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By: Robert Joki

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July 14, 2008

Two weeks ago I was contacted by a reader via myspace. This is what he wrote:



This is my maiden voyage on MySpace and it feels a bit "out there" to me. From time to time, I look at the Valley 24 web site and enjoy reading your articles periodically. My husband, Jim is originally from Youngstown and we go out to visit his extended Italian-American family at least 2-3 times a year. We have been together for 23 years and currently live in NYC.

Jim and I are considering a permanent move out to Poland to be closer to his aging family. Yes, we know what we are getting ourselves into! Our observation: no matter what you do in life, there are pluses and minuses.

My question: What is it like being gay in Youngstown 24/7 rather than visiting for a week two or three times a year? What motivates you to continue living in Mahoning County when there are so many gay positive -- politically and culturally -- areas to live?

I would like to get some feedback from you as well as from LGBT people from Youngstown who enter your blog.

Continue the marvelous work that you do in Youngstown!




Dear Will,


   Thank you so much for reading my blog.  I am tickled PINK to hear that people from out of town give a crap about what I have to say.

    I moved to Youngstown in 1997, and I was here for about ten minutes before I burst out of the closet in a pair of size 12W ruby slippers.  College will do that for you.  Since then I have been completely out at work, at home, and just about everywhere in between. Other than the random anonymous message board hatemonger, or late night WALMARTIAN, people's reactions have been primarily positive.  For the most part, they are pleasantly curious.  I find myself being discriminated against more for being a fat guy, or for being an outspoken guy, than I do for being a gay guy.

    So let's get right into it...my biggest gripe is that Youngstown lacks an organized gay community. We have local pride organizations but they don't seem to be very well attended, despite the efforts of some very dedicated individuals. Two weeks ago the closest thing we had to a pride parade was when I put a rainbow collar on my pit bull, Cooper, and walked him around the block.

    When Mahoning county homosexuals congregate it is usually either in a bar, a theater, a chat room, or someone's living room. The plus side is that unless we want to spend every Saturday night in the same tired club scene, or drive an hour or so out of town, we are forced to integrate...which I like to spell "inteGREAT!". Going to an exclusively gay bar is like being herded to the back of the bus where a disco ball has been installed to distract you from the fact that you are a second class citizen. I'm not a fan. I think of them as closets for large groups of people.  And since nobody puts baby in a corner,  I prefer to check out the downtown scene...which I find to be extremely gay friendly. However, if gay nightclubs are a must, we have a few decent ones in the Youngstown/Warren/Akron area.  Also Cleveland and Pittsburgh are both only about an hour and a half away.

    I like to think of this area as a blank slate. A frontier. Some amazing things are going on to revitalize the downtown area and I know many members of the LGBT community who are front and center.  We could certainly use your help if you are up for it.  It is a very exciting time. If you are interested in the arts scene, we've got a budding arts community.  If you like community theater, we have plenty of that.

    In other local gay news, last month, in what turned out to be a very controversial decision, the Unitarian Universalist Church on the north side announced not only that it welcomes members of the LGBT community into its congregation, but also that it does not consider homosexuality to be a sin. I was most impressed by this quote from the Vindicator article: [ Ms. Frederick-Gray said she has officiated at 10 same-sex weddings. “We don’t believe it’s a sin,” she said. “It’s a celebration of love between two consenting adults. ]  Many other area churches welcome homosexuals, but they do so under a "hate the sin, not the sinner" policy. Gays are welcome to attend church service just like liars, thieves, and adulterers...the idea being that homosexuality is a sin, just not a MAJOR sin. The hope is that the sinner will eventually see the light and repent.  It was very refreshing for me to read the words "We don't believe it's a sin" because I don't believe it is either. I think it's a huge step.

    Why do I stay in Youngstown?  LOL  I laugh because someone asks me that at least once a week.  I am gay.  I am an actor. This area isn't exactly swarming with opportunities for me. After college, most of my friends moved to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to join the thousands and thousands of big city performing artists competing for work.  I made the choice to stay home and create my own opportunities...and I have never regretted that decision. I don't think New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles need me.  I think Youngstown does.

