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Akron, Ohio non-profit gears up to assist LGBTQ+ young adults

“Although there’s a nondiscrimination ordinance for LGBTQ+ people in Akron, he says that Ohio still has a long way to go for LGBTQ+ rights”

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Giovonni Santiago (Photo courtesy of META Akron Facebook page)

AKRON, Oh. – The Motivate, Educate, Transform and Advocate (META) Center has provided support to Northeast Ohio trans and gender-nonconforming youth from ages 7 to 19 since 2016. Now, Giovonni Santiago, the founder of the Akron, Ohio, based nonprofit, is gearing up to support people in their 20s. 

Santiago started the group to “create social change and foster acceptance” by providing housing coordination, legal advocacy, emotional support and community outreach, reports the Akron Beacon Journal

“Sometimes, it’s just allowing people to have a place to go,” Santiago told the Beacon Journal. “It’s like they don’t need to have a conversation. They just need a safe place.”

“I do this work because I want other people to live their life authentically,” he said.

Santiago says that parents who see their child “expressing differently than society would say they should” seek his help.

“A parent might say, ‘Well, my daughter likes to play with trucks’… and it’s not just a one-time thing,” he told the Beacon Journal. “It might be nothing, and it might be something.”

“We want them to know that’s not a bad thing,” he said. “We want people to feel valid with who they are.”

Although META is based in Akron and does much of its work in Northeast Ohio, Santiago says his group has a national impact, helping approximately 200 people a year, according to the Beacon Journal.

“It entails support groups, one-on-one peer support with myself, we send out care packages after individuals have gender-affirming surgery, we offer a clothing closet, so we send clothing to individuals who need clothes,” he said. 

Santiago, who is also the Northeast Ohio organizer for Equality Ohio, knows first-hand the struggle that trans kids face, as he too is a trans man.

“As trans people, the journey is not just ours,” he told the Beacon Journal. “It affects our families, it affects our friends. It affects everyone.”

According to the Beacon Journal, he entered the U.S. Air Force during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military era. After his Air Force service, Santiago earned a degree in early childhood education and began teaching preschool.

At 27, Santiago began his medical transition at the Louis Stokes Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in 2013. He tells the Beacon Journal that he was the doctor’s first trans patient.  

“I was born female, and knew that I belonged in a male body,” he said. “So, I tell people that I’ve been transitioning, and I’ve been transitioning for eight years.”

Santiago is a highly regarded LGBTQ organizer. According to the newspaper, he was named one of Cleveland Magazine’s Most Interesting People and honored by NBC Out in 2018.

Although Santiago helped establish a nondiscrimination ordinance for LGBTQ+ people in Akron, he says that Ohio still has a long way to go for LGBTQ+ rights. Santiago added that nearby Cleveland is “No. 4 on the list for where Black trans women are murdered.”

“We’ve always been here, but we’ve had to live in fear,” he said. “Even now in Ohio, there are zero protections for LGBTQ people”

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Ohio

Cincinnati area high schoolers created ‘Jim Crow’ signs & are disciplined

“These water fountains were labeled ‘blacks only,’ ‘whites only,’ which pushed us back so many generations”

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Colerain High School (Screenshot/WLWT NBC 5)

CINCINNATI – A group of students at Colerain High School in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio posted racist notes mimicking ‘Jim Crow’ segregation-era rules over a pair of drinking fountains then took pictures which were posted to social media earlier this month.

According to officials with the Northwest Local School District, the notes posted over the water fountains were posted for a matter of 30 seconds before being removed by the students. The students involved in the incident posted the signs, took photos and removed the notes before posting the photos online.

“These water fountains were labeled ‘blacks only,’ ‘whites only,’ which pushed us back so many generations,” said one parent who preferred to remain anonymous told Cincinnati NBC affiliate WLWT 5. “My heart dropped. My heart dropped. I could not believe it. It was so offensive.”

A Northwest Local School District spokesperson called the incident “unacceptable on all levels” and a deviation from the district’s “culture of inclusivity, respect, kindness and compassion for everyone.”

“Upon investigation of the matter, we have learned that the notes posted over the water fountains were posted for a matter of 30 seconds and were never seen by other students or staff members,” the spokesperson said. “The three students involved in the incident posted the signs, took photos and removed the notes before posting the photos online.”

“We want to make sure our staff, students, families and community understands where we stand on racial intolerance, discrimination, racism and hatred. We take this matter very seriously. Those who participated in this tasteless and hurtful act have been issued significant disciplinary actions. This type of behavior is not and will not be condoned or tolerated,” a statement released Wednesday from the Northwest Local School District read.  “The actions that were displayed do NOT reflect the values and the culture we’ve worked so hard to cultivate in all of our schools across the district. NWLSD stands firm in creating a culture of inclusivity, respect, kindness and compassion for everyone. As a school community it’s our responsibility to uphold these values and we will not tolerate any action from anyone that compromises or disrupts that culture.”

About 30% of the high school’s 1,730 students are Black, according to U.S. News and World Report. About 49% is white.

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Ohio

Retired Trans firefighter asks Ohio City to oppose state’s anti-LGBTQ bills

“I cannot believe that either of these pieces of legislation reflects the morals of the citizens of Ohio…”

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Roberta "Bobbi" Ullinger & spouse Cathy (Bobbi Ullinger/Facebook)

KENT, Oh. – A retired Kent fire department captain in suburban Akron is asking her city council to oppose and issue a resolution on two bills pending in the Ohio legislature that she says would harm the LGBTQ+ community.

