Counting the days until he can leave Ohio behind
Joe Barbicas was something of a trendsetter at his Catholic high school in Cleveland. When he came out his freshman year, a female student followed suit, and it seemed to catch on.
“All of a sudden, all of these people were coming out,” Joe said. “By the time we were seniors, the high school was known as a ‘gay high school.’”
But when he came out, his family didn’t react well. Joe’s two brothers were accepting, but the rest of his “dysfunctional” family reacted with hostility, further provoking his desire to move out of state. His distaste for Ohio’s lack of equality laws also pushed him in that direction.
“My plan ever since I was little was to leave Ohio,” Joe said. “I know it’s getting better, but I’m not sticking around for it. I want to live somewhere that is good to gay people right now.”
Finding peace in Akron
Joe, a junior nursing major at the University of Akron, said living in the city has been an interesting experience so far.
“There’s so many people who come from rural areas who have never met an openly gay person,” he said. “I’m their first person and they ask the stereotypical questions.”
Joe said he has had some “party situations” with homophobic encounters. He feels Cleveland offers more LGBT support, especially in its theater and arts venues, but he is happy in Akron. He is the vice president of LGBT Union, which he has watched grow over his three years at Akron.
“When I was a freshman, they didn’t know what they were doing. We didn’t really know our position on campus,” Joe said. “As soon as we made slight changes, 12 members each week (turned into) 60 to 70 returning members.”
Although Joe has found happiness at Akron, he didn’t have that at home in Cleveland.
Joe’s father passed away when Joe was 6 years old. “I’ve been told (my dad) was the one who would’ve accepted me when I came out,” Joe said. “I only had my mother left. She and my entire family on that side are mystic Catholic. To say (they are) ‘devout’ would be an understatement.”
Needless to say, his religious family members didn’t accept his sexuality, and Joe looked into going to school outside the area.
“Leaving Cleveland for Akron was a good step,” Joe said. “I’ve had suicidal attempts here. It’s sad to think about, but I know that was a part of me and I’m breaking away from it.”
Joe said he will move out of state upon graduation to break free from his unsupportive family and lack of equality laws in Ohio.
“It’s more than just a thing of being last in gay rights: My childhood here wasn’t good … I want to get out and leave everything that happened in Ohio behind me,” Joe said.
He always thought about moving to New York City, but after trying a long-distance relationship with a boyfriend who lived there, “it doesn’t look as nice as I thought it would be,” he said. “Now I’m thinking California. You can’t get much farther from Ohio without leaving the country.”
Joe said he can relocate because a nursing career is possible in any area. Joe is a patient care assistant at Robinson Memorial Hospital and wants to work in a trauma center after graduation.
Nurses are “needed everywhere; I’m very lucky in that respect,” he said. “And nurses get paid very nicely in both (California and New York).”
Joe aims for California because it has equality laws to protect LGBT people from getting fired or being denied housing because of their sexuality. He also hopes to work in a hospital that respects and accommodates the LGBT community.
“This is more than just getting married. This is your career too,” he said. “You’ll find in California, there are a lot more diverse hospitals that support their LGBT staff and patients. (With) my activist side and my nursing side, I’d like to combine both of them at some point.”
As vice president of LGBTU, Joe said he’s doing what he can for the LGBT community in Ohio while he is here.
He’s looking to live anywhere outside of Ohio after graduation, but Joe said “it’s sad that so many of us are leaving Ohio because Ohio could potentially be a battleground state (for LGBT rights), which is very exciting. But they can’t do it without the youth behind them, and that includes the youth that just graduated college.”
Explored the country and came home to Kent…for now
Bryan Guffey graduated from Kent State in 2006 with a musical theatre degree. He then bounced around from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin to New York and dove in to his dream job — or so he thought.
“I booked a tour, which sucked the love of theater right out of me because I spent six months driving around the cold, cold tundra of the northeastern quadrant of the United States,” Bryan said.
Bryan pursued jobs in other areas of the country but returned to Kent in 2011 in hopes of starting a home and recapturing his college days.
The ups and downs of gay Kent
Bryan was destined for fame, starting when he was a college freshman. His first week on campus, a hypnotist came to entertain the freshman class and called on Bryan to participate in his act.
“For (the next) four years, I was the guy who got hypnotized. I think I danced like Michael Jackson,” he recalled. After that, “I couldn’t go 30 feet without running into someone I knew.”
