Submitted photos Ohio River Valley Pride Coalition was represented during an Indivisible Southeast Indiana rally at the courthouse in Ohio County in February.Submitted photo Ashley and Carter have faced discrimation as part of the LBGTQIA community. They are excited to be part of the new Ohio River Valley Pride Coalition.

Community full of pride offers a safe place to go

This artwork was created by one of the 12-year-old members of the Ohio River Valley Pride Coalition.

Imagine walking down the street when someone in a car throws an unopened can of soda at your head.

For Carter, a 19-year-old transgender man from Franklin County, that was a reality only a few years ago. He was a junior in high school, heading home from school.

The act of violence almost shattered his jaw, said Carter.

Unfortunately these types of incidents are a reality for many LBGTQIA individuals living in and around Dearborn County. The description includes the more well-known, non-mainstream sexual orientation or gender identities including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/gender queer, intersex and asexuality.

That is why Bright resident Shelly Eldridge-Snyder felt she needed to take action.

Eldridge-Snyder helped start the Dearborn County Pride Alliance with Dearborn County resident Amanda Vinup-Noell. Rapid growth quickly led to the group expanding into the Ohio River Valley Pride Coalition with the help of Madison resident O’Retha Vest.

“We are here to change people’s hearts one at a time and provide support for all LBGTQIA individuals in and around our county and state,” said Eldridge-Snyder.

Eldridge-Snyder, who moved to the county from Florida seven years ago, has seen firsthand the struggles her 21-year-old transsexual daughter has endured, Gwyneth Magnuson.  

“I don’t want other people or other kids going through all of the roadblocks, discrimination, and hate my daughter has endured. I want all LBGTQIA people to live with equal rights and no discrimination or bullying.

Until we can educate the public, that will not happen,” said Eldridge-Snyder.

Last month, the group had its first meeting, with expectations that only a few people might attend at first. But over 30 people ranging in ages 7 to 60 showed up, she said.

“The things I witnessed from the group were both sad and encouraging. I saw many come in with their walls up, reluctant to speak at first, because in our schools and community, they have been victims to lots of bullying and hate,” said Eldridge-Snyder.

After each person told their story the group told them “they are not alone,” she said.

“Once they saw they were in a safe place with no hate or judgements, they opened up, had fun, and shared experiences. You could feel the love and acceptance in the room,” said Eldridge-Snyder.

Finding acceptance
In Harrison, Carter worked with Eldridge-Snyder’s daughter, Gwyneth, which is how they met, along with Carter’s fiancée, Ashley, also a resident of Franklin County.

After Gwyneth returned to college, Eldridge-Snyder and Carter kept in touch.

“She is a second mom basically,” said Carter.

Eldridge-Snyder asked if Carter and Ashley would attend the first meeting of the Ohio River Valley Pride Coalition, then known as the Dearborn County Pride Alliance.

She talked about how she was starting the group. She was nervous. She asked if we could help spread the word, said Carter.

Carter and Ashley were happy so many people from a range of ages attended.

Ashley, usually does not label herself, but explains she identifies closest to queer, someone who does not identify as either male or female.

When the younger kids spoke, she saw herself in them, said Ashley.

One of the kids has experienced a lot of bullying and asked for advice on how to deal with it, she said.

“I know it is said too much but ‘It gets better,’” she said.

At least the younger kids in the area struggling with sexual orientation/gender identity will have a support system in place now, said Ashley.

“Any one of us would do anything for that kid,” she said.

Although her siblings are supportive, other people in her family have struggled accepting Ashley’s sexual orientation/gender identity.

Her family is Southern Baptist, said Ashley.

“My whole life I grew up with the message it is definitely a sin, not a choice,” she said.

She would often hear people say, “Love the sinner and hate the sin,” she said.

When she began to realize her sexual orientation/gender identity during high school, she kept it from her family at first, said Ashley.

When she came out, some chose to ignore it, she said.

Carter said his family suspected something as early as the age 2.

”I didn’t know necessarily what it was. I was too busy playing in the dirt,” said Carter.

He never felt like a lesbian, but the word transgender was one he never heard spoke in his hometown. He never liked dressing like a girl, he said.

“I just feel like a guy,” said Carter, who knew something was different around the seventh or eighth grade.

His sister and nieces have been very supportive, but he also struggles to gain acceptance from other members of his family.

