Stonewall Executive Director Karla Rothan steps down in the midst of tumultuous year

Karla Rothan, the longest-serving executive director in the history of Stonewall Columbus, announced her retirement after 11 years in a letter sent out by Stonewall on Thursday, March 1.

“You can all probably imagine that today is a day of mixed emotions for me as I announce my retirement as your director,” she wrote. “It has truly been an honor and privilege of a lifetime to serve this organization.”

Rothan hasn’t yet set a date for her departure, but plans to assist the Board of Trustees with the transition, which will be completed by the end of the year.

The announcement comes in the midst of community fallout from the protest at the 2017 Stonewall Columbus Pride, which was staged in part to “raise awareness about the violence against and erasure of black and brown queer and trans people.” The protest culminated with the arrest of Wriply Bennet, Ashley Braxton, Kendall Denton and Deandre Miles, publicly known as the #BlackPride4. The former three were convicted on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to resisting arrest on Feb. 12.

Rothan stressed her decision was not motivated by the protest and its aftermath. “If it would’ve been based on that, I probably would’ve done it long ago,” she said in a phone interview.

“I’m just looking forward to spending more time with my family and my friends,” said Rothan, who also plans to “contribute in other ways” to Stonewall and the greater Columbus community through her positions on the Recreation and Parks Commission, Greater Columbus Arts Council Board of Trustees and Short North Alliance Board of Directors.

“It’s a big win for us in the wake of everything that’s happened in the last eight months,” said Ariana Steele of Black, Queer and Intersectional Columbus (BQIC), which has organized community actions in support of the #BlackPride4. “We’ve been asking for this resignation since the Pride arrests, so it’s good in that sense, but it’s a promise that isn’t going to happen [right away]. … I don’t think it’s really changing anything at the moment.”

“This is only the beginning, but to make things right and get us in the path to truly healing and building in this community, [the whole] Stonewall board needs to step down,” Bennet said in a message to Alive, “because it wasn't just Karla who actively ignored and silenced this community … and turned a blind eye to our physical, verbal and social abuse.”

Following the protest, community members requested Stonewall call for charges against the #BlackPride4 to be dropped, among other requests, and were further angered when Stonewall's former Board President Tom McCartney testified at the trial after the organization was subpoenaed by the City Attorney’s office.

“They knew [the subpoena] was by the prosecution, not the defense," Steele said. “They could’ve at the very least attempted to deny the subpoena, which may have worked."

"We were not testifying against the individuals," Stonewall Board President Rob Podlogar said in a phone interview. Rather, he said the testimony focused on the process required for individuals to take part in the Pride parade.

Podlogar also confirmed there are no plans for other board members to resign, and pointed to the expansion of the board from 12 to 21 diverse, active members, as well as new partnerships with other LGBTQ organizations, as a step toward facilitating an inclusive Pride celebration this June.

However, some community members will not be in attendance.

“I am calling for a boycott of Stonewall Columbus Pride 2018,” former Pride and Program Coordinator Lori Gum wrote in a public Facebook post she made available to Alive. “This is typical SWC business as usual. What Rothan and the Board have done is relieve Rothan of the accountability of [executive director] but she can still remain for the accolades and drum up sentiment from the community and continue to dominate the culture that will oversee the opening of a new community center and Pride 2018."

“There was no accountability in her statement for her indifference to the Pride protests of the Black Pride 4 at Pride 2017, no support of them, no call for their fair sentencing and especially no condemnation of police violence against the protestors and other POC here in the city of Columbus," Gum also wrote.

“I know there are people who don’t feel comfortable at this point supporting Stonewall’s Pride, given their inaction and their poor choices since then,” Steele said. “So BQIC, specifically, we are planning an alternative community Pride.”

Steele said BQIC is also planning a National Day of Action on March 12, prior to the sentencing of Bennet, Braxton and Denton, which is expected on March 13. Deandre Miles, who has been accused of reaching for a police officer’s gun during the protest, will be tried separately for a felony charge of aggravated robbery.

“We really want to get this on the radar of every mainstream news media in Columbus and beyond,” Steele said, “because it’s something that is really directly affecting the community in a big way.”

This article has been updated with dates for the National Day of Action and #BlackPride4 sentencing.