While building his popularity, Bryan said he never had a problem with being gay on campus or in Kent.
“Now, that may be because I am 6 foot 5 and nobody thinks to mess with me, because I know friends who have had problems,” Bryan said. “But I found the administration very supportive.”
Bryan faced no adversity on campus but said the dating scene in Ohio is not so easy.
“It’s especially interesting because I’m not just gay; I’m gay and black,” he said. “I find that gay folks around here tend to be a little less open-minded in a lot of ways. Most white gay guys are only interested in white gay guys.”
Bryan said he has never seen it like that because he comes from an interracial couple: his dad is white and his mom is black.
“I’m attracted to white guys,” he said. “Northeast Ohio‘s not necessarily as tolerant of the entire spectrum of humanity and the slice that is LGBT. I think Northeast Ohio and Kent — Akron even more so — play into the stereotypes that are perceived on TV … because the community kind of congregates around those areas: the bars, the clubs. There’s not a really great non-bar or club outlet around here, minus my fraternity.”
Bryan is a member and adviser of Delta Lambda Phi, “founded by gay men for all men,” he said. He considers the fraternity his “second family.”
After building a family in Kent, Bryan graduated and set his sights on musical theater fame.
To New York and back
Bryan soon experienced the not-so-glamorous side of theater life in New York.
“We were paid next to nothing, we had to drive ourselves (and) had to perform at 10 in the morning,” he said.
Bryan then produced a benefit concert for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network with his friend. They raised more than $10,000 for the foundation.
Next, he got a job singing on a cruise ship for four months, enjoying the travel but looking to move back to Ohio.
“I was ready to build a home,” he said. “The cruise was a good way to make that transition. I love Kent State, and I always said one of my dreams was working for Kent.”
Bryan relocated to Mayfield Heights, Willoughby and finally Kent. He found that Ohio had qualities he had missed in New York.
“People are nicer, the pace is slower,” he said. “You think in a place with that many people, it would be easy to make tons of friends. (But) it’s easier to make friends here. Everybody’s doing their own thing (in New York) with their own little blinders on.”
Bryan settled down again in Kent to relive his memorable college years.
“One of the reasons I wanted to move back to Ohio (is that) nobody tells you what it’s like to graduate and live in the real world — it sucks!” he said. “I almost thought that I could recapture what it was like to be a college student … (but) you can’t. You’re not the same person anymore. You grow up.”
Focused on opportunity
Bryan now manages the help desk of operations at an IT firm that helps non-profit groups.
“One of the big reasons I want to be in the area is family, both my biological family — my father lives 40 minutes away, my mother is living in Pennsylvania — and my fraternity,” Bryan said. “Honestly, giving back to Kent State is really important to me. I grew a lot in college and it was thanks to the faculty and administration and everybody at Kent. I want people to have that opportunity as well.”
But he is also open to moving again, if life takes him in that direction.
“Having the best opportunities is becoming more important than living in Kent,” Bryan said.
Still, he said working for Kent could keep him in the area long-term.
“I would not mind staying in Kent. The opportunities in Kent and the surrounding Northeast Ohio area would be something that would keep me here,” Bryan said. He has considered Boston, Pittsburgh and Vancouver, but “if I could have the job I wanted, make the kind of money I needed and do it around here and be fulfilled, that would be my first choice.”
Bryan said he would also like to remain in the area to take advantage of the community’s opportunity to grow.
“There’s still so much work to be done. It’s very easy to get in on the ground floor and make a difference (with the LGBT community),” he said. “It’s not so much the case in other areas. I think this is really the time.”
But until then, he will begin his master’s in higher education administration and student affairs in the Fall 2013 semester, possibly returning to Kent State.
No matter which graduate school he chooses, Bryan’s ultimate goal is to start a non-profit LGBT youth foundation. For now, his advice to college students is to take advantage of opportunities, no matter where they might take them.
“It’s important that you leave yourself open to options and listen to your heart,” he said. “You can be anything you want to be, anywhere you want to do it. It may be harder in some places, but I believe when things are harder, they are more fulfilling.”
Left Ohio for love, diversity and San Francisco
Kyle Bullen is from the tiny town of New Springfield, Ohio. He graduated high school in 2004 with a class of 96 and spent two years at the University of Pittsburgh, studying communication and theatre art.
