By SARA ARTHURS
It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall riots, generally regarded as the start of the gay rights movement. Members of Findlay’s LGBT community say much has changed for the better in that half-century, but there is still a lot of work to do to combat discrimination.
The riots began the night of June 27-28, 1969, after a police raid at the Stonewall Inn. At that time, the psychiatric establishment saw homosexuality as a mental disorder, and law enforcement often viewed it as a crime. LGBT people could be subject to arrest for showing affection, dancing together, even for not wearing a certain number of items deemed gender-appropriate.
That night, patrons and passers-by of the New York City tavern erupted in resistance, shouting at officers, throwing coins, cans and anything at hand, and facing off with a tactical police unit brought in as reinforcements. There were about a dozen arrests and an unknown number of injuries; police reported at least four officers were hurt. And the protests and clashes continued for several more nights.
It wasn’t the first time gay people protested or spontaneously clashed with police, but it proved to be a turning point, unleashing a wave of organizing and activism.
Earlier this month, New York’s police commissioner apologized for his department’s actions.
‘Changing hearts and minds’
Ben Hippensteel, who performs in Findlay as the drag queen Candi, Wantsome?, said as a 42-year-old, he didn’t live through Stonewall. But as a young drag queen, he was “always educated by the elder queens” on the importance of their history.
“They taught me that I was a part of something bigger,” he said.
Hippensteel noted that it was a drag bar that actually started the movement. Trans people and drag queens were not welcome in gay bars because they stood out, he said, and Stonewall began when the police came in to raid the bar where they were hanging out.
“The queens were like, ‘No way,'” Hippensteel said. While some say the first person threw a brick, he prefers to believe another version he’s heard: that it was a high-heeled shoe.
Jasmin Bradley is secretary on the board of Spectrum, a Findlay nonprofit dedicated to the LGBT community. She said what Stonewall means to her is the mobilization of activism for the LGBTQ+ community. In America today, she said, this community has the best legal protection in its history. “That doesn’t mean we’re all the way there,” but people are organized and motivated, she said.
Still, Ohioans can be fired or denied housing or access to public accommodation because they are LGBT. “A lot of people don’t know that,” Bradley said.
She said the community needs protection against discrimination at the local, state and federal levels. And, aside from changing laws, there’s also “changing hearts and minds,” Bradley said. And “that also really started with the Stonewall riots.” People are hearing the stories of LGBT people more, and the stories of transgender members of society are just starting to be heard by the broader community, she said.
Deron Martin of Pandora, who is 53, said the first time he learned about Stonewall was after he got out of the military. At that time people could not serve in the military while openly gay, but “I didn’t really know what I was at 18 years old.”
He said when you’re a young person, if you are different, “people know.” And “you get tired of people always picking on you.”
Stonewall, Martin said, was the turning point, where the gay community said “We’re not going to take that anymore” and stood up for their rights.
Martin said it’s easier now than when he was younger to come out to someone at work, or be honest with a doctor, without being afraid of repercussions. And, he said, he never thought in his lifetime he’d see two men be able to legally marry.
As for the military, it now embraces him. For health care, Martin goes to a Veterans Affairs clinic — where staff members wear rainbow lanyards with the motto “We serve all who served.” There, he said, he’s not afraid to talk about who he is.
Jill Darnell, 61, said, “I think it’s the best thing” that Findlay High School now has an LGBT organization. When she was a student there, “you didn’t talk about it” for fear of being beaten up.
As a young adult, she and friends would leave Findlay and go to Toledo, Ann Arbor or Columbus, and even in those communities they might “still get harassed” going into gay bars. Darnell said Findlay had an “underground” group of mostly gay men, but also some women, and they were “prominent people in the community.” New people would be connected to the group by knowing someone who knew someone, and they’d meet at members’ homes for cookouts.
Darnell feels things are better now, and “I think we’re starting to learn tolerance.” But, she said, there is still “a lot of hate out there.”
She said she once was being “constantly harassed by a neighbor.” It wasn’t until other neighbors stood up for her that “I felt a little safer. ‘Cause I did not feel safe.”
