Artists, pastors, lawyers, activists, historians, educators, social workers, law enforcement officers, journalists—these 20 local LGBTQ advocates all have their hand in Cincinnati’s future. We asked them about the city’s progress and what still needs to be done to further advance the LGBTQ community.
Sparkle Leigh (a.k.a. Dan Davidson)
Dan Davidson talks a lot about “dynamic conversations,” where people can get past ideological disagreements and focus on understanding one another. Davidson has a little help creating these conversations—a character named Sparkle Leigh, who he describes as a cartoon trapped in the real world, “the love child of Roger and Jessica Rabbit.” StoryTime with Sparkle takes place on Saturdays through Facebook, and had been a monthly event at Know Theatre. It’s an opportunity to connect with kids on their level, to create a space where they can be goofy and curious and where they can learn about differences through connection.
“I can literally say at this point [StoryTime] has saved my life. Almost exactly three years ago, I was leaving a show with a friend, and I was targeted in a hit-and-run hate crime, where I was literally run over by a car. I suffered severe head trauma from my head hitting the windshield. My teeth shattered. I was hanging on to the car, because my thought was I would do that so the person would not get away. But I blacked out and slid off, and they ran over me and mangled my legs and I possibly also hit my head again. So there’s a lot of post-concussion, post-traumatic brain injury, PTSD stuff.”
“One of the things I thought [about] [was] where I landed. This club I had worked in would have the [RuPaul’s Drag Race] girls come, and there would be a lineup of teens outside, because they obviously couldn’t get in to see them at the club. If there was time, the girls would go hang out with the teens for a little bit, and I’d go with them, and if they couldn’t make it, I would try to go talk to everybody. Where I landed [when I fell off the car] was very close to where that was. The ambulance came, and I was taken to the hospital, and my left side was completely paralyzed. I thought, I can’t deal with this. How does anyone deal with this? And then I thought, If I can’t, what if this had happened to one of those teens? A kid? That thought became a real lifeline to get through this.”
“I’ve been able to go up to Lakota [schools] and talk to kids about bullying as someone who survived a hate crime, as someone who survived conversion therapy. I’m able to use my experience as a way to advocate for things. I don’t have to bang my head against a brick wall politically. I can just go tell my story, and it’s just as powerful.”
“In the context of the bullying workshop, I can take it out of the context of LGBTQ, asking them, Do you know someone in your life who has a different religion than you? Do you know someone or have someone in your family who has different political beliefs than you do? That’s how to have more dynamic conversations. It’s a thing that people are forgetting—how to fundamentally connect with each other.”
“One of my therapists, when I was having to get my mind back, said, It sounds like you’ve always used performance as protest. Especially in crazy horrible times, we feel we have to retreat and isolate, and what we really need is the exact opposite. Now you know what you can’t have. [I’m] trying to be the voice in the middle of the hurricane to say, Remember to breathe. Maybe that’s enough, that little reminder to keep grounded and keep going. When I wasn’t able to be that, Sparkle was. That is all of our journeys through life, figuring out how to be our own advocate, not our own enemy. [Those in the] LGBTQ community have to learn to deal with that so much earlier.”
Phebe (Karen) Beiser
When she started collecting bits and pieces of Cincinnati’s written LGBTQ history in the 1970s, Beiser never thought her hobby would turn into a career. But her persistence paid off, and for the past 30 years Beiser and Victoria Ramstetter have been curating the Ohio Lesbian Archives, one of the only collections of its kind in the country.
“I feel very lucky to have been young in the ’70s. It was a time of questioning.”
“This volunteer gig has become a career. This hobby became a passion, this habit of saving these books and materials and magazines.”
“I never thought I’d see same-sex marriage in my lifetime.”
“Just about everyone knows someone [in the LGBTQ community]. [Acceptance] really is so simple when you get down to it.”
