Stand-up comedian, actor and #LGBTQ activist, Shane M. Stahl, 32, is a native of northeast Ohio. As a teenager he came out as gay, then graduated from Stow-Munroe Falls High School and continued his education. He worked for #Kent State‘s Sociology Department and in several other fields, before joining an LGBTQ activist group called Freedom For All Americans. Stahl tells us how and why he became an activist for LGBTQ rights, what activist work is like, and he even shares his hilarious stand-up bit about Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Tell me a little about yourself. Your background, growing up, coming out?
I was born and raised in the Akron area. Munroe Falls is where I grew up. My dad was a police officer so I was very in the know about different aspects of the law, dangers to kids and stuff like that.
I came out to my mom when I was 14, and she was absolutely fine. She was like, “You’re… yeah, I know. You’re very clearly…” She was cool about it. I came out to my dad a couple months later. He didn’t take it badly but he was definitely more brooding about it. But he came around eventually and was just like, “I love you, you’re my son.”
Neither of them had much experience with gay people. They didn’t know any, so it was definitely new for them. But they’ve been wonderful. I’ve been very lucky to have accepting parents. I know there are many LGBTQ people who don’t have that same luxury or kindness afforded to them by their family.
How did you get involved with Freedom for All Americans?
I applied for a job at Equality Ohio and got down to the final group. I did not get the job but the executive director, Alana Jochum, told me she would keep me in the loop for other opportunities. Literally not even two weeks later, she emailed me, and said, “This [job] just came on my desk. I think it would be awesome, you should check this out.” It was the field organizer position. So, I applied, had an interview two days later, then within 24 hours was told, “You have the job! Here’s your travel arrangement, you’re going to Atlanta for a week! Congratulations, it’s all good.”
What exactly did you do as field organizer?
Ohio was one of four states that was participating in a project. It centered around equality for #transgender people, especially when it comes to public accommodations, including restrooms. It was our job to have conversations with hundreds of voters in northeast Ohio, and build volunteer-led teams to train to have those conversations. Then, just gather the info and see the results.
How did it go, what were the results?
It went really, really well. We met all of our goals and secondary goals. We were the state with the highest conversation rate, and the only state that had a trans or gender non-conforming individual on every single volunteer action. So, that was amazing.
What have you been able to accomplish through your work?
I think we’ve definitely raised awareness about the struggles that transgender and gender non-conforming people face every day. I know we got a lot of voters to consider what the issue actually is, because we were able to show them some messaging centered around this issue. We had a lot of people that moved either from not supportive or in the middle to being very, very strong supporters.
The conversation had been going on in Cleveland for a while. Their [non-discrimination] ordinance passed. The conversation had been going on for three years, but I think we were able to personalize it and make it more real for a lot of voters. It wasn’t just figures and facts. It was looking them in the eye. You give them the facts, you relate stories to them. It’s much harder for people to turn away and not pay attention when you’re face to face than if you were just handing out literature.
Any particularly interesting or funny stories?
This was at the phone banks. We talked to a woman whose husband answered the phone. We were supposed to talk to the wife. She was there, but she wouldn’t get on the phone, she was otherwise engaged. So, he would shout the questions to her and she would respond.
It was just very funny because one of the questions he shouted to her, “Do we know any transgenders?” and she responded, “No, we don’t know any. We know the gays though! We know a lot of gays.” They were extremely supportive, but it was just funny. Like a concert, call and response.
How can people, especially students, get involved?
If this is important to you, look up what’s happening in your area. With the Internet, there’s no excuse, if you’re passionate about something. Do research and figure out what’s going on. Search out local groups, beyond campus.
It’s awesome campus has programming but there’s so many groups that are local and regional like Equality Ohio, Stonewall Democrats and the LGBTQ center in Cleveland that do great work. They’re able to incorporate activist work as well as support groups, social events, and informative work not only for the LGBTQ community but also the community at large.
So, just search your resources and talk to those people. Everyone who does that work is very, very friendly. They will certainly never turn down somebody who tells them, I’m interested, I want to help.
I think many people think of the big, tent-pole groups. Look beyond #Human Rights Campaign. Look beyond the national organizations. The most important work is being done locally and regionally.
What are the best and worst parts about being an LGBTQ activist?
My favorite form of activist work is the actual, in person, activist work. Where you’re approaching or talking to people directly. Because I’ve had so many instances where I see the light bulb go on in someone’s head. Seeing a mind change in front of you is fantastic.
It’s probably this way for any activist, but I think the worst part is unfortunately, inevitably you’re going to encounter people who are very opposed to the message. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to focus too much on the negative experiences.
I do worry about people in the community, who are putting themselves out there and telling their stories. I always have concern for them, especially more marginalized portions of the community. If they get a lot of blowback, a negative person trying to make it personal, like, “You are a horrible person, how dare you.” I always hope that doesn’t happen but I know it’s inevitable. That can be concerning. That’s kind of the worst.
What are your ongoing career plans or goals?
My goal is to end up in non-profit. There is a good chance I will be working for the National Center for Transgender Equality in the future. It’s just important to me to keep fighting for equity, not equality. Because everybody, regardless of who you are, how you identify, deserves the same basic, civil opportunities. Being a part of that work is very important to me.
In addition to your work with Freedom For All Americans, you also do stand-up comedy. Tell us a bit or a joke?
Obviously, it’s election season and we have two very interesting people running for president. I’m a Hillary supporter, have been from the beginning. There’s something about Hillary, I mean, it’s something that I don’t know is actually true but I know it in my soul: Hillary Clinton has killed a guy. You know at some point, some poor intern went up and told her for the 100th time, “Mrs. Clinton, people just find you not likeable,” and she just judo chopped and ended that poor guy’s life. And I want that in a president! I like somebody who’s a little bit ruthless. Somebody who knows where to hide the body.
I just wish she would stop emailing me seven times a day. I thought we had learned our lesson!
How did you get into doing stand-up?
I went to the Funny Stop Comedy Club, (which is in Cuyahoga Falls), for an amateur night. This was the semi-finals of the competition, and I sat there and just didn’t think they were very funny. I thought to myself, I’m funnier than all these people. So, I decided to sign up for the next round. I made it to the finals and placed third. So, that was definitely a lot of encouragement to keep going. I haven’t had the opportunity to do it as much as I’d like, because of other obligations. But it’s always super fun to do when the opportunity arises.
What advice or wisdom would you like to share with young LGBTQ people?
Just know that there is support out there. And it’s easier to find than you think. I’d also say, don’t be afraid to tell your story, whether you actually tell it, or you write it down, or you publish it as a blog, or however you communicate it. Because the more you tell your story, the more you advocate for your community. Especially through the project we did this summer, I was able to see this. The more people shared their story, the better advocate they became for themselves. And so, advocate for yourself. If you feel there’s nobody out there who understands or supports you, advocate for yourself.