Roberta “Bobbi” Ullinger, a forty years-long resident of Kent and who retired as a Captain with the Kent Fire Department after 26 years, appeared before the city’s elected leaders and asked the City Council to approve a resolution denouncing House Bill 454, which denies “gender affirming care” to Ohio youth, and House Bill 616, Ohio’s version of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would go further by banning books with “divisive content,” such as those denouncing racism, the Record-Courier newspaper reported.

In an interview published Tuesday, May 10 by the paper, Ullinger said she “always knew she was different” but was unable to define the issue until she was in her mid-40s. She came out to her wife, who she said had always identified as a “straight, cisgender woman” in 2007. Cathy, he said, “being the grace-filled, Christian woman she is,” told her spouse they would figure things out.

“She’s my best friend, the love of my life, and I don’t know what I would do without her,” she said of Cathy.

She said her parents died before she came out, and never had a chance to know that “they had a daughter.” 

Ullinger said her pronouns are “her/she” because, quoting Kai Shappley, an 11-year-old trans girl from Texas, “I like chocolate.” However, she said, her children and grandchildren still are free to refer to her as their dad and grandfather.

Record-Courier journalist Diane Smith reported that Ullinger called House Bill 454 ” a major overreach of government” that would interfere with the relationship between medical providers and parents and their children, and “would put the health and well-being of hundreds of transgender children at risk, many right here in our community.”

She added that House Bill 616 “would take control of decisions about curriculum away from local school boards and severely limit what teachers can and cannot teach our children. It is exceedingly vague and has the potential to sensor any mention of race, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

Speaking to the Kent City Council, the retired firefighter said that she is sure that local youth would be affected by the bills. She has been involved with mentoring the LGBT community since coming out. This year, she said she worked with six students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade at Stanton Middle School, half of whom introduced themselves using gender-neutral pronouns. 

“I cannot believe that either of these pieces of legislation reflects the morals of the citizens of Ohio,” she told council. “I know that they do not reflect how we feel in Kent, and would not be supported by a vast majority of our residents. I urge you to pass a resolution condemning these pieces of legislation.”

The Record-Courier noted that Councilmember Gwen Rosenberg, Councilmember Heidi Shaffer, and Councilmember Roger Sidoti agreed supporting Ullinger’s position.

“It’s very distressing, this legislation that’s coming up,” she said. “It is offensive to the citizens of Kent and what we stand for,” Councilwoman Shaffer said.

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Ohio

‘It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn’ author asked to exclude book from presentation

“I was simply confused and people were taking stuff down and…they said we had to take anything down with unicorns and rainbows”

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Screenshot/WSYX ABC News 6 Columbus, Ohio

DELAWARE, Oh. – A school north of Ohio’s capital city Columbus reportedly asked an author not to read his children’s book “It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn” ahead of a planned visit amid parental concerns of it promoting LGBTQ+ issues. The incident was the subject of a recent emergency school board meeting in Delaware, Ohio. 

CBS-affiliate WBNS reported that author Jason Tharp was slated to visit the Buckeye Valley Local School District last Thursday before he learned a parent raised concerns over his acceptance-themed book with a unicorn and rainbow lettering on the cover. 

Then, he got a call from the principal, asking him to remove “It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn” from his planned presentation, according to the network. A follow-up email asked Tharp also to exclude “It’s Okay to Smell Good,” which is about a skunk. 

Tharp – a straight, married man – told the station he was not pushing an LGBTQ+ agenda. He just wanted to connect with students and offer support. As a child who didn’t fit in with his classmates, Tharp knows how much books like his can help children. 

“I think a book can save people cause it saved me when I was a kid,” he said. “I got lost in books, and it taught me that it was okay to be creative, and it was okay to think different, and so that was what my mission was with this book was just to write something that helped kids understand it is good that you’re different than me, and it is good because we can learn something from each other. And a unicorn’s the best way to do it because kids love unicorns.”

Interim Superintendent Jeremy Froehlich initially denied the allegations, telling WBNS that the unicorn book wasn’t even part of the planned presentation. Tharp immediately disputed Froehlich’s claims, showing the station the email from the principal. 

As at least one parent complained, others are confused about why a book about acceptance wouldn’t be allowed. 

Kaylan Brazelton, a mother of two who works at Buckeye Valley West, spoke at the emergency meeting last Friday, saying she didn’t understand the school’s decision, according to TV10. She also said teachers at the school were instructed to take down kids’ artwork relating to the book.

“I was simply confused and people were taking stuff down and…they said we had to take anything down with unicorns and rainbows,” Brazelton said.

Another parent asked: “So why couldn’t we read a book with a rainbow on it?” 

Froehlich later told TV10 that all art was displayed “as far as he’s aware.” He also told the network the complaint from the concerned parent “just wanted to make sure that we vetted the book.” 

WBNS reported that it was the first to bring the email to the interim superintendent’s attention.

Tharp went through with his visit last week, excluding the titles the school principal asked him to. But he told TV10 he was disappointed for himself and the students. 

“I’m not here to entertain adults that want to project their own whatever issues onto a children’s book, I’m here to create books that inspire kids to dream big, embrace themselves, understand the importance of self-kindness, to really learn how to manage your emotions because it’s a confusing world we live in, and being a human is not easy,” Tharp said. “If an adult is struggling, that’s what therapy’s for, not my kids’ books, and I hope that maybe even my kids’ books might inspire some adults, but they’re meant for the child to figure themselves out, just be a tool, that’s it.”

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