Upper Arlington’s first-ever LGBTQ+ Pride event is the most recent chapter in a long history of being queer at UAHS.
BY MATTHEW DORON, ’23; IRIS MARK, ’23 AND GRACIE HELFRICH, ’23. GRAPHICS BY STELLA PETRAS, ’22 AND AVA NEVILLE, ’23.
Upper Arlington’s first-ever LGBTQ+ Pride event took place on June 13, 2021 at Northwest Park, with around 1,000 attendees over the course of five hours. There were multiple performances by local drag queens, both voter registration and vaccine drives, and pop-up shops for Pride-related businesses. Advocacy organizations Kaleidoscope Youth Center, GLSEN, Stonewall, BQIC, PFLAG and League of Women Voters were featured in various booths.
Rainbow UA, a neighborhood alliance started to support and serve the LGBTQ+ community, hosted the event. Jillian Maruskan, the media contact for the organization, said that “[f]or this first year, one of our primary goals was visibility; not only for our organization, but also for the greater UA LGBTQ+ community. We also wanted a family-friendly event and I definitely think we achieved that.”
Senior Max Bailey attended the event and said the historical significance of Upper Arlington’s first Pride event enhanced their experience.
“It was really nice knowing that Upper Arlington has a queer community especially amongst the youths. It made me really happy seeing the young queer people really proud of themselves… [E]ven now it makes me a little emotional to talk [about it] because it makes me very happy, to see so many queer people come together despite the rough times and the weather being hot and despite [the fact that] we had no clue how it was going to look this year because it was UA’s first Pride event… Everyone was still having a really good time.”
This past summer continued to be a landmark year for queer rights in Upper Arlington. In late June, UA City Council updated their anti-discrimination ordinance for the first time in 50 years to prohibit discrimination based on gender expression, gender identity, or sexual orientation. This update comes at a time when several Ohio legislators have introduced legislation to bar transgender students from joining athletic teams that align with their gender identity and passed a law that included a clause that allows medical professionals to deny queer patients care due to their identity.
UA Pride took place shortly after a heated community debate surrounding gender-neutral bathrooms within Upper Arlington schools, particularly the new high school building. While this community debate garnered much attention, it wasn’t the first instance of controversy in UA surrounding queer students.
‘Growing Up Gay’
On April 6, 2001, Arlingtonian released an article chronicling a gay senior’s experience “growing up as a homosexual in UA” as part of a supplement titled ‘Growing Up Gay in America’. The article, written by Elizabeth Waring, focuses on then- senior Adam Bahgat and his experience growing up in UA, coming out to his family and trying to find his place within the LGBTQ+ community.
The article sparked both outrage and support, with some defending Waring and her article and others accusing Arlingtonian of disseminating propaganda and assisting gay activists in seducing children.
The Monday following the article’s publication, parents raised complaints about it during that evening’s UA School Board meeting. According to The Columbus Dispatch’s coverage of the meeting, parent Colette Menhart said that “gay activists are ‘subtly taking over our schools and seducing our children’ and that, by allowing publication of the pieces, the school district is ‘undermining parental authority.’”
Upper Arlington News also covered the meeting; “Susan Miller, a parent of a 15-year- old student, … said schools are not in the position to encourage students to “come out”. She said ‘14 to 17 year- olds have enough to deal with.’ ‘Respect my right as a parent to deal with the topic consistent with my beliefs and morals,’ Miller said.”
One of the UA News letters to the editor was written by Harvey, arguing that calling someone a homophobe was hurtful and that “no one is a homophobe who mourns the entry of a young person into a life [of being gay] that will probably shorten his life.”
“[O]nly an ill-informed person swayed by the latest trend in political correctness could still believe [being gay] is a civil right or an inevitable ‘identity’. If we buy into this, we will soon be affirming 10-year-olds in this pretend identity,” Harvey wrote. “There is no such thing as a gay child or teen, only those who practice homosexual behavoir.”
In the face of the backlash against the article, community members, UAHS Principal Kip Greenhill and the Board of Education defended Arlingtonian’s public forum and freedom from school censorship. Many also expressed their support for Waring and the publication through various letters to the editor.
This wasn’t the last time queer students were covered in Arlingtonian; recent coverage ranges from students’ coming out experiences to views on same-sex marriage. Coverage in recent years included two nonbinary students’ experiences at the high school, youth Christian group Young Life and an anonymous transgender student’s experiences being closeted.
Be Yourself, Face the Consequences
While there have been many advances in LGBTQ+ rights in the last 20 years, those in the queer community still face discrimination, violence and legal barriers every day. Despite the progress made since the 2001 article’s publication, queer students in UA still face similar issues of homophobia, transphobia and rejection.