In 2018, the Diocese of Covington blocked the Holy Cross High School valedictorian from speaking at graduation because it claimed their speech was “political and inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.” That decision backfired when video of Bales delivering the speech over a megaphone following the ceremony went viral. In 2019, the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation recognized Bales, who’s now a student at the University of Louisville, with its First Amendment Award.
“I remember [that time] being pretty overwhelming and crazy. It was a lot. Nonstop bombardment. Not just the media, but other people reaching out to say that my story resonated with them. I tried to talk to as many people as I could. I felt responsible.”
“I don’t think [the Obergefell decision] impacted my life personally, at the time, though of course it did. It helped kind of shift the U.S. into a place where more people started to be more tolerant and accepting of not just homosexuals, but of the LGBTQ community. Visibility is very important. For me, I was in high school, and it was a decision that didn’t impact me a ton, but of course very overdue, very necessary. We are in an upward battle still, with a lot to do, but it’s a good starting point.”
Beck fosters empathy for LGBTQ young people from the top, leading cultural competency training for youth-serving organizations through Safe and Supported at Lighthouse Youth & Family Services. “We build [organizations’] competency, learning vocabulary, values, culture—and we work with intersectionality, acknowledging that, yes, LGBTQ people exist, but they also exist in other ways, especially being women and people of color.”
“We know that around 7 percent of the U.S. youth population identify as LGBTQ. But what we also know is that of youths experiencing homelessness, almost 40 to 43 percent identify as LGBTQ. For around half of them, it’s because they were kicked out of their homes or had to leave their homes. So they face high rates of homelessness due to family rejection.”
“The LGBTQ experience is fluid. When I started doing this work [in college], I identified as a cisgender person, meaning that my sex assigned at birth was the same as my gender identity. Mostly because I felt like there wasn’t a lot of representation that informed me that there were other ways that one could identify. When I was in high school, we heard a lot about hate crimes and HIV, and I didn’t want to admit or realize that I was any different. It wasn’t until I met a lot of other LGBTQ+ people in college that I was then able to come out to myself, and that was in my twenties. And I still didn’t have the words or the language to talk about my gender. So even though I was in the LGBTQ community doing this advocacy work, I still was struggling with my own gender identity. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I was even able to identify that I was nonbinary. I identify as nonbinary and trans, though not all nonbinary people identify that way. It took me doing a lot of self-education and meeting other LGBTQ and nonbinary folks, and I found a community.”
“Using someone’s correct pronouns, it shows the person you’re interacting with that you respect them. It also shows that you’re not making judgments. It’s really important to acknowledge—just like it’s important that people recognize that someone is a woman and that they have history, etc. I think sometimes it’s like how people say, I don’t see color; we’re all the same. The reality is that we’re not all the same. As a trans person, I don’t want to be treated the same way you would treat a heterosexual or cisgender person, because we’re not the same. It’s about acknowledging the differences we have that make us who we are and respecting those differences.”
“The first top priority issue I’m seeing is the ability to change your gender markers on your birth certificate. That will help solve a lot of issues. Oftentimes when people show up for services and their documents are different, it is a barrier. Something I personally ran into, when I go to HR, they have to choose a gender for me, and they have to use the name on my birth documents, and that is not the name I go by. Even if I get my name changed legally, I cannot change the name on my birth certificate.”
The founding director of Northern Kentucky University’s Office of LGBTQ Programs and Services says her work extends beyond the university. “We have to be doing our part daily to make this world better for LGBTQ folks, and all folks,” she says. She walks the talk with NKY Fairness, pushing local governments to enact fairness ordinances that prohibit discrimination.
“When students come to campus, so many are not out. But more students are out than ever before. That’s actually one of the biggest changes I’ve seen since the Obergefell case. They’re coming out at younger ages, coming to the university out at higher rates than before, and they find this community and want to give back.”
“The next step is a community space. There is a need. [Northern Kentucky Fairness] has been fielding calls from folks even outside Kentucky, but especially southern parts of Northern Kentucky. Teachers and counselors are looking for support, especially for trans kids, but resources and support for all kids. They’re looking to be connected to those in the [LGBTQ+] community.”