It was then he fell in love.
During his freshman year in college, Kyle met Paul Knight for ice cream after talking on MySpace. The two started dating and soon realized they weren’t exactly happy in their current situations.
“We decided not to go back to school and jump in my Jeep to drive across the country,” Kyle said.
Their destination: San Francisco.
Growing up in small-town infamy
Kyle’s family has lived in New Springfield since 1920 and are well-known in the “little town public eye,” Kyle said. The attention made it difficult to deal with feeling like an outsider in a school system with no LGBT resources.
“Going into sophomore year, I became so depressed I was suicidal for the better part of high school,” Kyle said. “No one would ever know it because my family, being all in sports, we couldn’t (have a negative image). I didn’t feel like I could come out (because) I had to worry about what that meant for my family too.”
Once Kyle started college, he realized he needed help.
“There was this whole entire half of me who was tortured and didn’t want to live,” he said. “There was a moment where I had to make a choice: get help or walk in front of a bus.”
So he talked to school psychologists and realized he could come out without drastic consequences. He also found support through the Rainbow Alliance at school.
“There’s a loving quality about Ohio, (but) there was nothing to identify with and no support structure … so you just assume it’s close-minded and you’re a screwed gay kid,” Kyle said. “But Pittsburgh offered a little more open-mindedness because it’s a city and it’s more rich in diversity.”
Kyle came out his freshman year and experienced both sides of the city’s attitudes towards his lifestyle. He said a gay couple holding hands could incite both rude and supportive comments.
Kyle and Paul started dating that year and quickly became serious. They decided to start something new together.
“He didn’t like being in school and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” Kyle said. “I knew I was paying way too much money just to do anything.”
So Paul dropped out of Point Park University, Kyle left Pitt and they chose to find haven in San Francisco.
“We decided, on some level, to run away from it all, start fresh and get a whole new perspective on life,” Kyle said. “(We were) running away from the past … and how we felt, even though you carry that with you no matter where you go.”
Kyle said once they made their decision, there was no stopping them.
“I do things my parents wouldn’t necessarily want me to do, like be gay, for one,” he said. “I was so desperately in love, I thought this was the only way Paul and I could be together, but it was impractical.”
Practical or not, Kyle found acceptance and opportunities in San Francisco. He appreciated the city’s environmentally conscious vibe and the lack of conflicting views of homosexuality Pittsburgh had.
“The general feeling of San Francisco is very accepting. It’s a very eclectic crowd, and life is just open and beautiful, from the weather to the people to the nightlife,” Kyle said. “Growing up in Ohio, you don’t really get that at all.”
In 2010, Kyle and Paul went through another life change.
“At that point, we were both really kind of confused about ourselves in our relationship,” Kyle said. “We went to our separate cities to work on ourselves.”
Kyle moved to New York City to take a position as a beverage manager for a vegan restaurant, and Paul enrolled at Columbia College in Chicago to study early childhood education.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
Kyle and Paul have been together for more than 6 years now, “long distance but still in love.” Paul has a year left in school, and Kyle plans to open a bar consulting and cocktail design business. He hopes to work with restaurants to set up eco-friendly menus and bar programs.
Kyle said experiencing life in different cities was “a huge part of coming to terms with the viewpoints I grew up with. If a region only has one viewpoint, how can you have ill feelings toward that when, instead, you have the opportunity to leave, go experience something new and bring it back with you to that area?”
That’s exactly what he’s been able to do when he brings Paul home to Ohio. Kyle’s family and friends have grown to be comfortable and accept his relationship with Paul.
“People are more interested in what I’m doing with my life and my happiness, rather than the fact that my happiness means I’m with another guy,” Kyle said. “I look back on (Ohio) and I would never give it up for the world. Those years give you an experience of life that once you come out of them, you can then help others.”
Kyle said LGBT college students should follow their happiness.
“We’re not meant to be depressed or sad. If finishing school makes you absolutely miserable, you need to address it and walk away,” he said. “If staying in Ohio makes you happy, then stay in Ohio. If you trust that you deserve happiness, then it will all work out and fall into place.”
Kyle has not returned to school, but he hasn’t ruled it out as an option.
“The way I treat life, in terms of constantly learning, is my school,” he said. “If it does guide me to formal education again, then that’s what I need to do. (But) I’m going to move forward with the business and view life as school.”
Photos by Phillip Botta