The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio State University students Noor Alshafie and Blake Fox have loved 4-H since they joined as kids, and they remain active as volunteers. Straight women, they each have friends in the LGBTQ community, including some from 4-H.
They want to make sure that 4-H offers a welcome embrace to young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
So, Alshafie and Fox say they find it appropriate that the Ohio 4-H is holding a conference that began Friday and continues Saturday — the Ohio 4-H LGBTQ+ Summit — to help professional staff, parents and volunteers better understand LGBTQ issues and concerns.
“I had closeted friends who were afraid to come out,” said Fox, 22, of Lancaster, who joined the Fairfield County 4-H program at age 5. “Now, it’s becoming more common for kids to come out. 4-H is changing with the times and trying to be accepting, caring and understanding. That’s the cool thing about 4-H.”
Alshafie, 19, of Dublin, started in the Franklin County 4-H program at age 8 and got used to answering questions from her suburban friends who said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were a farmer.” She explained to them that 4-H doesn’t limit its members to raising livestock, but also includes projects like the ones she did on nutrition, health and scrapbooking.
It also is not just for straight people.
“4-H is predominantly white and straight, but that’s not all we are,” Alshafie said. “I’ve had friends on the LGBTQ spectrum. I love supporting them and (ask) how can I better support them? How can we create a positive experience and inclusive environment for everyone?”
The conference, supported by the university’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and held at the Nationwide & Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center, near the Schottenstein Center on the OSU campus, included a day of professional development. . . for 4-H adults. Saturday will feature a youth day for middle-school and high-school students both in 4-H or not.
Panels on Friday included how to navigate coming-out conversations and how to create inclusive learning environments, and questions included what to say to parents who don’t want their straight kids mingling with gay kids at camp.
“If parents or volunteers don’t like that, then we are not the program for them,” said Kirk Bloir, associate state 4-H leader. “We are not going to shirk our responsibility of ensuring that our program is a safe space for all.”
The summit drew some controversy. Linda Harvey, president and founder of the Columbus-based Mission: America and a former 4-H member, wrote in a commentary posted on the conservative website wnd.com this month that the summit promoted “sexual immorality to kids.”
Among more than 158,000 Ohioans ages 5 to 19 who participate in 4-H clubs, camps and programs annually, there is no estimate how many are LGBTQ. Ohio 4-H is housed within the Ohio State University Extension, and includes programs in all 88 counties.
Particularly in the more rural, conservative counties, LGBTQ youngsters in 4-H might feel alone, wondering whether there are other kids like them and adults they can talk to, said Kayla Oberstadt, Ohio 4-H program manager for older youth leadership development.
“We would like our 4-H clientele to know they are accepted for being themselves in our program,” she said.
“Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot. . . . Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed.” Luke 17:28, 30.