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Nathan Johnson helped Pine City accept gays

“I admire Nathan so much for having the personal courage in a small community …

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In a yearlong series, MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

PINE CITY, Minn. — In high school, Nathan Johnson proved himself a leader many times over: National Honor Society, captain of the track and cross-country teams, state-level speech competition and an early leap into college classes. He dated a cheerleader from nearby Mora and also a pastor’s daughter who wore his letter jacket to school.

Nathan Johnson
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Nathan Johnson

Not clear to Johnson at the time was another leadership role he eventually would feel compelled to fill: Helping guide his community toward acceptance of the gay men who live in the small towns of East Central Minnesota — including Johnson himself.

This past June, more than 350 people gathered to celebrate the seventh annual Pride in the Park along the scenic banks of the Snake River in Pine City. A decade or more ago, no one would have staged such a public celebration in rural Minnesota. Now, though, Johnson had plenty of collaborators from regional gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered groups.

It was your quintessential Midwestern summer picnic, featuring brats, burgers, brownies and an indie rock band. Still it was a groundbreaking public statement — a reach on the part of a rural GLBT community to invite respect from neighbors.

Many people — both gay and straight — should take credit for the historic and transformative event. But Johnson wins a big share of the praise.

“I admire Nathan so much for having the personal courage in a small community — that has not been sensitive, perhaps, to the issue or exposed to the issue — to create a very warm, wonderful happening for the town,” said Mary Kay Brautigan, one of the first local business owners to donate support for the picnic.

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“That’s real leadership,” said Brautigan, who is a broker and owner at Coldwell Banker Results.

Isolated in the countryside
Pride celebrations have come to be routine in Minneapolis and other big cities across America. But Minnesotans who count themselves members of the GLBT community do not live in cities alone.

The 2010 Census found more than 10,000 same-sex couples living throughout Minnesota. It’s safe to say that’s only a partial count because not everyone with same-sex orientation lives with a partner.

If you assume rural areas are more conservative, more macho and therefore less accepting of homosexuals, you’ll get pushback from some gay residents of Greater Minnesota — people like Johnson who love their small towns and live peaceably with neighbors who have known them for a lifetime.

But the very reason so many Minnesotans love rural areas — ample space to live in privacy, to grow a huge garden or keep a few horses — can be isolating, too.

That’s what I heard when Johnson invited me to sit in on a meeting of the East Central Minnesota Men’s Circle, the group that started the regional pride picnics. 

A performer at the Pride in the Park picnic
Courtesy of East Central Minnesota Men’s Circle
A performer at the Pride in the Park picnic

Men who took seats around the table at a Rush City restaurant had driven long distances to spend an evening with supportive friends where they could relax in the confidence they would feel safe and accepted.

“It’s difficult in rural areas to meet people,” said Don Quaintance, who had driven 40 miles from Isanti.

Others at the table had come from Cambridge, Milaca, Askov, North Branch and other towns throughout the region.

Standing on others’ shoulders
As the current facilitator (or leader) of the Men’s Circle, Johnson convened the meeting. But he credits others with founding the group. To the extent that he leads now, he said, he stood on their shoulders.

Quaintance said the group started in the year 2000 after he asked a facilitator from the Rural AIDS Action Network how gay men could meet each other in rural areas.

The reply was, “Let’s start a men’s circle.”

Quaintance was skeptical.

“That doesn’t sound like fun to me,” he said.

A shot in the dark
But they ran an ad in local papers, saying that a group of gay men were getting together in a downstairs room at Tobies Restaurant in Hinckley. It was a shot in the dark. They had no idea how many gay men were living in the region and how many would step forth to meet others in a public place.

Twenty people showed up for that first meeting.

“I was amazed,” Quaintance said.

Word spread and the group grew. Some members gradually became more public about their sexuality, while some preferred to remain private.

In 2005, the men were ready to celebrate the Circle’s five-year anniversary. They threw a picnic in the park in Pine City. By that time, groups had formed for other segments of the GLBT community, such as an East Central Purple Circle for women. The Men’s Circle invited the lot of them to the party.

A growing sense of mission
The object at the time was to celebrate a supportive movement — not to launch a big public event. But there was a growing sense of mission.

“We wanted people to be aware that we are out here and we aren’t going anywhere,” Quaintance said. “We are just like everyone else, nothing special. We are doctors, lawyers, bus drivers, gas station attendants, whatever.”

“Unemployed,” someone piped up from across the table.

Aside from the pride picnics, they’ve built visibility in small ways — for example, adopting a stretch of highway with a sign saying the cleanup is done by “East Central Minnesota Gay Men’s Circle.” The items they’ve cleaned up have included a Kilz can with a hateful message attached.