Carter, who was adopted by a relative, is often told he acts like his biological mother, who is lesbian. People think that is why he is transgender, he said.

“I was never around her so how could I be like her,” said Carter.

Many people believe others have a choice when it comes to sexual orientation/gender identity, said Eldridge-Snyder.

“I have a beautiful transgender daughter. We knew something was special about her by age 2, but we had no idea what transgender was back then. Medical studies have shown that sometimes babies get a huge dose of estrogen in utero, causing them to form a female brain and sometimes opposite genitalia at birth for trans women. She never had a choice,” she said.

Growing up in a small community can be tough. Ashley and Carter, who met while attending the same high school, have faced a lot of discrimination, comments and actions, such as people taking their photo and placing it on Snapchat without their permission, said Ashley.

They did begin to find more acceptance, however, when they were able to venture into bigger cities. Ashley remembers the first time she attended a pride parade in Cincinnati.

For so many years she had negative experiences with churches, but that changed during the parade. It was a very emotional experience, she said.

”I saw churches with signs that said ‘God loves you’ and I was sobbing for an hour. It was awesome,” said Ashley.

She hopes the Ohio River Valley Pride Coalition will provide others that kind of support closer to home, she said.

Uncertain times
The extra support arrives during a time many in the LBGTQIA community are feeling uncertain and unsafe.

The day after the election of Donald Trump as president was “horrifying.” Many people she knows were in a state of shock,” said Ashley.

“As you know the transgender community took a huge hit when the Department of Justice and Trump undid federal protection of transgender student bathroom use,” said Eldridge-Snyder.

For many in the younger generations of the LBGTQIA community, this is the first time they have really had to flight for their rights- not since the early days of  HIV or Stonewall, said Ashley.

“It is so necessary not to back down, not to be scared and fight for our rights,” she said.

Some people think they can say anything hateful they want now, said Eldridge-Snyder.

The group is especially protective of their youngest members.

“We are old enough that we can deal with it. We have the resources and the emotional ability to deal with it,” said Ashley.

That is why Eldridge has contacted a couple school districts about starting LBGTQIA support groups in the schools or taking other steps to prevent bullying, a topic that was discussed a lot during the first Ohio River Valley Pride Coalition meeting.

“The same issue came up over and over. The fact that we need bullying in schools to be reported and punished and we need a support group in our schools,” said Eldridge-Snyder.

Eldridge said statistics show 78 percent of LGBTQIA persons report severe bullying in school, while at least 41 percent of LGBTQIA youth attempt suicide.

The next meeting of the Ohio River Valley Pride Coalition will held at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, March 18. To protect those attending the meetings, Eldridge-Snyder will give out the location after the group is contacted by someone through https://www.facebook.com/ORVPRIDECOALITION/ or the web site https://ohiorivervalleypridecoalition.wordpress.com/.

The entire community can show its support during a pride march set to begin at Arch Street Park at 1 p.m. in Lawrenceburg Saturday, April 1. A picnic will be held starting at noon.   

“That’s such a cool stepping stone. ... “I never thought we could be part of something like this without going to Cincinnati or Indianapolis,” said Ashley.

“I wish I had some sort of LGBTQ+ alliance while I was in high school. It took me until going to Purdue, which has a much more active community when it comes to activism, to finally accept myself and come out to everyone,” said Magnuson.

She is very proud of the work her mother has accomplished to help start the Ohio River Valley Pride Coalition, she said.

“I think this organization will help many LGBTQ+ people as they will do their best to provide tremendous support, to educate the community, and to become advocates in furthering the rights and visibility of those that need it. ... No one should have to live in fear or be alone and without any kind of support system,” said Magnuson.

The group is trying to raise some start-up funds to pay basic expenses through https://www.gofundme.com/support-your-local-lgbtq-community.

Ohio River Valley Pride Coalition aims to reach out to LBGTQIA and their supporters throughout the Tri-State including the following counties: Indiana: Dearborn, Franklin, Ohio, Ripley, Jefferson, Switzerland, Jennings and Scott. Kentucky: Carroll, Henry, Trimble, Gallatin and Boone. Ohio: Hamilton and Butler.

She hopes a group will be started in each of these counties, said Eldridge.

“I can’t control hate, but I can control love,” she said.