     I hope that answers some of your questions.  Thanks again for the compliments and feel free to email me anytime, or look me up when you come to town.  If I have a performance going on at the Oakland, I would love to treat you to a show. I wish you would have been in town for The Full Monty.  It was a great time!

Best wishes,

I would like to open this up to the readers of Fat Camp.  Do you have any advice to offer Will and Jim?  



By DrGoo ( Dr. Goo )

"Unitarian Universalist Church on the north side announced not only that it welcomes members of the LGBT community into its congregation, but also that it does not consider homosexuality to be a sin."

Actually I don't see why they needed to announce it. They have been holding PFlag meetings there for like 5 years. It's like McDonalds saying "oh, yea we have nuggets."

By Dennick ( Robert Joki )

Having a PFLAG meeting in your building and truly welcoming homosexuals into your church are two different things. I'm glad they announced it. I think they did it to make a statement and I respect that. I wouldn't have known about it, otherwise.

By lucy ( anonymous )

I will say that I'm glad you're here, Robert, because you're my new best friend ;) Thanks for the UU props. I agree the that YO is a blank slate, but despite the vindy.com haters and little freaks at Walmart, things are getting better.

By Mgen ( anonymous )

"Going to an exclusively gay bar is like being herded to the back of the bus where a disco ball has been installed to distract you from the fact that you are a second class citizen."

A-flucking-men! This is probably my favorite quote from you so far. I think it's sad Youngstown didn't have any kind of event for pride. I have a lot of gay friends who were looking for something to do but nothing was going on.

By Mgen ( anonymous )

hey, question tho, why did you spell it ynkstwn?

By MzVirgoLuv ( anonymous )

I have to agree, you are my new best and ONLY friend. I am so glad to see that this little crappy town can be that forgiving. I personally find gay MEN the best persons around. Now, not to offend the gay women, but you can be a little intrusive and just plain vague at times. Anyway, I hope I can do whatever I can to help in whatever way. Like I've stated before, I am NOT gay, but I find gay people so much more trusting, fun and honest. And I think everyone can learn a thing or two from gay people. You're like the best hydroponic chronic around: Strong, natural and too much fun to take in all at once. We all need to show our pride in whatever we do and are and I think we should have a pride parade here, NYC style to show that there are significant gays among us. You matter just like me and everyone and making a way to incorporate gay matters into everyday living should be a given.

By katieeverybody ( anonymous )

I think you've rocked out on your choice to stay in Youngstown. I always tell people if you can make a life there, that's fantastic. And I'm proud to have a friend like you who stayed in Youngstown because of a choice you made, not because you were forced into it. You have made a fantastic life for yourself. While I have to agree that Youngstown does benefit from your presence there, Los Angeles would welcome you as well. You know, if you were ever wanting to try out something new. Also, I'm thrilled that you not only SEE change there, but you are a part of the change. That would be the only circumstance by which I could ever return - if I knew I could be a part of a big change in the city. However, I'm much lazier than you are and apparently would prefer to be lost in the crowd here in LA. :-)

Love & miss you.

By typhoidpat ( anonymous )

I really enjoyed reading this! I don't think I understood the reasons that people would stay in Youngstown, until the last few years. And as katieeverybody pointed out it's fantastic when people make that choice and make a change, rather than just staying put because they don't know what else to do. Maybe it took leaving for me to appreciate that, and to appreciate the city. Whatever the reasons I left, I am truly rooting for Youngstown from afar, keeping updated on websites like this one. Youngstown has such a fascinating history of immigrants and others being creative and making new lives in a dynamic city. I hope this is the beginning of another such era of growth and open-mindedness. And I'm proud of you, Rob, for being a part of it!

By Dennick ( Robert Joki )

MzVirgo...If we ever do get to have a parade, you can ride on a float with me :O)

By Dennick ( Robert Joki )

Mgen...did you ever notice that when locals say the word "Youngstown" they usually pronounce it "Yunkstown" ? LOL I've always loved that. So, anyway, I was trying to do a Youngstown version of the I HEART NY slogan...and I thought it would be funny to spell it "YNKSTWN."

By Dennick ( Robert Joki )

Katie and Pat...I ain't gonna lie. I think you should move home. I wish you guys would visit during a big downtown event so I could show you how much things really have changed.

