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Making Red Wing a safe space

(Left to right) Brian Johnson and Carlene Clayton, founders of Safe Space in Red Wing. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia

Carlene Clayton moved to Red Wing for a girl; when that relationship didn't work out, Brian Johnson moved here for her.

The couple now rent a home where they dote on their elderly dog and two rescue cats. Both are happily employed at 3M and they recently got engaged. They're building a life together that they love here in Red Wing but both agree one thing's missing: community.

As queer and gender-noncomforming young women, Clayton and Johnson have looked to connect with others in the local LGBTQ+ community and found it rather silent. They noted that local chapters of PFLAG and the Gay-Straight Alliance, which were active in the past, are all but disbanded now.

After growing up in small Minnesota communities that were openly hostile to gay people, they worried this silence could mean some issues they left behind are lurking beneath the surface in Red Wing.

"A lack of hate does not equal support." — Female, Heterosexual, 60, Ally of LGBTQ+ Community

Sample of question results from Safe Space survey. Courtesy Safe Space 

"That's kind of what Red Wing feels like — there's nothing that says we disapprove or hate this group of people, but there's nothing that also is like 'you're welcome here,'" said Johnson.

To try and better understand the city's queer community, Johnson and Clayton launched a 10-question survey and promoted it on Facebook via a page they called "Safe Space."

The survey asked respondents to identify their gender, age, sexual identity and relationship to the LGBTQ+ community. Respondents also rated their general knowledge of LGBTQ+ issues and their perception of Red Wing's overall safety and services for the LGBTQ+ community.

The survey generated 53 complete responses and a report detailing those results is now available on the Safe Space Facebook page.

Though the results represent just a fraction of Red Wing's 16,000-plus population, Clayton said she was gratified to see that while many respondents provided neutral responses, about a third felt strongly that Red Wing is a safe friendly community for LGBTQ+ members.

However, when it comes to having enough support for the LGBTQ+ community, that's where she and respondents agree that the city could use more work.

Clayton and Johnson think they can help.

The Journey

"From our own personal experiences we've had a lot of negative experiences," said Johnson. "There's been little stuff with our families or our friends and just, like, the general public."

Johnson creatively describes her sexuality as "not straight but don't know" and though she cringes at some of the questions she's been asked about her personal life, both she and Clayton want to be an open book for anyone who may be struggling silently with the same type of questions they used to have about gender and sexual identity.

"For me it was a lot about the terminology, like, I didn't understand concepts, ideas, terms," Johnson said. "I didn't even know what I was looking for — and if you don't know what something is how do you find a community of people to talk to about it?"

After trying to define her feelings for years, Johnson finally found what she was looking for in a Women's and Gender Studies class at University of Wisconsin-River Falls. A flood of new information brought on new friendships and new relationships that helped her feel confident and informed about who she was. A year ago, she came out to her parents.

Clayton's story is more unique because, unlike most gay children, she actually grew up with two moms. However, what was a loving partnership at home was — to the outside world — just being roommates. In their small community of 300 people, the women felt safer keeping their relationship a secret.

"It was kind of sad because they weren't willing to come out and say, like, this is my life partner kinda thing. They were afraid of the repercussions and being judged," Clayton said.

The secrecy around her mom and step-mom's 13-year relationship made Clayton feel anxious about her own feelings for women.

Clayton, now 27, didn't come out to her parents until she was 23.

Safe Space

Because of their long and challenging roads toward self-discovery and acceptance, Clayton and Johnson both feel very protective of the GLBTQ+ community's youngest generation — and of anyone different in general.

They're hoping to continue the Safe Space Facebook page and make it a focal point for others in Red Wing that need a place to feel welcome.

They're planning to host events and info sessions to where people can feel free to ask questions, get together socially without alcohol and support and celebrate each other's differences.

"We definitely want to do social activities so that way people can focus on fun, positive things and not have to be burdened with all the negatives that they're experiencing in their daily lives," Johnson said.

"We don't want Safe Space to be a one time safe feeling," Clayton said. "We want that feeling to permeate throughout the entire community so that way whether people are at our events or at home they can just feel safe here in Red Wing."

The first meeting of Safe Space will take place 3 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at Caribou Coffee. They also plan to have a table at River City Days to help promote inclusion and awareness of the LGBTQ+ community and to help spread the word about Safe Space.