Movement, Interrupted: Reflections on the Racial Divide in LGBTQ Columbus – and How We Can Fix It

May 1, 2018
By D.A. Steward

A week before 10 people interrupted the Columbus Pride parade last June to protest police brutality, call attention to violence against transgender women of color and make a statement about racial inequity within the LGBTQ community, demonstrations also took place at Pride celebrations in Boston and Washington, D.C.

No one was arrested in either city. In Washington, where two of 10 protesters blocking the parade physically chained themselves to a fence and a car, Pride organizers rerouted the march with the help of local police. 

Similar “No Justice No Pride” protests were organized at Pride in New York and Los Angeles. Nothing quite like what happened last June 17 in Columbus—a police intervention and the arrests of four black protesters who would become known as the Black Pride 4—took place anywhere else.

We’ve all seen the videos. Many of you have witnessed or been embroiled in the fallout and deepened divisions that followed. As someone who dedicated a decade to fighting for the advancement of LGBTQ people of color in Ohio through grassroots activism and within the non-profit and government arenas before moving to Boston in 2015, seeing my city self-destruct in such a way from afar was truly disheartening.

But the main question rerunning through my mind over the last year has been: Why did these violent arrests and the following turmoil happen in Columbus and not in the other cities?

It speaks to a larger problem. The Black Pride 4 isn’t an isolated incident. It was the result of a powder keg that has been smoldering for decades. My hope with this piece is to take us on a journey to the root of the problem, using the voices of LGBTQ leaders of color in Ohio as our guide.

If Columbus is ever to truly heal, it must do the work to treat the symptoms.


Black Queer Intersectional Columbus, or BQIC, has become ground zero for the grassroots response since the June 2017 arrests of Wriply Bennet, Ashley Braxton, Kendall Denton and DeAndre Antonio Miles-Hercules. But before BQIC there was Columbus Urban Pride.

Well before the word intersectionality became part of the national lexicon, I and a handful of other local intersectional activists met at Zanzibar Brews on Long Street—the same place, now named the Lincoln Café, where BQIC has held meetings and events—simply to create spaces of inclusion within the Columbus Pride celebration. 

Our group saw much of its heyday between 2011 and 2014, when we formed a partnership with Stonewall Columbus to officially hold them accountable for providing culturally competent Pride events that were inclusive to people of color. Sadly, Columbus Urban Pride fizzled to a halt in 2016.

Communities of color seem to catch the attention of the mainstream LGBTQ community in Columbus in waves. More than a decade before Columbus Urban Pride, Aaron Riley began working at the Columbus AIDS Task Force (which later merged with AIDS Resource Center Ohio and today is Equitas Health) as its director of client services. When promoted to executive director in 2003, he became the first African-American to lead an AIDS service organization in Ohio.

Riley shared several stories of his first interactions with LGBTQ service organizations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He had to go through a separate vetting process to be on the board of a local LGBTQ agency, a step he felt at the time was a way to “screen out” people of color. He approached an LGBTQ newspaper to start a column about the plight of queer folks of color, only to be told his idea was too serious for the publication.

“It was a different time. I was a poor gay boy from Memphis. Early on, there was always that feeling of being treated ‘less than’ in leadership spaces I was occupying,” says Riley, who went on to help lead the city’s first LGBTQ needs assessment in partnership with the United Way of Central Ohio, and was a part of redefining how AIDS housing services were funded, which pipelined new federal funding into the state.

He now lives in Spokane, Wash., where he works as the Eastern Washington regional long-term care ombudsman for Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners.

Just before he left Ohio in 2015, Riley said he felt the community was on an upswing because of the number of programs and efforts that centered LGBTQ people of color. Initiatives under way at the time ranged from New Leaf Columbus, a social-media enterprise that Riley founded, to Columbus Urban Pride to TRAXX Columbus, a regular LGBTQ nightlife event.

“Unfortunately, still, when I was looking around at the mainstream organizations, the boards and staff were still mostly white,” he says. “Still much hadn’t changed.”


Erin Upchurch, a longtime social worker and activist, is following in Riley’s history-making footsteps. In April, she became the first black woman to lead a major LGBTQ organization in Columbus when she started her job as Kaleidoscope Youth Center’s new executive director. Upchurch says she’s honored to be stepping into the role but also wonders why it took so long for such a milestone.

