Kentucky native works for inclusivity through Southern Indiana pride festival

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Evan Stoner

What do you identify as? Why? Or why don’t you identify as anything?
This is a question that requires at a lot of openness and vulnerability. In my 22 years on this planet, I have noticed that society loves placing labels on human beings and groups of people. I suppose it is somewhat easier to navigate through life feeling like you belong to a group. In many cases, this can provide additional significance and a sense of belonging in life. I have always felt pressure to follow the group or fall in line with the status quo, but I refuse to. As a freshman in high school, I never imagined a life where I could live true to myself. It was freshman year that I admitted to myself that I was gay. That was hard, but coming out to the world was even more daunting. During my sophomore year, a gentleman whom I greatly respected shared some advice with me that changed the course of my life. He said above all else, it is critically important to live true to yourself. I certainly identified with that statement then, and carry the sentiment with me still today. His advice is what led me to find the courage to finally come out to the world. The world I’m fighting for though, is a world where coming out no longer has to be a milestone for LGBTQ youth. Coming out is only necessary in a world where the idea that something perfectly normal as being lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender is looked at through the distorted lens of hate. My sexuality is not my defining trait. I choose not to focus strongly on identification because I believe it somewhat strips us all of our humanity. With that being said, the reality is that LGBTQ people in the United States and even more so abroad are still not provided the same rights as everyone else. Until the day comes where LGBTQ people are fully equal in society, I consider myself a proud advocate in the fight to advance LGBTQ rights.

What does the word Queer mean to you?
I remember the first time I ever heard the word queer. It was being used in a derogatory manner to describe a peer at my school. I was confused by the word, but at the time did not know that it had any significance to the LGBTQ community. Now, I have a better grasp on the word and appreciate how it has been reclaimed and transformed into an empowering descriptor for many. With that being said, I think it is important to respect that it is still not used in a positive manner everywhere for everyone. I think it is important to respect everyone’s unique journey and understand that some may be more comfortable using it than others. To me it simply provides additional representation for the underdogs among us. Those who have felt left out, pushed down, and marginalized in society. My journey to understand the word queer is ongoing. I think it is imperative to commit to being a life-long learner and always keep an open mind.

Where are you from and explain what it was like growing up/living in Kentucky?
I was born in Louisville, Kentucky in July 1997, and moved to New Albany Indiana in the early 2000’s. Louisville has always played a role in my life, and I love this city dearly. In 2003, I moved to Jeffersonville where I spent most of my childhood and teenage years. My childhood was spent riding my bike all around my neighborhood, playing basketball in my driveway, manhunt, making s’mores by the fire, and swimming in my neighbors pool. I attended Community Montessori Public-Charter school in New Albany from 2nd grade until 6th, then River Valley for 7th and 8th, Jeffersonville High school for 9th and 10th, and then back to Community Montessori until graduation. It was in my senior year of high school that I ultimately realized homophobia and prejudice was a systemic issue in my local school system and in my community. This realization was what eventually led me to launch efforts to host Jeffersonville’s very first LGBTQ pride parade and festival in 2016.

What would you say to anyone struggling to come into their own identity?
I’d give the same encouragement that was given to me. Above all else, it is critically important to live true to yourself. It is not you that needs to be changed or altered, it is the world that needs to change. There is nothing more relieving than finally letting go of the burden of living your life worried constantly about how others will perceive and judge you. With that being said, making that commitment and sharing it with the world is yours and yours only to make. As a kid who spoke in a articulate manner, with a higher pitched voice, I was labeled and called homophobic slurs. I can’t even begin to count how many times I was asked if I was gay. It wasn’t helping me at all. It only made me want to shield myself even further from the truth. Even if some of the people asking may have been allies, it still made me uncomfortable. You deserve the space and time to figure out who you are.

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?
I don’t think it does or should necessarily. From a young age, my mom told me that its what is on the inside that truly counts. My goal in life is to give everyone a chance, treat everyone with respect and dignity, and always remain willing to listen even to those I disagree with or don’t understand. Being black and gay though, has certainly shown me that darkness and hate is still a reality in this world. Through these lived experiences, I have built a strong ability to advocate for the voiceless, look out for the underdog, and stand up for the little guy.

What issues do you see in the queer community?
For me, I believe that inclusivity is paramount. It might sound like a broken record in these divided political times, but I will never stop believing that friendship is the sweetest influence. It is hard to win anyone over when they’re being screamed at, and it may push them even further away. I would encourage everyone, not just the queer community, to look in the mirror, and ask how they can work to bring people together. I would encourage all to promote our similarities instead of pinpointing our differences. The respect for overall human value seems to be in decline. Those who disagree are having trouble recognizing the humanity in their ideological opponent. In recent years, I believe the LGBTQ community has become a political football for politicians and the national media. Let’s not fall victim to this game. Let’s seek out and welcome support from unlikely places and see if we can build on that support moving forward. The LGBTQ community is not a monolithic group and we should not expect us all to agree on every issue personal or political.

What do you think would solve those issues?
Listening instead of talking. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Trying your best to understand the lived experiences of others. This, in my view, is the only way we can move forward together. With every major political issue I’ve observed, Americans tend to immediately run to their separate corners and lob insults at each other. This is not a sustainable path forward. There are many out there that will write off all Republicans or conservatives and vice versa, then refuse to seek to understand them or their own experiences. We should bolster these lines of communication, expand them, and build on them. We can’t let group think take over. We should commit to the tough conversations that will move our country and world forward.

Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not?
There have been times when I have felt left out and pushed away. But working in and around the queer community in Kentuckiana, I feel loved and accepted. This adventure has led me to meet some of the most passionate, committed individuals in the world. Kentuckiana is a special place, and I can’t think of a better region to learn and grow.

Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc)
I feel at my best and most happy when I’m fighting for others. Recently I have struggled with finding the balance between my naturally competitive spirit, and my desire to bring people together. Social media can be a truly enraging place. Its tough to be a bridge builder in a world where people seem so quick to burn them. It is hard to not lose sight of the bigger picture, or take your focus off the critical issues of our time. I fall short in this arena too. I find comfort though in the idea of doing as much good as you can, for as many people that you can, for as long as you can. I am still learning, still making mistakes, and still trying to learn from them. But it is important to never let perfection be the enemy of doing good.

Who influenced the life you live now?
My mom, teachers, friends, and President Obama. My father abandoned me when I was two. I never understood and still don’t understand why my father was not in my life, but that is not a question for me to answer. When I was about 10-years-old, I was heading to school, when I heard over the radio that a man named Barack Obama was running for president. Barack Obama’s candidacy was proof-positive to me as a young person that I too could succeed in life. Reading about the absence of Barack Obama’s father and how he dealt with it, enabled me to better navigate the absence of my own father and succeed in spite of it. My mom has been the constant in a life of tremendous change, always believing in me, and telling me at a young age that anything is possible. At my core, I am an optimist. A believer that there is more good in the world than evil. A believer that we can, together, create a world free from hate, prejudice, and violence. A believer that all human life is valuable, and that there is great potential inside each one of us. The key to unlocking that potential is living true to yourself and believing that there is not a single obstacle you cannot overcome. These are the core beliefs that steer my worldview.

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