The first thing you have to know is how to pronounce the word Geauga in “Geauga County.”
With that out of the way, the next thing you have to know about this rural, northeast Ohio locale is that they have a relatively new LGBTQ+ organization aimed at providing support, resources, and education to not only LGBTQ+ individuals, but also to their families and the Geauga community as a whole.
Founded in April 2020, Geauga SOGI Support Network (GSSN) hopes to continue ushering in changes that will help LGBTQ+ individuals in Geauga County feel a greater sense of belonging.
One important aspect of the organization is community partnerships with local and national organizations, including the Ravenwood Health Center, the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, GLSEN, and Plexus. With two counselors on the organization’s board, GSSN has facilitated youth groups for middle and high school students in the LGBTQ+ community.
“We wanted to make sure we have qualified people who know how to give the proper messages and be supportive to the youth,” said Christine (Chris) Steigerwald, board president of GSSN.
The Buckeye Flame chatted with Steigerwald to learn more about GSSN’s initiatives and the changes the organization hopes to see in Geauga County moving forward.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your organization and its mission?
Since there are no other organizations in Geauga County currently focusing on sexual orientation, gender identity, and the LGBTQ+ community, our mission is really to be a resource and try to meet the needs of the whole community. That includes support groups for the LGBTQ+ population, their family, their friends, and education for the community, because that is a big need in Geauga County. We’re reaching out to businesses and employers to help them understand and hopefully create policies within their businesses that will be friendly and inclusive to the LGBTQ+ population.
How has the pandemic affected the organization?
I spent about six months in 2019 just reaching out to many people in the community to find out what our organization would look like and what we needed to address, and along the way I met and recruited the board. Our first meeting was in January 2020. At that point we had no name or mission statement, but we knew that a top priority was establishing support groups. We’re lucky to have four members of our 11 member board be professional service providers who serve the LGBTQ+ community. When we met in January, we had a goal of starting support groups in April. And of course that didn’t happen.
It was a difficult year; we didn’t make much progress in 2020. We started virtual groups, but it was really hard to promote our new group in the community because, understandably, everyone’s attention was diverted by the pandemic. But since the beginning of 2021, we’re finding out that more and more people know about our group, and we’re hearing from professionals and families who are reaching out looking for help and resources.
Tell our readers about some of the accomplishments the organization has already had.
We started out just offering a high school support group, but early this year, we began receiving emails from many parents of middle school youth. I went to the board and said that we’re getting a lot of requests for support for both the parents and the youth. I think it was a big accomplishment that we then added a support group for the middle school youth and for their parents. The two counselors on our board from Ravenwood Health who facilitate the high school group are also facilitating the middle school group, and the parents could simultaneously participate with one of those Ravenwood counselors for support, education, and information; and to support each other as well, since they are meeting other parents who are going through similar experiences.
Another accomplishment has been providing community education through programs we have offered. We have a topical discussion, and we started off with that being every other month; and we think we’re going to move it to monthly because there are so many topics. A positive thing that came out of the pandemic is a larger reach and the ability to bring in speakers from outside Geauga County.
What are some changes you hope to see going forward?
There is still some reluctance in Geauga County for youth and adults who are part of the LGBTQ+ population to feel comfortable being their authentic selves because they don’t see our community as being an open and affirming safe place.
For example, one of our board members is openly gay in this community, and is a business owner in Geauga County. He is the only open member of the LGBTQ+ community as a business owner. He said that when he came out—and that knowledge spread in the community—he lost some clients as a result.
The big goal and hope is that we will create a more open and affirming community, so that youth and adults can be comfortable to be who they are in their own community. Geauga County is a small community in the sense that if you come out, it is very likely that people are going to find out. Some youth are more open about saying, “This is who I am, and you either accept me or you don’t accept me,” but others aren’t comfortable doing that. And we want that [sense of safety]to change in Geauga County.
It is moving in that direction; I hear people talking about our organization in a favorable way. There was a rally recently at a local church that was very affirming, to promote transgender rights in Ohio. We had a really nice turn-out, and some people just showed up as allies to support this population. It was just so heartwarming to see that. Our organization has partnerships with the open and affirming churches, and we’re all collaborating together to move this topic forward to be a more open platform in our community. 🔥
- Learn more about Geauga SOGI Support Network by going to their website or their Facebook page. If you’re able to, donate to support their efforts.
- Fun historical note: HUGS (Hope, Understanding, Giving, and Support) East was established in 1984 when a group of individuals sought to provide the gay and lesbian community of Lake, Geauga and Ashtabula Counties with a support network and to act as an extended family, similar to what they saw being offered just east in Cleveland. These efforts led to the lavender ribbon cutting pictured below in January of 1989 for a physical space in Mentor to serve the local LGBTQ population.