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Cover Story: 20 Years, and Out

A high school reunion frames the past, present and future of GLBT life in the Queen City

By Eric Hunter · June 7th, 2006 · Cover Story
Eric Hunter as a high school student and today
Geoff Raker

Eric Hunter as a high school student and today

Few things inspire more unnecessary anxiety and an immediate wave of self-doubt in a thirtysomething's life than a class reunion. For me, there was one additional layer to my trepidation. Since the last time I saw most of my classmates, I came to terms with my own sexuality and came out of the closet.

When an invitation arrived for the 20-year reunion at Seven Hills School, I had a common reaction.

Do I really want to go to this, I asked myself. I moved away from Cincinnati about eight years ago and have been back only a few times for short visits. My parents left Cincinnati earlier this year, taking away another reason for me to visit.

Then, of course, there is the usual self-doubt that comes up when faced with this type of milestone. Have I put on a few, or more than a few, extra pounds? Do I make enough money? How do I stack up against all my classmates? Am I happy?

You might have read some of my story in my monthly column that used to appear in CityBeat. Considering many of the details of my life were on display for readers, you might have thought I wouldn't give my class reunion a second thought. But until I heard from my younger sister, who was returning to Cincinnati for her 10-year Seven Hills reunion, and my writer friend Brendan, whom I'd tracked down through his book excerpt in The New York Times, I'd written off the weekend.

Even though I've been living comfortably as an out gay man for more than 15 years, I felt uneasier than I like to admit. In the gay community, it's common to talk about coming out as a process. It is at times like this, when you think you're at the end of your process, that you are reminded just how far you still have to go.

Connections old and new
As I started planning for the weekend I remembered friends from my Seven Hills days, some of whom I've known since grade school, who are still in my life. There's the high school girlfriend who has since come out as a lesbian. We marched on Washington together in 1993 and celebrated her commitment ceremony in 2004.

There's the guy who was a big high school crush of mine, whom I at times pretended to ignore because I was afraid other kids would figure us out. In some cases, I think they did. But I managed to live in denial. Thankfully, he's a forgiving person, and we've been able to re-establish our friendship and visit each other from time to time.

Of course, I don't see or talk to my old friends, gay or straight, as much as I'd like, but we do the best we can. Where I have really fallen down on the job, though, is with several of the other people who were my closest friends in my class, which would seem difficult, considering our whole class numbered just over 50 people.

It would be great to catch up with people, I reminded myself. So I sent in the reply card and logged on to the Internet to buy plane tickets to Cincinnati for my partner and me.

While the idea of reconnecting with old friends had me looking forward to the trip, I still was feeling a little more hesitant than I wanted to admit. I even considered, just for a minute, trying to talk my partner out of going.

I tried to rationalize it by telling myself I'd be busy with friends and the reunion events, and it might just be easier if he stayed home. Easier for whom, though? Besides, his family still lives in town, and it would be a chance for us to visit with them, too.

Despite my worrying, the weekend went off without a hitch. It seemed the news of my coming out had gotten around. On Friday night I attended a cocktail party by myself while Dave visited his family. Before I had the chance even to make a telltale reference to us or my partner, several people asked about him.

Saturday night was a party at a classmate's house in Hyde Park. Dave joined me, and we ended up almost closing the party down. Both nights I had the sense that people were being more than just polite. To me, and I hope to them, it seemed we were just a group of people who were genuinely excited about catching up on the lives of dear old friends.

Now the reunion weekend is behind me. The three days flew by, and I'm so glad I went. I'm even happier that I took Dave with me.

It might sound insignificant, but spending the weekend catching up with my friends and telling them about my life my whole life can only be described as liberating.

If I'd known then
While I have such fond memories of my years at Seven Hills -- having attended the school from first grade through high school, I'm known as a "lifer" -- the school and Cincinnati will always be places I associate with my struggle to come out.

