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LGBTQ youth group Justin’s Gift denied entry into Anoka Halloween parade

Organizers told the group there were already too many walking entrants in the parade; the mother of one member has started an online petition in response.

Organizers of the Anoka Halloween parade told the group there were already too many walking entrants.

A gay and lesbian youth group has been told its members can’t walk in Anoka’s annual Halloween parade, and the mother of one has launched a petition in response.

Some 30 kids had planned to march with Justin’s Gift, an Anoka-based nonprofit that seeks to provide safe activities for LGBTQ (the Q stands for questioning) youth, in the festival’s Oct. 27 Grand Day Parade.

Organizers told the group there were already too many walking entrants in the parade, the marquee event of nearly three weeks of Halloween-themed events, including an orange-tie ball, a police and fire department chili cook-off and a Pumpkin Bowl, in which the Anoka Tornadoes will face the Champlin Park Rebels.

“It just doesn’t seem to make sense,” said Jefferson Fietek, one of the group’s adult coordinators, of the decision. “It’s Anoka, it’s the Halloween capital of the world. The kids here really go nuts for it.”

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Calls to the Anoka Chamber, where the nonprofit Anoka Halloween’s phones ring, were not returned as of publication time.

Long-running event

The city, which seized on the idea of distracting youthful Halloween pranksters with a community celebration in 1920, is part of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, which last year entered into a landmark legal settlement of a discrimination case brought by students who said the district turned a blind eye to harassment.

In the two years prior to the March settlement, at least seven district students killed themselves and so many more attempted suicide that state officials declared Anoka-Hennepin a suicide contagion area. Family and friends of many said bullying about the kids’ perceived sexual or gender orientation was a major factor.

The settlement, which ended a federal civil-rights suit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Faegre & Benson on behalf of a group of kids who said they were tormented, was hailed as a national model.

In memory of Justin Aaberg

One of the suicide victims was Justin Aaberg, a 15-year-old openly gay Anoka High School student. His mother, Tammy Aaberg, and Fietek, an Anoka-Hennepin teacher who spoke out about the problems, started Justin’s Gift in his memory.

Fietek said Monday that he can’t say the parade application was rejected because of the group’s LGBT focus, but he wishes the event’s organizers had considered the potential appearance and impact of excluding the kids — particularly at a time when families and educators are trying to rebuild.

“It doesn’t seem to be a very well-thought-out decision,” he said. “The history of the [Anoka Halloween] organization is showcasing youth organizations; that’s confusing to us. Especially when there’s outside groups marching, we got bumped?”

In a poll posted on its website, Justin’s Group members had voted to march dressed as their favorite fairy tale characters. “We foolishly assumed that given we were an Anoka-based youth organization, we were in,” said Fietek.

Parent started online petition

When they first learned their application was denied, he said, he and Aaberg posted a neutrally worded note on the site informing members and encouraging them to attend a Justin’s Gift Halloween dance instead. Angry parents started calling and e-mailing, and one, who also is a paraprofessional in Anoka-Hennepin schools, started an online petition.

“Though this may all seem trivial to an outsider, it meant a lot to these kids to be able to walk as a group and celebrate who they are and that they are part of a positive organization that is working to make every kid feel safe and loved,” Rebecca Krone wrote in a note accompanying the petition. “Participating in this parade is a way to help … start to heal.  The Anoka Halloween Parade committee has simply sent the wrong message to LGBT youth and everyone outside of Anoka.”

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Krone also noted, “The guidelines only state that there is a max per group and an application deadline – Justin’s Gift easily met both these guidelines.”

As of Monday evening, 214 people had signed.