by Kate Hitchcock and Suzanne Nienaber
Growing up in Columbus, Dave* led a fairly traditional life. He found a good job and got married. Around 1987 he moved to Gambier to raise his family. In many ways this lifestyle was fulfilling for Dave, but at the same time stifling his homosexuality filled him with anxiety and anger. As Dave puts it, "The phenomenon of getting married when you're in your early twenties is well-documented. I did it because I felt if I [got married] then this whole thing would go away." It took him a long time to understand that his happiness would never be realized until he focused on the root of his problems and confronted his sexual orientation. Being gay was something he had struggled with since age eleven. It wasn't until thirty years later that he revealed the secret to his wife and children. "I was scared to death to do it, but you reach a point in your life where you make a decision that you can't live your life the way everybody else in society will have you live it. And when that hits you in the face, you just can't take it anymore."
Dave's wife felt hurt and confused. They tried hard to make their marriage work through counseling, but they could not change the fact that he was gay. (‘Gay' is a general term that is often used to refer to gay men, lesbian women, bisexuals, and transgender individuals.) The divorce was bitter, and Dave's wife made a point to slander his name throughout the community. Dave tells us about their difficult custody battle over their youngest son, Tim: "My main goal after going through the divorce and coming out [of the closet] was to be a parent, it always was." In the end, Dave was given custody of Tim and his other son chose to live with him as well. Regarding his sons, Dave explained, "I'd been preparing them for years anyway. There's little things you can do to help them understand. And they're completely supportive. The whole community is very supportive." Dave has made it through a period of very difficult transition. Now he accepts himself, he accepts being gay, and he works to provide support for anyone in need of a place to turn.
"It's not an easy life. It's not easy because you know you're different."
This is how Janice and Lynne feel about their struggles as lesbian women. Currently they are living together in Mt. Vernon, raising Lynne's young daughter. Parallel to Dave's story, Janice's initial approach to her sexuality was to deny her lesbian inclinations and get married, just like she was supposed to. Twice she tried to make a heterosexual marriage work for her, and she also gave birth to a son. "I was determined to make it work. But then all my friends knew that I wasn't happy, so they told me, ‘you only live once.'" Janice separated from her husband and moved back to Mt. Vernon, her hometown, where her mother pressured her to try dating men one last time. Janice complied, but found she was still not happy--she was withholding an essential part of who she was. She realized this was something she could not ignore, and she began the process of fully accepting her identity as a lesbian. Later on, a friend introduced her to Lynne, and their relationship immediately fell into place. They have now been together for over three years. Janice struggles with being separated from her nine-year-old son, who lives with his father in a different state. She is frustrated with her ex-husband for refusing visitation rights, and although she has talked to several lawyers in Columbus, she has found that the legal system poses too many hurdles to allow her to fight for custody. But she has faith someday her son will find her. "I figure one of these days he's gonna come knockin' at my door. He's gonna come. Because he knows my parents' phone number and he know my parents' address and so we figure he's gonna come. He knows I'm in Ohio."
Lynne dealt with being a lesbian in a very different manner. Growing up in Mt. Vernon, by age nine or ten she already knew that she preferred girls to boys. Today she is extremely open about her sexuality--everyone she works with knows that she and Janice are lesbians, and Lynne makes no attempt to hide it from other people she may meet. As comfortable as she is now, even Lynne went through some difficult times during her adolescence. At age 18 she told a friend about her sexual orientation, and afterward the friend rejected her. It took several years before she felt comfortable telling anyone else. She now has a daughter who is still too young to understand what it means for her mother to be a lesbian. Lynne is afraid for the stereotypes and misconceptions her daughter will probably have to face with having a lesbian couple as her parents. She hopes that her daughter ends up being heterosexual, because she knows how complicated it can be to grow up gay. "When you hit your teenage years, you've got to deal with puberty and you're trying to deal with knowing... knowing that it's girls you want to be with and not guys. I think it's harder. I think that's why suicide is so high among teenagers. Probably why a lot of them commit suicide is because they're gay and they don't know how to deal with it."
In fact, Lynne is right. Statistics show that homosexual teenagers are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexuals. The difficulty of adolescence and the search for acceptance is compounded when one questions their sexual orientation. Approximately sixty percent of gays have drug or alcohol problems. Over one forth of gay adolescents drop out of high school due to anti-gay tensions, and approximately thirty to forty percent of runaways are gay. Almost all homosexuals face issues of anxiety and depression at some point in their lives.
Sheri Bohannon (who asked us to provide her real name) is a lesbian woman, a case manager for children, and a public speaker on alternative sexualities and hate crimes. After experiencing these types of problems herself, she now works to help other people through the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) Support Group at Moundbuilders.
Sheri is known to the community as a lesbian. She has completed her outing process to her family. She displays rainbow stickers on her car and will answer any question posed to her about her sexuality. "With Matthew Shepard being murdered, that's a big fear. I've had some people ask me about being so out, and aren't I afraid of that? If I go back in the closet then that's going to make me more depressed than where I am right now--the risk is higher for me to be in the closet than it is for me to be out."
