Ohio is one of 32 states where it is legal to be fired from a job for being gay or evicted from an apartment for being transgender.
As of March 27, though, Akron is the 17th city in the state to combat those realities with laws that make it illegal to discriminate based on gender preference and orientation.
“Thanks to the work of many of you in this room right now, that is not the case in Akron. Here, we have protection,” Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen said to a crowd of about 100 people as they burst into applause.
Heng-Lehtinen was the keynote speaker at the Gay Community Endowment Fund’s (GCEF) annual gathering Sunday at the Akron Art Museum, where community members and leaders joined to recognize the fund’s impact on the community.
GCEF is an Akron Community Foundation fund that grants applications for programs and services that benefit the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and the city of Akron as a whole.
Heng-Lehtinen is the public education director for Freedom for All Americans, a national campaign to secure full nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people.
He spoke about the rapid change of attitude in the past few years surrounding transgender rights, many of which were positive because of high-profile transgender celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner who have brought the issue to the spotlight.
Still, the fight for LGBT equality is ongoing. In the past two years, there have been more than 400 anti-LGBT bills proposed in state legislatures around the country, Heng-Lehtinen said.
He attributes that not to a lack of heart, but to a lack of exposure. Heng-Lehtinen said 16 percent of Americans know someone who is transgender, meaning 84 percent of the population hasn’t had a personal experience with anyone in the trans community.
“So how do we get out of this mess?” Heng-Lehtinen asked the crowd. “There is an answer and only one answer: stories.”
Heng-Lehtinen said understanding begins with sharing stories about transgender people and their everyday struggles. As an example, he started with a story of his own: his experiences in his transition from a woman to a man.
Heng-Lehtinen was born as “Amanda” to U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and prominent lawyer Dexter Lehtinen. He began living as a man 10 years ago when he went to school at Brown University.
Afraid of how his conservative family would react, Heng-Lehtinen left a note on his parents’ bed breaking the news and left home. They asked him to come back hours later.
“They knew that just because they couldn’t personally relate didn’t mean that they had to reject me,” Heng-Lehtinen said.
Heng-Lehtinen said he’s been fortunate in his situation. He was accepted by his parents, and he’s now married and advocating for LGBT rights across the country.
Still, there is work to be done, Heng-Lehtinen said. He’s seen stories change people’s minds, and he plans to implement them in his own work around the country.
“As dark as things are now, this is the dark before the dawn,” he said.
That may just start in Akron, where Mayor Dan Horrigan recently proposed anti-discrimination laws that passed in City Council unanimously.
“It’s long past doing the right thing,” said Horrigan, who attended the event Sunday. “I’m sorry it took a year.”
GCEF leaders also spoke about the fund’s triumphs from the past fiscal year, like being able to award more than $40,000 in grants to 17 area organizations.
“It just demonstrated to us the need that is there and growing,” said Cynthia Christman, chair of the GCEF board.
Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom .