Prizm News / July 10, 2019 / By Ken Schneck

(Photos courtesy of Sandy Varndell)

How one passionate mother helped lead Medina to offer protections to the LGBTQ+ community

When Medina this week became the 25th community in Ohio to pass comprehensive protections for the LGBTQ+ community, that victory didn’t just spontaneously happen. This huge leap forward for the small—and reputationally conservative—city was the result of years of education, canvassing, networking, and pure gumption. At the heart of all the action has been Sandy Varndell, a licensed social worker and founder of OutSupport, whose passion for equality applied as much to Medina as it does to her beloved two children, both of whom are part of the LGBTQ community. Prizm spoke with Varndell less than 24 hours after the City Council’s affirming vote to find out just how she pulled off legislation in Medina that her neighbors in seemingly more progressive cities have yet to achieve. 

First, congratulations! How are you feeling less than a day after this wonderful outcome?

Yay! We’re just so thrilled. I have had an ongoing text conversation with the team, and have been telling them that I feel like I won the lottery. Not only because of the amazing evening, but also because I got to work with such amazing people in the process for the past 2 years. I feel so lucky and so blessed. 

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Let’s go back a few years to get some perspective. How did you come to create OutSupport?

My oldest child came out as transgender about six years ago. I knew nothing. Less than nothing. I’ve always been an open-minded person, very “live and let live.” I thought I had always known LGBT people, but then I realized I didn’t know any T’s. It was a steep, steep learning curve. I reached out to Akron PFLAG which was a godsend, but Akron was a long drive from my house. Medina didn’t have any support groups so I approached my open-minded church and they were 100% behind creating a group here. I though maybe four people would show up, but 25 people came to that first meeting. The group just kept growing and growing and growing, with people coming from all over northern Ohio. Most of them at the time were high school students and their parents: the high school kids trying to meet other trans kids and their parents trying to get their head around what their kid was going through. 

In one of the meetings, one of the kids talked about “the dream” and everyone started nodding. I had no clue what they were talking about, and they explained how they dream of themselves as the gender they are and then they wake up and want to kill themselves when their bodies don’t match up. That threw me for a loop and I knew we had to do more than hold meetings. Over the years, OutSupport has distributed close to 100 undergarments to help teens see themselves more authentically. We developed an education program and put together a “Transgender 101” workshop for librarians, guidance counselor groups, churches, and corporations. And we have had fundraisers to support the Gay Straight Alliances in Medina. 

What does LGBTQ+ support look like in Medina?

By way of an example, OutSupport been marching in the July 4th parade for four years. We’ve never had a bad experience. There have always been lots of thumbs up and people clapping when we walk by. 

Why this legislation in Medina and why now?

I went to a transgender job fair in Cleveland a few years ago and I stood next to Gwen Stembridge (Statewide Civic Engagement Director at Equality Ohio) and she was explaining how Equality Ohio was working on communities passing these ordinances. I remember saying to Gwen that we could do this in Medina, and she just looked at me. At that time, Medina didn’t have the standards that Equality Ohio was looking for to put in all the effort to have an ordinance pass. I kept thinking for a year that I would like to try it. Then I went to another workshop on how to pass these ordinances. I met Pam Miller who used to sit on City Council. She knew all the power players and was able to point me in the right directions to talk to people. Then the amazing Amy Demlow helped with the business comprehension and understanding, and with the legal end of things. 

What was your thinking throughout the process?

We were not sure the language would ever pass, but we thought we would give it a shot. We had a lot of support right away. And we heard about so many LGBTQ kids leaving Medina because of bigotry and the perception of bigotry. We really pushed the business angle as well as the personal approach. Medina has a really hard time keeping labor jobs filled. We stressed the point that businesses needed people to stay here, because when young people leave, Medina is really losing out. 

All the hard work clearly paid off. What would you say to your neighbors in other cities who want to pass similar legislation but fear their community is too conservative?

Pool your resources. Check in with your local ties. Is there a supportive church? Are there supportive politicians? Is there an attorney that is open to this idea? Is there a GSA already started at the high school? Bring everyone into the conversation. You not only need your allies, but also businesses. Big corporations and smaller companies are getting right on board with supporting their employees in the LGBTQ community. Don’t be shy in approaching those companies. 

How will you personally look back at this victory?

I feel like I have done something significant with my life. I’m a regular gal. I’m just a mom and a social worker. But I guess being a mom is the most important thing in that I will do everything I can to make the world better for my trans child and my bisexual child. 

Ken Schneck
Ken Schneck is an author, professor, radio host, and rabble rouser. His travelogue, "Seriously, What Am I Doing Here?: The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew" was published in 2017, "LGBTQ Cleveland" was released in 2018, and "LGBTQ Columbus" hits the shelves in June of 2019. He is a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, Cleveland Magazine and FreshWater Cleveland. For 10 years, he was the producer/host of "This Show is So Gay," the award-winning, long-running radio show/podcast, and will launch “The Do Gooder Podcast” this September. In his spare time, he is a Professor of Education at Baldwin Wallace University where he teaches courses on antiracism and communities organizing for social change.