Cincinnati’s Road to Becoming One of the Most Welcoming Cities for LGBTQ Families

Cincinnati Public Schools board member Ryan Messer uses his seat at the table to create a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ parents and students.

Ryan Messer counts off two childhood dreams that have come true: He always wanted kids, and he always wanted an Airstream. The latter landed in his proverbial lap earlier this year, when he found one in central Michigan. The area wasn’t even part of his search criteria.

Photograph by Ryan Messer

Once upon a time, he couldn’t imagine living so traditionally in Cincinnati. Messer is the first openly gay parent on the Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education. He was elected in 2017 after receiving the most votes out of 13 candidates. That fact means a lot to him: When he moved to the city in 2001, it was nowhere near as welcoming of LGBTQ people. That was three years before Article XII—which barred the City of Cincinnati from ratifying laws providing protections for people of gay, lesbian, or bisexual orientation—would be overturned by Hamilton County voters.

“It made Cincinnati one of the most unwelcoming cities for LGBT people,” says Messer, who lives in North Avondale. “When Article XII was voted in [in 1993], there were lots of LGBT people who just left and said, I can’t live in a place like this.

In the years between the passage (and eventual repeal) of Article XII and Messer’s election, he was actively involved in “helping to change the narrative in Cincinnati,” he says. He was an early founder of the city’s Human Rights Campaign chapter and chaired its first gala, and he’s served on various boards and community councils.

Photograph by Ryan Messer

The city has changed dramatically since he moved here, he says. Last year marked Cincinnati’s fifth perfect score in a row on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index, which rates cities on categories including nondiscrimination laws and LGBTQ inclusion in city programs and services. That improvement is one of the reasons he decided to run for the Cincinnati Public Schools board.

“You just can’t even imagine how different it feels to be in Cincinnati as somebody who is gay [today versus 20 years ago],” Messer says. “At the same time, I was prepared for the worst.”

Though he says he still confronts biases. He points to two instances of prejudice related to his school board run, and each revolved around online name-calling, including, in one instance, derogatory names being hurled at his children. In each case, Messer reached out to meet with the culprits. The first one, who involved Messer’s children, skipped the scheduled meeting.

“I actually met that [second] guy for breakfast, and it was amazing how that comment generated a discussion,” Messer says. “This guy had never met anybody gay, and all he knew was, this is what he was taught in his church.”

Today, Messer’s work to advance the cause of equality in Cincinnati isn’t so much about chairing the AIDS gala or helping lead parades. Instead, it’s simply about living his life with his husband and their four children, quietly showing that a family led by LGBTQ parents looks like any other family. This spring, he loaded up the family, and they drove out to Mount Rushmore in a 1972, 31-foot travel trailer.

“I evolved into [someone] standing in my yard and looking at a playset, a trampoline,” Messer says. “We’re your average family that has some kids. We just got back from a road trip to Mount Rushmore. How much more American do you get?”

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