At the age of 27, Thu Danh found his way to the land of 10,000 lakes. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised in Maine, he came to Minnesota because of its welcoming attitude toward queer people and to work for the Rural AIDS Action Network in St. Cloud. The state’s appeal as a bastion of queer welcoming and liberation was obvious.
“Minnesota is a big supporter of equality, which is important to me,” Thu tells GayCities in an interview. “It was the first state to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And recently, our governor signed an executive order protecting rights to gender-affirming care. Minnesota is a very welcoming place to all.”
A year later, like legions of LGBTQ+ folks before him, he set his sights on residing in the state’s queer haven, Minneapolis.
“I visited Minneapolis a few times while I was living in St. Cloud, and I fell in love,” Thu explains. “It has a bunch of great venues for live music. The art scene is huge. And the food scene is highly underrated. There’s a big selection of restaurants to choose from and there’s also a few that are James Beard award winners.”
Landing a job as a research coordinator for an HIV prevention program at the University of Minnesota, Thu was a new man, in a new city, with a new job, and he needed a group of new friends. So, he joined Stonewall Sports, an LGBTQ+ sports organization with community leagues across the country. The budding athlete quickly made new connections on Stonewall’s dodgeball and tennis teams. He even started a pickleball league! His newfound friends showed him around town and introduced him to the city’s thriving social scene – where anyone, from locals to visitors, can find a spot.
“Stonewall [Sports] has really impacted my life,” says Thu. “I met my boyfriend through Stonewall. It was kinda serendipitous and happenstance. He had posted a message on the Stonewall Tennis Facebook group about wanting to play. So we connected and started meeting up once or twice a week just to hit and do some drills. And it just kinda naturally progressed from there.”
GayCities and photographer Nic LaFrance followed the jock-about-town for a local’s take on Minneapolis’ best haunts, many of which are queer-owned. Thu likes these spots when he’s all Sporty Spice, but also when he needs a rest day and hangs more like Melanie C.
Here are some of the sportsman’s Twin Cities favorites, narrated by Thu himself:
1. EagleBOLTbar, Downtown East
“After kickball on Sundays, we usually go to EagleBOLTbar. It has a pretty chill atmosphere, and there’s no pretense. Everyone usually shows up after they’re done with their games in sweats, kickball gear, and sometimes the dirt from when they fell.”
“If it’s a nice day, the patio is a popular spot. You’ll see a whole crowd of kickballers in their different color jerseys. There’s a lot of mingling between all the teams. And you get to catch up with the other teams to see how games went and see if there was any drama… because there always is just a little.”
“We are always hungry after our games, and the kitchen gets really busy once we all get there. They have a menu full of bar food–hamburgers, sandwiches, and pizzas. I always tend to get the chicken finger basket because it’s easy and good, and get the basic vodka soda or vodka water with lime to wash it all down.”
2. The Saloon, Downtown West
“Stonewall Sports has a lot of parties at The Saloon, so I’m there often. It’s a pretty big venue with four different bar areas and a patio. The bartenders are friendly and not too bad on the eyes. They all have a heavy pour, too, so you’ll definitely get your bang for your buck.”
“The Saloon has a little bit of something for everyone. They bring in a lot of talented drag performers from around the area and some famous headliners too. Every third Friday of the month, they have Tank Night, a leather and fetish night with an enforced dress code. Pro-tip, be sure to bring a few extra dollar bills. There’s a shower in the back where you can watch guys put on a show for tips. And if you’re feeling confident, amateurs can even sign up to take their turn at the Sunday Shower Contest.”
3. Forgotten Star Brewing Co., Fridley
“After pickleball games, we will always go to Forgotten Star. It’s a brewery and pretty close to LuckyShots, where we play. After a bunch of matches, you kinda just wanna sit on a couch and relax for a little bit. The building used to be a World War II production facility. It’s a spacious and beautiful place. There’s always music playing and plenty of outdoor games for people to play. They have bocce ball courts in the summertime, and in the wintertime, they convert that area into a curling rink. I know one of the owners there, and he is just a really great guy.”
“They’re known for their beers and they brew them all in-house. And they’ve won a lot of different awards too. I’m not a huge beer drinker, but I really like sours. The brewery has a bunch of food trucks that they rotate in and out, so you can try something new each time you’re there.”
4. James Ballentine “Uptown” VFW Post 246, Uptown
“After tennis, we’ll sometimes go to the Ballentine VFW in Uptown. We lucked into discovering this place one Sunday, looking for a venue with lots of TVs to appease the football fans in our group.”
“I like a good burger. But I love a good Reuben, like, I’m a big fan. And this place has a really great Reuben. The bread is crunchy and toasted. The pastrami. The sauerkraut. The Thousand Island dressing. This sandwich is a favorite, and the food there is amazing.”
“I don’t go to a lot of VFWs, but this is what I expect when I imagine a VFW. After a certain hour, though, it turns into a nightclub. The space is really huge, and I was surprised by that. There are pull tabs, karaoke, and it’s a live music venue too. It’s like they have a little bit of everything.”
5. Jaxen Grey, North Loop
“Stonewall has a lot of parties and socials, so it doesn’t hurt to get some new shirts every now and then. So my go-to place for new clothes is Jaxen Grey in the North Loop.”
“Jaxen Grey is pretty new to Minneapolis. They opened in the fall of 2019. This is one of only a few places in the cities where I can find clothes I like year-round. The store has a ton of high-quality brands at a reasonable price. The staff is great and very welcoming. They’re also very knowledgeable and will style outfits for you if you need some help.”
To explore queer life in Minneapolis, start with a great, welcoming hotel, of which there are many. Here’s a sampling of the best: