Prizm News / November 2, 2017 / By Bob Vitale
Prizm November 2017 cover photo by Staley Munroe; cover design by Nick Huskey

Cincinnati was once among the nation’s most anti-gay cities. On Tuesday, seven gay and lesbian candidates will make its local election ballot one of the most inclusive. How times have changed.

By Bob Vitale

Let us finally bury the old trope about conservative, anti-gay Cincinnati.

Yes, local prosecutors charged the head of the city’s Contemporary Arts Center with obscenity over an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. That was in 1990.

Yes, voters approved the odious Article XII, which prohibited the city from ever passing civil-rights legislation that addressed sexual orientation. That was in 1993.

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But this is 2017. And 27 years after Mapplethorpe, 24 years after Article XII, 13 years after voters repealed that anti-gay measure and 11 years after a new local law barred discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Cincinnati is taking another step that burnishes its new reputation as one of the nation’s most LGBTQ-friendly cities.

“(Cincinnati) has come a long way. A long way. It really has turned around.”

– RENEE HEVIA

 

Seven openly gay and lesbian candidates have been nominated for political office this year and will appear on the Nov. 7 local election ballots in Cincinnati and Hamilton County. That’s more LGBTQ candidacies than in any other city, including New York, which also has municipal elections this month.

“It says we have, in some ways, made Cincinnati a safer place for LGBT folks,” says the Rev. Lesley Jones, pastor at the LGBTQ-affirming Truth & Destiny Covenant Ministries in the city’s Mount Airy neighborhood. Jones, a lesbian who organized faith community efforts in the 2004 campaign to repeal Article XII, is running for a seat on the City Council.

Four of the candidates are running for City Council. Two are running for the Cincinnati Public Schools’ Board of Education, and one is running to become a judge on the Hamilton County Municipal Court.

“We were a city that young people couldn’t wait to get out of. … We changed all that.”

– CHRIS SEELBACH

 

Six are endorsed by the local Democratic Party, and one is endorsed by local Republicans.

Candidates and party leaders say the influx of gay and lesbian candidates isn’t an effort to win LGBTQ votes. Both parties say they endorsed the best candidates, and a number of them happened to be gay.

“The Democratic Party didn’t put it together that they had endorsed six LGBT candidates until I said it,” says Ryan Messer, another longtime activist and first-time candidate who’s running for the school board.

“It says we have, in some ways, made Cincinnati a safer place for LGBT folks.”

– THE REV. LESLEY JONES

 

 

Chris Seelbach, who became Cincinnati’s first openly gay City Council member in 2011 and now is seeking his third and final term, says the number of gay and lesbian candidates is partly a reflection of the world’s evolving attitudes toward LGBTQ people.

But it also reflects the evolution of Cincinnati, where many believe removal of Article XII from the city’s charter and a reversal of 65 years of population decline aren’t just a coincidence.

We were a city that young people couldn’t wait to get out of,” Seelbach says. “We were known as the most conservative big city in Ohio, one of the most conservative in the country. We changed all that.”

CREATING THE CHANGE

On Nov. 3, 2004, voters in Ohio and 10 other states approved constitutional amendments that barred same-sex marriage. But there was a silver lining in Cincinnati, where 54 percent of voters backed the repeal of Article XXII, a 1993 amendment to the city charter that had slammed the door on any type of local civil-rights laws to protect lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

“It’s such a dramatic difference. … All the sudden we’re doing gay marriages in Fountain Square.”

– DARLENE ROGERS

 

Seelbach, who was part of the leadership for that campaign, says he’s convinced the victory back then and much of Cincinnati’s progress since stemmed from thousands of conversations that volunteers initiated all over town.Supporters of the repeal were told to avoid vague talk of fairness and equality; they were advised to use the word gay so others knew exactly whose safety and well-being were at stake.

Darlene Rogers, an attorney who’s running for Hamilton County Municipal Court judge, marvels at the changes she has witnessed. She even notes how the annual Pride parade now goes on for hours.

“Of course, identity matters. … (But) I like to put myself in rooms of people who aren’t like me.”

– SETH MANEY

 

“It makes us in the gay community positively giddy,” she says. “It’s such a dramatic difference from that past. All the sudden we’re doing gay marriages in Fountain Square.”

Renee Hevia, a retired schoolteacher and administrator who’s running for a seat on the Cincinnati school board, moved to the city in 1980 to study at the University of Cincinnati and stayed for her first teaching job at the Cincinnati Bilingual Academy.

“I didn’t realize I was providing a safe space for my kids,” Hevia says of the groups that would come eat lunch in her classroom or just hang out. By the end of her education career, she was the adviser for a gay-straight alliance at Sycamore HighSchool in the city’s northeast suburbs.

