For too long, being gay meant life on the fringes. There were certain places you could hang out, certain people you could talk to, certain ways you could act. Fed up with accepting “how it’s always been,” these young organizers are creating safe, accepting spaces where there were none before — and finding out they were amongst friends the whole time.
Cincinnati Guerrilla Queer Bar
What started in 2009 by former Cincinnatian Ethan Philbrick and friends as a local arm of a national movement has become a monthly event for the gay and straight communities. Cincinnati Guerrilla Queer Bar (GQB) takes over bars that cater to straight crowds to both broaden the scope of nightlife for the LGBTQ scene and show their straight counterparts that they’re really just like them.
“Cincinnati has only a hand full of ‘gay bars’ and after a few years dancing at the same bars, it’s refreshing to go out to new places without feeling intimidated,” says Kelly Carr, one of GQB’s organizers.
Guerrilla Queer Bar announces what bar is to be infiltrated via Facebook and its blog; recent hotspots include Pulse Nightclub and Scene Ultra Lounge. They request attendees dress in a certain color or style so they can spot each other and provide safety in numbers. And if the bar gives its blessing, they’ll bring DJs or a photo booth to help break the ice. While there are guerrilla queer bar groups across the country, this is the only one in Ohio.
“As a single or small group, venturing out to ‘straight bars’ can feel a little intimidating as fear of homophobia, name calling or even violence can keep gays from trying new places,” Carr says.
And while there have been some close calls with some homophobes over the years, Carr has seen attitudes change.
“I know, personally, my assumptions and beliefs about what to expect from particular locations has been challenged in addition to engaging in some pretty awesome dialogue [with] those who love the idea and support creating more inclusive spaces for everyone.”
Case in point: April’s GQB at Pike Street Lounge in Covington featured a technicolor photo booth with the Easter Bunny. GQB attendees were jumping in and out of pictures with friends and props, posing and laughing. When a Pike Street regular timidly approached the photo booth and asked if she could take a picture with the Easter Bunny, the gathering happily included her. And that’s what it’s all about: moments where people break out of their routines for encounters they’d get nowhere else.
The LGBTQ Center at University of Cincinnati
The University of Cincinnati’s LGBTQ Center was a long time coming.
MaryBeth Westermeyer, a straight ally who’s been with the center since its inception in 2009, remembers how she and friend Cody Globig had to first rely on UC’s Women’s Center when Globig faced discrimination from a roommate their freshman year.
So with the help of a few friends, they created an LGBTQ space of their own. They started in what was actually a closet with a fire code of eight and no official staff. No one knew about them and it was impossible to hold meetings in their “office.” But their persistence has paid off: They finally got that dedicated faculty member they were fighting for in Leisan Smith, and earlier this year the Center moved to legitimate offices with room for gatherings and a queer library. “Now I go into the office and don’t know anybody, and it’s great,” Westermeyer says. “People come there for resources, they know they can come there for help.”
That help includes training to make everything from admissions offices to fraternity houses more understanding of the LGBTQ community. They also coordinate programming with older student groups like GenderBloc and the UC Alliance.
“Now we’re a big family, even when you meet the new people, they end up coming back,” Globig says, adding that the students at the Center are gay and straight, with majors ranging from engineering to interior design to nursing. “We have a lot of political science majors here [at the Center] and many of them are gender and sexuality studies, which is going to help with the education of future generations.”
During Queercat Pride, a weeklong LGBTQ celebration at UC in May, many students felt the same way. “[Cincinnati’s] not as progressive as other cities,” says first-year student Jaisha Garnett, “but because of that, people like me have work to do — advance the living for people like them in Cincinnati; be activists in the community.”
Globig sums it up: “The programming that we do here, it’s grooming the next generation of leaders … providing motivation for the future of Cincinnati and Ohio and hopefully the nation.”
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
While “It Gets Better” has been a popular message aimed at gay youth in recent years, there are those who are taking action to make “it” — particularly bullying at school — better now. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network of Cincinnati (GLSEN) makes schools safer by fostering dialogue between students, inspiring LGBTQ teens and teaching educators how to create safe, inclusive classrooms.
The main way it does this is by promoting gay/straight alliances (GSAs), clubs where students of any orientation can support each other and advocate for rights and respect.
Josh Wagoner, a member of GLSEN’s leadership board, says more administrators are starting GSAs to combat bullying. Other times, students are the driving factor. He cites one local high school where the GSA needed rebooting, but because there was no room in the school’s budget for the program, students used their own money to print posters and T-shirts. Another school had a GSA where no students were officially out.
“Once students can identify with a teacher or a group, they report feeling safer at school,” says volunteer coordinator Nate Wessel.
“We’ve always known that LGBT youth are at a much higher rate [for suicide and suicide attempts], but only in that last two to three years has that really been part of the conversation,” he says.
That growing conversation is evident at the annual GLSEN prom, which is both an alternative prom for LGBTQ teens and a fundraiser/second-chance prom for adults. Wagoner notes that attendance has doubled during the last six years. Back then, they “worked like crazy” to raise $5,000. This year’s prom at the Freedom Center raised six times that.
“People who were bullied in high school … they see a story about it in the news, it clicks,” Wessel adds, explaining a recent surge in donations from individuals.
The work is far from done to empower teens to make the world they’re growing up in a better place. The organization’s website features some heartbreaking videos that demonstrate how much progress has been made and how it’s not yet enough. But by empowering even just one youth, GLSEN has made the future brighter.