“I had a teacher who would purposely misgender me, and on PowerSchool [he would] pull up my dead name … and he would show it and didn’t think of privacy or anything. I’ve had a few past classmates make inappropriate comments [and] remarks, about how I chose to dress and how I chose to present myself,” junior Ryler Gill said. He said that incident is one of several:
“[R]ight now we’re prepping to go back to school, [so] I check my PowerSchool and I find [my] teacher’s email and I send them an email really quick like ‘Hey I go by this and this’… but I’ve had a few teachers be like ‘Sorry, I’m not gonna call you that.’”
Bailey said they also faced similar rejection by peers and teachers.
“[When I still identified as a woman and was dating my female best friend] during my freshman year, … I felt a little bit outcasted from teachers or students in the hallways for just holding my partner’s hand at the time, it made me feel very uncomfortable and even though there were people making out in the hallways, I felt like somehow me holding my partner’s hand, [which] at the time [seemed like] two girls together holding hands, was somehow more gross than people making out in the halls,” they said. “I saw a lot of people that made comments about holding my partner’s hand at the time, when we were dating, which didn’t feel good. [There were] a lot of eyes. I got asked a few times by a teacher to ‘tone it down’ even though most of it was just holding hands.”
Bailey said that “[school] hasn’t felt overly accepting at all times, just because [when] a lot of [harmful] things [are] said, teachers don’t say anything. I think that [causes] a lot of harm… because I will hear people use ‘gay’ or whatever as insults down the hall and it’s not a huge deal but they’ll also call each other the F-slur… and hearing that in the hallways, like being thrown around so easily, it’s definitely not a great environment even if [the slurs aren’t] directed at me.”
They also said that they felt unable to report the anti-LGBTQ+ behavior at the high school due to fear of possible retaliation.
“[T]here has definitely been a lot that’s been harmful at the school that I felt like I couldn’t say anything about,
because it would have caused problems, or it would have been seen as me being disruptive or me causing problems which is obviously not something I want to do. [School] hasn’t been welcoming enough to make me feel like I can speak up about harm targeted towards queer people,” Bailey said.
Other students and staff agree that the school environment is not welcoming enough to queer students, which is why some students remain in the closet.
“Although more and more LGBTQ+ students are out at school, there are still many students who are scared or unsure about whether they will be accepted by students whom they don’t know or their teachers. They are not sure who they can trust,” Tricia Fellinger, German teacher and co-advisor to Ambassadors of Change, wrote in an email.
I think people are a little more ‘hush-hush’ at UA. I think they try to keep their prejudice [hidden], despite being, you know… a little more close-minded.Senior Max Bailey
A anonymous transgender student said being closeted at school is extremely stressful and “every second of every day you’re just constantly trying to protect this aspect of yourself… and that’s just a very hard thing to do.” She said that one of the reasons she stayed closeted was the blatant transphobia exhibited by other students and that there
are many people within the school “that could potentially be transphobic.” However, the student said she has found support from select students and teachers.
“I haven’t really talked to a whole lot of teachers about it yet and the ones that I have talked to are teachers that are particularly supportive… I’ll say though, that the majority of students and staff members are pretty supportive.”
Gill said that many students and staff, while possibly accepting, still view queer students differently than their cisgender and heterosexual peers.
“[W]hen a cisgender person looks at you and they’re like, looking at you like you have four eyes on your face or something, that is just not very affirming.”
Bailey also said that discrimination in UA is toned down. “I think people are a little more ‘hush hush’ at UA. I think they try to keep their prejudice [hidden], despite being, you know… a little more closed-minded.”
Despite the progression of LGBTQ+ rights over the past two decades, queer students at UAHS are still outcasted and alienated. However, the recent anti-discrimination oridinance update, UA Pride and the gender-neutral bathrooms at the high school have given queer students hope.
Gill said, “I guess as a teenager in [a] world that is progressing and changing every day, [with] more and more people com[ing] out, … people have realized who they are, what it means to be queer, and that is – like with our school we recently got the gender-neutral bathrooms – that’s a big win.”
A Sign of the Times
After its last 2020-21 school year meeting in early June, the UA Board of Education decided to continue with its plan for gender-neutral bathrooms at UAHS, despite concerns from community members. Back in May, many parents raised concerns about the logistics of having all students using the same facilities. Cathy Pultz, president of the Upper Arlington Education Coalition, voiced her argument against the bathrooms in a May Arlingtonian article, ‘“I just think by this style you’ve made it unhygienic for boys and girls.”’
Chris Potts, Chief Operating Officer for Upper Arlington Schools, was quoted in the same article as supporting the new bathrooms, saying, “‘When we have students who are questioning their assigned gender or sex or who identify differently than their assigned gender or sex, they are able to use the restroom without added stress for themselves or their classmates.”’
While the bathrooms themselves have floor-to-ceiling stalls, UAHS has designated certain student bathrooms ‘all-gender’ while designating others as either ‘mens’ or ‘womens’. Staff restrooms are labelled ‘all-gender’ while athletic locker rooms and showers are ‘girls’ or ‘boys’.