For about a decade, Jeni Kolstad was content handling logistics for Pridefest.

You know, paying the bills, booking venues — the detail stuff. And that’s where she liked to be. In the background. Behind the scenes. No spotlights anywhere.

While she was doing that, Jessica Flatequal was handling the big-picture stuff, the visionary stuff, the face-of-the-organization stuff, the take-the-call-from-the-TV-station stuff. And that’s where she liked to be. Always promoting Pride with her megawatt smile.

All was working well.

But this year, things are different, and Kolstad is getting used to navigating the waters of Pridefest planning without her longtime co-conspirator.

“She’s better at all the talking with the media stuff,” Kolstad joked when a reporter called. But the sad truth remains. Were it not for the tragic loss of Flatequal, Kolstad still would be planning a parade or putting out whatever logistical fire that can flare up a week before a major event.

Flatequal died this summer after a lengthy battle with liver cancer. Her death dealt a devastating blow to the LGBTQ community, to whom she’d become a hero, a mentor, a savior, a friend and, of course, a champion. Pridefest, a major event for the LGBTQ community, takes place this weekend at Riverfront Park in Mankato.

“It’s been horrible,” Kolstad said. “Her and I have really worked on this festival together for the last 10 years. We had this innate ability to know where each other was going with things. I was more, ‘Let’s look at the finances.’ And she was more like dream big, talk to the media, know what to say.”

This year, Kolstad has had to fill Flatequal’s nearly unfillable shoes.

“It’s hard to move into that spot because she was really, really good at that,” she said.

But it’s not like Kolstad flew solo this year. She is, in fact, the first to say she wouldn’t have been as successful as she’s been without the help of a dedicated committee of volunteers.

“It’s just going to take time feeling comfortable being the face or the leader,” she said. “It’s not my comfort zone. My comfort zone is the support. It’s going to be challenging for me, but I’m hoping to learn and grow and with a very strong and dedicated committee, we’ll get there.”

While Pridefest is typically characterized by positive vibes and inclusion, some comments on a news organization’s Facebook page after their story was published last week served as a reminder that not everyone in Mankato is cool with Pridefest.

We won’t repeat the comments here, and that news organization, to its credit, pulled them down. But it was enough to upset many readers.

Kolstad saw it, but took it in stride.

“I can’t say it was a wake up call,” she said, “but I also can’t say it wasn’t shocking. I’d hope at the very least that some of these opinions could be kept to themselves.”

In that vein, Kolstad said she still hears from people — even well-meaning people — who wonder if a festival to celebrate the LGBTQ community is still necessary.

“People ask, ‘When will Pride just be done? When will it be a thing we just don’t do anymore?’” she said. “To me it’s when people don’t have to be fearful to live their lives, can work without fear at their jobs, can serve in the military. And even if we get to that place in our own country, we have to think about other countries where you can be killed for being LGBTQ. This is a marginalized group. There are people who won’t come to Pridefest because they don’t feel safe enough to attend.”

One person who dedicated her life to helping people overcome those fears, or at least live a little less fearfully, was Flatequal. And in her death, Pridefest has decided to name the annual Pridefest parade after her.

Kolstad said the committee, before finalizing the decision, cleared it with Flatequal’s wife, Maria Bevacqua.

“Everybody agreed it was a great idea,” she said. “And it’s going to be a great way to honor her.”

The logo for this year’s Pridefest features a rainbow-colored bowtie, one of Flatequal’s signature fashion choices. Her absence will weigh heavily on the event, and there will be a special dedication for her.

“I know Jessica would want us to celebrate Pride,” Kolstad said. “I also know the reality of people’s emotions. Particularly when we do the dedication, I know that’s going to be very sad for people. There will be mixed emotions … Jess would want us to continue Pride. She would want us to live on and have fun.”

Flatequal’s memory will be preserved at Riverfront Park. The city is planting a tree there to honor her memory.

Robb Murray is the Features Editor for The Free Press. He can be reached at 344-6386 or Follow Robb on Twitter @FreePressRobb

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Features Editor, Mankato Free Press Associate Editor, Mankato Magazine

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