Coming out is a big issue in the lives of many gay people. They often remain hidden or, ‘in the closet', meaning that they hide their sexual orientation from family, friends, and sometimes even from themselves. Dave, for example, points out: "As little as three years ago I would have prayed when I went to bed and said if you could have made me straight when I woke up, I would have been happy for that. But today, even though it's difficult, it's who I am and I wouldn't change it." Coming out of the closet means declaring and affirming one's homosexual identity. This may mean telling just one person, or it can also be more general, like in the public display of homosexual symbols. Coming out is not a single event, but a lifelong process. In each new situation, gay people have to make the decision whether to come out or not. Such decisions can be very difficult, because gays tend to feel the threat of homophobic attitudes or discriminatory acts.
Sheri's confidence and level of comfort with her sexuality was not an easy process. "From the age of 13 to 17 is when I really started doing drugs and alcohol, because I wanted to escape those feelings that I had towards other women. I was always trying to ignore it, because that wasn't what I was supposed to do." It wasn't until the death of her mother that she realized her life was heading down the wrong path. "My mom died, and it scared me. That's when I realized that the only person who truly accepted me for who I was wasn't there anymore: so then I got into The Nazarene Church. I went from one extreme to the other. I thought if I lived a lifestyle that was really strict, then that would turn me around and make me straight--but it didn't."
Sheri went through extensive counseling, where she finally became aware that her problems stemmed from her attempts to reject her homosexuality. There was no way she could come out at college for fear of losing her degree and her education, so she remained in the closet until her graduation. Her outing process was slow, as was her total self-acceptance. She alienated and isolated herself from many people who were close to her: "I kind of avoided them because I was afraid of the rejection, so if I rejected them first, then they wouldn't reject me." Sheri found support through her colleagues at Moundbuilders Guidance Center, but she still feared the acceptance of the parents of the kids she worked with: "My other fear was the clients knowing and not wanting to work with me, but I found that as I came out, they were okay with it."
Over time she came to realize it was okay for her to be gay. Yet her faith in God created another battle which left her feeling distanced and unconnected. It wasn't until she found acceptance in the First Baptist Church in Granville that her faith was restored. There she found what she believes God truly intended for her. Unfortunately, many others don't find such an answer. Some gays, even those who are aware of this supportive congregation, "won't come to the church for activities. They're afraid of being shunned because of who they are, or their orientation."
This alienation from the church due to sexual orientation is something Deborah Click deals with on a regular basis. Deborah Click is an ordained pastor at the First Baptist Church in Granville and the founder of PRISM Minestries. She believes that "Religion is very core to rural culture. Even if you aren't real strongly affiliated, it influences how you think, who you interact with." She recognizes that without this support, people feel as if they are socially cut off from the community.
Several years back, a few members of her church outted her without her permission, forcing her to come out "to 900 people in a week." Subsequently the Bishop was informed and she was ousted from her position. She was fortunate enough to be offered a place in the First Baptist Church. This is a church which openly supports all religious beliefs and sexualities. This open support of GLBT has led to their loss of fellowship, but the church continues to hold services despite its lack of affiliation. It has given Deb the opportunity to form a support group which reaches out to those struggling with the conflict between their religious beliefs and their sexuality. "There are still a lot of folks out there that think gay and Christian don't belong in the same sentence; that it's an oxymoron. For a long time I felt like I lived in two closets: I couldn't tell my church community I was gay and I couldn't tell the gay community I was clergy."
PRISM Ministries is a grassroots organization which becomes "what it needs to be in the moment" to fit the ever-changing needs and concern of the GLBT community. Support is given through meetings conducted prior to Sunday church service, organized group activities, counseling, and e-mail correspondence. Deb has found that once "We started PRISM, the floodgate opened. People are hungry, they've been cut off, they've been rejected. They're not sure they want it and yet they do. And a lot of people will come to a lot of our other activities; they just don't want the trappings of religion."
Deb wants to see PRISM achieve independent, non-profit status, but not at the sacrifice of the rural community. "PRISM has committed to being rural. One thing we've discovered is we have created a unique niche. There are very few gay any things in rural areas in terms of services and support systems." People travel from as far as two hours away to attend the meetings and the services the church has to offer. "They're not looking for a city setting for a church. They're still country at heart, rural at heart and they may have had to gravitate to the city, either for community or just because of a job; but their roots are still this way and they still want a small, rural-type congregation.
