Stonewall Columbus challenges HB 616, calls on corporate partners to act

The Stonewall board and executive director Densil Porteous have chosen to be proactive in mounting an oppositional response to the Republican-proposed legislation

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Densil Porteous

Densil Porteous, executive director of Stonewall Columbus, long anticipated that legislation similar to Florida’s HB 1557, better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, would reach Ohio, pointing to the current national climate around issues of identity and sexuality. 

“I think being at the nexus of the community I sit in — being with the Pride Fund, being with Stonewall, being with HRC (Human Rights Campaign) — it’s something I’m always paying attention to in the community, and being on the pulse of it,” Porteous said. “So, when I went down to Florida in the beginning of March, there was talk percolating about a similar bill popping up in Georgia, and I was like, oh, there’s no way it’s not going to come to Ohio.”

According to a February report by PEN America, a nonprofit aimed at protecting freedom of expression in the U.S, Republican legislatures in 39 states have introduced or refiled 156 gag-order bills targeting issues of identity since January 2021. Of those, 105 target K-12, 49 are aimed at higher education, and 62 include mandatory punishment for anyone found in violation. 

“But Florida’s 'Don’t Say Gay' bill is just the tip of the iceberg,” PEN America writes. “While race, sex, and American history remain the most common targets of censorship, bills silencing speech about LGBTQ+ identities have also surged to the fore. Currently, 15 such bills are under consideration in 9 states. … This is in addition to the wave of book bans sweeping through schools and public libraries, bans that overwhelmingly target materials dealing with gender and sexuality or that center LGBTQ+ characters.”

More:What comes after school boards ban your book

On April 5, Ohio Republican Reps. Jean Schmidt and Mike Loychik introduced House Bill 616, which would ban teachers from addressing the topics of sexual orientation and gender identity with students in kindergarten through third grade, while limiting instruction in grades four through 12 to “age appropriate” materials in accordance with state standards. The bill would also forbid the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts,” singling out everything from Critical Race Theory to “The 1619 Project.”

“Here I am, sitting here as an intersectional person, and I realize [HB 616] will erase any sort of identity as a Black person and what this country has done,” Porteous said. “Ultimately what it’s saying is don’t talk about identity. … I think the intended purpose is to literally not have people talk about gender, sexuality and race in school, because so many white people believe that if you don’t talk about it, then it’s not an issue. But it is still an issue, and if we don’t talk about it, it can become compounded, and we don’t know what that will do to young people. This is the most important time of their lives in terms of development. They’re developing a sense of self, of self-expression, and if we’re not talking about these fundamental aspects of identity, what’s going to happen?”

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The response to HB 616 has been swift, with statements of condemnation released by Equality Ohio, Kaleidoscope Youth Center and Columbus City Schools, among others. In addition to releasing a statement decrying the bill, which it labeled “a direct and disgusting attack,” Stonewall Columbus also made public a note it shared with its corporate “partners,” in which the organization expressed hope that these corporations would “leverage whatever power they have in these spaces of politics to help the communities which they serve and [employ].”

According to Porteous, the early response from these partners has been generally positive, with some thanking the organization for the information and bringing awareness to the legislation. “And I understand that, and I don’t hold anyone accountable for not knowing what’s going on in the community. I live in a very gay world, so if you ask me what’s going on in another world … I might not know, because that’s not the world I live in,” Porteous said. “And so, a lot of our corporate partners were unaware of what was happening, and a lot have asked, ‘What can we do?’ And it’s simply saying, send a letter, raise your voice to elected officials and let them know this is something you disagree with."

In addition, Porteous said Stonewall has also held discussions with its corporate partners not only about standing up for the communities for which they provide service, but also for their own employees. “You can’t affirm to be an accepting, inclusive organization and then not defend the community of people who work for you,” Porteous said. “You may have queer employees, employees of color who are coming to your organization each and every day, and if they can’t see that you’re taking action in this space, they may not feel valued as an employee.”

For Porteous, these conversations require a gentle touch, publicly pressing corporate partners to action while also acknowledging that the funding provided by these businesses is what enables Stonewall to provide year-round service to the LGBTQ community in Columbus. (For his part, Porteous acknowledged that not every corporate partner necessarily has to speak up publicly to demonstrate its power, allowing that a number of its less-vocal partners have continued to fund the fight.)

“The way I believe that our organization should exist, in partnership with the community, is to be a steady drumbeat. It’s to ensure we’re continually making space and talking about the issues in our community. And talking about those issues not only in our community, but to people who need to be educated,” Porteous said. “So, we want to be mindful of the fact that these are corporate partners, and so we’re not just going to call them out. We want to educate them on why we’re calling them out, or why we want them to move forward in this particular space. … There’s a moral responsibility to be the pebble [in the shoe].”

This idea, Porteous said, is reflective of an ongoing evolution within Stonewall, allowing that “past leadership might have been a little more tenuous holding these conversations, because maybe they didn’t want to lose the partner.”

“As an organization we exist in a different time and space,” said Porteous, who assumed the role of Stonewall executive director in January 2021, following an interim stint. “And we need to evolve to meet that time and space.”

Porteous described the roots of this evolution as a byproduct of the Black Pride 4 protest staged at the 2017 Columbus Pride parade, in which a group of protesters linked arms and stepped into the street, temporarily blocking the parade to bring attention to “the violence against and erasure of Black and Brown queer and trans people.” 

“It made an entire community stop and say, ‘What the hell is going on?’” said Porteous, who has trans siblings in his life and continues to center that community’s needs in expanding services at Stonewall, describing the moment not just as a wake-up call within Columbus, but nationally, as well. “And it was those who were most disenfranchised who had to do the work to make you pay attention, as it often is. And why should that be the case? This is the space we need to step into, where those who are most disenfranchised see those with the most privilege stepping in and saying: ‘Let me help out’; ‘Let me figure out how to make this space equitable’; ‘How can I invest in you so that you can have the same things that I have?’

“And that continues to be the challenge. And we’ll get there. We just have to continue to hold each other accountable and be comfortable speaking out loud, and again, maybe being that pebble in the shoe.”