is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard,’” Winters said. “Like, of all the things to come out of his mouth, I was not anticipating that one.”

In an interview with the Steele County Times, Kuntz said he did not mention “stripper poles” but did ask if there would be pole dancing. 

After visiting the church, Kuntz emailed Black from his personal email. 

“My understanding is you are the pastor who will be holding the service on July 8th,” Kuntz wrote. “As a christen (sic) I just want to encourage all of us to follow Gods (sic) commandments and am hoping your service follows Gods (sic) words.”

Kuntz signed off the email with “Mayor Tom.”

After forwarding the message to the mayor’s government email to verify it came from Kuntz, Black responded by inviting the mayor to the service and requesting that he issue a proclamation declaring July 8 “Rainbowatonna Day.”

“I am so sorry but I just can’t do the proclamation and I will be out of town,” Kuntz wrote in response. 

Kuntz declined an interview with the Reformer.

LGBTQ residents say the majority of their neighbors are supportive. A vocal minority’s threats — online and in-person — are having a real-world impact, however. 

Saturday’s Pride event was the second organized by Rainbowatonna, which Black founded in 2021. 

Following the email exchange, Rainbowatonna released an open letter to the mayor and City Council asking for an explanation and public apology from the mayor. 

The letter includes a prayer Kuntz shared to his Facebook page on June 19 with the caption, “A good prayer.”

“We pray for wisdom as we know of upcoming events where sin and brokenness will be celebrated and where sexually explicit acts will be normalized,” the prayer begins. 

In his response to Black’s open letter, Kuntz said in the statement that he had received inquiries from community members over the Pride events. 

“My intent was not to harass or intimidate anyone,” Kuntz said. “My words were my own and not those of the city. I try each day to follow my own faith and beliefs, but I also recognize other people have the right to follow their own faith and beliefs too.”

LGBTQ Owatonna residents describe welcoming environment despite vocal minority of hostile neighbors

Growing up in Owatonna as a nonbinary person was a mostly positive experience for Ollie Schmidt, 26, who moved to the town at age 13. Schmidt’s high school had a Gay-Straight Alliance, and many teachers were understanding of students experimenting with different names, gender identities and sexual orientations, Schmidt said.

Ollie Schmidt poses for a photo in downtown Owatonna on July 13, 2023. Photo by Madison McVan/Minnesota Reformer.

After moving away to study education, Schmidt returned to Owatonna in early 2022 and started working as a substitute teacher. 

“That’s when I learned not everybody is as welcoming as we think,” Schmidt said.

Some parents complained to the schools where Schmidt worked and posted online opposition to a nonbinary person teaching their children. Schmidt said the schools have always been supportive and many LGBTQ students appreciated having a nonbinary adult around.

The mayor showing up to Pride venues and vocally opposing Pride was inappropriate, but doesn’t warrant immediate resignation, Schmidt said.

“He has a year left in office,” Schmidt said. “Let him see it through and if you oppose him, then vote for a better mayor.”

Mady Boisen smiles for a photo in Owatonna on July 13, 2023. Photo by Madison McVan/Minnesota Reformer.

Like Schmidt, Mady Boisen has experienced moments of discomfort as a trans/nonbinary person growing up in Owatonna. They remember classroom debates over the 2012 campaign for a state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, and Catholic education seminars where local religious leaders referred to gay people as “pedophiles” who were going to hell.

Saturday’s Pride event was an opportunity for community members and leaders to display their support for Owatonna’s LGBTQ residents, Boisen said. 

“No hate can stop the fierce love the people in our community have shown towards me and people like me,” Boisen said. 

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Madison McVan
Madison McVan

Madison McVan is a Report for America corps member who covers economic mobility for Minnesota Reformer. She previously covered agriculture for Investigate Midwest after graduating from the University of Missouri in 2020 with degrees in Journalism and Latin American studies.