Steve is a single gay man living in Danville who has tried living the city life, but has returned to the comfort of rural life. His career has involved working with many different types of troubled children. Currently, he substitute teaches and works with children with multiple-handicaps. Although other gay men who we have talked to feel that careers involving children would be off-limits to them, Steve explained that his sexuality is not really an issue in his work environment. The kids he works with are probably suspicious he is gay, but they don't press the issue. As Steve tells us: "If you're not judging them, they're not judging you, and that's fabulous." He certainly senses the need for stronger support systems for the children and teenagers of Knox County. Many kids have to deal with complex family issues and do not receive the needed assistance from children's services. With regard to sexual orientation, kids who are just beginning to realize their homosexuality are especially burdened because they feel they have no place to turn. He views the GLBT program at Moundbuilders as a step in the right direction.
Although he is only in his late twenties, Steve has already had some very difficult life experiences, which have de-emphasized his issues as a gay man. After a personal injury and the loss of his farm, he began focusing on other concerns in his life. At one point in time he was very self-conscious about his homosexuality and tried to conceal it, but then "it finally got to the point where it's like, what does it matter? You stop fighting with it after a while." Not everyone feels so comfortable with being out to the community. Steve describes a generational difference among gays--the two gay men he knows who are in their 50s or 60s tend to be much more secretive about their homosexuality. "Neither of them would ever dream of the community knowing."
Erin, a Kenyon College graduate and current Kenyon employee, makes no attempt to hide her bisexuality from her co-workers or her neighbors. She is extremely comfortable with her body and open about her sexuality, and she doesn't shy away from any questions people may ask her about it. But on the other hand, "that's the one thing that's weird about living here; I'm not sure whether I've got the perfect happy little life going on, and everyone is as aware as they're ever going to be, and it's fine--or whether I somehow managed to let them miss that and at some point they're gonna figure it out, and it's all going to catch up with me." A rainbow flag, one of the dominant symbols of the gay community, decorates her front door, and many of the tattoos on her body represent a celebration of the feminine. But Erin feels "there's a lot of issues around how you figure out whether you're out or not, when you don't necessarily have the same signals and codes as the rest of the world." Dave expresses similar feelings about his career. Although he is completely open within the community, he stresses: "I'm protective of my sexuality in the work place. I don't tell people and they don't need to know."
On one hand, everyone we spoke to has found Knox County to be a very welcoming community, and has experienced almost no overt discrimination with regard to their sexual orientation. Yet we have also seen a recurring theme--the steady feeling of anxiety. Homosexuals live with the daily concern that something could go wrong; they could be harassed or threatened, or someone who is close to them (such as their partner, or their son or daughter) could experience harassment as well. Some gay people feel quite at home in this rural community and have no plans to leave. Several years ago Steve moved to a big city, and returned home after four months because he didn't feel comfortable in such a fast-paced environment. Janice and Lynne plan on staying in Mt. Vernon for their daughter's sake. "It's a good place for a kid to grow up. There's not a lot of violence here." But other people we've talked to, like Erin, have a desire to move to a more gay-friendly community, or an urban environment where they can be completely open about their sexuality. John, a Kenyon professor, portrays a good image of Columbus. "Columbus is really a very good city in which to be gay or lesbian. It's very politically active, and has a very rich kind of culture." He regularly travels to the city to sing with the Columbus Gay Men's Choir. In fact, Columbus tends to be popular among most homosexuals in this area. There they can find gay bars, as well as coffee shops, restaurants, and bookstores that are supportive of the homosexual lifestyle. As Dave tells us: "You go down to Columbus and you go to the Short North communities down there, and there's places you can walk hand in hand."
Despite these outlets in Columbus, the safety of homosexuals is still an issue. Dave mentions something else: "Every now and then somebody driving down High Street will scream at you, but you just expect that." Ohio ranks fifth in the nation for its level of reported hate crimes against gays. Columbus in particular has reported an eleven percent increase in hate crimes from 1996 to 1997. Several people we have talked to have expressed the desire for the development of a stronger gay community close to home. Many have grown tired of the bar scene in Columbus, and are searching for different activities and a greater sense of community. Janice was home for six months before she was introduced to Lynne, and at that point she was getting ready to leave Mt. Vernon again because she had yet to find the support she needed. She would act straight when she was around her old friends, because she knew many of them were opposed to homosexuality. Even Lynne, who has lived in the area her whole life, admits that it's very easy for gays in Knox County to feel alone, despite a substantial population of homosexual residents. "You have to know somebody in that group, and if you don't know somebody in that group then you're kind of removed. It took me years; I didn't know anybody else either."
Janice now attends the GLBT group at Moundbuilders, a supportive resource for homosexuals
in Knox County organized by Sheri Bohannon. Sheri is working to establish a forum in which GLBT people and heterosexual
supporters of gays can come together to create an environment of acceptance and establish a stronger sense of community.
"Nobody's perfect, nobody's gonna change because you want them to or because you think they should, based
on your religion. A far as gays and lesbians are concerned, there's a lot of talk about special rights, but it's
in regards to getting married and being able to adopt kids and stuff. It's just that we want the same rights that
we had before you found out we were gay." Sheri's request to the community is: "Don't reject me, just
accept who I am."
*Names have been changed at the request of the individuals.
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