Q&A: Karla Rothan, executive director of Stonewall Columbus

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From the June 19, 2014 edition

When Karla Rothan volunteered for her first Pride in 1998, she was just trying to help a friend. Now, as executive director of Stonewall Columbus, Rothan has made helping her LGBTQ family her life’s work since 2006.

Offering legal help, STD/HIV testing and counseling services, Rothan and her colleagues at Stonewall Columbus have created a more nurturing climate for LGBTQ people in the Arch City. Thanks to their efforts, Pride 2014 is slated to be the largest to date, with George Takei as grand marshall, and an expected 400,000 people partaking in the festivities. But according to Rothan, the only thing growing faster than Pride is Stonewall Columbus’ mission.

In 1981, Columbus’ first Pride march was only 100 people strong; this year we’re expecting 400,000 people. Columbus’ Pride week is consistently growing. Columbus is a melting pot for diversity, both in the LGBTQ community and beyond. In 1981, people were marching with bags over their heads for fear of losing their jobs or families. Now we have huge corporations, affirmative church organizations, and even Columbus City Schools participating and showing support.

We chose George Takei to serve as grand marshal because of his international humanitarian efforts. George is really exciting to have, since we wanted to switch our focus from local to global issues. We have a long way to go as far as rights in Ohio and the United States, but LGBTQ people are being murdered and tortured by their governments in other countries, and we need to bring attention to that. There are atrocities all over the world, and we want to be able to address it.

This was the first year we had to turn people away. For the first time in our history, we have had to cut off the parade and say no to some vendors. Obviously, we wanted to include everyone, but space just did not allow that this year. That’s a problem you want to have. [For] some of that we have George Takei to thank, but Pride isn’t just about the LGBTQ community. Pride is about community, support and visibility. Pride doesn’t just allow the LGBTQ community to be visible, it gives our heterosexual allies a chance to support us and be visible too. It’s about huge corporations saying, “We support you.” It’s about the teens from small towns who have never seen that many gay people in one place who think “I’m not alone.” It’s about the little kids who see they aren’t the only ones with two moms or two dads.

I want Stonewall Columbus to be a gem for Columbus. We don’t just put on Pride for the sake of doing it. The money we raise goes toward the programs we offer, like legal services, free STD/HIV testing, counseling and more. I want this place, this physical building, to be like a home to those who don’t have one. We never know if we are somebody’s first stop or last resort, so I want to provide as much as possible for the community. There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not saying, “What else can we be doing? How else can we help?” There is always more to do, and we are always looking to expand and improve. Problems that affect the LGBTQ community affect everyone, like poverty and racism. We [at Stonewall Columbus] want to address these issues within our community, so we can help address them in the global community.

Photo by Meghan Ralston