In my writing and other work in the gay and lesbian community, I've always tried to share my story for one major reason: I want people, especially young people, to know they aren't alone.

The tipping point in my coming out was meeting two friends I'd worked with at the Polo Store that used to be in Kenwood Towne Centre. Coming from a straight-laced family, I knew there were gay and lesbian people, but I had never really known any out, happy gay or lesbian people whom I could point to and say, yes, my life could be like that.

Unlike a growing number of schools today, we didn't have any out kids at Seven Hills in the '80s. I'm told there have been a few, though, in the recent past. To be fair, that wasn't just Seven Hills; it was any high school as far as I knew. I'm sure there were plenty of us around -- we just didn't have a concept of what it meant, how to come out or how to find each other.

That all started changing when the first high school gay/straight alliance (GSA) started at Walnut Hills High School in the late '90s. Since then, through the work of dedicated faculty advisors and groups like the local chapter of Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), there are now GSAs in at least 12 high schools in the area, ranging from private and parochial schools such as Cincinnati Country Day, St. Xavier, Saint Ursula Academy, Ursuline Academy and Roger Bacon to such public schools as Lakota East, Oak Hills, Sycamore, Princeton and the School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

To date, there isn't a GSA at Seven Hills. But there is a group, Kaleidoscope, which serves as a type of coalition for all the student groups that celebrate diversity, according to Michelle Alexander, the school's first-year director of diversity programs. She pointed out that often in Cincinnati diversity refers to issues around race. But the groups in Kaleidoscope also work around issues of age, gender, socio-economic background and sexual orientation. The important point with the groups at Seven Hills and so many of the areas schools is that the students are leading the change.

When Alexander first arrived at Seven Hills last year from Baltimore, she had to get to know the school and the city. In November 2005 she hosted the Silent Movement, in which interested kids sat in a large circle in the gymnasium. Alexander posed a series of questions and, as the students heard statements that related to them, they'd move briefly into the center of the circle. After the exercise the students participated in discussion groups. Alexander says many kids told her they'd discovered new alliances with other students they didn't know they had.

Considering the rivalry between Seven Hills and Cincinnati Country Day I couldn't miss the opportunity to speak to Debra Floyd, the faculty advisor for that school's seven-year-old GSA.

She says diversity is now part of the mission of the school. But at Country Day, that has manifested itself in the form of a gay-straight alliance.

She's been advising the GSA for three years and told me she has two mantras for the group. First, she says they are "there to educate, not agitate. We don't want to be in the closet but we don't want to be too 'in your face' either." She says she's found that the group can get further by taking that approach.

Second, she stresses baby steps.

"We aren't asking for the world tomorrow," Floyd says.

The group has grown noticeably since she became involved. In her first year, she reports there were about 30 kids participating. This year as many as 60 kids were involved, out of a student body of 320. Not a bad percentage, if you ask me.

It's exciting to see the next generation taking the lead in creating change. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: Life would have been easier for my friends and me if these groups had been around in my high school days.

Out on campus
While gay-straight alliances have been developing in area high schools since the late '90s, similar groups have been alive on area college campuses since at least the late 1970s and early '80s. One alliance in particular, the University of Cincinnati LGBTQ Alliance, comes up in conversation with people of all ages in the Cincinnati GLBT community.

I spoke with longtime activist Carol Lippmann, who was involved with the group starting in 1982 when she first came to the Queen City to study at UC. When Lippmann transferred from Ohio University, she sought out the alliance, which had just been reactivated. Of the 30 or so active members, she told me she was one of two women. Her impression is that UC's Alliance was much more active then than it is today.

To find out, I went to Misha Pridonoff and Emily Joy, the group's incoming and outgoing presidents, respectively. As a fifth-year senior, Joy stepped down as leader of the group to focus on completing her fine arts degree in the College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning. Like Lippmann, when Joy first joined the alliance and took on the role of volunteer coordinator she was one of only two women.

"It has turned into a dating pool, mostly," she says.

In the next three years she climbed the ranks to president and was on the planning committee for the first year of the GLSEN Youth Summit, the first event of its kind in the region, and in establishing the Alliance of the Alliances, a coalition of college gay-straight alliances that included like-minded groups from Xavier University and Northern Kentucky University.

By the time she left the group to take a year off for personal reasons, the membership had increased significantly; its e-mail list grew to about 80 people. In her absence, the group fell on hard times and has been trying to rebuild since.

Now Pridonoff, a sophomore who is newly out, has his work cut out for him. He says the group wasn't in such good shape and he was willing to step in. Pridonoff says he has the support of solid board members and is optimistic about the programs they're planning for next year.

The part of the story that was most familiar was how so many things are driven by the sheer will of a small group of people. Even though the alliance in one form or another has been on campus for more than 20 years, Joy says GLBT students still face open discrimination and harassment, ranging from being called "fag" to being physically attacked. But thankfully these students, like so many of the members of the local GLBT community, continue to fight for equality.

The 'Brokeback Generation'
I often say that I don't feel like an adult; I will always think of myself as an 18-year-old. That time in my life was one of the toughest and at the same time best for me.

I had a strained relationship with my mother because she knew I was gay and didn't miss an opportunity to tell me about it. At the same time, I made intensely close friendships and found my way through high school and off to college and beyond.

As a stereotypically pop culture-obsessed gay man, it was tough for me to cross the line out of the 18-24 demographic. More recently, aging beyond the 18-34 bracket reminded me once and for all that I'm not part of what today is often called "Generation Q" or, as one young local activist, Derek James Mize, calls it, the "Brokeback Generation."

When I spoke with other community members regarding up-and-coming leaders in Cincinnati, Mize's name came up several times. He faced discrimination head-on at UC, believing his coming out cost him a spot on the swim team. When he quit the team under pressure, he lost his athletic scholarship.

Adversity aside, he graduated from UC and returned for grad school in women's and sexuality studies beginning in 2003. Now, as he prepares to enter law school at UC in the fall, he's been awarded a three-year scholarship by the Point Foundation, a national organization that provides financial support, mentoring and hope to deserving students who are marginalized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"My generation has come out and developed a gay identity in a space where it is possible to find comfort," Mize says.

He says his generation doesn't have the radical political ethic that was so important to the post-Stonewall generation.

"We are pretty relaxed," he says. "It's OK to be gay."

Despite their self-awareness, Mize says many of his peers need occasional consciousness raising. He says he has to remind his and even the generation behind his that they "stand on the shoulders of giants."

Despite any challenges he has faced at UC or in Cincinnati as a result of his sexual orientation, Mize is very optimistic about gay and lesbian life in the city.

"I have come to love Cincinnati and the Cincinnati gay community," he says. "They aren't afraid to have a conversation."

Mize's love of community has translated into work with a variety of local and state organizations. He works with The Coalition, a group that has been a part of the local gay community on and off for decades; Equality Cincinnati, which led the effort to repeal Article 12; Equality Ohio; and the local GLSEN chapter.

He travels extensively as part of his work with the Point Foundation and has experienced GLBT life and communities around the country.

"My decision to stay in Cincinnati is conscious," Mize says. "I love it. I love community. I grew up without one. I don't know many people who grew up on a gay commune. We all have that in common."

In the same way that attending my reunion has me looking back at the past 20 years of my life, talking to Mize has me thinking about my own gay and lesbian generation. I wonder where we fit in and what defines us within the larger gay rights movement. We are sandwiched between the first openly gay-identified generation, whose energies and numbers were decimated by the onset and growth of the AIDS pandemic, and Mize's "Brokeback Generation," who are growing up out of the closet.

How will we leave our mark? Have we missed the boat? I haven't found the answer. But in this case, maybe we need to take a few lessons from young leaders like Mize.

Paying it forward
When I think about the Cincinnati GLBT community, I think of a loosely-tied network slowly extending its tendrils across the city. In certain areas -- Northside, Downtown and Clifton for example -- the network is more dense and interconnected. In other parts of town, the different branches are more solitary and tenuous.

But in either case, the network exists if people can just find their way into it.

Once I came out, I found my way in through the Cincinnati Men's Chorus (CMC). In high school, I sang in the choir and did what I could to get small parts in musicals and plays. For me, both activities were more about the social interaction and sense of community than the actual performing. Not long after I came out, I attended a CMC holiday concert at Memorial Hall with my first boyfriend and some new gay friends.

Up to this point, my gay life had consisted of late nights spent dancing at The Dock, still a mainstay of the local gay bar scene, and the Pipeline, a bar that's no longer open. The concert was the first time I'd experienced a large group of gay and gay-friendly men standing together and working for change by simply doing something they loved: singing. It was an amazing experience.

As the concert came to a close, I could feel the sense of pride swell in my chest and I had to fight back tears. It was a reaction I would have many more times once I joined the chorus myself.

Fast-forward a few months. The CMC was already more than halfway through its next rehearsal period. I found the number for the chorus in the program I had carefully saved after the concert. Emboldened with my newly out-of-the-closet status, I dialed the number and left a voice mail asking about auditions and how I could become involved.

I didn't realize they typically held auditions at the beginning of each session. Within a few days, though, I heard from Kent Peterson, the artistic director at the time, who invited me to audition. I showed up at rehearsal the next week and auditioned, cracking voice, sweaty palms and all.

As my choral experience was limited to high school, I wasn't sophisticated enough to have a rehearsal song prepared. I don't even remember exactly what he had me sing. I'm sure it was something very simple like the Star Spangled Banner. Much to my surprise, though, I got in and ended up deeply involved in the chorus for nearly seven years until I left Cincinnati.

In some ways, I owe much of my life today to the chorus. I met my current partner, whom I have been with for more than nine years, in the group. After a few years as a singing member, I took a position on the board. I handled marketing and public relations for the group.

The work I did for the group, together with similar work I did for AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati and the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, was instrumental in my move to New York and career change.

From what I have been able to learn, we all need a little help finding our way in. Scott Knox, an attorney serving on the boards of various groups, including Caracole and Citizens to Restore Fairness, told me about his law school advisor, very active in Gay Lesbian March Activists (GLMA), who helped introduce him to gay life beyond the bars.

I heard from Emily Joy about bonding on a bus trip with another girl who was wearing rainbow gear. The young woman told Joy about the Cincinnati Youth Group, a local GLBT group for youth between the ages of 13 and 21. Joy ended up attending a few meetings. Through the group she found out about the center's annual Pride Night at Kings Island, which she called an "eye-opening, shocking and amazing experience."

She was describing the first time the light bulb clicked on for her -- the first time she met people whom she felt comfortable around and whom she felt understood her. When she told me, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

The Cincinnati paradox
Since long before I left Cincinnati, I have described the town as politically conservative with pockets of fair-minded people. For the portion of my adult life that I spent in town, I never felt the sting of discrimination, at least that I knew about. I didn't lose a house or a job because of my sexual orientation, although for much of that time I could have.

Knox sees the discrimination and harassment in his legal practice but points out that the average Cincinnatian wouldn't know about it, because it typically doesn't appear in the press and isn't easily accessible in public records. He says that's what makes it so hard to fight.

So many people assume it doesn't exist because they don't see it or experience it. Knox says he's seeing progress in certain counties around the city. For example, he's been handling gay, lesbian and transgendered name changes in Hamilton County for 10 years without a problem.

"They get it," Knox says.

By all accounts, the past 10 years or so have been hard on the local GLBT community. The struggle to keep protection based on sexual orientation in the city's Human Rights Ordinance has been going on since city council first approved it in 1992.

