Weeks after a viral video showing the assault of a young boy at Defiance Middle School, supporters and LGBTQ+ youth and adults gathered for the first Pride celebration in this rural county, located in Ohio’s northwestern corner.
Defiance is situated about 55 miles southwest of Toledo and has a population of just under 17,000, according to the 2019 census.
Jennifer R. Hart only needed to watch the video one time to realize she must act. With the March launch of her business in Defiance, the owner of D-Town Food Market & Oasis had a lot to celebrate. But just weeks after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the town was grappling with the viral video showing the assault of a boy for wearing a rainbow flag across his shoulders.
As June began, Hart felt disgusted and saddened, but also motivated. She and her staff had already been working on the city’s first Pride Month celebration, but this incident gave them the extra push to solicit more even more community involvement. Other downtown businesses displayed Pride flags in their windows, and the local newspaper, the Crescent-News, announced the event.
“Because of my lifelong journey of working with kids, I understood the struggle for many out and questioning kids and adults, and my heart broke,” Hart said. “I have seen – too many times – rejected children in the foster care system [and local schools].”
Hart connected with Anchored LGBTQ+ youth support group founder Stacy Geiser Flanary. Together, they began calling Defiance City Public Schools to advocate for an LGBTQ-affirming program for youth.
Hart and Geiser Flanary say they are still seeking action by the public school system. “To date, we have not been able to get a meeting with Defiance City Public Schools,” Hart said. “When I reached out, I could hear the disdain in the woman’s voice who answered the call. It’s obviously something they wish to continue to sweep under the rug.”
Geiser Flanary said it was “a God thing” when she started Anchored LGBTQ+—a program of Love Must Win—two years ago. “In founding Anchored, I had a vision of teens in Defiance having a safe place to be themselves,” she said.
Hart and Geiser Flanary found support for Pride in St. John United Church of Christ, an Open and Affirming (ONA) congregation. ONA is a movement of more than 1,500 churches and other ministries in the United Church of Christ that welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer members. These churches commit their members “to welcome LGBTQ seekers, support their relationships, and advocate for their basic rights,” according to the Open and Affirming Coalition.
For over 20 years, Geiser Flanary had followed conservative Christian teachings, believing those who are not heterosexual and cisgender were sinners in need of salvation. When she learned her belief system could be directly contributing to high rates of depression and suicide in LGBTQ+ people, it did not sit well with Geiser Flanary, a mom of three.
“It didn’t feel right,” she said. “I dove in and read all kinds of different things, and [progressive Christianity]made more sense to me. I thought, ‘This sounds like my God – an accepting and loving God.’”
Geiser Flanary says she learns from the teens in her support group daily. Most importantly, she gives herself permission to grow as a person and in her faith. She has seen the harm that organized religion can inflict on LGBTQ+ individuals. Geiser Flanary hopes the cycle will end with her.
“I personally do not know all there is to know about the LGBT+ community, but I’m willing to research and find out and accept and learn, and honestly that’s all one can do who doesn’t live it,” Geiser Flanary said. “I want (the next) generation to live and love free and fully, not hidden away and shamed.”
The only shame Hart feels today is for fellow Christians who use religion as justification for hate.
“No one should feel hidden or unseen or unsupported in their community,” Hart said. “The number of people who feel unsafe, unseen and unwelcome is completely unacceptable. It’s time for everyone to understand that Pride is important to many people so they can know they are safe. Every day, someone takes their life because they would rather be dead than different. As a mother, a friend, an ally, (I know) if Pride events and community support changes the life of just one person, it’s important.
“I am a firm believer that God makes no mistakes, and if we were able to keep one child from harming themselves or from feeling alone, then using our business to share our support would be worth it,” Hart added.
- If you or someone you know is struggling, you are not alone. Some resources:
- The BRAVO (Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization) helpline is open 9am – 7pm, Monday – Friday, and individuals can reach out via phone (1-866-862-7286), text (614-333-1907), or secure chat (bravo-ohio.org).
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained counselor from the Crisis Text Line.
- The Trevor Project (thetrevorproject.org/get-help-now) provides phone, chat and text support for LGBTQ+ youth.
- The Trans Lifeline provides support for transgender people, by transgender people, at 1-877-565-8860.
- The SAGE LGBT Elder Hotline (1-888-234-7243) provides peer support and local resources for older adults.