By Cameron Aloway, Marketing & Communications Intern
A lifelong resident of Lake County, Betty Jacobs is filled with the desire and passion to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. However, she was shocked to discover the absence of effective support resources for the community.
“I started questioning local leaders, anybody who would listen,” she said. “I got a whole a lot of ‘we know’ or ‘we’re working on it.’”
Betty took the leap and established LGBTQ+ Allies Lake County, the first nonprofit in the county to serve her community.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do nor what it would look like,” she said. “I didn’t have a nonprofit background, and I didn’t know any influential people to fund it. But I knew I was going to do my best to try to support and help my community.”
Betty serves as the executive director of LGBTQ+ Allies, alongside a board representing the organization. Due to financial constraints, the team is all volunteers. As executive director, Betty fills her time advocating and empowering LGBTQ+ residents of Lake County to create a stronger, more inclusive community.
We talked with Betty to learn more about her journey with LGBTQ+ Allies Lake County and the impact of celebrating the community’s first Pride.
Can you share the mission of LGBTQ+ Allies in Lake County?
Our mission is to provide a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community in Lake County through education, advocacy, resources and support. We offer multiple support groups for all ages, including youth and the elderly, that meet once or twice a month. We also have support groups offered exclusively for our trans community. The center hosts free social gatherings including roller skating and movie nights. Typically, I rent out both locations to ensure that they are LGBTQ+ friendly and welcoming.
I advocate fiercely for the LGBTQ+ community by meeting with our local politicians and state senators. I’ve met with many of them to discuss bills and legislation that affect our community.
Our Safe Space Training provides the basics of LGBTQ language, terminology, misconceptions, microaggressions and how to be an ally. I have provided training to businesses, agencies, schools and local organizations. You’d be surprised how many people push away LGBTQ people purely on miseducation or being misinformed by harmful stereotypes. Having the Safe Space Training program in Lake County has helped tremendously in being able to educate people here.
LGBTQ+ Allies is Lake County’s first nonprofit organization benefitting the LGBTQ+ community. Can you explain the importance of providing inclusive spaces for the community?
Before the organization was founded, there was nothing in Lake County. The lengths people go to hide and isolate themselves away from their community take a mental and emotional strain. I’ve heard some stories of people who have ended their lives because they were so mentally exhausted. It’s exhausting to hide yourself 24 hours a day because you’re afraid that if someone finds out, you’ll lose everything: your family, your friends, your religious community and your extracurricular activities. I really regret that nothing was started until 2019.
Lake County celebrated its first in-person public Pride this year. Can you tell us what that means to you?
On June 11, we had our first public celebration of Pride. Last year, we had a small private picnic that was limited to 150 people due to COVID. We had no vendors or food trucks; it was a really small-scale get-together. But we received amazing feedback from that first festival. This year, we’ve seen how Pride has helped us rebuild old and new connections with organizations we lost during the pandemic.
Overall, we had an amazing turnout! The weather cooperated, we had over 3,000 people in attendance, and nine fabulous drag queens performed throughout the day. It made me smile to sit back and watch the kids running after bubbles, getting balloon animals, and riding the ponies while families gathered under the shade enjoying lunch. A trans woman who has been a frequent visitor to our trans meetings for over a year walked up to me and said, “I want to thank you so much for doing this. I was shaking on my drive here. I was scared to death as this is the first time I am leaving my house wearing a dress.”
That was the moment I knew this Pride was providing exactly what the LGBTQ community needs: a safe and supportive place to be themselves! We had over 60 vendors on hand, and it felt unbelievable to have Painesville City Manager Doug Lewis and City Council President Christine Shoop present the proclamation declaring the second Saturday in June as Painesville City Pride Day. I have already started planning for Pride 2023 on June 10, 2023.
How has taking the role as the executive director of LGBTQ+ Allies Lake County impacted your journey?
I have been impacted positively by all the support, the experience I gained, and the new friends I’ve made along the way. I’ve also been fortunate to grow it with my partner and family. When I started the organization, there were probably around five people who knew about us. But as time went on, I became more cautious for the safety of my family. This job makes you more accountable, especially when you bring kids into the mix.
The Cleveland Foundation sponsored Lake County Pride this year; how is this support helping further your goals?
This is history in the making. Just having Pride is pushing us miles forward in being able to bring together Lake County’s LGBTQ+ community that’s been hidden for so long. People literally sneak into our support group meetings. Many trans people refuse to dress freely for fear of who will see them, and others don’t even want our signs outside and would rather remain anonymous. Sometimes we’re six months from closing our doors. The support from the Cleveland Foundation and its COVID-19 emergency grants helped us keep afloat. Being able to have the center loud and proud in such a manner will hopefully allow other LGBTQ people to feel safe in their community and know that there are accepting people here.
Can you share how local organizations can give back and be better allies for the LGBTQ+ community?
Support can be a loaded word. To keep our organization afloat financially, we need general operating dollars to maintain, expand and build infrastructure.
Also, education, education, education. I promote Safe Space Training as much as I can. I’ve seen how much an impact it can be to change a lot of hearts and minds. Also, representation. I’ve talked to a lot of leaders around our community and country about the importance of representation and why that matters. In the city of Painesville, I solicited a proclamation to declare the second Saturday of June to be considered Pride Day in the city, which was eventually granted. Recently, I spoke with our city manager to consider flying the Pride flag on city hall through the month of June.
You can learn more about LGBTQ+ Allies and support their work in Lake County here.