“It’s more important than ever to take care of folks and provide support. Over the past couple of years, protections have really been rolled back. There’s still a whole lot of work to do.”
Rev. Derek Terry
Pastor of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Pleasant Ridge, Rev. Terry came out to his family, his congregation, and the world on Iyanla: Fix My Life in 2015. “I couldn’t preach that there was nothing wrong with [being gay] but then be ashamed of that truth,” he says. “It was important to me to say, I’m a black, gay, Christian pastor, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“I grew up in the church and was really active. I played piano for the youth group. It was in between my freshman and sophomore year in college when I decided I wanted to be preaching in the ministry. It wasn’t so much a decision as it felt like a calling. I left [my second] denomination [in Louisville] several years later, because I couldn’t be in that denomination and [be] openly same-gender loving. That’s how I ended up in Cincinnati.”
“I came out to myself, and I thought, OK, I’m probably gay. It was about August or September. Then in October of that year, my favorite childhood pastor was brutally murdered in Chattanooga for a ‘gay-for-pay’ gone wrong. He was in his early fifties. And I had just seen him a week or two prior to when he got killed. And I just remember thinking, Wow, what if he were able to live his truth? I decided this was not the path that I wanted.”
“In the traditional black church, there are lots of queer-identifying people, but it’s seen and not heard. It’s there, but not spoken. People will know that you’re gay, and they’ll know that’s not your roommate and all of that. But you don’t talk about it. To me, anything we don’t talk about or we hide, that’s in some way saying bad. I truly did not believe that being gay was a detriment. I didn’t believe that God looked at me any differently, so why hide that part [of my life]?”
“[Coming out] was important, not just for me, but for other people within the church who are looking to God, to Christianity. There are people who really think they can’t be gay and a Christian, and I’m like, Yes, you absolutely can. God is on the side of those who are oppressed and marginalized. Jesus was oppressed and marginalized, and God was right by his side. That message is important because so many people try to convince us that we are less than.”
Cincinnati’s first openly gay councilmember has always drawn the ire of critics who think he prioritizes LGBTQ issues above others. “My response is that I’ve probably spent 40 hours on those votes for LGBTQ issues in my eight years [on council]. Those were not hard votes.” But his presence on council keeps equality issues on the table. As a result, “[Cincinnati] is now a leader on LGBTQ equality,” Seelbach says. During his tenure, the city became second in the nation to ban conversion therapy for minors and was third to include transgender healthcare benefits. “I’m proud of the work we’ve done. If people want to put me in a box, fine. But I’m not defined by that box.”
“I moved here in 1998 to go to Xavier, and I met David Crowley. He decided he wanted to get involved in politics. He had four kids, and two were gay. He was this grandfather type, and he was like, I love my kids, no matter if they’re gay or straight. I was inspired by him and decided to get into politics. Working for him on council, I was incredibly inspired to do that myself. Fast-forward to 2011, David passed away, and I ran for city council to try to continue his legacy, as well as the work that I wanted to do.”
“I like to remind people: The [city council] votes for [LGBTQ+ equality] were always there. A majority of city council was LGBTQ+ supportive. But no one made it a priority. It’s important to have LGBTQ represented, because they’re going to make sure that the needs and the equality are ensured in our city charter. That’s why [representation is] important to me.”
“What’s changed since [the legalization of same-sex marriage] is that we can now get married, which I did in 2018. I’ve been with my partner Craig for almost 15 years now. When we first started dating in 2005, we didn’t think it would ever be possible for us to get married.”
“As I tell people, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, which said that racism and bias against people based on their gender is illegal. But guess what? Racism and sexism still exist. Just because laws change doesn’t mean people are always treated equally and fairly. A lot of people thought marriage equality was the end of the road. It’s not. The average lifespan of a transgender woman of color is 35 because of violence and suicide. This fight is far from over. We have a lot more work to do to make our laws more inclusive, but also changing hearts and minds. That takes decades and sometimes centuries.”
