Feminist, LGBTQ+ members lead call for working class to unite against conservative GOP bills

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Edmond Rad protests at the Democratic Socialists of America's Kill the Bills rally Sunday in front of the John F. Seiberling Federal Building in Akron.
Edmond Rad protests at the Democratic Socialists of America's Kill the Bills rally Sunday in front of the John F. Seiberling Federal Building in Akron.

A supporter of gay rights since she was a teenager, Mary Diaz raised a daughter in Garrettsville, a rural village in the conservative heart of Portage County.

Then her daughter came out to Diaz at age 18 as transgender..

“When he came out as trans, I said, ‘What is that?’ I didn’t even know,” said Diaz, 46. “And he had to explain to me what it was. I literally never heard of it. I thought that he meant that he liked to dress in men’s clothes.”

“That was something that I did,” said Diaz’s son, Edmond Rad.

Rad, who is now 26, grew up "terrified" of potential violence and bullying in a conservative town in a state where lawmakers are now trying to restrict LGBTQ+ discussion in the classroom.

“I have felt the way that I feel since before I can remember. It is something that I’ve been dealing with for a lifetime,” Rad explained while standing with his mother outside the federal courthouse in downtown Akron, wearing watermelon-print shorts and a rainbow cape, holding a “Protect Trans Kids” sign. “I wish that they taught transgender stuff in school because I never knew. It took me so long to figure out what it was. I had to go searching myself.”

The mother and son were among 55 people who assembled Sunday to protest conservative state bills that would ban nearly all abortions and limit what students learn about race, transgender and other issues deemed “divisive” by the authors of the bills.

The gathering in Akron was organized by the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which is channeling the political power of the multiracial working class to counter increasingly conservative measures by GOP lawmakers. The Kill the Bills rally was scheduled in response to this month's leaked draft opinion by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Alito's writing frames the argument by which the high court’s 6-3 conservative majority could overturn the federal right to abortion under the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s posture in this federal election year, state lawmakers across the country have rushed to protect or restrict access to abortion while threatening to punish schools that teach racism as central to the founding of America or the intent of its laws.

Democratic Socialists of America members hold a Kill the Bills rally Sunday at the Federal Building in downtown Akron.
Democratic Socialists of America members hold a Kill the Bills rally Sunday at the Federal Building in downtown Akron.

The bills in Ohio, known as ‘trigger laws’

House Bill 598, introduced in March, and Senate Bill 123, introduced last year, are known nationally as trigger laws. They would ban abortion in Ohio the moment Roe v. Wade is overturned, except in cases where the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.

One of two Ohio House bills introduced in April, House Bill 327 would pull state funding from schools that provide instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3. Discussion on these issues would be limited in older grades. Dubbed by critics as Ohio’s version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, House Bill 616 also would prohibit instruction that suggests America is inherently a racist country.

Proponents and authors of the bills say “political activism” has no place in the classroom and parents, not teachers or counselors, should ultimately decide what is taught.

“Despite their portrayal of eliminating divisiveness, these bills, in and of themselves, are divisive,” said Kimberlee Barrella, who spoke to the crowd Sunday in Akron. “Talking and learning about cultures and identities other than cisgender, white Christianity is not just about political activism, it’s honoring and embracing everyone from all backgrounds and walks of life.

“Every single bill that we’re protesting here probably impacts every single aspect of my life,” said Barrella, a queer woman and mental health counselor who co-owns Navigate Counseling, whose staff of 38 in Cuyahoga Falls provide telehealth counseling to the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning and/or queer) community across Ohio.

Barrella, 32, questioned how young members of the LGBTQ+ community would trust or open up to her and her staff if they knew that their counselors must tell parents when minors question the genders assigned to them at birth.

And the risk of having unwanted pregnancy is weighing on the men and women she serves.

“Many of my clients are scared to be intimate with their partners,” she said. “Some have been talking about relocating to a different state where they don’t have to worry about physical health care, because abortion is health care. Some have even shared with me that they’d rather attempt and complete suicide than be forced to carry a pregnancy caused by rape.”

Fran Wilson, left, and Parinita Singh listen to speaker Ericka Malone at Sunday's rally in downtown Akron.
Fran Wilson, left, and Parinita Singh listen to speaker Ericka Malone at Sunday's rally in downtown Akron.

Building a political movement

“The choice should be ours,” said Ericka Malone, a community health worker whose clients include Black and other pregnant women of color. “I’ve given birth to five biological babies. But I myself have had abortions because of the domestic violence situations that I was in.”

Malone works with Project Ujima in West Akron and Freedom BLOC, a Black-led organizing collaborative in Akron. In every interaction, she said, she tried to educate people on becoming aware of their city and county officials, spurring them to understand how local elections and national races can have personal consequences for them.

“I’m here to talk and to listen. I’m here to be a bridge in the gap. I’m here standing in the gap,” she said. “I’m just here, and I challenge every person here: Go talk to your neighbor.”

Ericka Malone of Project Ujima and Freedom BLOC speaks to demonstrators at Sunday's rally in Akron.
Ericka Malone of Project Ujima and Freedom BLOC speaks to demonstrators at Sunday's rally in Akron.

With strong female and LGBTQ+ representation, some protesters criticized Democrats who they said have grown complacent on the abortion issue, failing to codify access to the medical procedure in the moments since 1973 when they controlled the Statehouse and governor’s mansion.

But the protesters leveled an even harsher rebuke of Republicans currently in control.

“The state of Ohio is attempting to limit education by censoring our educators, stripping schools of vital resources, possibly entire departments,” said Fionna Fisher, president of Students for a Democratic Society at Kent State University. “These bills make women’s bodies … into objects in the service of state interests. They make the trans community invisible and more vulnerable to attack and further the racism that has ingrained itself in the fabric of American history.”

Fisher, 20, said the working-class poor can’t wait until November at the ballot box to fight “right-wing populism.” She named a handful of countries that have secured women’s reproductive rights through “mass struggle.”

“The most effective and strongest voice for change is the massive mobilization of working class, racial minorities, unions, LGBTQ+ individuals and feminists,” said Fisher. “But spontaneous protests are not enough. We need to go beyond the streets, escalate our struggles to include lockouts and occupations and even strikes.”

Stephanie Baker, co-chair of Democratic Socialists of America, talks with supporters during the rally.
Stephanie Baker, co-chair of Democratic Socialists of America, talks with supporters during the rally.

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Socialists, students, women and LGBTQ+ protest right-wing Ohio bills