Ben Garcia, Director of NYC’s LGBTQ+ Museum, Reflects on What Ohio Taught Him

In a 50/50 state, important victories are won at the local level.

Ben Garcia
Ben Garcia in his former Clintonville home

My husband, Scott, and I had lived in Columbus for about a month when Saeed Jones’ essay, “Columbus, Ohio Is My Home,” came out. Several friends and family members in California and Boston sent links to it, and I shared it broadly to demonstrate that our decision to move to Columbus (where we had no familial or social ties) from San Diego was not an eccentric one but, just possibly, prescient.

“Really gay” is how Jones describes Columbus. And we found it to be not only really gay, but really gay-friendly. There were three rainbow flags flying on our Clintonville block when we moved in. Only one was on the home of a queer couple: The others were on a church and the home of a straight couple with kids who just wanted to show support for their friends. Not during Pride month. It was August.

And not only gay-friendly … just friendly.

“Columbus, Ohio,” is how my mother, Esther, refers to it. Always city and state together—in case the person she is addressing is not familiar with it. She came to stay with us for 10 weeks in the early months of COVID. We spent those first weeks of the pandemic working companionably, each in our own corner of the house, and drawing (Scott), painting (Esther) and gardening (me).

We also took a walk every day and watched spring arrive in Clintonville, from the earliest snowdrops breaking through a frozen crust to the eventual, glorious payoff of the Park of Roses. We stopped frequently to nod or say hello, tentatively, to others who were living that odd early-COVID existence. We crossed the street to give each other wide berth. And we quickly got to know some of the regulars on our route: the widower on the corner who flew a “Don’t Give up the Ship” flag, the couple with a young child who were building a koi pond, and our neighbors who so generously shared their bumper crop of peonies.

My mother was always so pleased with these casual, friendly interactions. I would hear her on the phone with my sisters talking about how nice everyone was in “Columbus, Ohio.” And when strangers—retired art teachers—made us a miniature replica of our home simply because they liked walking by it with their dogs, we knew we had found a deeply good place to live. Columbus, Ohio.

But it was not just Columbus. In my role as deputy director at the Ohio History Connection, I traveled around the state to the 44 counties where we had historic sites and museums. In Wilberforce and Ripley, Fort Recovery, Newark, Marietta, Mount Pleasant, Zoar, Piqua and New Philadelphia (among many other towns), I met and worked with incredibly dedicated and generous people who were preserving and sharing the state’s remarkable history.

And Ohio’s history is remarkable, from the earliest Indigenous inhabitants who stewarded the lands now called Ohio for thousands of years, maintaining a balance between human and other natural resources, to the nail-bitingly close vote to enter the Union in 1803 as a free state; to the state’s participation in the Underground Railroad while also taking part

in American Indian removal and genocide; to its role in the Civil War (Ohio sent the greatest number of troops by percentage of population); to its history of organized labor in the 20th century. Visit some of the hundreds of local history organizations in the state, and you will see why the History Connection’s textbook is called “Ohio as America.”

Because if you study the state’s history, you’ll see that then, like now, it has generally been a 50/50 proposition. About half the population is for or against any major current issue (with love for Ohio State football being one of the few points of unison). The split is similar in most parts of the country, although we have gotten in the habit of just seeing red (or blue).

With some of the colleagues I met across the state, I suspected there were areas where we would not see eye to eye. (They likely suspected the same.) Some made it pretty clear that being from Columbus was something to be tolerated. (In fact, being from California may have been less of an issue.) But my main takeaway after these encounters was how much the red/blue, urban/rural, coast/middle dichotomies don’t serve us.

Shortly after moving to the state, I joined the board of Equality Ohio, an organization working to pass the Ohio Fairness Act, which would guarantee that LGBTQ+ people are protected from discrimination.

This organization of committed and incredibly effective activists works at the local level across the state to achieve outcomes for queer people that often don’t align with our perceptions of the politics of these places.

After legal marriage became the law in 2015, many cisgender queer people living in states with legal protections and straight allies across the country thought the queer liberation movement had succeeded. Large, multinational corporations participated in annual Pride parades. Representation exploded in popular culture. Living in California’s coastal cities, Scott and I navigated our relationship in public spaces in much the same way as straight couples. Holding hands in those hand-holding moments; casually employing terms of affection. We barely adjusted our behaviors when we moved to Columbus.

But there is a coordinated attack on transgender and gender-nonconforming Americans today, and on queer youth more broadly. More than 200 bills aimed at curtailing the liberties of LGBTQ+ Americans were introduced in state legislatures in early 2022. Half of these are aimed at legislating the lives of transgender and gender-nonconforming youth (with chilling examples becoming law in Texas and Florida).

In the Ohio Statehouse, adults in power are working to pass laws that make queer youth and Black youth less safe, as with House Bill 616 (“Don’t Say Gay, Don’t Mention Race”). Adults—who are supposed to tend to the spirits of the young, not break them—are choosing to use their power to deny young people access to the joy of athletic participation and the dignity of using their correct pronouns. To be clear, no one ever accused me of finding joy in athletic participation (beyond watching Olympic figure skating or jousting at a Renaissance fair), but I will fight with all I have for those young people who do.

Yet while that is happening in the state legislature, 35 Ohio localities have passed nondiscrimination ordinances that protect the lives of LGBTQ+ people. Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland, yes, but also Golf Manor, Coshocton, Galion and Portsmouth—among other small towns and villages. And it is local LGBTQ+ residents and their allies who are working with organizations like Equality Ohio to get it done.

This is what it looks like in a 50/50 state and a 50/50 country. The fight for equal rights needs to be fought over and over. As queer people, many of us experienced a relaxing of our defenses for a spell in the early 2010s, and now we are thrust back in the swirl of fighting for rights we thought had been established. (We are not alone in this.)

Scott and I recently left Columbus, just two and a half years after arriving, because I had the opportunity to help start a new museum: the American LGBTQ+ Museum, slated to open in New York in early 2026. This museum will be a space to tell stories of creativity, resilience, strength and survival. A place where the connection to the queer ancestors will be strong and queer magic real.

It was an unmissable opportunity, in part because I have worked for more than 20 years in museums in California and with my colleagues in Ohio to make space for exhibitions, programs and experiences that reflect a broad set of histories—including those that have been under-told. And now I get to be part of a museum where inclusive public history is seeded at its beginning. One that will

be part of the movement for LGBTQ+ liberation at a time when the need has rapidly escalated.

Our time in Ohio was brief, as it turned out. But Ohio was the place where I experienced what I had only read about before: people of good will and intentions, with shared passions in some areas and passionate difference in others, bridging a divide exacerbated by political partisan forces to find connection and do good work together—whether that work is preserving and interpreting the true histories of the state, or passing protections for one’s neighbors in a small town or big city.

I moved to New York with a clear understanding that a national museum of LGBTQ+ history will need to include Ohio’s present. Because the battle for our rights is pitched, and organizations like Equality Ohio are engaged in defense of a simple truth: that Ohio is America, and LGBTQ+ Ohioans are Ohio. When Ohio passes the Fairness Act, it will be in the spirit of that majority of one that voted to exclude the institution of slavery at the state’s first Constitutional Convention. Make some noise. Help Columbus to remain “really gay,” fight for the rights of our transgender and gender-nonconforming youth, protect your neighbors—and don’t give up the ship. 

This story is from the July 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.