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In 'very conservative' Lake County, an LGBTQ advocate finds her work critical

Jenny Hamel/Lauren Green
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Betty Jacobs recalls the incident vividly.

She was in a department store with her partner, who is a woman. An employee started admiring their newly born twins and asked who the mother was.

“I looked at her and I said, 'We both are,' and exactly what I thought would happen happened," Jacobs said. "She gave me a dirty look. She said, 'Oh, that's nasty,' and walked away from me. Now, if that happened to any other race, religion, sex, you would probably say something you wouldn't put up with it. You wouldn't allow somebody to speak to you in that manner. But we had to walk away.”

While the incident happened five years ago, the memory continues to sting. But it was an eye-opening moment that helped drive Jacobs' relentless activism in support of her local LGBTQ community.

Jacobs had met her partner several years prior to that, experiencing the joys of falling in love and acknowledging her truth. What she couldn’t anticipate and hadn’t considered, however, were the hardships that would come with being in a same-sex relationship, especially in Lake County, which she describes as “a very conservative county.”

A trained social worker, she started realizing how much support was lacking for the LGBTQ community, especially when it came to mental health and addiction services.

So she decided to act, founding the nonprofit LGBTQ+ Allies Lake County in 2019. The only organization of its kind in the area, Jacobs hosts support groups for the LGBTQ community in her office in downtown Painesville. Churches, businesses and schools have asked her to do safe space trainings.

Jenny Hamel
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Ideastream Public Media

“I say at every single one of my safe space trainings, ‘I don't need you to accept me. What I need you to do is not discriminate against me and not hurt myself or my family or other LGBTQ people. We can sit in a table and disagree. But my family's still going to be here regardless,’” Jacobs said.

Jacobs recently held a training for the counselors with the Wickliffe City School District. At one point, she went over preferred pronouns for people who identify as LGBTQ.

“Well, non-binary means they don’t identify as male … they don’t identify as male or female," Jacobs said during the training.

“Most of the times, nonbinary individuals will use that they/them pronouns,” she continued.

The counselors asked a lot of questions and were receptive of the information Jacobs shared. That’s not always the case when it comes to safe space trainings, Jacobs said. The reception can be chilly to start, but people usually warm up by the end.

Still, Jacobs sees each training as a move in the right direction when it comes to “changing hearts and minds” of those in her community.

In Jacobs' eyes, real change for her family and other members of the LGBTQ community “starts from the top down.” She believes local elected officials and their actions can dictate her family’s quality of life.

" I think at this point, anything I can gain would help us feel included and heard."
Betty Jacobs

“In Cuyahoga County, January 2019, they passed a non-discrimination ordinance, which was amazing," Jacobs said. "We have no non-discrimination ordinance here, which means that we can be denied services. We can be denied accommodations. Ohio's an at-will state so you can be fired for anything. But it's not hard to get around firing somebody for being LGBTQ. You can easily find something else that you don't like about them."

Jacobs said she knows many in the Lake County LGBTQ community who are closeted at work for fear of discrimination and losing a job. They hide the fact that they are married or have children with a person of the same sex, Jacobs said, and even her own partner was closeted in a previous job.

Jacobs has talked with Equality Ohio, the leading statewide advocacy group, about getting an anti-discrimination ordinance passed in Lake County. She frequently works with the group, getting support and guidance as she navigates her work.

“You should not have to move to the big city to be who you are, to love whom you love and to have a thriving life in Ohio,” Equality Ohio Executive Director Alana Jochum told Ideastream Public Media.

“I just have so much respect and praise for people like Betty who are doing this [work], and there are other people across the state who are focusing on little spaces and saying, ‘My civil rights shouldn't depend on my ZIP code,'” Jochum said.

It’s a reason Equality Ohio and other LGBTQ groups are fighting to get the Ohio Fairness Act passed, which would provide basic, non-discrimination protections statewide.

Meanwhile, Jacobs is pushing for political change in other ways.

“I have solicited our Lake County commissioners for a proclamation here for the LGBTQ community," she said. "I was denied that. I have now sent another proclamation to Painesville city to try to make it even a smaller gesture. I think at this point, anything I can gain would help us feel included and heard."

On the state level, Jacobs said she’s always looking for opportunities to speak with state senators and representatives. But when she sees lawmakers pass or even introduce anti-LGBTQ legislation in Columbus, it scares her.

There was the medical “conscience clause” that went into effect late last year allowing doctors and nurses to refuse to provide health care if it conflicts with their conscience.

This past February, the Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE) Act had its first hearing in Columbus. It would prohibit minors from receiving transition therapy, even with parental consent. And in April, what critics dubbed an Ohio version of Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill was introduced in the state Legislature. The bill would ban the discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in the classrooms of young students.

With the political climate in Ohio as it is, the work can at times feel daunting for Jacobs. She has a difficult time fundraising, and she worries other local groups don’t want to be associated with an LGBTQ organization. She wants to hire someone to help the organization do this work, but at this point, that’s not an option. For now, it’s just her, and she stays positive.

Jacobs said she's excited about focusing on her next big project, Lake County’s first ever Pride event on June 11.

The event, which will be held at the Lake County History Center, will feature food trucks, face painting, drag shows and two live bands. Cleveland's Dr. U.R. Awesome, who holds the Guinness Book of World Records for largest soap bubble blown by hand, will also be there, Jacobs said. She wants a strong presence of vendors at the Pride event as well.

I want the LGBTQ community to know that we have welcoming people in our area," Jacobs said. "We have people who will hire you — employers. We have welcoming restaurants and shops and agencies and organizations. And I've made that very clear to many of our organizations and agencies, ‘You need to do need to be there. You need to have representation to show people that we do have a welcoming space here.’”

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