Momma Knows Best: Safe Spaces

Growing up in a small town in South Florida, I observed what few queer people I knew. It did not take a genius to notice how unsafe they felt, a feeling I went on to share.

In the late 80s and early 90s, a brand-new sickness, dubbed the gay cancer, appeared out of thin air in the queer community. Thus did the HIV/AIDS epidemic begin. We watched, awestruck, as our friends and loved ones vanished in thin air. It was an undoubtedly scary time to be a queer kid. While the other children feared the bogeyman or monsters in their closets, we learned to fear ourselves.

Throughout my formative years and young adulthood, I continued to feel less safe and more concerned about coming out. Every week, trusted adults and religious leaders fed me lies about queer people. I was conditioned to believe I would die of AIDS and that God would not love me if I were gay. Conversion therapy multiplied my fears tenfold. Despite my dread, I did what I could to fit in and conform, fearing every day that I was doing it all wrong.

It was exhausting to grow up in a church that rejected all things LGBTQ+ and whatever else did not fit in their regime. However, my upbringing gave me a longing to create a safe space that was genuinely for everyone — not just those who looked and felt like I did.

As I gradually came out of the closet and reconciled with myself, I longed more and more to build this safe space. It was my dream to create a place where people could come together and respect each other’s differences. Do not get me wrong, faith and religion have their place and can be truly helpful to people, but they are also not for everyone, which is okay!

There have been many faith leaders from every denomination throughout history who have opened their hearts to queer folk and cultivated safe, sacred places for them. To create such a place is no small task, to be sure. Those places are needed, not just by religious individuals.

That said, there are those like myself who live daily with trauma from religious institutions. Those folks are looking for a safe space place with others like them where they can express themselves without pretending to be someone they are not.

LGBTQ+ centers and other types of queer safe spaces have filled that void for generations. For instance, Ruth C. Ellis, a woman of color born in 1899 who later came out as a lesbian, opened the first woman-owned printing shop in Michigan. Throughout her life, she advocated for lesbian and gay rights.

In the thirties, Ruth and her partner Ceciline Franklin opened their home in Detroit, calling it the “gay spot,” which was open to local gays and lesbians. The gay spot became a refuge.

Thankfully, there are many like Ruth who have risked their security to provide safe spaces like these, a mission I take seriously. All my life, I have longed to make history and change the world.

Growing up in a backwater town called Okeechobee, I realized there was a great need for a place where queer folk could hide. It has been my honor to provide resources and mental and medical help in cities and states where safe spaces did not exist.

In 2017, one year after starting the Miss Rose Dynasty Pageant, we moved back to Polk County. On a whim, we decided to get a booth at Polk Pride. Wearing drag in the Florida heat, I set up our booth with the help of my husband and our friend. Back then, we sold T-shirts and some pride flags. At Pride, several families asked me if I considered starting family-friendly events. These conversations stirred up even more thoughts of building a local safe space for queer people and families.

For the next several years, we held a monthly drag story time, which saw attendance of 40-50 people each time. We also hosted a monthly teen group night in Lakeland and Gainesville for 15-20 teens. Unfortunately, when COVID struck, everything moved online.

Throughout all this time, we lacked a building of our own where we could host these and other events. I wanted to supply mental health resources, primary care, HIV/STI testing and more. I wanted a place where people from the local community could come together to support one another.

With the help of Pineapple Healthcare, volunteers and the Polk community, we are proud to announce that we are opening the Rose Dynasty Center, Lakeland’s first LGBTQ+ center. On June 9, we will celebrate the grand opening with an open house where we will host various community organizations that support the community. We will provide mental health resources, support groups, community events, medical services by Pineapple Healthcare and more!

Changing the world does not always start with reinventing the wheel. There are likely groups in your area or people who want to cultivate lasting change. That does not have to be a building and can come in many forms. Sometimes, people are waiting for a leader to make their dreams a reality. All it takes is one person to achieve that. Safe spaces can and will change lives, in Polk County and beyond.

Momma Ashley Rose has been a family-friendly drag performer for over two decades. She is the founder and president of Rose Dynasty Foundation Inc., which will open the Rose Dynasty Center this year, the first LGBTQ+ center in Polk County.

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