COLUMN: Thom Brennaman is listening. Are you?

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Nov 21, 2020

COVINGTON — I believe things happen for a reason. Always have.

This weekend, Thom Brennaman will be a featured speaker during the Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky virtual charity ball.

Rick Wurth, the organization's openly gay CEO, told me it was because Brennaman's journey since August mirrors the journey of so many people associated with the organization. It fits the group's mission almost perfectly, he said.

"Our motto is, the bad things that happen in life don't have to have the last word -- situations can change, people can change," Wurth said Friday.

What a journey Brennaman is on, indeed.

Rounding third and about to embark

Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask if I’ve actually talked to Brennaman about “it” -- that night in August when his career crumbled after an open mic caught an anti-gay slur.

Brennaman apologized on air. As we all reacted, the defenses started online.

“It’s just a word," one (or more) Twitter user said.

"He apologized, move on," said another.

But we needed to talk about it. That night, I sat down and wrote a column, which included these lines:

“Quiet is acceptance. Quiet is exactly why we’re still talking about this. Quiet -- if we’ve learned anything in 2020 -- doesn’t solve anything. In fact, it allows problems to grow unchecked until they boil over.”

I also wrote, “I’m serious, Thom. If you are, let’s talk.”

Hours later, we actually did.

Twice that evening, in fact. And at lunch the following Monday. And by text or email occasionally since.

From the outset, I told Brennaman I selfishly saw an opportunity. If his journey can make him an ally to the LGBTQ community, then maybe -- just maybe -- we can change the hearts and minds of those screaming, “It’s not a big deal.”

Writing that first column felt oddly like coming out all over again.

Walking to meet Brennaman for the first time, I was nervous -- he'd been apologetic on the phone, but did he really want to hear what I had to say?

We talked for two hours at lunch. He asked to hear my story. More importantly, he wanted to know what I felt hearing that word -- that name. And he apologized, again. We talked about plenty not related to the slur, too. After all, we're both Bobcats, both Cincinnatians -- and people persons.

There is one question Brennaman hasn't answered yet: What was he talking about when he said it? I hope one day he feels comfortable explaining it.

I told him that I come from a position of privilege: There are so many other voices he needed to hear.

I came to find out he already was seeking out other voices -- and listening. He met with people like Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Seelbach. He reached out to PFLAG, which provides support for LGBTQ people, their parents and allies on local and national levels.

And then -- on Brennaman's birthday -- he sat on Cincinnati Public Schools board member Ryan Messer’s large front porch in front of a handful of LGBTQ leaders. We each told our stories, many deeply personal and painful. Messer, for example, shared that at age 21 he had been attacked outside a gay bar and hospitalized in the intensive care unit.

Messer said he, too, saw an opportunity to have a broad impact.

“There are a lot of people like him who listen to sports, who may happen to have a gay son or a son who comes out to them eventually," he said. "And if they see someone they respect and have engaged with -- albeit by radio, etc. -- start to tell them and challenge what they thought they knew or held true, could that change the world for a little boy like me out in Rising Sun, Indiana, coming out to their father?"

A pit stop in Devou Park

On a Friday in mid-September, I ended up in Devou Park with Brennaman at the Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky, which has been recognized for its inclusion work with the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

“I am pleasantly surprised at what has happened,“ Wurth said. "Thom and his family have past experiences supporting child welfare and children's homes in another state. But given the number of times he's been here and given the sharing, in-depth sharing in both directions -- me to Thom, Thom to me -- I don't think we're being hoodwinked here."

Remember, I believe everything happens for a reason.

Before talking with Wurth, I didn’t know about the work CHNK did and hadn’t heard about its inclusion-focused training or certification.

I likely learned as much as Brennaman did that day.

So, I thanked him that day. Because by being part of his journey, I’ve been pushed on another journey of my own.

No “othered” group is monolithic. I’ve got a ton of privilege. So, I need to seek my queer brothers and sisters’ voices and listen more, too.

Make your own roadmap

I wrote in August, “I’m serious, Thom. If you are, let’s talk.”

Brennaman met my challenge.

But this work never ends. And this was never just about him.

This really applies to us all: Seek queer voices -- and listen.

My promise to you -- and to myself -- is to share those voices, perspectives, and experiences with you. It’s my job, after all.

Evan Millward is an anchor and reporter with WCPO 9 News in Cincinnati.