By brooklynbabe3828 ( anonymous )

i think gays feel like theyre more discriminated against than they are. i mean, im straight and i have gay friends. i really dont care. hating gays is like hating somebody for the foods they like or something like that. when gay bars are opened theyre opened so its easier for gays to meet other gays. not to keep them somehwere else. i mean i think gays seperate themselves kinda.becasue often times they always have to be so "out" about what they are. who cares?? when u do that u make people think of u as different more than they would if u didnt exclaim every two seconds that u are gay. why should it have to define u? so i dont really understand the importance of a gay parade. and also, straight people pretty much only meet up in either a bar, a theater, a chat room, or someone's living room. its youngstown, what the hell else is there to do?? its because we live in a boring unpopulated city. and im under 18 so u could only imagine how sickeningly bored i am 24/7. and this is the big one. it is wrong to judge other people and what they do. but im sick of gays and other people judging christians and catholics so much about what we believe. we're just trying to do what we were taught and believe is right. for example, marriage is a religious sacrament and it is to be between a man and a woman. the only reason why catholics and christians talk about gays so much is because now theyre demanding the right to be married. listen we dont care what u do but now i think things are being pushed too far because we're being asked to go against what we believe. personally i just think same sex marriages are weird and its not what im used to. marriage is when a man and a woman become one and they love each other and start a family. ur really not supposed to have sex until ur MARRIED, and the real purpouse for sex is to have kids. two women or two men cannot have children together. so in the end, yanno u CAN DO WHATEVER U WANT, but in natures eyes theres no need for gays to be having sex or in religions eyes...getting married. but basically im sick of people attacking people for what they believe because i dont attack other people and im catholic and we get criticized all the time.

but yea im sick of blogs about homosexuality. what else is there to talk about?

By bobservo ( Bob Mackey )

someone needs to invest in a paragraph break

By boyinakage ( anonymous )

in response to the comments made by brooklynbabe:

if it were religiously wrong for gays to exist, then why do we/they?

if God really doesn't want us around, he would have destroyed every last little gay man/lesbian by now.

and there are quite a few unwed teenage mothers out there, but nobody's demanding that they are morally corrupt or wrong.

a blog is a blog. as far as being sick about blogs about homosexuality: i do believe it's sort of a given in this one. if you're sick of reading them; find something else to read. there are plenty of blogs about whiny teenagers who want to/have attempted or are close to suicide. i'm annoyed by that, but i choose not to read them.

as far as gay people being wrong because they can't procreate "the old-fashioned way", what about the straight couples who are elderly and get married...way past the "prime" for baby-making? what about the couples who simply cannot produce children?

nobody is necessarily saying that being gay "defines them", as you mention gay people doing...but being gay is a part of them...as much a part of them as being a nationality, a american citizen, a musican, etc and so-forth.

not all gays are critical of catholics and christians. i know plenty of straight people who despise the catholic church more than anything. and the importance of gay pride? what's not to understand. are you african american? let's assume that you are...would you feel pride in celebrating february as african-american history month? i would certainly hope so (and i could have made that statement about any race).

pride isn't just about parades and flags, it's about the confidence to face the world each day. some people feel that expressing (rather than suppressing) their homosexual tendencies is another thing that gets them through the day. if a girl wears make-up to make her outside feel the tiniest better about her inside, nobody screams about her "female pride" being negative.

if you don't see the need for gay pride, why not question the need for pride at all? st. patrick's day, christmas, thanksgiving, independence day...all pride events, all have parades and floats and people in the streets rejoicing for one thing or another. there is a correlation there.

i promise that this will be the end now: in closing, perhaps there is more to being gay than everyone can understand. sometimes it's impossible to understand something when you just aren't that one defining thing.

i don't claim to understand what it's like to be a straight person...but i sure try looking at it from the other side of the fence every once in awhile. that sort of juxtaposition sure helps me feel a whole lot more humble.

kage jonas

By willinnyc ( anonymous )

"I made the choice to stay home and create my own opportunities...and I have never regretted that decision."