“While exciting, it’s unfortunate that this is the first time this is happening. I know that there are many strong, qualified leaders of color in our community,” she says. “There are really no clear direct pathways to leadership for our communities, much like there are for white communities.”

In her new role at Kaleidoscope, Upchurch hopes to continue chipping away at years of institutionalized oppression in leadership by partnering with city officials and community leaders to create more pipelines to opportunity for marginalized LGBTQ youth.

“We need to really formally connect young people to that path,” says Upchruch, who last year added politics to her resume when she ran for the Columbus City Schools Board of Education.

“Young people need access to relationships and the political capital that will allow them to be at the table, and to meaningfully be a part of the changes that are happening in this city.”

Aaryn Lang and Elle Hearns are Columbus natives who left the city for those leadership opportunities. Both say Central Ohio—and its LGBTQ community—isn’t doing enough to cultivate queer and trans leaders of color.

“The LGBTQ community there (in Columbus) doesn’t seem to want to highlight the marginalized in any intentional way,” says Lang, the former movement building and campaign manager at GetEQUAL, a New York-based national LGBTQ advocacy group that found itself in turmoil after its executive director fired Lang in March. The decision led to the departure of several board members and a national boycott against the agency. On March 27, Gaby Garcia-Vera, GetEQUAL’s executive director, announced the agency would shut down.

“My issue with the LGBTQ community and spaces and agencies that are supposed to be dedicated to our betterment is that they say they are standing in their values. You go in with that expectation,” Lang says. “That’s the injury. We expected better because you said you were better.”

Hearns is the founder and executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute and a founder of the Black Lives Matter Network. She’s a nationally regarded voice on the strategies for the liberation of black and queer lives, but it saddens her that her hometown is lagging behind.

“I’ve been deeply disappointed about that fact that a place that I come from has continually been an example for why I do the work that I do,” she says. “There’s a real need for us to get very honest about what divisions exist and who gets to benefit from those divisions.”

For this and many other reasons, Hearns plans to move herself and the institute to operate to Columbus in the coming months.

Bennet also feels the work for black queer liberation falls too often on deaf ears in Central Ohio.

“I planned a vigil for Rae’Lynn Thomas and only a handful of white folks showed up,” Bennet says of the 28-year-old black transgender Columbus woman who was murdered in August 2016 by her mother’s transphobic ex-boyfriend.

“They’ll all flock to that church on King Avenue for Trans Day of Remembrance to cry and honor trans folks once a year,” Bennet says. “But they can’t show up when a black trans person was murdered in our own community. It’s really telling.”


When resolve is shaken and hope depleted, we often look to those whom we think are getting it right, or at least trying to. For six years, Phyllis “Seven” Harris has been leading the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland, and the most marginalized communities are at the center of her strategic plan. When she was hired in 2012, she became the first African-American executive director in the center’s 40-plus years.

After a month of digging back into the events surrounding the Black Pride 4 and the history of marginalization and erasure in LGBTQ Columbus, being in conversation with Harris feels like a step into the future. A black queer woman raised on intersectional feminism leads a social justice-focused LGBTQ center that in 2016 mounted Pride in the CLE when the city’s longstanding Pride organization canceled its event at the last minute. Her leadership was so effective the white-male-led Cleveland Pride Inc. decided to fold itself under her leadership.

“Social justice and systemic change should be the focus,” Harris says. “Let’s lead with an LGBTQ center that does that. If we lead with that, I think we’re going to be all right.”


Centering the movement on queer and trans people of color is something that BQIC has been demanding in Central Ohio since its inception. Their success in forcing the LGBTQ community to talk about marginalization and inclusion in its own organizations is a mix of good timing with a heavy dose of carpe diem.

Ariana Steele moved to Columbus in 2016 to begin their doctorate program in linguistics at Ohio State University after graduating from Northwestern University in Chicago. They arrived just as the work of Columbus Urban Pride was coming to an end, so when they looked around for intersectional activism, there wasn’t much available.

