COVINGTON, Ky. — Ryan Joseph Allen was just about 6 years old, he said, when he first contemplated killing himself.
He grew up in Tennessee and remembers hearing his extended family say LGBTQ people wouldn’t go to heaven.
“For me, it was like, ‘Wow. God hates me,’” said Allen, who identifies as a pansexual man. “’I hate me now.’”
That self-hatred took Allen on a destructive path throughout his teen years — to addiction, self-mutilation, multiple suicide attempts and mental health struggles that went undiagnosed or under-diagnosed, he said, because he was in “survival mode.”
“Eventually, I was able to get sober and stay sober and really think, how can we help?” he said. “How can we help people who had struggled like I had struggled?”
By 2015, Allen was living in Greater Cincinnati, and he and two friends launched the nonprofit Love Must Win. Their goal: to offer resources and support to LGBTQ youth and adults that other local organizations weren’t providing.
While Greater Cincinnati and the nation have seen considerable progress in LGBTQ rights in the years since Allen was a little boy, he and other local advocates say the work is far from complete.
“When I can walk down the street with my partner in one hand and my daughter in the other hand and feel safe — that no one’s going to do a hate crime against me or hurt my child or hurt my partner or hurt all of us — then I would say the work is done,” Allen said.
A Human Rights Campaign Foundation analysis of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention national survey of U.S. high school students showed the many hurdles LGBTQ youth face. Among them:
- 54% of LGBTQ youth are battling symptoms of depression, compared to 29% of non-LGBTQ youth;
- 31% of LGBTQ youth, 29% of transgender youth; and 30% of questioning youth have been bulled at school, compared to 16% of their non-LGBTQ peers;
- 22% of LGBTQ youth, 29% of transgender youth and 27% of LGBTQ youth of color have attempted suicide, compared to 5% of non-LGBTQ youth;
- And 33% of LGBTQ youth said they have used cocaine, inhalants, heroin, meth, ecstasy or steroids at least once in their life, compared to 6% of their non-LGBTQ peers.
WCPO explored the resources available for LGBTQ youth and adults in Greater Cincinnati as part of our 2021 Pride month coverage. Here’s a closer look at some of the work underway to make the Tri-State more inclusive and welcoming.
Making schools more welcoming
GLSEN Greater Cincinnati is a chapter of the national organization, GLSEN, which advocates for every student to have a safe and supportive education.
The local chapter formed in 1995 — just five years after the national organization launched — and has regular programming to support LGBTQ youth in seven Tri-State counties.
Its work — when there isn’t a pandemic interfering — includes a weekly high school youth group, a prom for students, an annual youth summit, professional development and training for teachers and administrators, and an annual “second-chance prom” for adults who raise money for the organization.
GLSEN also helps schools form gay-straight alliances, or GSAs, where teachers serve as advisers to LGBTQ students and their straight allies, said Renee Hevia, a retired Spanish teacher and chair of GLSEN Greater Cincinnati.
“Having professional training for teachers is very important right now,” she said. “Not just the teachers who are advisers: Also, it’s really important for there to be inclusive curriculum — a curriculum that represents the LGBTQ history — and comprehensive policies that allow for transgender and non-conforming students to be able to have bathrooms and to be able to play sports.”
The number of Greater Cincinnati organizations that provide support and resources for LGBTQ youth and adults has “really exploded,” Hevia said. Transform, for example, provides free head-to-toe wardrobes for transgender and gender non-conforming youth, and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center provides extensive services for families through its Transgender Health Clinic.
“I feel like now that folks are recognizing and being able to say, ‘Here I am. This is who I am,’ there’s much more support for all the folks in the community,” Hevia said.
Even with all those resources, though, Hevia said there are new challenges all the time.
“All you have to do is take a look at the state of affairs that we are in right now,” she said. “The Ohio state legislature is looking to ban transgender students from athletics. We get emails that transgender students and non-conforming gendered students don’t have bathrooms to go to. So it’s 2021, and it just, it hasn’t changed.”
Supporting the most vulnerable LGBTQ youth
LGBTQ youth face major challenges beyond school, too.
A 2017 analysis by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth had a 120% increased risk of experiencing homelessness compared to young people who identified as straight and whose gender identity matched the biological sex they were assigned at birth.
Lighthouse Youth & Family Services recognized that disparity even before that analysis was published, said Jodi Harding, the organization’s chief operations officer.
Lighthouse started its Safe and Supported initiative in 2016, she said, to educate and train staff members internally — and employees of other organizations — about how to provide the resources that LGBTQ youth need in a way that is compassionate and effective.