This sentence from your response to me is of significant importance, the crux of why you make Youngstown "your home". It appears to me that you have been to the "gay meccas" here in the US and that you can make an informed decision on where you prefer to live. I find the underground/countercultural life that you describe in your Valley 24 blog appealing and intriguing. I get the impression that no matter what you do in life, you make the best of things. You find beauty in the flawed; you find excitement in the mundane. And you live in the backyard of Dennis Kucinich!

What Jim and I have serious concerns about is the Ohio constitution not only banning same sex marriage but any legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

What kind of discussion is generated on your blog regarding this draconian state legislation? How do you and your boyfriend respond to such blatant bigotry?

I understand from Jim that northeastern Ohio is historically very different -- more progressive -- than the rest of the state. Yet, you guys are discriminated against by state constitutional law.

I am pointing out this glaring reality to you not for the sake of argument but to make your readers aware that states like Vermont, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California are indeed more friendly to lesbians and gays, especially those in same-sex relationships and who might have children.

This is our dilemma. For instance, my employer recognizes my marriage to Jim in Canada three years ago. I am able to get spousal health insurance as well as spousal life insurance for Jim. Forum Health and St. E's looked at me as if I had three heads when I inquired if they offered domestic partner health care benefits 3-4 years ago.

Consequently, we cannot live where we would like -- near Jim's family. We miss out on all of the familiy functions in Youngstown: weddings, birthday celebrations, funerals, Communion parties. YES WE ARE GAY AND VERY MUCH CATHOLIC!

Yes, grow where you are planted. Hundreds of thousands of Youngstown boomers and Gerations X&Yers, though, were forced to leave Mahoning County for lack of job opportunities. You have guts to want to flourish in Youngstown. You do not seem to be focused on Youngstown of the past but what this city can be in the present and future.

By brooklynbabe3828 ( anonymous )

to boyinakage...u had a lot of good things to say i have to admit. it kinda helps me understand somethings. but about the if homosexuality is a sin why did god make u thing...why would he blow u up or whatver for being gay? i dont think he created u to be gay it just happened. people sin. god doesnt blow up murderers or rapists. just cuz u guys arent dropping dead doesnt mean what ur doing is ok yanno? if god interacted in the world like that than i think the arabs in other countries who are torturing people would be killed by him and he would have stopped 9/11 and all those things. god didnt make these people to be terrible people it just happened. and i dont understand why gays have to have a big pride day. im not trying to be rude or ignorant imjust saying. st patricks day or black history month and things like that are things celebrating your ethnic group or background. being gay isnt really what you ARE its just ur sexuality. there arent any straight parades yanno. its different. if ur gay ur gay who cares? if i was gay i wouldnt throw it out there like that. not to say i should be ashamed of it or anything, but just cuz who realy cares? but yea the rest of the stuff u said made sense i do like some of the things u say.

By brooklynbabe3828 ( anonymous )

oh and about the thing i said about how all the blogs are about homosexuality...i just joined this website and it seemed like every blog i came across were blogs about gays and lesbians. i didnt know if it was like only for gays or whatever since i never blogged before. thast why i said that

By smurf272001 ( anonymous )

I think Youngstown needs you too...and more of people like you

By crse ( anonymous )

I completely agree that Youngstown needs you. As far as the my space new yorker talking about moving to poland, hook us up (because you know that's my hood!) and we'd be happy to welcome them to town and help them get adjusted.

By WarSuiGai ( anonymous )

To BrooklynBabe. Although I don't agree with some of your opinions, I appreciate the honesty in your words. Daring to ask tough, and perhaps uncomfortable questions is the only way to gain any insight in life. I am impressed that, at your young age, you've already begun to ask them.

That said, I want to throw back at you just a little of what you said. I ask that you approach my feedback with thought.

You said that if you were gay, you wouldn't 'throw it out there.' But the truth of course is, that you really don't know what you would do. The opinions that you choose to form
in a sort of 'what if" scenario come easy, because you never have to truly own up to them. In contrast, gay teens already younger than you are now, have no choice but to create a strategy or game plan just to get through the day to day of living.

