CINCINNATI — Kayla McClain remembers all too well the pain of her years at Grant County High School.
As a teen who dated boys and girls, McClain got called every homophobic slur her classmates could think of, she said. She remembers how teachers hassled her for holding hands with her girlfriend but didn’t bother boys and girls who were making out in the hallway.
Even with the support of a few close friends and family members, she said it was a lonely time.
“These are things that should not be happening to children,” said McClain, now 32 with a daughter of her own. “Children are fragile, and they’re molding and they’re shaping, and they need safety and security especially in school. That should be where they go to learn and to grow – not where they go to be put down.”
McClain moved to Lexington, Kentucky, for a while after high school and had her daughter there. But she returned to Grant County about six years ago, determined to find a way to give LGBTQ+ youth the support she so desperately needed during her teens.
That’s why – as an intern for the Cincinnati-based nonprofit Love Must Win Inc. – she helped create two new $5,000 scholarships for LGBTQ+ students from schools in rural Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. The money can be used for four-year college, community college or trade school expenses.
Love Must Win and The Dru Project will award the scholarships to high school seniors who have worked to create gay-straight alliances, or GSAs, within their schools prior to graduating. To qualify, the students’ schools must have adopted The Dru Project GSA Guide or have a plan in place to adopt the GSA Guide for the 2021-2022 school year so that a supportive club for LGBTQ youth and their straight allies can be formed. GSAs also can be known as GSTAs, for gay, straight, transgender alliance or gender, sexuality and transgender alliance.
“We’re hoping that, you know, these scholarships provide not just money for them to go to school, but what it provides is a feeling of not being alone,” said Ryan Joseph Allen, co-founder and executive director of Love Must Win.
Allen, who attended a rural high school in Tennessee, said he hopes those youth will internalize the message: “There’s a group of people that support me and that love me.”
“If I thought that in high school, you know, maybe I would have come out much earlier in life, instead of hiding behind drugs and alcohol and self-mutilation and all the other things I hid behind,” Allen said. “Kayla’s so strong to stand, to stand there in Grant County. That would be really difficult for me to move back to rural Nashville and try to make a difference.”
McClain said the work is her calling.
“I want to be the voice of reason for these children because they need someone,” said McClain, who identifies as female and pansexual. “And I have a loud voice so I’m going to use it.”
‘That would have changed everything’
McClain decided to go to college a couple years ago when she was almost 31 to pursue her dream of becoming a social worker for LGBTQ youth. She started out at Gateway Community & Technical College and is now a junior at Northern Kentucky University.
She doesn’t know if a scholarship specifically for LGBTQ youth would have prompted her to go to college earlier in life, she said, but she knows having a GSA at her school would have made a huge difference in her life.
“It would have been probably life-changing,” she said. “Just to have somewhere to go and talk and feel safe when things were busy and crowded and full of hate. Just to go somewhere where I felt loved in the middle of the school day when people would scream 'dyke' at me or throw things at me and my girlfriend. Just to have a teacher to run to and be like, I just need a minute. Like, I feel like that would have changed everything.”
McClain was trying to get GSAs started in local schools when the idea of the scholarship was born.
After hitting roadblock after roadblock at rural Greater Cincinnati schools, McClain contacted The Dru Project based in Orlando, Florida. The Dru Project was created in memory of Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen after the deadly Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016. Leinonen was among the 49 people killed during the attack. He had launched the first gay-straight alliance in 2002 at Seminole High School in Seminole, Florida, and the nonprofit founded in his honor aims to “spread love across the nation” through scholarships and the creation of its comprehensive guide to help schools launch GSAs.
A member of The Dru Project team suggested launching a scholarship program. McClain discussed it with Allen, and the idea took off from there.
Love Must Win decided to focus the scholarships on rural parts of the region because other organizations already are working to launch GSAs at schools within the I-275 loop, Allen said.
“We thought, instead of replicating services, we would try to help form those GSAs and GSTAs outside of that loop,” he said. “That includes rural areas like Grant County, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, Brown County, Clermont County – those areas that have less resources in general and, specifically, less LGBTQ+ resources.”
‘These kids need someone’
Students interested in applying for the scholarship can contact Love Must Win to get help with starting a GSA in their school, said McClain, who now volunteers for Allen’s nonprofit.
A plan for launching a GSA next school year could be as simple as a one-page report from a student explaining the steps needed to start one of the groups, the name of a faculty member who would oversee it and space in a classroom, Allen said.
“It’s pretty simple to get started,” he said. “When we have that connection, we’re really able to do better and be the best version of ourselves we can be, and just at some points, you know, stay healthy and stay alive. Those connections are vital.”
In many ways, life has changed for the better over the past 10 years for LGBTQ people across the United States. Same-sex marriage is legal. Many major corporations offer domestic partner benefits. More people than ever feel comfortable to be their authentic selves.
But McClain said not much has changed in Grant County as far as she’s concerned, and she’s determined to bring more support and acceptance to her hometown.
“That’s all I want to do in life is be the person I needed when I was a child,” McClain said. “I feel like if everyone leaves who had a hard time here, no one is here to help the kids that are staying and the kids who are stuck here. I just feel like that’s important because, like, these kids need someone.”
More information about Love Must Win is available online. The scholarships will be presented by Love Must Win and The Dru Project in June. Winners will be announced June 1 -- Drew Leinonen’s birthday and the start of Pride Month. Applications are due May 1; details are available online.
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.