So Steele joined forces with Dkeama Alexis, and they co-founded BQIC during that first winter semester in February 2017. “There were about four to six of us meeting regularly in my living room.” A few months after creating a safe space for fellowship among queer and trans people of color, the group started planning a zine called Obsidian that would feature only QTPOC. The launch party was hosted at Kaleidoscope Youth Center on June 10, 2017.

By then, Bennet had also become a staple within BQIC. A group of friends were on the path toward filling a void for LGBTQ youth of color and fighting for the access they felt they deserved. They had no idea they were about to become the focus of a movement.

On June 16, the Philando Castile verdict came down. Castile was shot on July 6, 2016, after he was pulled over by police in St. Anthony, Minn. He was in his car with his girlfriend and their daughter. Facebook live-stream video, filmed by his girlfriend right after Castile was shot, reveals he was simply reaching for his driver’s license.

When officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges on June 16, protests popped up around the country. A few BQIC members and their friends met at a coffee shop to discuss the verdict. The idea of an interruption at the next day’s Columbus Pride parade was born.

Bennet was asked to lead to action. “I remember telling my people to get bail money ready,” she says. “I knew we weren’t going to be welcomed.”

Steele wasn’t at the meeting and wasn’t able to attend Pride. “I woke up Saturday to seeing videos of my friends being pushed to the ground by police,” they say.

With Bennet and Braxton being key members of BQIC, the grassroots group quickly became the driver of the community conversation.

You all know what happens next. A high profile disruption of a post-Pride Stonewall community meeting made headlines. Black Pride 4 protests become a mainstay at Columbus Police headquarters and Franklin County Courthouse, where the trial would be held.

Three of the four were charged with misdemeanor crimes of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and failure to comply with police orders. Miles-Hercules was charged with a felony for allegedly reaching for a police officer’s gun during the incident.

Bennet, Denton and Braxton were found guilty of six of the eight charges filed against them and in March were sentenced to various levels of probation, fines and community service. Miles-Hercules still awaits trial.


Which brings us to today.

“I feel like I did all this and put my body on the line for a community that’s more broken than ever,” Bennet says, reflecting on her past year. “The way this city works, it has always been in the servitude of a select few, and this select few have been abusing their power at the risk of black enfranchisement.”

As we head into another Pride season, life in LGBTQ Columbus is quite different than it was one year ago. Activism is different. The community is forever changed.

Stonewall’s annual Columbus Pride parade and festival are scheduled for June 16 at Bicentennial and Genoa parks Downtown. BQIC is launching Columbus Community Pride, with events throughout the month and a festival also taking place on June 16 at a location yet to be decided.

Steele says the mission is to bring Pride back to its roots by centering queer and trans voices of color, calling attention to and fighting against state-sanctioned violence, and supporting grassroots efforts over corporate sponsorships.

Alongside BQIC, another contingent of activists have organized under the moniker Black Out & Proud. Avery Frost, the group’s president, and Letha Pugh convened veteran activists of color who saw their community being torn along racial divides; they sought a neutral space where issues could be addressed within LGBTQ communities of color.

“There is a clear disconnect between how the younger generation wants to make change and the needs that they have, and the experiences of the elders in our community,” says Pugh who spent six years on the board of directors at Stonewall Columbus and was president of the board for one year. “And then there are people in the middle like me, who understand where each is coming from.”

She hopes BOP will provide an outlet that brings them all together. The group plans to offer unique events geared toward people of color throughout June and beyond.

With BQIC and BOP up and running, the return of Hearns to the area with the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, a new Pride celebration with people of color front and center, and ongoing events such as BLVCK ICE and TRAXX Columbus, is Columbus heading back toward that space of saturation that Riley speaks of? And will this swing finally mean a shift in the status quo?

Activists of color say the city’s LGBTQ leadership needs to take a long, hard look at its role in maintaining institutional oppression, marginalization and erasure, as well as the obstacles that keep people of color from leadership roles that help set community priorities and programming.

“People who have gone without the most know best what is needed,” Hearns says. “Until that leadership is honored, there will always be a Black Pride 4 somewhere.”

D.A. Steward is a journalist, activist and former resident of Columbus who currently lives in Boston. He has written for The Boston Herald, The Advocate, Outlook Columbus and Newsday, among other publications.

Originally published May 1, 2018 in PRIZM magazine


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