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Photos courtesy Ohio History Connection

Ohio’s Gay History: Know Your Roots

Ohio has a rich and vibrant history reflecting the industrious people who worked the land… and… shit. I really don’t know anything about Ohio history. And gay Ohio history? Forget about it.

Ohio has certainly been in the spotlight for the past decade or so: a conservative beacon for national public opinion on the issues of marriage equality and non-discrimination laws for LGBT citizens. We live in a state that still tries to define marriage as between a man and a woman, and a state that offers NO statewide protection for LGBT employees. So that means I could be fired for being gay… or maybe even being perceived as gay. (And let’s face it… I am always perceived as being a little bit gay.)

This state seems diabolically opposed to the city of Columbus, a city I have fallen in love with over these last five years. Moving here to Westerville in 2010 (gasp!) and dating a girl from Newark (I had no warning), it took a few months until I discovered the incredibly welcoming queer community. And it kind of makes sense: Columbus has provided citywide LGBT protections since the 1970s and is home to one of the first LGBT non-profit community centers (established in 1981). Perhaps you’ve heard of them—Stonewall Columbus. The organization pulls its name from the Stonewall riots in 1969 in New York City, where a group of gay and queer activists and bar patrons finally fought back against police during one of the countless “gay bar” raids that were commonplace at the time. That riot marked the beginnings of the LGBT civil rights movement, and in a dramatic arc has led to so many reforms, including Ohio’s own plaintiffs currently poised on the Supreme Court steps, waiting to hear if their marriages and families are considered “legally valid” by the judicial branch of the United States.

So how did we go from rioting (and dying) on the streets of New York in the 1960s and 1970s to marching down High Street every June with our allies proudly cheering us on and even marching alongside? Sure, there are still a few straggling protestors trying to bring back carpenter jeans and man sandals. But their cries of biblical damnation are drowned out by the raucous bass amps on the Axis float and the rev of the motorcycles of all the Dykes on Bikes. (Pause for a moment to swoon.) Where is the 50 years of struggle documented? Where do I go (besides Slammers on a Tuesday) to learn about my past and the past of an influential state like Ohio in the LGBT civil rights movement?

Before 2005, there really wasn’t much to go on if you were looking to learn about the history of the LGBT movement in Ohio. Then the Ohio History Connection decided to collaborate with Outlook Media to reach out to community members and see if some LGBT stories and items could be collected and documented. The Gay Ohio History Initiative (GOHI) has grown into an expanding resource of artifacts and oral history that represents Ohio’s rich LGBT legacy. “We didn’t have a voice for the LGBT community in our current collection, and we want to reach out to this underrepresented population,” project coordinator Becki Trivison explained. “What so many people don’t realize is that the LGBT story is an integral part of Ohio’s story. This is a unique initiative throughout the country. There aren’t a whole lot of museums that are cultivating specific LGBT collections.”

GOHI has been working with numerous LGBT non-profits in Central Ohio to “get the word out” about MSS1150AV_B13_F05_02 MSS1150AV_B13_F05_02this grassroots collection initiative, but this effort can be challenging. My mom can barely order a book from Amazon without calling me, and LGBT senior citizens are often some of the most isolated in their communities. Their lives were so drastically different—coming out just a few years ago was considered taboo and coming out a few decades ago was arguably a death sentence. Those brave enough to come out became social pariahs or put themselves and their families at an increased risk of violence. But that is part of what makes GOHI’s effort so crucial: we are running out of time to capture the brave oral histories from those revolutionaries, activists, and trailblazers that made it possible for me to sit my mom down at Hyde Park when I was 20 years old and tell her I liked girls over a bottle of Cabernet. (Okay… two bottles of cabernet.)

Reaching out to community members who may have artifacts or stories to share isn’t the only challenge that GOHI staff have faced. Trivison shared with me the unique challenges of preserving and archiving more modern items than are typically collected by the Ohio History Connection.

We are running out of time to capture the brave oral histories from those revolutionaries, activists,
and trailblazers that made it possible for me to sit my mom down at Hyde Park when I was 20 years old and tell her I liked girls over a bottle of Cabernet. (Okay… two bottles of cabernet.)

“We have a condom from one of the Pride Parades, and none of us knew how to store it! One of the things I had to learn was how to properly store latex.” As a bonafide member of the queer community, and therefore born knowing how to store latex, I can only imagine what GOHI is going through. (Not to mention storing all that glitter!) Jokes aside, the thought of being able to see some of the first Pride protest signs that ever marched down Columbus streets in defiance of moral order would be pretty cool, not to mention the oral histories of those who marched.

GOHI is still a small collection, but it continues to grow. Down the road, an exhibition will most likely be in order, but until then, the project coordinators hope to continue gathering information and items that help reflect the truly remarkable path Ohio LGBT civil rights advocates have followed in what seems like only a few decades. Riots against police and violence have transformed into triumphant parades across the state with support from the cities and businesses that call Ohio home. I think last year’s Columbus Pride Parade featured more banks than drag queens. And you can criticize the gentrification of the Pride Festival, but the truth is that we have come a long way due to those original pioneering queers. Now, there are Pride parades all over Ohio: Toledo, Dayton, Youngstown…even Yellow Springs.

So as you see the banks and insurance companies and businesses march down High Street in Columbus this June in their matching t-shirts, maybe don’t scoff as loudly as you normally do. Take in the sights and sounds. Be grateful for how far we’ve come, and be aware that we still have a long way to go. 

Interested in learning more? To contact GOHI, check out the Facebook page or email gohi@ohiohisotry.org. Brooke Cartus is a queer comedian and blogger based in Columbus. For more, visit brookecartus.com