| TOM QUEEN
MANY OF YOU may be too young to know about the controversy which surrounded entertainer Anita Bryant:
the Florida Orange Growers’ spokesperson led a high-profile campaign to overturn the Miami/Dade County, Florida ordinance which prevented discrimination due to sexual orientation. This was way back in 1977, and for Columbus’ legendary Steve Shellabarger and many others, it was a proverbial “call to arms.” It wasn’t long afterward that the HRC (then named Human Rights Campaign Fund) began to materialize, and thanks to the efforts of Steve and a few other dedicated local pioneers, the Columbus group became one of the earliest financial backers of the fledging organization’s office in Washington, D.C.
As Steve recalled to me, “The gay civil rights movement is built on AIDS. People who died of AIDS are martyrs.” This was also a time when those who contracted the disease were ostracized from their families, and many lost their jobs. Steve chose to get involved in the fight, rather than stand back and remain silent. He remarks, “The only way we were going to make any progress was operating within the system.” Steve began by working on the first Columbus HRCF fundraising event in 1983, which was held in the party room of the fabled Americana apartment building downtown. The event raised $6,000—all in cash due to donors’ fears of being outed by someone finding a personal check. Steve went on to serve eight years on the national board of HRCF, including two as its co-chair.
“Big Steve,” like everyone who lived through the dark days of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, lost many loved ones to the disease. Steve lost his second longtime partner, Andy, to the disease just three years ago. He also recalls losing the friendships of many former gay friends who weren’t comfortable with his activism. Undaunted by this, his resolve remains unwavering. “If I see something that I feel passionate about, I tend to get involved.”
Steve now divides his time between his homes in the Short North, Buckeye Lake and Fort Lauderdale. While he continues to play a supportive role in HRC and Stonewall Columbus, he has passed the mantle of leadership on to the next generation of activists. He is often “around and about” the Short North. If you see him, go up and give him a handshake or a hug. It’s because of the many years of hard work and sacrifice by Steve and his comrades that we’ve got it so good today.