This Columbus native came to Cincinnati in 2018 as regional director for the Human Rights Campaign, planning community engagement and voter activation and assisting HRC-endorsed candidates. He has since become a deputy director with the Democratic National Committee, where he’ll travel the country to work within the national political infrastructure to support human rights.
“As a kid, I never really saw representation of myself in my community. I never saw powerful gay leaders or powerful black men. My mom always told me that I have to be my best advocate; no one is going to be a better advocate for me than myself. And I took that and ran with it. She instilled in me the idea of being an activist. You know, if you don’t have a seat at the table, bring a folding chair. If you don’t see a way, make a way. And I’ve never been one to flip over the card table; I just want to win the game.”
“The gay community in Cincinnati is so vibrant and so different than in a lot of big cities, where it can be disconnected and dormant. Cincinnati has a really cool gay dodgeball team! There’s a gay potluck that was started in the ’90s. That is community for me, and I’ll miss it [while traveling for my new job]. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m coming back; my home is Cincinnati. I came as a stranger and leave as a family member.”
Pastor Lesley E. Jones
Church has always been a safe haven for Jones, but she also knows firsthand the heavy burden of reconciling sexuality and spirituality. As founder and lead pastor of Truth & Destiny Covenant Ministries, she strives to foster a “radically inclusive” place of hope and safety where all can gather, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious background.
“I would say overall for the LGBT community that Cincinnati has moved the needle forward. I think, particularly for people of color, that there’s still some strongholds. It’s still not a safe community for LGBTQIA people of color because it’s still not a safe city for people of color. So when you add additional labels or qualifiers around sexuality, it becomes even more challenging. I do think that there are pockets of safety, but there’s not safety across the board. And so because there’s not been this broad place of safety for these people-of-color communities, it’s really hindered young people.”
“I think, particularly if you’re black and you’re gay, there’s still this thing that kind of hovers of Are you black? Or are you gay?”
“I’m still concerned that we don’t have blanket protections around housing and employment. And those are the things that also make families viable and stable.”
“I founded the church with an intentional outreach and ministry to the LGBT community. But I believe that, while it is normalizing that we have so many other people on the margins, we are really a ministry by people from the margins to people on the margins. And so our vision and our goals and hopes are that we extend our ministry to truly be a ministry of radical inclusivity that welcomes all people.”
“Our main focus is Are we demonstrating the love of Christ to all the world? And are we being the example of Christ in the earth that God really has called us to be? And I believe that means embracing all people, no matter where they are on their journey.”
Attorney Knox happily describes himself as a “worker bee,” but his legal expertise often places him at the center of the action—particularly when it comes to representing victims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. In 2004, as legal chair of Citizens to Restore Fairness, Knox helped to repeal Article XII, the infamous city charter amendment that blocked legal protections for gay citizens.
“When we were trying to repeal Article XII, one of the biggest challenges was very well-meaning people who never saw anti-gay discrimination. Citizens for Community Values would say, This is not a problem! It doesn’t happen! When have you heard about someone getting fired because they’re gay? Well, I was the one who would get those phone calls from people who told me their story about being fired.”
“I got involved in that cause because I saw the damage, and it made me angry. I still believe that people are basically good and want what’s fair, and the repeal of Article XII helped to prove that. We went door-to-door to talk to people about voting it down and, overwhelmingly, when we asked people, Do you think that someone who is doing a good job should be able to be fired just because they’re gay or a lesbian? Overwhelmingly, people said, Oh, no, absolutely not.”
As the solo social worker in the Transgender Health Clinic at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Heflin equips transgender patients and their families with resources and support. She previously launched a behavioral and wellness program for trans adults at Central Clinic Behavioral Health, is a board member of the Transgender Advocacy Council of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, and hosts professional gender-affirming trainings for local providers.
“When I first came to the city [eight years ago], being able to find a [healthcare] provider who’s LGBTQ confident and knowledgeable was challenging, and now there are number of—not just mental health providers—but doctors and other clinicians who are really great at working with members of the LGBTQ population.”
