Reflections on the racial divide in LGBTQ Columbus—and how we can fix it.
By D.A. Steward
A week before 10 people interrupted the Columbus Pride parade last June to protest police brutality, call attention to violence against transgender women of color and make a statement about racial inequity within the LGBTQ community, demonstrations also took place at Pride celebrations in Boston and Washington, D.C.
No one was arrested in either city. In Washington, where two of 10 protesters blocking the parade physically chained themselves to a fence and a car, Pride organizers rerouted the march with the help of local police.
Similar “No Justice No Pride” protests were organized at Pride in New York and Los Angeles. Nothing quite like what happened last June 17 in Columbus—a police intervention and the arrests of four black protesters who would become known as the Black Pride 4—took place elsewhere.
We’ve all seen the videos. Many of you have witnessed or been embroiled in the fallout and deepened divisions that followed. As someone who dedicated a decade to fighting for the advancement of LGBTQ people of color in Ohio through grassroots activism and within the non-profit and government arenas before moving to Boston in 2015, seeing my city self-destruct in such a way from afar was truly disheartening.
But the main question running over and over through my mind in the last year has been: Why did these violent arrests and the following turmoil happen in Columbus and hardly anywhere else?
It speaks to a larger problem that has been smoldering for decades. My hope with this piece is to take us on a journey to the root of the problem, using the voices of LGBTQ leaders of color in Ohio as our guide.
If Columbus is ever to truly heal, it must do the work to treat the symptoms.
‘IT WAS A DIFFERENT TIME’
Black Queer & Intersectional Columbus has become ground zero for the grassroots response since the June 2017 arrests of Wriply Bennet, Ashley Braxton, Kendall Denton and DeAndre Antonio Miles-Hercules. But before BQIC, there was Columbus Urban Pride.
Well before the word intersectionality became part of the lexicon, I and a handful of others were intersectional activists who met at Zanzibar Brews on Long Street—the same place, now named the Lincoln Café, where BQIC has held events—to create spaces of inclusion within the Columbus Pride celebration.
Our group saw much of its heyday between 2011 and 2014, when we formed a partnership with Stonewall Columbus to officially hold them accountable for providing culturally competent Pride events that were inclusive to people of color. Sadly, Columbus Urban Pride fizzled to a halt in 2016.
Communities of color seem to catch the attention of Columbus’ mainstream LGBTQ community in waves. More than a decade before Columbus Urban Pride, Aaron Riley began working at the Columbus AIDS Task Force (which later merged with AIDS Resource Center Ohio and today is Equitas Health) as its director of client services. When promoted to executive director in 2003, he became the first African-American to lead an AIDS service organization in Ohio.
Riley shared several stories of his first interactions with LGBTQ organizations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He had to go through a separate vetting process to be on the board of a local LGBTQ agency, a step he felt at the time was a way to screen out people of color. He approached an LGBTQ newspaper to start a column about the plight of queer folks of color, only to be told his idea was too serious for the publication.
“It was a different time. I was a poor gay boy from Memphis. Early on, there was always that feeling of being treated ‘less than’ in leadership spaces I was occupying,” says Riley, who went on to help lead Columbus’ first LGBTQ needs assessment in partnership with the United Way of Central Ohio. He also was part of an effort to redefine how AIDS housing services were funded, which pipelined new federal funding into the state.
He now lives in Spokane, Wash., where he works as the Eastern Washington regional long-term care ombudsman for Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners.
Just before he left Ohio in 2015, Riley said he felt the community was on an upswing because of the number of efforts that centered LGBTQ people of color. Initiatives under way at the time ranged from New Leaf Columbus, a social- media enterprise that Riley founded, to Columbus Urban Pride to Traxx Columbus, a regular LGBTQ nightlife event affiliated with the legendary club in Atlanta.
“Unfortunately, still, when I was looking around at the mainstream organizations, the boards and staff were still mostly white,” he says. “Still, much hadn’t changed.”
FEW SEATS AT THE TABLE
Erin Upchurch, a longtime Columbus social worker and activist, is following in Riley’s history-making footsteps. In April, she became the first black woman to lead a major LGBTQ organization in Columbus when she started her job as Kaleidoscope Youth Center’s new executive director. Upchurch says she’s honored to be stepping into the role, but she also wonders why it took so long for such a milestone.
