LGBTQ+ Pride and Prejudice in Wyandot County, Ohio [COMMENTARY]

Image Above: Photo courtesy of Country Queers, an ongoing multimedia oral history project documenting the diverse experiences of rural, small town, and country LGBTQIA+ folks. Check them out at https://www.countryqueers.com/.

The city of Upper Sandusky is increasingly finding itself on an island. Mayor Kyle McColly continues to ignore a petition with over 350 signatures that demands he reconsider his refusal to issue a Pride Proclamation. Every year, more young adults leave Upper Sandusky, vowing to never return to the place they have been bullied and harassed for simply living as themselves authentically.

In the meantime, several signs indicate much of Ohio is growing more inclusive, welcoming, and open to the beauty of the diversity of the American people. (Notwithstanding the Ohio Senate.)

Alarmingly, Upper Sandusky’s exclusive culture could come at a high cost — the lives of LGBTQ+ youth and others who struggle for acceptance in a closed community that drives away visible and invisible minorities.

The people of Upper Sandusky take great pride in the idea of community. Business leaders and local elected officials have worked for decades to uplift the city as a welcoming community that rallies around its members in their greatest time of need. It’s a cute tagline, but it’s disingenuous.

They say we’re divisive because we’re proud. Somehow our very presence in rural Ohio is too big and too much. Perhaps these rural communities would rather we continue to suffer in shame and silence. Our neighbors want us to hide our families and our identities. We have had enough.

Silencing of LGBTQ+ People During Pride Month

While McColly refuses to recognize the contributions of the city’s LGBTQ+ population, to share his criteria for discontinuing a precedent started under the former mayor or to answer residents and media when they ask for an explanation, local organizations and businesses are celebrating Pride Month. Ohio State University Extension and partners that operate the state’s 4-H program recently announced a two-part webinar for parents, educators, volunteers and others who work with LGBTQ+ youth. It will cover how to support these at-risk kids and young adults.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

NAMI of Seneca, Sandusky and Wyandot Counties, for which I serve as volunteer board secretary, shared LGBTQ resources earlier this month. “June is the month when we celebrate our friends in the LGBTQI* community. As advocates, supporters and educators in the mental health world, NAMI recognizes the significant challenges this community faces in achieving and maintaining mental wellness. … It is up to us to confront these barriers and create a more accessible and inclusive culture in mental health care.”

And of course, there is the huge growth in the number of Ohio Pride events in 2021 compared to 2019, with local communities such as Fremont and Delaware hosting their first Pride gatherings. Nearby Findlay and Tiffin continue to offer a popular Pride festival and picnic, respectively.

Wyandot County LGBTQ Solidarity, a page I started with friends in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016 as I was leaving the field of journalism, is also seeing more support. Our reach has increased 165 percent since McColly refused to issue a proclamation. Post engagement is up 207 percent, and the audience continues to grow exponentially.

Where Are Our Allies?

As a young adult, I lived a compartmentalized life. In progressive Athens, home of OU’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, I became a fierce advocate for LGBTQ rights. I joined with others to organize a caravan to the March for Equality in Washington, D.C., in 2009. I came out every chance I got.

Then I returned to my home county to work at the local newspaper. I spent 12 years covering the city and county, getting to know the people of Upper Sandusky and the surrounding area. I had a prominent role in the public eye in Upper Sandusky. I once estimated that I talked to a minimum of 300 people per month. But most of these people didn’t have the privilege to know me fully.

Instead of living in love and pride, I kept returning to that dark closet, to a space of fear — of harassment and violence — and forced shame.

I didn’t actively hide my sexuality. But when you don’t say anything, people will assume that you are straight and cisgender. When former Mayor Scott Washburn became a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ community, we laughed together at the time he pointed at a pin on my laptop bag, exclaiming, “I love Virginia, too!” I had to point out that was not, in fact, what my pin said.

As a bisexual woman, I am attracted to people with genders similar to and different from my own. Hiding leads to shame, and shame leads to mental illness — from depression and anxiety to suicidal ideation. Hiding leads to many people not being informed about our lives and the challenges we face.

Paying the Price with Our Lives

But this isn’t about me. It’s about that scared kid with little or no support. It’s about that isolated older adult. It’s about that person who was turned away from their church when they shared an intimate part of their life. It’s about the heartbreak that happens when someone you thought you knew recoils, and it’s about that kid who thinks it’ll always be this way. It’s about a person who has lost everything and doesn’t know how they’re going to start over, to build a beautiful life.

Staying in the closet means our most at-risk members — isolated youth and older adults — don’t see themselves represented in the community at large. It leads us to wonder who we can trust and who will stop loving us if we live authentically as ourselves. It creates paranoia and distrust. It’s the opposite of community.

I love Upper Sandusky, and I want nothing more than for it to progress in diversity and inclusion. That’s why it breaks my heart to see the backlash on my LGBTQIA+ siblings who are fighting for crumbs — a simple recognition that we exist and we shouldn’t have to hide in the shadows.

Seeking Dignity in a Culture of Shame

“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” — Baynard Rustin

My friend Brandon Mooney, who is leading efforts for the Pride Month proclamation, recently shared this quote, explaining why he is hyper-focused on a proclamation in Upper Sandusky. Brandon has worked with the mayor’s office over the past three years to recognize the contributions of the city’s LGBTQAI+ residents and workers, shine light on anti-LGBTQ hate, and give hope to isolated youth who are struggling for acceptance.

McColly’s silence after his refusal to recognize Pride Month speaks volumes. Community Facebook groups call the topic of Pride political and divisive, and businesses refuse to talk about it. Brandon says that “is a refusal to acknowledge our dignity. That cannot go unchallenged.”

Copyright 2020 The Buckeye Flame. Reprinted with permission by The Buckeye Flame.

Published by Alissa Paolella

Alissa Paolella is a writer, editor, photographer, social media manager, and marketing communications strategist with over 15 years of experience in the news media, advertising, and health care industries. She has overseen print and digital campaigns for small and large organizations and has served as a communications consultant for numerous nonprofits and universities. In her free time, Alissa enjoys trail-hiking with her camera and almost always has a book (or two) nearby.

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