“As a member of the LGBTQ population, in my past I’ve had interactions with providers who haven’t been really knowledgeable and those turn out to be not the best interactions. The last thing that you want is to go in looking for support and help and then leave feeling worse off than when you went in.”
“Being a visible role model, especially while working with youth, can be really helpful. Sometimes there are youth that can feel a little bit hopeless or there are parents who are worried that being transgender can have a negative impact on how their kids are going to do as they get older, so having somebody who is successful and doing well can help in a lot of ways.”
What if gender reveal parties were reserved for transgender kids who were transitioning and needed new clothes? That was the question—or rather, the Facebook meme—Vaught shared last year, sparking the idea for Transform Cincy, a one-of-a-kind nonprofit that provides new clothing and makeovers to transgender youth.
“I think, from my perspective—I don’t know that it’s a very common perspective—we understood that marriage equality only helped a very select few in our community. And I think, over the past five years now, a lot of education has been done around the fact that we have to be allies for each other, even within our own community, and looking at how intersectionality or how oppressive forces play into individual lives.”
“I think what’s happened the last five years is we also took a step back. We only really benefitted a few. We still continue to focus only on the lesbian and gay. There’s a lot of bi erasure. There’s a lot of trans erasure. There’s not even really wanting to help trans kids. There’s a lot of pushback. Well, I didn’t have it easy. Why should they? And I’m like, You’re an adult now. Maybe come back to your community and make it a little easier for these kids. And I think that’s kind of what’s been changing, and I’m hoping is changing, is that we start looking at ourselves as a community that is an ally for each other.”
“I think we’re making progress. We still have a ways to go in reframing it around race and class in this city. If we’re able to reframe some of that and make sure we’re taking care of the most marginalized, I think Cincinnati is a great hot spot for this, and here’s why: People are like, Why don’t you move to San Francisco or New York or somewhere else more accepting? The work is here. The tension is here. This is where the movement makes an impact. This is where people’s views and the way that they look at it makes it change. If you can make it here in Cincinnati, you can make it in New York or San Francisco or anywhere else. Sometimes, in the East/West Coast or other spaces, they kind of sit back and go, Oh, we’ve got this. And so they’re not constantly critiquing what they need to do better. Here, it’s a constant tension, a constant battle. So we’re always trying to be a little more innovative. We’re always trying to push the bar a little bit.”
“I’m not here to change belief systems, religion, or politics. I’m here to give you the tools to be respectful and to not be an a-hole, especially to a trans kid. That’s all I’m here for. I’m not here to change your entire worldview, your entire belief system. But I’m here to plant a seed, to go Maybe take a step back. We don’t want to do more harm, especially when we look at the 50 percent suicide rate among trans youth. That’s too much. We can all come to the table and say, I don’t want kids killing themselves.”
As a former major, McGuffey is the highest-ranking woman in the history of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, and a November election victory would make her Ohio’s first LGBTQ sheriff. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is,” she says, “to have felt like you had to hide your entire life, and then be able to just open up the doors and be yourself to the world.”
“At 14, I decided that I wanted to be a police officer. So I went to my uncle, who was a former Cincinnati retired police officer, and I announced my intention. My uncle immediately explained to me that that was not possible, that women couldn’t be cops and cops couldn’t be women, and I should start thinking about a different career. So it was right at that very moment that I made up my mind I was going to do it.”
“Ten years ago, I was leaving a gay bar with four of my female friends, and two Covington police officers targeted us and started harassing us. I called out that behavior and I named it. I said, You’re targeting a gay bar, and that’s not right. You should find something better to do with your time than harass gay people. For that, I was given three citations. And those citations were summarily dismissed weeks later because, of course, they were without merit…. Those charges were not only dismissed but expunged in a very short period of time. However, I did work for a sheriff—Simon Leis Jr. at the time—who was very homophobic. I reported the incident, of course, as per policy. And when he found out that I was leaving a gay bar, he disciplined me for that. And he called it conduct unbecoming. And he gave me five days off work for conduct unbecoming. That is the only discipline in my file in my 33-year career. “
“I will say certainly there’s more progress to be made. But I grew up here. And I know that in my younger years, as a twentysomething, you absolutely were fearful that someone would find out you were gay. It could ruin your career. It could ruin your life. It could ruin your family ties. It was super important that those of us who were gay who knew each other kept that confidence for each other, because all of us knew how incredibly [difficult] life would become if people knew we were gay. Even the rumor that you were gay could damage you.”
