To explain TreeHouse Cincinnati, co-founder Dan Davidson points to the Avengers. The Avengers is a group of superheroes who can superhero on their own time, sure. But when they join together, anything is possible.
Cincinnati is home to plenty of LGBTQ groups that focus on particular niches—such as LGBTQ youth or trans rights. And TreeHouse Cincinnati is where those groups can come together to combine efforts and help one another.
“With the division that’s so apparent in Cincinnati’s LGBTQAI+ community, I saw this as an opportunity to help bridge those gaps,” says Darnell Pierre Benjamin, a TreeHouse board member and cochair of the development committee. “I think about how often events have been put on the same night, and I can’t help but think that this is the result of a lack of communication in the community.”
TreeHouse is a young organization: Davidson—the caretaker at Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church, which historically has been rooted in social justice—came up with the idea in October of 2020. He realized that the space could be a good home for an organization like TreeHouse, which is located in the church’s basement.
Member organizations, too, can use the space for meetings and events. Currently, TreeHouse partners with four area organizations:
- GLSEN Cincinnati, which works with LGBTQ teens.
- PFLAG, for allies and family members of LGBTQ people.
- Love Must Win, a Newport-based group focused on providing a safe haven for all.
- Black Power Initiative, a Black civil rights ally organization.
Having a physical location—instead of being a virtual space—will help those who need a safe space. Studies show that between 20% and 45% of homeless youth are LGBTQ, according to the April 2020 report “LGBT People and Housing Affordability, Discrimination, and Homelessness,” put out by the Williams Institute, a UCLA Law think tank. However, the pandemic—which exacerbated homelessness, especially among the LGBTQ population—has permanently or temporarily shut down resources that could have helped, Davidson says. It made the need for an organization like TreeHouse even more dire.
“That’s part of what makes this most amazing, is that we could start all this in the hardest time of the COVID outbreak,” says Teri Miles, a TreeHouse Cincinnati board member. “This started last fall, in the heart of a major [pandemic] fallout. We’ve kept going, and it’s getting momentum.”
She also shares why a safe space like TreeHouse is vital for Cincinnati: Something as simple as working out can be a nightmare for Miles. She recalls visiting her gym in early 2017, after undergoing gender reassignment surgery (or GRS) the previous fall. She had a letter from the surgeon to affirm her gender but no other forms of ID, in part because she would continue to present male at work.
“When I went into a local YMCA to ask about membership, they asked me to fill out an application and show an ID of government issue with a photo,” Miles says. “I identified as female, had a letter to prove the GRS change, and was ready to pay for a year in full upfront. They informed me that would not do until I could produce the necessary ID. I was told that I could use my current male driver’s license, but I would not be allowed to use the male locker room since I was anatomically female, and hormones were beginning to give me more pronounced chest formation, [which is] pretty difficult to hide in the pool. And that is why I wanted to use a YMCA—to use their pools.”
When something as simple as a workout becomes so complicated, Davidson points out, people need a spot where they can be themselves without fear of judgment.
Benjamin says a resource like TreeHouse would have been helpful when he moved to the area in 2009, when he didn’t have an “in” into the LGBTQ community. After a year, he visited the Gay & Lesbian Community Center in Northside, which has since closed.
“I was met with disinterest and told that I was wasting my time being in Cincinnati,” he says. The lack of resources means it took a long time to feel at home in the area. “I spent years trying to find my community as a Black, queer man,” Benjamin says. “I didn’t know where to go.”