“Our policies and procedures are really geared towards addressing the very unique needs of the LGBTQ population,” Harding said. “Now it’s basically infused into everything we do.”
When Lighthouse designed its new Sheakley Center for Youth, which opened in January 2018, staff made sure it had single-occupancy rooms that offered privacy and bathrooms that locked. And when the organization works to place an LGBTQ youth in foster care, Harding said staff members make sure the foster home is affirming and uses the young person’s proper pronouns.
“All of our procedures consider the unique needs of every individual client that comes through our door,” Harding said. “There’s maybe not a concerted effort to focus and educate. We feel like we’ve done that. Now we just kind of live it every day.”
Lighthouse has an LGBTQ ombudsman to handle complaints or concerns, she said, because the organization recognizes that nobody is perfect.
“People really need to have an understanding that systemic inequities still exist,” Harding said. “Although we have made progress and although we are more educated and more accepting in general than we have ever been before, there are still things that happen to LGBTQ youth and adults that are hurtful and traumatic and keep them from being their best self. So we have to make sure that we are addressing those issues and continue to shed a light on those inequities that are happening throughout the system.”
A new affordable housing development in Northside aims to provide support for LGBTQ older adults.
John Arthur Flats will have 57 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments for low-income senior citizens. The development is named for the late John Montgomery Arthur, a Cincinnati native who was the husband of Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage in the United States.
Anyone can apply to live in the development as long as they are over the age of 55 and meet the project’s income qualifications, but there will be supports and resources specifically aimed at LGBTQ adults, said Sarah Thomas. She is executive director of Northsiders Engaged in Sustainable Transformation, or NEST, the community development organization developing the project with Philadelphia-based Pennrose.
“When you think about the LGBTQ community all over the country with the marriage equality decision, it feels like, especially in recent years, we’ve made all these strides,” Thomas said. “But I think it’s important to remind people how long things that like took and then how in many ways and different places the LGBTQ community still doesn’t feel like they have a safe haven or like things are being provided for them.”
Older LGBTQ adults face higher rates of poverty and housing discrimination, Timothy Henkel, a Pennrose senior vice president, said in a news release about the project.
“It’s a beautiful thing that we’ve made all these advancements,” Thomas said. “But I think in some ways there’s still a long way to go.”
The Council on Aging of Southwest Ohio will provide Meals on Wheels to residents of the flats, some legal assistance and transportation to doctor’s appointments. Caracole, Greater Cincinnati’s nonprofit AIDS service organization, will provide medical, social and quality-of-life services on site, Thomas said, and Churches Active in Northside, or CAIN, will help with hot meals to go, assistance with haircuts, pet care and tax preparation.
“We’re designing this space of safety and security,” Thomas said. “It’s really about, at its core, providing a service that people need, which is secure, affordable housing.”
‘Healing and growth for people’
Love Must Win serves LGBTQ people of all ages.
The organization’s programs include: GLAST, a recovery program for LGBTQ people battling addiction; SAFE, a program to unify spiritual and faith backgrounds; Arts Must Win, which emphasizes healing through the arts; and its Hearts and Hugs project, which spreads kindness through heart-shaped notes and heart-felt hugs.
“It sounds kind of fluffy sometimes – love and light and acceptance and kindness,” Allen said. “But those aren’t really fluffy things. Those are actually deeply impactful psychological elements to create healing and growth for people.”
Love Must Win works closely with other LGBTQ-focused groups in the region, Allen said, as well as organizations such as Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky that have inclusive and welcoming policies.
The organization is run entirely by volunteers with no paid staff, Allen said, adding that most local LGBTQ-focused nonprofits operate the same way.
“There’s countless resources for LGBTQ individuals,” he said. “I could list off 50 right now that are in our area. But for the 50 we have, there needs to be 500 volunteers that come in and help – and 10 new organizations that help fill the gaps that are there.”
Those volunteer leaders work long hours to help run their nonprofits, Allen said, all while holding down their day jobs and managing their families and other responsibilities.
Allen’s 10-year-old daughter, Harper Rae, said she likes helping her dad, especially with the Hearts and Hugs.
“I think all the stuff he does is really important,” she said. “He helps people. His organization helps people in their difficult times when they need help.”
It’s all about loving people as they are, Allen said, and that’s something he thinks everyone should be able to support.
“It doesn’t matter what you believe in, but everyone believes in love,” Allen said. “And if not, I would really reevaluate – reevaluate your heart. If you don’t believe in love, what do you believe in?”
More information about people and organization working to make a difference for LGBTQ people in Greater Cincinnati can be found on WCPO.com/pride.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.