“It’s quite different now. The fact that I could actually marry my partner and walk in a Pride parade in uniform was…. I mean, it was absolutely unbelievable to me that I would ever be able to do that. It was a little bit surreal, as it was happening for me. I was incredibly energized by it.”
“When I marched in the gay pride parade for the first time in uniform with my wife, there was pushback. Oh, believe me. There were guys who let me know that that was unacceptable. And I was threatened while I was there, as the major. I’m a high-ranking woman in uniform. And this is the way they’re treating me. Imagine how we might treat someone who doesn’t have the same advantages as me who ends up in the criminal justice system. I was literally told that I would be fired if the sheriff’s wife found out that I was gay.”
“I know other officers who still experience some discrimination. And sometimes that discrimination can be pretty insidious—because it just means that you don’t really know why you didn’t get that promotion. You don’t really know why you didn’t get that job assignment. It’s never really said, but in reality, you know the fact that you’re gay can play a part in the way the department treats you.”
“I’m running for sheriff because I’m a strong leader. And I’m a leader who values how we treat people, whether you are the victim of a crime, the perpetrator of the crime, or the police officer who has to respond to the situation. I’m a person who counts my equity not in dollars, but in people. And I am a believer in the collaboration of moving forward. And I think that’s the only way we’re going to do it, to be transparent. And that’s who I am.”
Hughes remembers pacing the blocks around pop-up HIV testing sites at Northern Kentucky coffeeshops and bars in college, dreading the possibility of a positive result. Today, he shepherds clients through the fear and stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS as a case manager for Caracole, Cincinnati’s HIV/AIDS service organization that provides prevention, testing, housing, and case management services.
“When I was about 16, I was confronted with HIV pretty directly. Around this age, some of us get cornered by incredibly awkward conversations with a parent who tries to convince us why we shouldn’t be gay. That was my dad. He tried everything from Your life will be unnecessarily harder to It’s not a part of nature’s design. In a more desperate attempt, he pulled out the AIDS card one night. I left that conversation terrified for myself, believing an HIV diagnosis was inevitable. That conversation is something I will never forget.”
“Now, as a case manager, a part of the job asks that we sometimes quite literally walk beside our clients through their own shame and fear. You can’t underestimate the way these two things impact someone’s ability to manage their HIV health. For some clients who really struggle, their inability to reach viral suppression is a byproduct of the conditioning they’ve experienced to see their diagnosis as both inevitable and shameful. Even today, with medical advancement in treatment and the availability of PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis medication], stigma remains a barrier to care and prevention. I’m proud to be a part of a team of coworkers who understands this and is continuously trying to do better in reducing barriers towards wellness.”
“Not having the right to marry served as a tool to further subordinate LGBTQ people. That’s a lot to unpack. Five years since the ruling I think we are still observing how dense this web of discriminatory legislation is, but it continues to disentangle. The absence of just that one piece of discrimination will have major effects on how our community continues to grow. The symbolic effect I think I can relate to more closely right now is the simple fact that we are able to hold our heads up that much higher and really believe that years of fighting and relentless work were not in vain.”
“I think the work remains in the trickle-down legislation at the state and local levels. Cincinnati City Council continues to pass important antidiscrimination policies. What is concerning about this to me is that often these city policies that attempt to include gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes usually precede protection ordinances at the state level. I remember the 2014 memorials for Leelah Alcorn and Tiffany Edwards, two trans women here in Cincinnati. Even though their deaths happened nearly a year before marriage equality passed, I think it demonstrates who is still vulnerable in our community.”