“While exciting, it’s unfortunate that this is the first time this is happening. I know that there are many strong, qualified leaders of color in our community,” she says. “There are really no clear, direct pathways to leadership for our communities, much like there are for white communities.”
In her new role at Kaleidoscope, Upchurch hopes to chip away at institutionalized oppression, those invisible but real and long-standing barriers felt by LGBTQ people in the broader community and LGBTQ people of color within our own spaces.
She wants to partner with city officials and community leaders to create more pipelines to opportunity—and more opportunities for leadership—for marginalized LGBTQ youth.
“We need to really formally connect young people to that path,” says Upchruch, who last year added politics to her own resume when she ran for the Columbus City Schools Board of Education. “Young people need access to relationships and the political capital that will allow them to be at the table and to meaningfully be a part of the changes that are happening in this city.”
Aaryn Lang and Elle Hearns are Columbus natives who left to find those leadership opportunities; Lang now lives in New York, and Hearns lives in Washington, D.C. Both say Central Ohio and its LGBTQ community aren’t doing enough to cultivate queer and trans leaders of color.
“The LGBTQ community there (in Columbus) doesn’t seem to want to highlight the marginalized in any intentional way,” says Lang, the former movement building and campaign manager at GetEQUAL, a national LGBTQ advocacy group that found itself in turmoil after Executive Director Gaby Garcia- Vera fired Lang in March. The decision led to the departure of several board members and a national boycott against the agency. On March 27, Garcia-Vera announced that GetEQUAL would shut down.
“My issue with the LGBTQ community and spaces and agencies that are supposed to be dedicated to our betterment is that they say they are standing in their values. You go in with that expectation,” Lang says. “That’s the injury. We expected better because you said you were better.”
Hearns is the founder and executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute and a founder of the Black Lives Matter Network. She’s a nationally regarded voice on the strategies for the liberation of black and queer lives, but it saddens her that her hometown is lagging behind in that regard.
“I’ve been deeply disappointed about that fact, that a place that I come from has continually been an example for why I do the work that I do,” she says. “There’s a real need for us to get very honest about what divisions exist and who gets to benefit from those divisions.”
It’s among the reasons Hearns plans to move herself and the institute back to Columbus in the coming months.
Bennet also says the work for black queer liberation falls too often on deaf ears in Central Ohio.
“I planned a vigil for Rae’Lynn Thomas and only a handful of white folks showed up,” Bennet says of the 28-year-old black transgender Columbus woman who was murdered in August 2016 by her mother’s transphobic ex-boyfriend.
“They’ll all flock to that church on King Avenue for Trans Day of Remembrance to cry and honor trans folks once a year,” Bennet says. “But they can’t show up when a black trans person was murdered in our own community. It’s really telling.”
AN EXAMPLE IN THE CLE
When resolve is shaken and hope depleted, we often look to those whom we think are getting it right, or at least trying to. For six years, Phyllis “Seven” Harris has been leading the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland, and the most marginalized communities are at the center of her strategic plan. When she was hired in 2012, she became the first African- American executive director in the center’s history.
A conversation with Harris feels like a step into the future envisioned for Columbus by its LGBTQ people of color. She’s a black queer woman who was raised on intersectional feminism, and she leads a social justice- focused LGBTQ center. In 2016, she led the effort to create Pride in the CLE when the city’s longstanding Pride organization canceled its event at the last minute. Her leadership was so effective that the white-male-led Cleveland Pride Inc. decided in March to fold itself under her leadership.
“Social justice and systemic change should be the focus,” Harris says. “Let’s lead with an LGBTQ center that does that. If we lead with that, I think we’re going to be all right.”
FORCING COLUMBUS FORWARD
Centering the movement on queer and trans people of color is something that BQIC has been demanding in Central Ohio since its inception.
Ariana Steele moved to Columbus in 2016 to begin their doctorate program in linguistics at Ohio State University after graduating from Northwestern University in Chicago. They arrived just as the work of Columbus Urban Pride was coming to an end, so when they looked around for intersectional activism, there didn’t seem to be much available.
