Tuesday, October 4

I Just Left Ohio and Now Need to Unlearn the Traumas of Ohio’s Discrimination

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After a five day road trip relocating from Cleveland to Los Angeles in the middle of a pandemic, emotional exhaustion doesn’t begin to describe how we were feeling.

We weathered winter storms, pouring rain through rocky mountains, and questionably safe hotels. Gas station stops in blood red rural counties where masks were nowhere to be found on highways lined with hastily handmade “TRUMP IS STILL PRESIDENT ” billboards felt more like  booby traps than rest stops. We parked our uHaul, ready to unpack in front of our new home in the middle of an unusual Los Angeles rainstorm like something out of a rejected Alanis Morrisette lyric. The irony of two queer women waiting to uHaul until after we were already married was not lost on us.

A few days after arriving, it was time to venture into our new community for the first time and face the public by making a pilgrimage to our least favorite place in the world–the grocery store. Leading up to the shopping trip, I started feeling the same way I used to before going on stage in a musical. My heartbeat quickened, a massive lump took home in my throat, my hands began to tremble–and I hadn’t even put on my shoes yet. The pandemic makes going anywhere in public a stressful situation to begin with, but after years of constant harassment in Ohio, it’s my body’s learned response to what feels like impending danger.

Because back in Ohio, it was never “if” someone was going to harass us, it was “when.”

Everything is bigger out here, so when we pulled into the (no joke) three story Target, it made perfect sense that our only choice of parking was in a parking garage. Anxiety immediately overtook my entire body. I felt myself deeply breathing in through my nose and out of my mouth like I used to at college house parties trying not to puke after too many games of beer pong. I clenched our reusable grocery bags so tightly I was afraid I’d break the skin between my knuckles. There were many, many people. What if someone said something? I don’t know my available resources here! I don’t know who to call for help! What if someone did something?

I hadn’t even taken off my seatbelt.

When the moment came, we got out, and we walked in with our heads held high. I avoided eye contact with everyone–focusing solely on our grocery list and how the hell to navigate a Target with cart escalators and an actually enforced six-foot socially distanced standard. (Author’s Note: Capitalism is obviously a plague upon us all, but I’d be lying if I said cart escalators weren’t one of the coolest thing my little Midwest brain had ever seen, even if we embarrassingly tried to figure it out like Hansel & Derek Zoolander trying to extract files from a computer.)

We weaved between aisles and scanned directory signs like children with a treasure map, encountering tons of strangers who genuinely didn’t give a flying rat’s ass about either of our existences. No stares. No comments. No unsolicited photos. No muffled whispers. Nothing.

I tried to allow myself to relax, but every time we went down a new aisle, I felt my body tense back up on high alert. The trauma we’ve endured from constant harassment trying to complete very basic errands is so severe, I am going to have to legitimately deprogram the overwhelming defense mechanisms I’ve developed over the years. I may be in a new time zone, but Ohio is still seeped into my pores and weighing heavily all over my body. It feels like a cinder block on my chest that I can’t seem to shake off.

And it’s not just stemmed from my own lived experiences. I don’t want to assume gender identity or sexuality, but a tall, masculine presenting individual was leaving the store wearing a Britney Spears “Work, Bitch” t-shirt cut to expose their midriff, and I impulsively started scanning the area for safety the moment they came into view.

Back in Ohio, noticing a visibly queer person would trigger my defense systems knowing that this individual is at risk of targeted violence and there’s a chance I may need to step in or intervene if they need support or backup. Part of the trauma of being queer in a red state isn’t based solely in a desire for my own protection, but also for the safety of my community. This person walked by, hand in hand (with presumably their partner), and no one even flinched. Just two people living their best life.

Here’s the thing: I wish I could say that we left Ohio for some glamorous new job or some massively impressive reason, but the reality is that we’re now paying over 3x our former rent for the peace of mind and comfort of living in a more affirming area. We’re paying for social security offices that don’t list me as “the groom” on my wife’s name change paperwork. We’re paying for doctors that don’t grimace when we have to out ourselves during basic checkups. We’re paying to live in a place where I can teach in schools that actually protect LGBTQ+ students and will listen when I try to advocate for my kids. We’re paying to live somewhere where the largest state health insurance company and Medicaid doesn’t have explicitly written exemptions against trans people.

Obviously it’s foolish to believe that because we moved here we’ll never experience bigotry or harassment, but coming home after the trip to Target brought me to tears. I genuinely could not remember the last time I went grocery shopping with my wife without enduring blatant homophobia or transphobia. And yet, I can’t turn off the panic button.

Unlearning fear and retraining the way your body reacts to triggers is hard. For some people it’s a lifelong process, and for my queer self, I genuinely don’t know if it’s something I’ll ever be able to fully overcome. It’s been a few months since we left Ohio for California, but every time my chest clenches tighter when I step out of my house, I know that Ohio has not left me.

For better or worse. 🔥

About Author

BJ Colangelo is a recovering child beauty queen that fancies herself the lovechild of Christopher Sarandon in “Fright Night” and Susan Sarandon in “The Hunger”. BJ is a social emotional theatre teaching artist and a professional horror film journalist and theorist. She writes about horror, wrestling, sex, kicking pancreatic cancer’s ass, and being a fat queer all over the Internet. Her work has been featured in publications like Blumhouse, Medium, Playboy, Vulture, Birth. Movies. Death., Autostraddle, and The Daily Dot, and has contributed essays to the books When Animals Attack!, Creepy Bitches, and Hidden Horror 101.

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  1. Pingback: The Buckeye Flame’s Top 5 LGBTQ+ Ohio Stories of 2021 - The Buckeye Flame

  2. I have done the exact opposite. I came out while I was living in California and have moved back to Ohio…which I sometimes kick myself for doing for the reasons you mentioned in this article. But ultimately, what I was doing, job wise, was not going to be able to sustain any kind of financial security where I was living, plus my own mental health was spiraling out of control. I wish I could say moving back was truly a great move. But I am holding out hope that now that I am living in Cleveland that when groups can safely meet again that I will be able to find my new chosen family in the area.

    • Katie O'Keeffe-Swank on

      Hi Josh,
      What a tough decision–nonetheless, I applaud you. I have lived on the east side of Cleveland for most of my adult life and have clung to the notion that this area is the only safe haven in the state in terms of so-called liberal leanings. But I am wrong. I continually remind myself that, just as tolerance, acceptance and love exist everywhere in “pockets”, so too do ignorance, intolerance and hatred. Everyday I see the struggles of my minority students, from LGBTQIA+ to those of biracial and multicultural ethnicities, I cringe at thought of what they go through internally. Especially the young teens. They will sometimes confide in a teacher because they seek safety and comfort, having not yet found their own chosen family or an accepting community. And I realize they need people to stay and advocate both for and with them. It would be too easy to leave in search of a mythical place where love and acceptance is the law of the land, where all feel truly free to pursue their individual dreams and goals–and can also afford to live there. So much energy feels wasted on fighting for that freedom, and it can be very disheartening. I work in a bluecollar community just outside of Cleveland, yet in another county know for voting along red party lines. Some of the more courageous teens have confided in me over the years about the fear of leaving their house on a daily basis. Other minorities, namely African Americans and Asians, have shared the need to apologetically walk on eggshells for fear of not fiting in or, worse yet, have made themselves the butt of jokes as a self-defense mechanism. They need more adults who are willing to stay and show them how to stand up and form their own communities of tolerance. They don’t have the choice to relocate…yet. They shouldn’t need to.
      If you need a friend in the area, LMK.

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