Cincinnati native AJ Casey brings over 25 years of experience to her new position as the Executive Director of Stonewall Columbus. This month she let us become part of her busy June preparations to help us shape our Pride cover package and we can’t thank her enough.
What excites you about your new position at Stonewall?
What excites me most is that it truly is a brand-new day at Stonewall Columbus. Not only do we have new leadership, but we have a new building, new board members and limitless new opportunities to engage with the LGBTQ+ family throughout the city and county. We are focused on being a catalyst for positive growth and are adamant in the pursuit of a united and thriving community.
Our new facility offers 15,000 square feet of light-filled space that is just begging for creative new programs and services. We’re partnering with organizations such as Equality Ohio to provide free legal clinics; and North Central Mental Health Services to offer LGBTQ+-friendly counseling. And there is so much more room for creative, engaging programs that I can’t help but be excited about the good that can happen here.
After 38 years, Stonewall Columbus is still the largest and only LGBTQ+ community center in central Ohio. As we move forward, we are fostering relationships to ensure that everyone in the extended LGBTQ+ family can experience Stonewall Columbus as theircommunity center.
Tell me about the work of your parents and how it has shaped you and your work.
My parents were very active in the Civil Rights Movement. My mother was an organizer and get-out-the-vote activist. My father was an attorney and one of the first African American men to be appointed Assistant US District Attorney during the Kennedy administration. Dad’s career was centered on eliminating discrimination in public schools, police departments and state-run construction projects. My parents taught each of their three children (I’m the middle child) the power of confidence when the world rejects you and the necessity of excellence to forge personal success.
My own work is informed by the ongoing struggle for equality. My life—as black, female and lesbian of a certain age—places me in multiple social, gender and political intersections. The consistent driver throughout my career has been visionary empowerment. I have mastered skills that allow me to help people initiate change in themselves, their organizations and communities. I am a perennial student of this work and I have invested decades in honing my craft.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY
We’ve seen many steps forward and several steps back in LGBTQ+ inclusion and rights in just the past few years. Where do we go from here?
Within the LGBTQ+ family, progress encourages us and setbacks strengthen our resolve. For example, recently, nearly 100 LGBTQ+ advocates showed up at the Ohio Statehouse for hearings around the proposed Ohio Fairness Act (Senate Bill 11) and hundreds more submitted written testimony in support. The bill, if passed, would add LGBTQ people to the laws which make discrimination illegal.
During the public testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, one advocate reminded the senators how long people within the LGBTQ+ community have been fighting for this law. “We’ve been showing up for decades in support of these rights,” he said. “And we will keep showing up until we share equally in the rights of all Ohio citizens!” So, if the question is “Where do we go from here?” the answer is an unequivocal we keep showing up until we help create a society, a city, a state where all of us thrive.
While the LGBTQ+ community in Columbus finds strength in being a large community, it is also a community with lines of division. How can we be more intentional about reaching out to and including more people?
We must be intentional about reaching out to and including more people. Period.
At Stonewall, that means that we are deliberate to about diversity and inclusion. We show it at the board level, the staff level, in our volunteer outreach and in our programs & events. We constantly ask ourselves who else we can bring to the table to ensure that our biggest plans are as welcoming and inclusive as possible.
I think that inclusion is about building relationships, not numbering participants. It’s not just about having people of diverse backgrounds or identities in the same space. It’s about how those assembled in that space combine their collective genius to create more powerful outcomes. Inclusion requires us to demonstrate what Dr. King described as “a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”
And I also have to quote RuPaul here. At the end of each episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Ru says “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” I believe that outreach and inclusion therefore require a dedicated practice of building self-confidence, self-acceptance and self-love. These practices have been a part of my personal journey and been prominent in my career. I intend that they will play some part in how we move forward and pursue a heightened sense of unity as an LGBTQ+ family.
You met your partner at Pride. Tell me about how that happened.
Singer/Songwriter Tracy Walker was one of the performers at Columbus Pride in 2016. I didn’t see her perform and hadn’t heard of her except to read her bio in the Pride Guide.
Somehow, we both ended up in the performers’ VIP tent that Friday night. It was already dark outside when we struck up a casual conversation standing in the glow of a string of white lights. Something about the glow around her made her appear angelic to me. Two minutes later, Tracy moved in to stand real close to me. That’s when I knew that this was more than a casual conversation! That was three years ago this Pride. We’ve been standing close in the glow of each other’s light ever since.
That’s the power of Pride. It is the perfect intersection of authentic personality and extended community. At Pride, people can discover themselves, explore new ideas and—sometimes—find true love.
When you’re not an activist/nonprofit leader/director, what can you be found doing? Reading leadership books and books about world religions or philosophy. Traveling to beaches and bask in the sun. Shopping.