Nobody tells you as a child that you are gay. Even if you were that little guy who put on dresses, or the little tomboy who favored playing in mud puddles to dolls, there isn't a clear indicator in pre-school as to sexual attraction. Even folks who say they "always knew" about themselves, more often clicked with a sexual identity long before even putting into terms how their sex organs will someday operate. Adolescence is an awkard, lonely, and confusing time for everyone. Add to it the self-discovery and realization that what you are thinking and feeling contradicts much of what you've been taught, and the expectations placed by family,
religion and society at large; and the emotional
toll of your teen years becomes unbearable. For most gay kids, the terror isn't the realization of their identity. It's the fear that others will find out.

By WarSuiGai ( anonymous )

You see, many of us grew up in the same society as you. Before we understood who WE ARE, we knew
implicitly what society did not tolerate. The slurs, the taunting, even the physical brutality
were made clear to us. To survive meant keeping in line, shutting up, and pretending. Constant pretending. So crushes are developed with members of the opposite sex, prom dates asked out, even experimental fooling around. It also didn't hurt to toss around a few gay slurs yourself. Self-preservation is the key, and it gets to the point where what you know about yourself is buried so deep, that you're not even certain that it really existed at all. Social affirmation is all you really understand, and how to keep others happy.

You may find this crazy to believe, but even one year after same sex experimentation, I still didn't think of myself as gay. It was something I DID, but it clearly wasn't me. Gay people were 'other' people who didn't talk or dress like me. They were subjects of societal humiliation and scorn, and they undoubtedly brought shame to their families. Nope, not me. The survival skills
I honed so carefully in public school would suit me just fine. So long as I never opened up to anyone, never let myself become real, or never made the error in judgment of being honest. Me? gay? Why that would cause panic in the streets! The world itself would never be the same if I 'came out.'

So why did I do it? Why am I now 'out' as it were to friends and to my family. Because it was convenient? Not really. Because it was easy? Not at all. Quite simply, I am out because it's the truth. It's me being honest for the first time in my life. It's waiting for the sky to fall and then discovering that it didn't. It's coming to terms with this 'great pretender' who ultimately chose his own self worth over societal bias and scorn. Imagine, after all of those years, what it felt like to finally not have to lie.

So the next time you happen to channel surf through the news, and you see those random shots of men and women atop colorful floats and waving banners, allow yourself to look beyond the party regalia and silliness. Ask yourself if the momentary discomfort or confusion you might feel is really worth the oppression of so many people
who chose happiness and honesty over societal deception, self-torment, or suicide. Ask yourself what life must have been like for them as children- the beatings, the threats, the isolation and pain. Ask how many of them lost the love of friends and family members at the price of telling the truth. If you ask these questions,
you may see Gay Pride as something beyond what so many people- your age and mine- can't see or comprehend.

By WarSuiGai ( anonymous )

Golf claps to Mz. Virgo for speaking her mind, and even offering glimpses of her life for blog readers. I've heard other people echo similar thoughts. That said, I think her prejudice toward
gay people is far more potent and detrimental than she even realizes.

By willinnyc ( anonymous )

I applaud WarSuiGai's masterful and compelling response to BrooklynBabe on 07/21. Life in a self imposed closet sucks! It takes just as much effort to judge someone who is different from you than it does to make the attempt to try and understand the difference in question. Jim, my husband, is originally from Youngstown. HE is hesitant to move back to Youngstown because he always felt that people who live there are rigid in their beliefs and quite conformist. There is constant pressure to "fit in". Jim and I say, "Beat your own drum, guys"! Love, not tolerance, should be the primary motivator in our lives. Peace...

By boyinakage ( anonymous )

to brooklynbabe,

it is true, your honesty is in fact quite admirable.

however, we can go rounds for days on whether or not i was born gay...or furthermore, transsexual.

but to fully understand that, you would have to ask yourself: would i choose a life/lifestyle that would make me undergo more stress/pressure than most others?

i didn't choose anything, i was made this way, i.e.- just another one of "god"'s (i use the quotes because i'm not christian) little boo-boos...imperfect, and proud of it.