The men's circle's bid to boost visibility includes this sign on I-35.
Courtesy of East Central Minnesota Men’s Circle
The men’s circle’s bid to boost visibility includes this sign on I-35.

Another, less visible, part of the mission is to make life easier for individuals who are isolated and struggling with their sexuality.

“I just got a call from someone who said her sister-in-law came out to her,” Johnson said at the men’s meeting.

The caller was referred to someone in the Purple Circle.

Another part is purely social. The Men’s Circle has printed a brochure billing itself as “a discussion group for gay, bi, and questioning men who live in rural Minnesota.”

‘I kind of felt alone’
Everyone at the table has a story of self-discovery. Here is Johnson’s story as he told it to me.

Johnson was born in Fridley. When his dad lost a job in the Twin Cities, the family moved to Pine City in order to be closer to supportive relatives and friends. Even as a kindergartener, Johnson loved the town set amid scenic lakes near St. Croix State Park.

While he thrived in school, Johnson started to recognize something different about himself.

“Probably around the same time that some of my other male friends were thinking that girls were pretty special, I was thinking, ‘Yes they are, but I’m more attracted to other males,’ ” he said. “It was from a pretty young age, but I didn’t really understand what that meant and come to terms about it until I was about 18.”

If his classmates noticed a difference, they didn’t say much about it.

‘I don’t feel I was singled out’
“Sure, there was name calling and you would hear the word fag, but I don’t know that it was directed at me more than it was directed at anybody,” he said. “I don’t think it had to do with my sexuality. … I heard a lot of people called that, people that played football, whoever. It was not pleasant, but I don’t feel I was singled out because I was gay at Pine City High School.”

(He hastened to add that his experience was not universal and that others in the Men’s Circle have told horror stories about their high-school days.)

Confused about his sexuality, Johnson went through the motions of dating girls.

“They probably wondered why we never really took it beyond one of the early bases,” he said.

In all, the experience of self-realization was lonely and painful, he said.”I didn’t quite know how to deal with the fact that I was gay,” he said. “I kind of felt alone. That was painful. I suppose the acceptance of it for myself came on gradually, something I really worked to come to grips with and prayed a lot about.”

‘I really want to tell you something’
He was 17 years old when he first opened up to someone else — his sister, who was 16 at the time. They had gone to work washing dishes at The Cricket, a supper club in Rock Creek.

“We were sitting in the high school parking lot in my car,” he recalled. “I said I really want to tell you something. … Then I just out and out told her. We both broke down in tears. I think she was overwhelmed that I was overwhelmed. It was a special moment. I will never forget it.”

It was their secret for several weeks.

Meanwhile, Johnson had found a gay pen pal through a magazine advertisement.

“My mom ran across one of the letters,” he said. “It was on my desk, and she approached me that evening and asked me if I was gay. When cornered, I just had to be honest with her. I am not dishonest with my mother or anybody for that matter. … So I told her. We stayed up until 2 or 2:30 in the morning over coffee — laughing, crying, answering her questions as best I could.”

The next day, his father knew too.

“It was a little awkward between us for a while,” Johnson said.

About six months later, though, the air cleared while the father and son were driving home from the Twin Cities.

“He took my arm, squeezed it and said, ‘You know, Nate, I do love you’ ” Johnson recalled. “He had already gone through a process of coming to terms with it himself. And, boy, have he and my mom been super supportive since then. I know where I stand with him.”

One of our own brutally murdered
Still, coming out publicly was a frightening prospect.

In 1996, a Pine City High School graduate named Wally Lundin was found hog-tied and strangled to death in his Northeast Minneapolis apartment. It was part of a string of hate crimes against gays in Minnesota, and the case wasn’t solved until 2009, when DNA evidence implicated Rommal Bennett and he pleaded guilty in a Hennepin County courtroom.

The crime shocked Pine City and launched a dialog about homosexuality.

“I don’t think it’s just me who has made this transition,” Johnson said. “Even as a community, we have really wrestled with this issue of homosexuality dating back to 1996, when one of our own was brutally murdered down in Minneapolis.”

So a Pine City kid had reason to fear coming out.

Johnson had completed so many college-level classes while he was in high school that he earned an Associates of Arts degree and his high-school diploma within two weeks of each other. He went away to the University of Minnesota.

But Pine City was home, and not long after college graduation he landed a job as city planner.

“I just loved it here,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be back here simply because I have a great family, a great set of friends, just people who love and support me. I know what connections mean and having social capital and people to draw knowledge from and resources from.”

Gradual transformation
Many a Minnesota community has gone through the same gradual transformation as Pine City during the past decade.

