News: From A to Zeh

Pioneer, prisoner, publisher: activist won't give up

Jymi Bolden

When John Zeh returned to Cincinnati after 10 years in Washington, D.C., he resumed his community activism in spite of personal setbacks.

After leaving a party one night a few years ago in Washington, D.C., John Zeh boarded the wrong bus. When he got off the bus, he fell into the street. The bus driver didn't see him, and the bus ran over his leg.

Zeh's leg was amputated and he spent seven weeks recovering in a hospital. But physical disability has no more stopped his community activism than did a First Amendment fight with Simon Leis Jr. in the early 1980s — or a later prison term as a sex offender.

On any given day Zeh can be seen at a computer terminal at Media Bridges with flyers, leaflets and various papers spread around him.

"I don't socialize much," he says. "I just continue to write."

From his teenage years covering sports for The Kentucky Post to his current work running the Rainbow News Service, Zeh has weathered many storms.

In 1981 an Anderson Township family complained about "GayDreams," a show he hosted on WAIF (88.3 FM).

When the show discussed sexual lubricants, Zeh and the radio station found themselves in a court battle with Leis, who was then Hamilton County Prosecutor and zealous about combating pornography. Zeh was indicted on four counts of disseminating material harmful to children. The charges were dismissed.

Zeh's next battle was over a classroom. He sued the University of Cincinnati (UC) for canceling his six-week course, "Being Gay in Cincinnati."

"I would invite people in to speak on issues of the day," he says.

Zeh triumphed again when a federal judge ruled UC had violated Zeh's First Amendment rights. The course was reinstated.

In 1985 Zeh once more found himself in front of a judge. But this time the case had nothing to do with freedom of speech. Convicted of sexual battery for having sex with a mentally impaired 17-year-old, Zeh was sentenced to two years in prison.

"I have paid my dues in more ways than one," he says.

Following his release, Zeh moved to Washington to work on environmental issues. But he missed his hometown, he says.

"I was in D.C. for 10 years and didn't know a soul," he says. "I wasn't having any fun."

After returning to Cincinnati a few years ago, Zeh showed he hadn't lost his zeal for fighting for a good cause. In 2000 he helped oppose a proposal to move the Drop Inn Center to make room for a new School for the Creative and Performing Arts. Organizing a fund-raiser called Artists for the Drop Inn Center and other efforts to defend the homeless shelter, Zeh was victorious. He's quoted in the new book Through Our Eyes: A Reflection on Homelessness by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless and Mother of Mercy High School.

"(It) gave me cold chills," Zeh told the authors. "I mean people united can really make a difference at the grassroots level."

Zeh knows some Cincinnati activists welcome him and others shun him. But he keeps working on issues affecting homeless people and the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning (GLBTQ) community.

"I want the public to support GLBTQ and homeless issues," he says. "Other major cities attract the creative class and have historically been respectful."

Zeh is in the process of reconstructing himself.

"I'm a victim of my own circumstance," he says. "Finding work is a challenge due to limited resources."

Zeh has written for Rolling Stone and The Village Voice and reported for All Things Considered on National Public Radio.

"Radio is a fascinating medium for me," he says.

But these days the Internet is often Zeh's medium of choice. He's the creator of Rainbow News Service and Rainbow Talk, an Internet bulletin board for GLBTQ issues and an Internet forum for public discussion. Both services are part of Yahoo Groups.

"This is a quick way to get the important news out," Zeh says. "I have two major news sources, one in Dayton and one here in Cincinnati, who sift through the news."

Although considering an eventual move to Philadelphia, Zeh says he continues his community activism in Cincinnati because he believes it's important.

"The work I like to do is really work," he says.

Cincinnati needs to do more to keep young people from leaving the area, according to Zeh.

"Do what you can to help people stay here," he says. "Hopefully our image will improve with the grand opening of the CAC (Contemporary Arts Center)."

At 57, Zeh is no longer a young man, and he's lost some of the support he enjoyed decades ago as a pioneer in bringing the gay rights movement to Cincinnati. But he shows no sign of surrender.

"I've learned from my mistakes," Zeh says. "I fought some difficult battles and I have learned from them." ©

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