COLUMN: “We Just Wanted to Dance”

“Jocks and Broads welcome, Blacks, Gays, and Hippies stay away.” 

That was the gist of a sign that went up in downtown Mankato near the Trader and Trapper Discotheque in late 1975. The owners of Trader and Trapper denied responsibility, but previous incidents of racism and homophobia led to a protest by local activists at the bar.

The protest was simple. Have men dancing with men and women dance with women. A reporter from Minnesota State University’s newspaper The Reporter was asked to attend to document what would happen.

On Jan. 22, 1976, when the six men involved in the protest were spotted dancing together by the Trader and Trapper management, they were asked to leave. When those involved did not, the management then went on to claim that others had made violent threats against the six men. 

This threat was not idle, as one of the men involved had been assaulted in a previous incident. When the six men still refused to leave, the management called the police to have them removed. The police came, asked the six men to leave, and warned them to not return to the bar after they left.

The impact from this incident would be far reaching for Mankato’s still nascient queer rights movement. A year after the incident, Jim Chalgren, who had been involved in organizing the protest, said to The Reporter, “Most of my family want nothing to do with me anymore and two of us lost jobs because of the Trader and Trapper incident.” 

An anniversary party a year after the incident was held to help remind people of the indecent and that local LGBTQ people were still fighting against discrimination.

The incident also drew attention at the state and national level. Activist Jim Baker, notable for having participated the oldest same-sex marriage in the US, which was certified right here in Blue Earth County, encouraged the activists to take the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court. 

Chalgren would be interviewed by Time magazine in 1977 because of his activism and the Trader and Trapper incident. In this interview Chalgren is quoted as saying, “It can still be a disaster to identified as gay in Mankato.”

“I just want to dance,” Chalgren would write in his self published work “Mankato Poems”, clearly referencing the incident. Dance was important to Chalgren, who was involved with the campus dance group Orchesis.

Men dancing together has a long history of being taboo. It was one of the activities banned in New York City in the late 1960s, and thus played a role in the Stonewall Riots. As was true in NYC, lesbians and other women dancing together was not as taboo or generally forbidden. Several contemporary articles in The Reporter state that women dancing together at the Trader and Trapper were not harassed.

Because of the Trader and Trapper protest, among other incidents, local LGBTQ activists led by Chalgren would fight for the Mankato City Council to pass an anti-discrimation ordinance to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

While the Mankato City Council would never pass such an ordinance, Chalgren was successful in establishing the second oldest college LGBT Center in the United States right here at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Today, same sex couples dancing together are a common sight, and Mankato’s annual Pridefest frequently includes dances as part of celebrating our queer community.

Write to Jeremy Redlien at Jeremy.Redlien@mnsu.edu

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