Back then, if you had a gay sticker on your car, it would be vandalized. Today, “There’s a lot more people who have your back,” she said.
Makenzie Wimer, 21, is a student at the University of Findlay, where she is president of the student LGBT group, United, which she said is “really, really accepted on campus.”
She didn’t live through Stonewall, but she has seen how things have changed, even from when she was 10 years old. And as the generation that was once young adults is now becoming middle-aged, they’re being more vocal about who they are, she said.
“It’s not necessarily that there’s more of us,” Wimer said. “We just want to be seen more.”
Darnell said she tells young adults, “You gotta know your history.” And, she said, if you know your history, “you’ll know what you’re standing for, you’ll know what you’re proud of.”
Hippensteel said as a child in the 1980s, he wasn’t as aware of the AIDS epidemic. But later, when he got to know older drag queens, they talked to him about this, too. “If they had 10 friends, eight of them died,” he said of many of those 20 or 30 years older than he was.
Pride and prejudice
In 23 cities and one county in Ohio, discrimination against LGBT individuals in housing and employment is illegal. The nearest is Bowling Green.
Hippensteel said it’s in rural communities that discrimination is most likely to occur, as people might not have been exposed to those who are different. Findlay has “a lot of cool people here,” but also “people who struggle with understanding diversity,” he said.
Hippensteel feels education is important, so people can learn about others with different backgrounds than them. “That’s part of the reason I do what I do here in Findlay,” he said.
He’s gotten a lot of different reactions locally. He’s been called an anti-gay slur and has read letters to the editor that were “very hateful,” including comparing Candi as an individual “to pedophiles and rapists.”
Hippensteel recalled talking with a heterosexual loved one, soon after both of them had ended long-term relationships. Suddenly while they were talking, it was as if a light bulb went off over the other man’s head and he said, “So it’s just a relationship” — realizing Hippensteel’s issues with his ex-partner were just like his own issues with his ex-girlfriend.
Hippensteel said sometimes people can’t get past “the intimate parts” of a relationship, perhaps not used to seeing people of the same sex kissing or holding hands. But “in reality, it’s the same thing,” he said. “It’s just a relationship.”
If people aren’t allowed to be themselves, “the mental health piece that comes with it is devastating,” Hippensteel said. Members of the LGBT community can experience bullying and depression, and can develop negative coping mechanisms, like substance abuse. He works at Focus, a nonprofit recovery center for people living with mental health issues, addiction or trauma, and has found LGBT individuals may have “a lot more emotion to process through.” This includes figuring out who they are, but also whether family and friends will accept them. He said if “they have the freedom to figure out who they are,” they’re less likely to develop an addiction or other dangerous behaviors.
And he said homosexuality itself was “categorized as a mental illness for a long time.” People have stories about friends who were sent to hospitals and had to undergo electroshock therapy or lobotomies — and this wasn’t that long ago.
Hippensteel’s hope is that the LGBT community will continue to be “open and honest” and “willing to teach,” and that others “have the open-mindedness and the willingness to listen.”
Bradley pointed out that anyone in the community — whether they work at a medical practice or a nonprofit — “you’re going to come into contact with the LGBTQ+ population.”
She is 33 and grew up in the United Kingdom, where she said there is better legal protection against discrimination. In the UK, she said, it’s more common that everyone — regardless of sexual orientation — refers to a “spouse” or a “partner,” rather than “husband” or “wife.”
Bradley said Spectrum’s Pride Month activities went “really well,” and an estimated 1,200 people came to the Pride picnic at Riverside Park.
“We were just overwhelmed,” she said, adding that it was possible only “because a lot of people put a lot of sweat equity” into the event.
Spectrum heard from a man from a more rural community who, driving down Findlay’s Main Street, saw the agency’s rainbow flags on downtown light posts and wrote to say that “feeling welcome” in the community had a huge impact on him. One of Spectrum’s goals is to reach out to the rural communities surrounding Findlay. The agency can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.