hospitality initiative logoFor a lot of us who’ve left Greater Minnesota behind for the flashy lights of the Twin Cities, we sometimes forget what life is like back home – just how oppressive, grinding, and (sometimes) outright dangerous it can be. Cathy Perry and the other members of the Hospitality Initiative want to change that, putting an end to the climate of fear and hatred that pervades the lives of LGBT people in and around Bemidji.

“There’s a lot of quiet discrimination that goes on up here,” Perry told in an interview last month.

One example, Perry said, was last fall’s World AIDS Day: working with the Rural AIDS Action Network she and other activists involved in the Hospitality Initiative had planned a service at a local park to commemorate Bemidji victims and residents living with the disease, some of whom were, obviously, LGBT.

“I called the local Pepsi distributor who usually prints ad banners for events at the local park. I was told ‘no.’ They said they couldn’t do that because it was ‘too controversial,'” she said bitterly.

A receptionist at Nei Bottling said the company’s spokesperson would not be available to comment today.

With homophobia so strong, the Hospitality Initiative has its work cut out for it. They’re starting with a seminar on April 17th, called “Creative and Welcoming Communities,” aimed at social service agencies, employers, and health care providers, Perry said. They aim to show these groups the pain and difficulties faced by LGBT residents of the Bemidji area, and the individual health challenges and social service needs they face.

On top of that, though, the Perry said just holding the seminar will be a victory in visibility. “In this area, there is a huge invisible adult population of LGBT people,” she said, “and if I could get anyone there I’d love to get them there, for them to stand up and be recognized and feel safe. We want to tell them ‘yes we are here; we are your family, your friend, your neighbor.'”

It’s probably going to be hard getting the word out in Bemidji, though – Perry said her group and other LGBT activists have to beg and nag the local newspaper for months to publish anything LGBT-related, even a short story about a grant the Initiative won from the Pfund Foundation to fund the seminar.

For now, the Hospitality Initiative is focusing on the seminar, which will also include speakers from OutFront, Perry said, but they are excited about the future.

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