Friday, October 22

LGBTQ+ Protections Expand in Cuyahoga Falls Schools, Thanks to First Out Board Member

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Since his election in 2017, Anthony Gomez – the first out, Hispanic, and youngest person to sit on Cuyahoga Falls’ Board of Education – has had an impactful first term.

In addition to helping drive passage of a major school levy in 2019, he’s been a fierce advocate for LGBTQ+ students and staff, leading efforts to expand anti-discrimination protections and formally recognize LGBTQ+/ally clubs in district schools, among other issues that had flown under the Board’s radar prior to Gomez’s election.

“If you are the first of anything to serve in any capacity anywhere, you are going to bring a perspective that’s never been heard before,” says Gomez, adding that while his agenda has faced some opposition, the response from LGBTQ+ students has made it worthwhile.

“I had a student reach out to me who said that it meant so much to them that somebody in power would fight for them, and that’s really the goal – to get LGBTQ+ students to realize that they are valued and they matter just as much as the other students.”

Now up for reelection – and recently endorsed by the Victory Fund – Anthony Gomez spoke with The Buckeye Flame about how he got into local politics (and why you should, too!), the achievements of his first term, and the challenges he’s preparing to tackle in his second. 

What drew you into local politics?
I’ve been involved in local politics since I was 14 years old. There was a huge financial crisis in our school district in the 2004-2005 school year, which happened to be my freshman year of high school. We laid off a substantial number of teachers, and I was really upset about that, so I reached out to the superintendent to see how I could help. I got involved with the levy committee and through that got to know members of the school board and city council. Then I got engaged in our local Democratic club and served on various committees for our school district. Since that time, I’ve had a desire specifically for school board, but I had to wait until the time was right in my life to do that.

What changed in 2017 that cleared the way for you to run?
I had thought about running when I was 18, then decided against it. I think it was a strong choice for me, because I wanted to get a bit more life experience under my belt. I went off to college, which took me in a different direction, but 2015 led me back to my hometown of Cuyahoga Falls once more. After two years of getting reestablished in the community, I felt like that was the right moment to step up.

I understand it was in large part thanks to your advocacy that all student LGBTQ+ and allies clubs in district schools can be formally recognized – how did you help make this happen?
When I came onto the Board, there was already a GSA (Gender & Sexuality Alliance) at the high school, but they were not formally recognized by the Board of Education. The issue with that is only official clubs are allowed to fundraise, which limited what the club was able to do, so we worked to get them formally recognized. From that came a push from one of our middle schools to have a similar club. There was some pushback from the community, and then unfortunately some [resistance]internally from within the district, but I dug my heels in. Someone said to me they weren’t sure people in the community would support this. My rebuttal was, well, as the gay person that the community elected, I don’t think they’ll have a huge problem with it.

What are some of your other proudest accomplishments of your first term, and what are the biggest challenges you foresee in your second?
The biggest accomplishment was being able to get our bond issue passed in 2019, which will fund construction of a new 6-12 building along with a sports stadium – a truly once-in-a-lifetime project. Another major achievement came through my work with Gwen Stembridge from Equality Ohio. We were able to pass a comprehensive non-discrimination policy for our district that goes far beyond what the state of Ohio does in protecting LGBTQ+ students and staff, with specific accommodations for transgender students. Though the state of Ohio does not allow for students to use a chosen name on their permanent record, we made it so that if a student has another name that they prefer to go by, we would honor that on their student records so they wouldn’t have to be referred to by their deadname.

In terms of challenges, digging out of the pandemic and finding out where kids really are in their educational process is going to be an immense challenge – for all schools, really. A kid may have started the pandemic in third grade, and next year they may be going into the fifth, but the reality is there’s so much they weren’t able to learn in that year due to the shift to virtual learning. Figuring out how as a district we can establish the appropriate support is going to be the biggest challenge, along with of course our construction project.

As the first openly gay, Hispanic, and youngest member of the Board, your election marked a major victory for representation in Cuyahoga Falls. What advice would you give to other people from minority backgrounds who are considering running for office?
When I first decided to run, a lot of people said I’ll vote for you, but I don’t think someone like you could win. While I appreciated their support and honesty, that wasn’t encouraging, but I realized there was only one way to find out: run, and see how the community responds. I did not win by very much – only 64 votes out of 3,200. I do think some people didn’t vote for me because of who I am – one lady told me to my face that she could not vote for a gay person; not a happy moment! – but who I am didn’t stop enough people from voting for me.

So, what I tell people who are thinking about running for office is do it! The only way to gauge whether the community will support you is by putting yourself out there. Once you’re in office, the reality is you are serving everyone, no matter who they are or whether they supported you. But if you are the first of anything to serve in any capacity anywhere, you are going to bring a perspective that’s never been heard before, which is so important. In Cuyahoga Falls, we still have a long way to go in that regard; we have not had a black candidate run for office yet, and that is on my radar as something I would love to see happen. The only way to get someone to serve is to convince them to run. So I always encourage people to take the opportunity. 🔥

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Peter Kusnic is a writer and editor based in Cleveland, OH.

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