“As Cincinnati continues to grow in inclusion, I think it’s important for us to rally behind trans and genderfluid community members and also be more supportive of people of color in our community. These two identities continue to be negatively impacted and at greater risks for homelessness, discrimination, and lower health outcomes. It’s irresponsible to continue social transformation for LGBTQ folks without proper attention, representation, and planning around these two identities.”
Artistic director of the Cincinnati Men’s Chorus since 2017, Milloy has been focused on keeping relationships intact among chorus members and with community supporters. “Choir singing is a group sport,” he says, bemoaning the pandemic’s social distancing orders. CMC’s spring concert was cancelled (it might be rescheduled), so Milloy’s focus now is planning the organization’s 30th season in 2021.
“I’m 54 years old, and I never thought I’d see same-sex marriage become legal, or see TV shows featuring gay lead characters, or see products marketed to gay people on TV commercials. My husband and I got married in 2016, and we’ve been together since 2001.”
“After the Supreme Court decision [in 2015], I thought the pendulum of advancement and acceptance would swing back a bit. But I didn’t expect to see the outright divisiveness we’ve experienced in the country over these past few years. I didn’t think we’d see people marching in the streets with torches to promote hatred, not even bothering to cover their faces. It’s a scary time. Sure, I can get married and those of us in the LGBTQ community have more rights than we did before, but there’s a lot left to do.”
“Live music is a living, breathing thing. There’s no substitute, really. I know our audience and supporters have been missing our performances, and we very much miss performing live for them. I can’t wait for all of us to come out of this [pandemic] and get together on the other end to sing together and celebrate.”
Brooklyn Steele-Tate (a.k.a. Michael Cotrell)
Cotrell wears many wigs as president of Cincinnati Pride, chair of the Out of the Darkness Walk, a longtime member of nonprofit ISQCCBE, and president of Greater Cincinnati Gay Chamber of Commerce—and did we mention he’s the fiercely funny hostess (as alter ego Brooklyn Steele-Tate) of weekly drag shows at Below Zero’s The Cabaret? “[Drag] has helped us pull issues like homelessness and mental illness to the forefront,” he says.
“This year I took over as chair of the Out of the Darkness Walk, which is under the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Pride is very important, but it’s fun, it’s celebratory, it’s exciting. The Out of Darkness Walk is special to me in the sense that it’s on a different spectrum: It’s people who are dealing with their loved ones who died by suicide. So they’re remembering them and walking in their memory, and we have a lot of people who have attempted suicide and they come for their mental health. It’s a day of rejuvenation and remembrance.”
“Oh, drag [laughs]. I never, never thought I would do it. My friends knew a few performers from Dayton, and they would come to Lima to do the show at the only gay bar in Lima. My friend said, ‘Oh my gosh, we should get dressed up and do it.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know if I want to do that.’ But we got all dressed up and went out. A few months later—at the bar I frequented, I was a bartender there—my boss said, ‘I’m going to go to two shows a month. Could you do one of the shows?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not!’ I had only done drag one time in my life. And he said, ‘I understand, but you have such pull in this bar. You don’t have to do it; just head it up.’ I said OK. I absolutely hated every moment of it, to be honest with you. It was not fun for me to perform that kind of stuff. Then I got into hosting shows, and I fell in love with that part. Even now, I’ll perform, but it’s not my greatest attribute. I love talking on the microphone. I will talk to anybody. It’s probably been about 20 years I’ve been doing this now.”
“With RuPaul’s Drag Race becoming so mainstream, it’s helped a lot. And TV shows that feature prominent gay characters, like Will & Grace, have helped as well. As a community, we have the same issues everyone else has. Ten or 15 years ago, people looked at us differently: These people do strange things in the bedroom, and all those kinds of things. Because they didn’t see our struggles. We’re a proud people. We didn’t talk about mental health. We dealt with it within ourselves and our people. Now it’s more mainstream to talk about these things. Drag pushes a boundary. It has helped us pull different issues like homelessness and mental illness to the forefront, and it doesn’t have to be such a taboo.”