A sign at the Pride in the Park picnic
Courtesy of East Central Minnesota Men’s Circle
A sign at the Pride in the Park picnic.

While few have suffered the shock of losing a native son to a violent crime, there have been other triggers.

Deliberations leading up to the Lutherans’ decision to ordain gay and lesbian ministers “generated discussions in every small town in Minnesota,” said Eric Bergeson, who lives with his partner in the Northwestern Minnesota community of Fertile.

“You had 93-year-old women writing impassioned pleas to ordain gay ministers,” Bergeson said. “I know darn well of two very educated families in this town who 10 years ago were just knee jerk anti-gay. Today they would go to the wall to defend gay people. That’s totally due to the debate in the church and the ugliness of the opposition. They just discovered this is not decent.”

Another factor driving transformation in rural areas is a changing national attitude, marked most recently by the decision to allow gays to serve openly in the military.

Favorable poll results
For the first time, the Gallup Organization reported in May  that a majority of Americans (53 percent) “believe same sex marriage should be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages.”

“I see a much more ‘out’ younger generation because there are TV shows about gays, there are gay stars,” said Paul Wilkens, another member of the East Central Minnesota Men’s Circle. “It’s more visible in the pop culture. … Still there are so many kids who are in the closet and scared to come out, adults scared to come out.”

Minnesotans will get a chance to demonstrate next year just how far the balance has tipped in the state when they vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Awkward at first
Things were different a decade ago when Johnson first heard about the Men’s Circle. He wanted to go to a meeting but couldn’t muster the courage on his own.

“I wasn’t out at the time, widely, I mean,” he said. “And, boy, I just felt like … by going to something like that it was really putting myself out there.”

His close friends took over. One of them, a woman, escorted him to a meeting.

“It was awkward, I’ll admit,” Johnson said. “I was the new guy, plus I brought this girl!”

Now, Johnson said he has come to see the group as “one of the best organizations that I’ve ever belonged to because these were people that I just knew had good hearts and really wanted to improve the world.”

And Johnson has thrown himself into building visibility and support for the annual pride picnics. For several years, he has delivered the city’s official welcome to visitors from around the region.

Unofficially, he focuses his planning skills on the event, coordinating everything from park permits to advertising to the sound systems.

Johnson and Quaintance serve as event historians.

“It’s pretty historic as I look at it,” Johnson said. “We want to document it.”

Energy, acceptance, compassion
At age 34, Johnson brings youth, vitality and masterful communication skills to the cause the picnic represents, said Wilkens, who is 40.

“He brings energy and an ability to communicate with the younger generation,” Wilkens said. “His depth of knowledge of the media has been critical for us to get the word out.”

Attendees of the Regional Pride Picnic
Courtesy of East Central Minnesota Men’s Circle
Attendees of the Pride in the Park picnic.

One reason Johnson has become an effective leader is that he embraces work on the picnic and other activities with the same visibility and enthusiasm he brings to Pine City in general.

“Nathan is Mr. Pine City,” said Brautigan at Coldwell Banker Results.

“He loves Pine City so much that I think since he was very little, his calling was to live here and eventually be our city planner,” she said. “Then stepping forth to lead the gay pride picnic says a lot.”

The picnic’s first few years were “tough sledding,” she said, and the community was polarized.

Opponents staged an alternative picnic, warning that children would be jeopardized by the open celebration of homosexuality, she said.

The opposition gradually faded, though, as Johnson and others persisted with their message of tolerance and love for others.

Led the town to accept
“What Nathan led the community to do was accept,” Brautigan said. “He has really opened people’s eyes, and there is much more tolerance and acceptance, as there should be.”

Bob Haedt, 65, said one reason the picnics have come to be accepted and widely supported in Pine City is because the vendors, entertainment, food and scenic setting add up to a wholesome good time for the town.

And Johnson has been a key to that overall impression, Haedt said.

“Nathan is definitely a leader,” Haedt said. “He is kind. He is compassionate. When he is in on decisions, he thinks things out. I could say 100 good things about him. He’s just good for this town — very, very good. … He cares about people and he cares deeply about Pine City.”

Just be a community
For his part, Johnson stresses that he has never wanted Pine City to define him by his sexuality alone.

“Certainly it is part of who I am,” he said. “But I’ve tried to let the community know that that’s not my defining characteristic. I don’t have anything to hide, but I try not to make an issue of it. If it helps other people that I’m open about who I am, then that’s great. “

What drives the activism, he said, is love for the community.

“I don’t want to hear these horror stories that I hear about from time to time,” he said. “I want the conditions to improve and the bullying to go away. I just want us to be a community that accepts people for who they are, regardless of their sexual orientation.”