By Stacia Erdos Littleton
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It so happened that over one week in June, I visited the stunningly renovated main library in Youngstown, with its newly uncovered and restored glistening stained-art glass skylight, modern steel, and beautifully preserved historic architecture.
I also toured the former warehouse turned Penguin City brewery and home of DOPE Cider House and Winery – bringing alive the eastern side of downtown Youngstown. I sampled a delicious lemon-tart smoothie at the Orange Avocado in Boardman. And I attended the return of the spectacular Edward J. DeBartolo Memorial Scholarship Foundation’s Celebrity Dinner Auction at the Covelli Centre that, for a night, was transformed into a beautiful moonlit Shangri-La.
None of these would have been possible without business owners dedicated to Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley and entrepreneurs who are not only part of the local business community, but the Valley’s LGBTQ community as well.
I began to think about the contributions and economic impact of the gay community to the revitalization of Youngstown. After all, Youngstown has a blue-collar history – entrenched with strong ethnic traditions – and not necessarily perceived as a big progressive city (yet). Is it welcoming to professionals who happen to be gay?
I reached out to seven local business professionals and with their permission, I’m sharing excerpts of our conversations. The first was Josh Prest who grew up in Boardman and works as the district representative for U.S. Sen. Rob Portman. We talked one morning over coffee.
Prest: I think over the past decades, things have adapted and things have evolved for the community. Twenty to 30 years ago, I talked to friends who are older, who are gay or in the LGBTQ community who struggled very much because it was a different culture, different time – less acceptance of it, less tolerance as compared to now. You see a lot more people who are comfortable talking about it: people in the business community, nonprofit community, in government.
Prest, who is also the outgoing president of the Youngstown Rotary Club, came out three years ago at age 27, after personally struggling with it for a long time. His family was very supportive; so I asked if he’d felt a need to wait until he was more established in his career.
Prest: It was a little more about finding my comfort level. I don’t know about establishing myself. But certainly as you grow older and learn more from people you work with, whether it’s your bosses or your co-workers, people younger than you. You get more comfortable in your work settings.
If I’d only been somewhere one or two years, it would have been more difficult … but you know in my current job I’ve been there for eight years now and I felt comfortable enough that it was OK.
(He said it also helped that his boss, Portman, announced his support of gay marriage in 2013 after his own son came out as gay.)
Talia Hagler is a former WFMJ news reporter and now owner of Mahoning Valley Productions whose clients include the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber. Hagler worked at several TV stations before telling her employer she was married to a woman. That was born out of necessity when she was diagnosed with cancer.
Hagler: When I Interviewed at WFMJ I said I had a fiancé. … I would be very vague and that sort of thing. But once I got sick and they directly asked me about my husband, I wasn’t going to lie.
There’s a line between being kind of open-ended and not giving a lot of specifics and I wasn’t going to lie at that point. I was comfortable enough with myself, to let the chips fall where they may and things were changing and I felt OK with WFMJ that that it wouldn’t affect me.
And she points out that you don’t come out just once, especially when you have children.
Hagler: I mean it’s funny at every orientation I come out again to the kids’ teachers because I want them to know that the kids have two moms … I also came out as Jewish! [She laughs.]
My friend Paul Hagman confirmed that the Mahoning Valley “is a good place to work as a gay professional.” He is the architect whose projects include the renovated main library and the Stambaugh Building that houses the DoubleTree hotel downtown. “By and large we don’t have to be concerned about how our sexual orientation is going to affect our businesses,” he says.
Paul is married to Nick Giancola who, with his sister, owns Spruce Home Décor with locations in Boardman, Niles and Chautauqua, New York, and ships to 25 states through a strong online presence.
Giancola: I think the conversation is turning. When you put people like Pete Buttigieg in a presidential election, you start seeing that being gay is just a part of who these individuals are, not their complete identity. And Paul and I always say that about ourselves – that’s a little piece. It’s like I have brown hair. Well, I’m also gay – or I wear glasses. But I’m so many more things.
Nick points to business owners who’ve paved the way, such as Joe Mineo who’s contributed to the Valley’s economy for more than 35 years. Joe and his sister operated Something New Florist before he purchased a 20,000-square-foot warehouse on Industrial Road and began to produce luxury events all over the country as Joe Mineo Creations.
Mineo: I’ve been very blessed. I’ve had a very easy life since I came out. But also because I was in creative. In my industry – you expected your florist to be gay. Right?
He admits had he been a banker or an attorney, it likely would have been a different story.
Mineo: In the late ’80s, so many people I knew were open but closeted to their businesses. To stay in business and keep that job, it was still a very, very tough time. And trust me, we had it much easier than in the late ’70s, who had it much easier than in the late ‘60s but at the end of the day it was still extremely different than what’s happening in the world today.
Hagman: Things have changed and changed quickly and we are the beneficiaries of that. We’re able to sit here and say, gosh Stacia; I don’t really have a negative story because –
Giancola: Because of business owners like Joe and others. And we have many friends who are a little older. We’ve heard those stories and we’ve always said we’re very lucky …. to be married, to have a public relationship. Because that wasn’t the case then.
Mineo acknowleges that he certainly had obstacles being a gay man. But, he says, the responses were “much more positive than the negative.”
Giancola: Joe could work anywhere in the world and do what he does but he’s chosen to keep it here and chosen to continue to be a leader in the community and that’s a big thing. He could have moved to New York or LA and had a wonderful, fabulous career. That alone for me showed the possibilities and it shows that if Joe can stay here and have a great career and live authentically, then I can too.
I asked why they agreed to talk to me in The Business Journal?
Hagler: Hearts and minds change when they’re exposed to people.
Hagman: Visibility is important. Normalizing diversity is important. And so if you can be visible, if you can demonstrate you’re a good person, you’re a good business person, you just happen to be gay – there might be someone else out there who sees that and says, “I feel the same way and now I have someone I can approach. I have someone I can talk to. I have someone I can confide in.” There can be any number of positive outcomes from that.
Mineo: That’s what the story is – that we’re proud to share our story. And, if you didn’t know – this is the month of Pride. And we are sharing our pride as business owners who support Youngstown. We are proud of who we are.
We’ll meet two young entrepreneurs in my August column.