Steele met Dkeama Alexis, and they co- founded BQIC in February 2017. “There were about four to six of us meeting regularly in my living room.” A few months after creating that safe space for queer and trans people of color, the group started planning a zine called Obsidian that would feature black queer and trans creatives. The launch party was at Kaleidoscope Youth Center on June 10, 2017, just a week before the protest at Pride.
You all know what happened next. Ten people—white and black—linked arms and walked into the Columbus Pride Parade in progress on Broad Street. Four black protesters were arrested. Three were charged with misdemeanor crimes of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and failure to comply with police orders; Miles-Hercules was charged with a felony for allegedly reaching for a police officer’s gun during the incident.
Bennet, Denton and Braxton were found guilty of six of the eight charges filed against them and in March were sentenced to various levels of probation, fines and community service. Miles-Hercules still awaits trial.
And in between all those events, turmoil ensued.
‘MORE BROKEN THAN EVER’
Which brings us to today.
“I feel like I did all this and put my body on the line for a community that’s more broken than ever,” Bennet says, reflecting on the past year. “The way this city works, it has always been in the servitude of a select few, and this select few have been abusing their power at the risk of black enfranchisement.”
As we head into another Pride season, life in LGBTQ Columbus is quite different than it was one year ago. Activism is different. The community is forever changed.
Stonewall’s annual Columbus Pride parade and festival are scheduled for Saturday, June 16
at Bicentennial and Genoa parks Downtown. BQIC is planning its own Columbus Community Pride with events throughout the month and a festival on June 16 at a location yet to be decided.
Steele says the mission is to bring Pride back to its roots by centering queer and
trans voices of color, calling attention to and fighting against state-sanctioned violence, and supporting grassroots efforts over corporate sponsorship.
Alongside BQIC, another contingent of activists have organized Black Out & Proud.
J. Averi Frost, the group’s president, and Letha Pugh convened veteran activists of color who saw their community being torn along racial lines; they sought a neutral space where issues could be addressed within LGBTQ communities of color.
“There is a clear disconnect between how the younger generation wants to make change and the needs that they have, and the experiences of the elders in our community,” says Pugh, who spent six years on the board of Stonewall Columbus, including one as its president. “And then there are people in the middle like me, who understand where each is coming from.”
She hopes Black Out & Proud will provide an outlet through its programming that brings people of color together.
With new organizations up and running, the return of Hearns to the area with the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, a new Pride celebration with people of color front and center, and ongoing nightlife events such as BLVCK ICE and Traxx Columbus, is Columbus heading back toward that space of saturation that Riley speaks of? And will this swing finally bring a permanent shift in the status quo?
THE WAY FORWARD
Activists of color say the city’s LGBTQ leadership—still overwhelmingly white— needs to take a long, hard look at its role in maintaining institutional oppression, marginalization and erasure, as well as the obstacles that keep people of color from leadership roles that help set community priorities and programming.
For BQIC, progress means a complete overhaul of the system. Bennet and Steele are among those who say the entire Stonewall Columbus board (expanded earlier this year to include more transgender members and people of color) needs to resign.
Upchurch says leaders need to be open to what’s taking place.
“I would say to any organizer right now: There’s room for all the ways that we challenge the system,” she says. “For the ones who want to protest, let them have space to do that, too. There’s room for all of us.”
The one thread that’s sewn through each of the narratives featured here is the need for a dramatic shift in the LGBTQ power structure. The movement, now past a push for marriage equality that was seen by many people of color as the priority of white and well-to-do leaders, must be refocused toward the most marginalized among us.
Upchurch’s achievement is a great step. But one historic shift is never enough. There was a sense that President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 would usher in a post-racial America. But then black men being murdered by police began dominating evening headlines.
And now we’ve elected an administration that is stripping us of our civil liberties one by one. Complacency became our worst enemy.
The LGBTQ community in Columbus—and in other places where this discussion has yet to move its way up the agenda—needs to face its demons and unify around a reconstruction of the movement. The voices of people of color must become commonplace instead of an anomaly if we’re ever to truly heal.
“People who have gone without the most know best what is needed,” Hearns says. “Until that leadership is honored, there will always be a Black Pride 4 somewhere.”
D.A. Steward is a journalist, activist and former resident of Columbus who currently lives in Boston. He has written for The Boston Herald, The Advocate, Outlook Columbus and Newsday, among other publications.