By boyinakage ( anonymous )

oh, and also, in the same token about "if you were gay you wouldn't just throw it out there..."

some of us don't have to. it gets thrown into our faces day after day. i'm not saying being of an "alternative lifestyle" (because i much prefer that umb-a-rella-ella-ella...) isn't a daily picnic...but it's brought up more by the heterosexuals i know than anything.

is being gay really just a sexual orientation thing? no. it's not entirely who we are, but it is a part of the sum of us. being gay is just like being black...except when you're black, you really can't hide it as well.

By DrGoo ( Dr. Goo )

I am not going to weigh in on the choice vs nature debate cause frankly there is probably enough evidence to prove both things. Humans are very weird like that.

I just really hate the "If it's a choice why would I choose something everyone else hates" debate, cause people choose things that are hated all the time. I people chose to be christian in Rome knowing good and well they faced the possibility of being fed to lions. People choose to stand up to oppressive governments despite threats of torture and death.

Should someone have the right to be gay is one issue, and the reasons why people are gay is a totally different one.

By boyinakage ( anonymous )

well, i suppose the "choice" debate sucks...but it's more about chosen freedom and happiness...than hiding than it is about love or anything else these days.

why does it matter? i thought the saying went "love is blind", not "love is not necessarily equal on all fronts".

i wish we were all just inside out.

By niko_new_new ( anonymous )

i'm a little late in posting this, but i can reaffirm what rob says about youngstown needing more positive, creative people such as himself. he is a beacon of light in the community, not just among "the gays", and it is because of his continued efforts in the local scene that the arts have survived in youngstown. i would hope that when i return, i will see many more people in the community take on the responsible role of being active members in the local art scene, whether it is by attending the excellent plays the the "o" puts on, or offering a helping hand in the promotion of the many splendid events the center has a hand in. if more people we proactive in the community, maybe we wouldn't have such a huge flight away from one of the mid-wests former greatest cities. the rust belt needs a little oil and its nice to know that there are people who have the strength to grease the wheels.

By catpower ( anonymous )

I also am late to the party - wondered if Will & Jim are still in NYC? I moved back to Y-town in 2003 to be near my older parents, who still live in Poland where I grew up. However, because I have always loved the Northside, and my job at the time was there, I jumped at the chance to buy a house on Selma for probably 1/5 what it would have cost in Poland.

I love my house, my neighborhood, all the great Y-town blogs, and the excitement that is evident in Y-town's current revitalization! plus all the other features we have going for us: the Butler, the Symphony, Fellows Riverside Gardens plus the rest of MCMP, not to mention the incredible variety of theatre and art activity for a town of this size... and the fact that you can be anywhere in town and see people you know - it's great to live in a small pond. I lived in NYC many years ago, and felt VERY small, altho' it was a great place to live at the time.

Unfortunately, the fact that Ohio IS medieval in its attitude towards the gay community is regrettable - maybe W&J can move here and help fix the issue! Oh, and BTW, you can't beat the low cost of living here!

By willinnyny ( anonymous )

This is in response to Catpower's blog entry, written on October 28. I am on vacation this week and have a little more time to ramble on the Internet. I clicked on Rob's blog which he initiated on July 14, and, low and behold, I read your contribution. Jim and I have not moved to Poland for a host of reasons -- primarily due to economics. For starters, I am a psychiatric nurse. I would be taking a 50%+ cut in salary if we moved to Mahoning County. This is a HUGE consideration. Our mantra over the years is that yes, HOUSING is far more reasonable in and around Youngstown, but everything else is comparable: gas, utilities, food etc. JC Penney is JC Penney. Home Depot is Home Depot. It is a fallacy that the cost of living is lower in northeastern Ohio. The reason why housing is lower is because salaries are much lower, period. We love and appreciate the visual outlets that you ticked off in your comments. Mill Creek Park, in my eyes, is spectacular! Two educated, opinionated gay guys from NYC simply cannot fix the political climate in Columbus. We love Jim's extended Italian-American family in and around Youngstown but do not want to give up the protections we are given here in New York State as a same sex couple. Catpower, thanks for jumping into the discussion. Don't worry about your timing. The Northside of Youngstown is terrific! You were wise to buy your home there rather than in Poland. Jim wants Poland because he can walk to his relatives' homes. BTW, we are ambivalent about moving to a place where a car is a necessity. Who said life is easy?

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