The Procter & Gamble communications manager founded Tea Dance Cincinnati on a whim in 2017 when he decided to host his own version of the event, which is a cultural institution in the LGBTQ community. Cooke’s monthly events have grown from a couple hundred attendees in a local bar to 1,400 at last year’s Pride Tea Dance in the Music Hall Ballroom.
“When I first came out, I worked for Procter & Gamble. I found out about the company’s LGBTQ resource group called GABLE, which has now been in existence for 27 years, and drew a lot of inspiration from the leadership there. And over the years I have started to give back. It’s this whole thing of paying it forward—having inspirational leaders within P&G motivated me to be a leader and to step up.”
“I’m opening e|19 on Elm Street right across from Rhinegeist as a neighborhood bar and dance club for the LGBTQ community. We’ll continue to hold the Tea Dances in different locations around the city. It’s important for the LGBTQ community to be in these iconic Cincinnati places that are inclusive, welcoming, and supportive.”
Shatona Campbell (a.k.a. Planet Venus)
A self-proclaimed “medical musician” and popular DJ who’s dropped beats for major events like NKY Pride and Cincinnati Pride, Campbell uses music to unite people. This year, on top of producing electronic dance music, Campbell plans to launch Kosmic Kats, a health and wellness organization that connects community members through music, yoga, conversation, and more.
“For me to stand up for kids who have been mentally or physically abused—and not only kids, but adults [too]—that is very important to me. Because I was that kid, I was that adult at one point in time, and I definitely can identify with that feeling and what emotional state that’ll put you in.”
“We’re all unified no matter what shape, color, size, creed, or title you have, and it’s very important to me to allow everybody to understand that and also to be the physical figure to allow everybody to know that you don’t just have to stick to one title. It doesn’t matter—sexual orientation, age, I just want everybody to know they’re supported either way.”
“There are a lot of binaries in the ballet world,” says Carrasco, a Cincinnati Ballet corps de ballet dancer and choreographer. “But that’s not how people are.” He wants to use his work as a choreographer to tell human stories. “I’m surrounded by strong, beautiful, queer people, and why would I shy away from showing that in my work?”
“I’m so lucky to be in a company that’s open and accepting of me. It’s less than 50 percent gay men in the company, but it’s a safe and comfortable environment.”
“I was just 19 at the time [the Obergefell decision happened]. I had just gotten my first job in my vocation, and I was on a major high. I had been out to my family for years, out to everyone around me, and I got nothing but love and support when I came out. To know that [I had access to] something so important in society…that was such a great wake-up call that things were not that loving and supportive for other people.”
“I myself am very hopeful and proud of this city. I went to school in New York, and of course the coastal areas are liberal, but this city is a gem. The arts community is very strong, the queer community is very strong, people are receptive to new ideas here.”
The award-winning broadcast journalist, who joined WLWT Channel 5 as a weekend morning anchor and reporter in 2016, uses her strong social media following to be a visible role model for the LGBTQ community and stress the importance of self-acceptance. She’s also an active member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and enjoys hosting LGBTQ events in the community.
“Broadcast journalism can be a very stiff business. Having an LGBTQ person in those [local news anchor] positions is super important because then younger kids or even adults who may not be self-accepting will be able to say, There are people in my own community who are just like me and they’re totally comfortable with it. Having that visual of I’m not alone is one of the most important things you can feel as a human being.”
“Cincinnati has this amazing, thriving LGBTQ scene. My closest group of friends—besides the people at my station—are in this community. And it’s amazing because I can’t believe I’ve been exposed to all these people just by being myself. I would have never expected that in a million years, especially back in high school.”
“One of the things I’ve learned since joining the LGBTQ community since I came out nine years ago, is it’s OK to be yourself, and the more we showcase who we really are, whether that be a full face of makeup or a suit, being able to bend those boundaries a little bit can only be good for everyone.”