Kaleidoscope’s Erin Upchurch on Threats from Legislature, Standing With LGBTQ Youth
With a mission to serve LGBTQIA+ youth and young adults, Kaleidoscope Youth Center is one of Columbus’ premiere LGBTQ+ community advocates.
Every day, their priorities consisted of providing safe spaces, basic needs, a sense of belonging and access to a supportive community.
But over the pandemic, the way Kaleidoscope met those needs changed. Instead of their in-person drop-in center, they moved to virtual drop-ins, utilizing platforms like Instagram and Discord.
From May to December of last year, the organization connected with over 2000 youth via Discord and nearly 1600 via Instagram. They also had nearly 60 youth reach out for housing, where the center was able to provide case management and offer connections and referrals.
Over the first quarter of this year, Kaleidoscope served an average of 136 youth a day via its online program.
Kaleidoscope plans to reopen its drop-in center in mid-July with a hybrid of in-person and virtual programming.
“One thing we did note is we had so many young folks join us virtually who couldn’t access the center for multiple reasons,” said Kaleidoscope Executive Director Erin Upchurch. “And even some people who weren’t in Columbus or Central Ohio, or even in the state. So we want to maintain that expansion and accessibility as we move forward.”
The pandemic also led to the launch of a resource pickup program — allowing youth to pick up meals, personal care items, clothing and more once a week — in place of the daily meals they served and regular access to resources pre-pandemic.
Upchurch says the organization saw a lot of youth who are food insecure coming in to get food.
“A lot of our young people were participating in the income for their families — the 16, 17-year-olds, 15-year-olds coming in to get food to feed their whole family,” she said.
Like the increased attacks on abortion access and reproductive health care, the Ohio legislature has seen several bill proposals undermining LGBTQ+ rights surface in the last few years, especially amid the pandemic.
From a push to ban transgender athletes from women’s sports, to a refusal to change birth certificates to reflect gender identity (leading to a lawsuit that transgender Ohioans won), Upchurch said the fact that conversations are happening that are questioning the validity or even the very existence of LGBTQ+ folks is “egregious.”
“I think the introduction of these bills and these public conversations [are] really abusive and harmful to children and young folks who are trying to live,” said Upchurch. “I think it is irresponsible, and it’s a form of violence.”
Upchurch notes language recently added to the state’s budget proposal, allowing physicians, hospitals or health insurance companies to decline to perform or pay for health care services that violate their “conscience” based on moral, ethical or religious beliefs.
Advocates for abortion rights and LGBTQ rights have already criticized the move, describing the so-called “conscience clause” as a last-minute and “sneaky” addition that would threaten the health of LGBTQ+ Ohioans.
Upchurch is a licensed social worker and contends that she doesn’t get to pick and choose who she wants to serve.
“And if I do, then I don’t need to be practicing,” she said. “To deny somebody in need of care because of your own belief system, I think it’s a form of malpractice.”
Last week, the Ohio House approved the transgender athlete ban, after it was added to an unrelated, otherwise bipartisan bill allowing college athletes to profit off of their name and likeness.
The Ohio Senate rejected the change, which for a while caused concern over whether the time-sensitive “Name, Image, Likeness” bill would become law in line with other states, allowing for an equal recruitment playing field for Ohio schools.
The General Assembly ended up adding the NIL language to the state budget separate from the transgender athlete ban on Monday.
Because Governor Mike DeWine has line-item veto power over the budget, advocates are urging him to veto measures that “threaten” health care access for LGBTQ+ Ohioans, among other troublesome measures.
Upchurch said it’s important for advocates like Kaleidoscope to let LGBTQ+ youth know they stand with them.
“We want to keep our young folks alive, we want them to thrive. We want them to know that they are not who these people are saying they are,” she said.
As one of Columbus’ most prominent voices and figures in service of LGBTQ+ youth, Upchurch was honored with the city’s Shellabarger Illuminator Award at the top of the month. She sees the award as a sign the work Kaleidoscope is doing is making an impact on communities that need to be served.
It’s not about her, she said, even though her name is on it.
“It’s being recognized because I’m making a difference in people’s lives and in our community,” she said. “And the other piece around it, which I adore, is that I was nominated and chosen by my peers.”
Though she is a prominent voice, she doesn’t care for participating in much of the public discourse, especially when those conversations begin to dehumanize LGBTQ+ youth.
As much as she thinks those conversations are inappropriate, she said it’s best to respond by standing with them.
“Attacking the other side and saying how horrible it is — it’s fine, but we [moreso] need to be sowing in and pouring into LGBTQ+ folks, young folks in particular, let them know that we love them, that they belong,” she said. “Our young folks and others need to know that there are people who are accomplices with them, standing for them, standing for their dignity and their humanity.”
For more information, visit kycohio.org.