Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How Gay Are We: Out in the Open

The Global Rainbow at Aha! Festival of Lights.
The sign read “gender-neutral bathroom.” It was posted at the Cleveland Museum of Art during the pre-Gay Games party, Night Before 9, and for me, it was not just a cardboard cutout – it was a step toward inclusion for Cleveland. Our city hasn’t always been kind to the transgender community — just last year there were a series of attacks that led to the deaths of three women and discrimination from local news sources. To see such an important institution be accepting of gender expression and welcome the transgender community —which has for a long time remained invisible and often overlooked — it was as if the city itself had opened its arms.

As a member of the LGBT community, I was speechless during the opening ceremonies at the Quicken Loans Arena when participants from San Francisco carried a massive rainbow flag as spectators stood and cheered them on. And when the Russian Federation entered the arena, greeted by a standing ovation after having suffered from so much persecution at the hands of their own government over the last year, I cried. I was not only overwhelmed by the tremendous amount of love and grace that was being lifted up, but also from being a single gay man united with thousands of individuals who applauded the perseverance of those who have suffered, celebrating pride in self-expression and honoring all of those who felt they didn’t have a voice. I never thought I would ever see something like it in my lifetime — a place in which everyone was united in their individuality regardless of race, class, sexual orientation or gender. By the end, I was convinced that Cleveland was proud that the Gay Games had arrived in our city.

I returned to Akron telling all my friends how incredible it was that there was so much freedom of expression in Cleveland. Having lived in several small towns in Northeast Ohio where being gay was never openly discussed nor expressed, I couldn’t help but boast how amazed I was that Cleveland was changing the game. My friends saw it for themselves, too — having grown used to suppressing public displays of affection — they were shocked by how many same-sex couples were holding hands and embracing one another in Public Square. They couldn’t stop talking about how great it was that City Hall was flying the LGBT flag, and only after checking with one another whether it would be OK, did they reach for the others’ hand.

Toward the end of the week, I was stopped by a visitor from San Francisco who asked, "Are the people of Cleveland always this nice?" I thought about it as we walked side by side down a dark street toward the rainbow-lit Terminal Tower and away from GG9 Festival Village where hundreds of strangers were dancing with each other under neon-colored lights. When we reached the corner, I stopped and said, "No, Cleveland hasn't always been this open, but it's been getting better over the last five years." He nodded his head, congratulated me on how polite we all were, and then asked if Cleveland had always been this gay. I couldn't help but smile, considering the cover of this month's issue of Cleveland Magazine, but when I finally turned to give him an answer all I could say was, "We've always been here. We've just been waiting for the right time."

There have been more advances in LGBT activism in our country in the last 10 years than there have been in the last 100. With 19 states now supporting same-sex marriages and 21 states offering nondiscrimination laws to protect LGBT individuals, Ohio isn’t that far behind. We’ve created domestic partner registries, we’ve started begin to recognizing same-sex marriages from other states, and we have openly-gay officials in office such as state Rep. Nickie Antonio, who is actively fighting for nondiscrimination laws to protect the LGBT community at home and in the workplace.

As GG9 came to an end, I kept thinking about where we might go from here and what needs to happen next. And while there’s certainly a lot of work left to be done at the state level, I returned to those nights out on Mall C where everyone danced, to those quiet dinners where gay couples reached across the table to hold hands and to those moments when gay athletes were cheered on.

Whether the pride flags come down or they remain flying, Cleveland should hold on to the hope that this has been and can be a city where we all live without judgment, able to love freely and be who we really are 100 percent of the time.