The 1995 vote by council to remove sexual orientation from the Human Rights Ordinance hit us especially hard. I remember writing a CityBeat column at that time about how the community felt caught off guard by the vote. Since then the financial and psychological drain on the community has been palpable.

Cheryl Eagleson, whose community involvement stretches across a number of organizations -- from Caracole, Alternating Currents (one of two community radio programs), Queen City Careers Association, the local GLBT business organization and Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church -- wrote this in an e-mail: "It seemed that Article 12 drew a dark curtain over many organizations. People were not as eager to push an agenda after being slammed by Article 12. Organizations took a dive in membership and enthusiasm, I think."

One bright spot in this whole fight has been the emergence of Equality Cincinnati under the leadership of Gary Wright. He's quick to tip his hat to Ted Good and others who worked on this issue before him, as well as the support of the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) in Greater Cincinnati. Today, even as the community fights once again to maintain sexual orientation language in the city's Human Rights Ordinance, Wright maintains a positive attitude.

"I stay here because things are still changing," he says. "I feel I am a part of a larger movement -- race relations, interfaith relations. It's getting better, and there's still work to be done."

Another change that many consider a positive sign is the re-emergence of the city's annual Pride celebration under the guiding hand of The Center. Harold Keutzer, The Center's board president, reports that this year's Pride Festival and Parade, which will take place Saturday and Sunday, mark the seventh consecutive year since the events returned to the Cincinnati GLBT calendar. Before that there were five years without organized events, preceded by a couple years of struggle between competing groups.

With any luck, Equality Cincinnati and its allies will have success in November in beating back an effort to remove sexual orientation from the Human Rights Ordinance, and the group will be able to move on to work around other issues.

"There is lots of interest in Ohio from national groups," Wright says. "There is nothing like raising yourself up by your bootstraps and making change happen right here."

Writing your own ticket
At various times throughout my recent long weekend visit, Dave and I spent time driving around, visiting some of our favorite old spots, both gay and straight. The Hamilton Avenue strip in Northside looks pretty much the same. The Center is now there on street level. Bullfishes is still there with its rainbow sign. The shell of the old Crazy Ladies building sits waiting for a new owner. A new restaurant, Slim's, has made a name for itself in the neighborhood.

We drove up Liberty Hill to see my old house and our old apartment on Sycamore. We even made it out to Oakley to check out the newly revitalized strip of Madison Road that's home to Boca and a few cool new stores.

On Sunday we couldn't resist the temptation to have lunch at Skyline. Chili was the first thing I ate when I moved to Cincinnati when I was 5 years old. Often when I visit, it's the first or last thing I eat. Maybe it's all part of a cycle that reminds me that, though things in Cincinnati change, so many things are still the same.

Over the weekend I definitely experienced a little of the shift in attitude that I've been hearing about. But as I drove to the airport to catch my flight, the thing that struck me was that, even knowing as much as I do about the local GLBT community, how hard it was to find or see it in your day-to-day travels around the city. To me that means that the network of fair-minded Cincinnatians both there in the city and allies out of town have our work cut out for us.

In the words of Harold Keutzer, "Gay life in Cincinnati is what you make of it." Whether you've been out for years or just came out recently, make a promise to yourself this Pride season. Tap into the network. Learn about a new group or organization and get involved.

I always remember how alone and confused I felt when I first came out, and it reminds me to extend a hand to those who are coming after me. We all just need a little help to find our way.

PRIDE ALIVE FESTIVAL is 4-10 p.m. Saturday and 1-4 p.m. at Hoffner Park in Northside. The parade begins at 1 p.m. Sunday in Burnet Woods and proceeds via Ludlow Avenue to Hoffner Park. See ToDo on page 37. Eric Hunter's first book, Column Inches: Everyday Observations of a Gay Pragmatist, will be out this month from BookSurge. For more information, visit www.erichunter.typepad.com.


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