Historic Reflections: A Conversation with Lori Gum of Stonewall Columbus
Local History Manager, Ohio History Connection
Rare is the evidence of Columbus, Ohio’s first Pride March. Stories are told of protestors wearing paper bags over their heads as speakers called from a makeshift stage and a P.A. system ran through an old van.
Last year, we celebrated 35 years of Pride as Stonewall Columbus was born that day in 1981 after approximately 130 marchers stepped down High Street and circled the Statehouse protesting discrimination. When Stonewall was gearing up to sponsor their first pride march, Lori Gum was headed out of town. “I ran away from Columbus!” Upon her return some 30 years later, she was impressed. “What the hell happened?!” Columbus had come a long way.
Lori Gum is the Program and Pride Coordinator at Stonewall Columbus, coordinating Columbus’ Pride Festival since 2011. She has also developed life changing programs through Stonewall to help strengthen the Community and advocate for equality. She continues to do community outreach and cultural competency training, as her passions are rooted in productive dialog for change, understanding, and tolerance.
“When I left, there was no community.” Lori remembered finding a few others like her playing on the softball team in Westerville. But, “people like me were being locked in lockers and spit on. Why would I come out?”
She recalled the social scene in the early 80s. “Lesbian bars were dangerous back in the day. There was a fist fight every night. When you put the shame of being in the closet with ex’s and alcohol all in the same room, something was bound to happen. Our “safe spaces” were sometimes the most dangerous places to be…for women…in my opinion.”
Looking back, it’s sometimes easy to gloss over just how far we’ve come. Looking for the root of our current cultural environment, our conversation took us through many historic phases of the community… The Legacy of World War II, The Early Years of Pride, The AIDS Crisis, and the New Generation of LGBTQ, and some new challenges of the community.
Reflections on the Past and Present
Keeping the conversation going and representing a younger generation was Peter Diller. Peter didn’t grow up in the big city, but rather came from rural Ohio, in a place in North West Ohio called Gilboa. “My darkest moment, strangely enough, had to do with technology.” Peter remembered when he was 17 and being sent text messages to lure him to places from a group of boys who’s motives were clearly harmful. “That put me in the closet for another year.” Peter came out overseas in Vienna, Austria; and after living there a few years, he came back to the states and, like Lori, he wondered “what happened!”.
Peter commented that during the second World War “drag” was a cultural phenomenon in USOs. “WWII was a sexual revolution.” The 50s reflected a reaction to this more visible culture, and clash and conflict punctured through the 60s.
“WWII was a catalyst for Stonewall.” Lori reflected on her studies in LGBTQ history. “During the McCarthy era, gays and jews were targeted. And with marriage equality, we were prepared for the backlash!” Reflections of the struggles in Uganda come to mind, as well as the current torrent of violent and powerful rhetoric regarding trans people in bathrooms. “This is where trans people are most vulnerable and this new rhetoric uses “children” and “bathrooms” in the same sentence to create fear.” Lori reminds us that “more politicians do horrible things in bathrooms than trans”.
Community Focused Narratives
In looking back at the historic record, Lori brings to attention the fact that most narratives of LGBTQ issues are “equality narratives”. “We have been telling our stories to convince mainstream America that we deserve equality. We haven’t talked about our intra-community problems. Now we are moving into a “Queer Conversation” about our own community, without caring what the mainstream thinks. In the 90’s I watched the lipstick lesbians kick the butch women out of the bars. If it had not been for “butch” women, people would not have even known about lesbians. We can stand what “the man” does to you, but what hurts the most and leaves a longer lasting mark on your life, is what your own community does to you. The gay community did it to the trans community; the lipstick lesbians did it to butch women; butch women did it to kinky lesbians in the 50s and 60s; feminists did it to the lesbians…and it goes on and on. The attitude has been…”Including you in our fight for equality would be too risky”, so you wait until we get equality and then we’ll decide if you get it or not.”
Decline of Bar Culture
In the past, bars and bookstores were the common community spaces, but there has been a significant decline of bars in the community. Lori observes that the decline of bars has to do with the alcohol recovery movement. “Sobriety being cool again! So many of us that came of age in the bars were 50 and alcoholics. We realized that bars were contributing to the addictions in our communities. We needed to make safe sober spaces, where you could find community and not have to drink.” This is one of the social gaps that Stonewall Columbus creates programming to fill. Also, those who grew up in the bar culture were now getting older and they no longer fit in bars. So where would they go. Older gens have been getting silent and sometimes going back into the closet again. They’ve found themselves going into faith based nursing homes and having home attendants that wouldn’t give them their medicine “until Jesus Christ came into their lives”. So they’ve had to go back into the closet to ensure their safety again. Peter also remembered a story his mom shared about her time working in the cancer wards, when a person had to go back in the closet in order to die in peace.
Those were difficult times. In 1981, the Pride parade in Columbus consisted of around 200 marchers, many with bags on their heads because they didn’t want to be identified. Police were needed to protect the marchers from a potentially violent and abusive crowd of protesters. This June, Pride coordinators around the state are worried about protecting the protestors. The Pride guide warns to not engage protestors. Do not “play into their hands”. Lori comments that whenever “faggot” or another derogatory term is used; there is real concern about the safety of the protestors. “There are many in today’s younger generation who won’t take this shit anymore!”
A Change is Coming
So when and why did things change? With reverence Lori reflected that “it took the AIDS Crisis to make being in the closet an immoral act”. Living in New York at the time, Lori worked on Christopher Street and somberly remembers that not one of her gay male friends survived. “Nothing about the scores of men dying everyday was mentioned on the front page of the New York Times. I remember being a part of ACT UP and talking about throwing bodies over the White House gates, just to get attention to the crisis.” The community grew in strength and started to form in the 90s to bring the language of protest together. “I’d be fascinated to see what the world would be like if the AIDS Crisis had not happened. It motivated our community to come out. We told our stories and we came out. The AIDS Taskforce was created in Columbus and brought resources to fight the crisis in Columbus. The leather community started having benefits at gay bars to raise money for those with AIDS. These stories weren’t covered in local papers. For most of this history, you have to rely on oral record.
“As horrible as it was, there would not be marriage equality without the AIDS Crisis.” Lori mentioned that Marriage Equality didn’t mean much to her. She had no plans for marriage. She didn’t want to get married. Working in the offices of Stonewall Columbus, she remembered preparing for the Supreme Court Decision on Marriage Equality. “The news update popped on my screen “Marriage Wins 5-4”. My hands were shaking. I couldn’t move. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact. My life flashed before my eyes. Getting beat up, the AIDS Crisis, getting spit on, carrying a baseball bat in the trunk. I instantly remembered everyone I knew who died during the AIDS crisis. The lives that were paid to make this happen. The names sewn into quilts that were made so that the men who died would not be forgotten. I never believed that Marriage equality would make it to the Supreme Court. We were still fighting state bans. Reaching the Supreme Court seemed so final.” After the impact of the Supreme Court decision, Stonewall Columbus carries on the torch of change. “We have to redefine what equal protection means. Civil Rights should not be up for a vote. The public would have you believe that we’ve got everything we’ve asked for.” Lori casually reminds “Yes, we’ve got everything, except for job protection, housing protection,…” Need we all be reminded from the tragedy in Florida; that we still have a ways to go.
Thank you to Lori Gum and Peter Diller for their time and insight. We all hope to see you support Lori’s incredible work organizing Columbus Pride 2017!