“The Democratic Party didn’t put it together that they had endorsed six LGBT candidates until I said it.”

– RYAN MESSER

 

Cincinnati was the first city in Ohio and second in the nation to ban so-called conversiontherapy, following the 2014 suicide of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a transgender child from suburban Kings Mills who had been subjected to the practice.

And for four straight years, the city has earned the highest possible rating in the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index of local government policies.

“It’s come a long way. A long way,” Hevia says. “It really has turned around.”

CANDIDATES LIKE US

Tamaya Dennard has worked as a government aide and campaign director, but she’s running for the Cincinnati City Council because she doesn’t see many others in government and politics who look like her.

Dennard is African-American, a lesbian, a Cincinnati native and UC business graduate who left a job at Duke Energy for a career in public service. She sees issues of economic and racial justice at the root of many of the things in Cincinnati that need fixing.

“We need to go a step further. We don’t have an openly transgender person running for office.”

– TAMAYA DENNARD

 

“The fact that more people feel free to be who they are is important,” she says. “I want there also to be a recognition that the freedom to be who you are has some economic limits to it.”

While the LGBTQ candidates all say there’s much more to their identities—and their candidacies—than their sexual orientation and ties to the LGBTQ community, they also acknowledge the significance of a potential seven-fold increase in the number of openly gay and lesbian local office-holders.

Hevia says her identity as a lesbian “is not all of who I am.” When she talks to voters, she says, “I don’t get a blink of an eye.”

But what would it mean for LGBTQ kids in Cincinnati Public Schools to know that there is one—possibly two—LGBTQ members of the school board?

“They’ll know they have an advocate,” she says. “I’ll be there for them.”

Messer says his sexual orientation never came up with party officials. When a voter, though, asked the white business executive what he could possibly know about bullying, “I said, ‘Honey. I’m gay.”

IDENTITY POLITICS?

Seth Maney is openly gay. He’s also openly Republican. He jokes that it was harder to come out as the latter.

The first openly gay candidate endorsed by the Hamilton County GOP caused a stir within the LGBTQ community in July when he was quoted by The Cincinati Enquirer accusing Seelbach of talking too much about being gay. Both are running for the City Council, and Maney said being gay is irrelevant to the job.

“Identity politics is a joke,” Maney told the newspaper.

“I’m not a fan of identity politics,” he says now. “We’ve gone to a point where being gay was a disqualifier to the point where, ‘Oh, he’s gay. I’m going to vote for him.’”

“Of course, identity matters,” Maney continues. “But if I just talk to people who look like me or think like me… We see too much of that. I like to put myself in rooms of people who aren’t like me.”

Jones says no one can run solely as a gay candidate. “We’re not one-issue people,” she says.

And it’s not yet that easy for LGBTQ candidates, she adds. “I’m headed right now to what may be my toughest interview of the campaign,” Jones says on a mid-October afternoon as she prepares for a meeting with a group of black Baptist ministers.

Of fellow LGBTQ people of color, Jones says: “They’re watching me quietly. They’re not sure how safe it is.”

Seelbach won’t respond to Maney’s comments and criticism, although he pointed out to The Enquirer that he has sponsored more successful legislation than any other current council member. And, he added, Maney donated $250 to his last campaign.

It’s critical that out LGBTQ candidates seek and win office, Seelbach says.

Support has long existed on the City Council for pro-LGBTQ measures, he says, but LGBTQ issues were never a big priority for anyone. “Sometimes it takes a gay person to say, ‘There should be something done.’”

That’s why Dennard hopes another first comes soon.

“We need to go a step further,” she says. “We don’t have an openly transgender person running for office. We’ll have another milestone when that happens.”

CAMPAIGN PRIORITIES

While Cincinnati’s openly gay candidates largely agree on LGBTQ issues, they don’t always share priorities for Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Jones says too many residents are being left behind—or pushed out entirely—in neighborhoods eyed by developers. She has proposed a new city department that would match developers with neighborhoods that share their visions.

Seelbach supports more city investment in public transportation, housing and projects to make neighborhoods more walkable and diverse.

“Those are the kinds of things that attract the big jobs and investment,” he says.

Maney says Cincinnati needs to make jobs more accessible from public transit and City Hall more accessible in general. He supports a council setup that would add district representation to the current at-large system.

Dennard wants to redefine what’s now considered affordable housing because she says it’s not affordable at all for many. She also wants to explore the idea of rent abatements so people who don’t own homes can share in the economic incentives offered to others.

“People want to move to Cincinnati, but people should be able to stay here,” she says.

Rogers, the judicial candidate, says unnecessarily high bail set for people accused of nonviolent crimes is creating a “pauper’s jail” in which a large number of Hamilton County inmates are being held simply because they can’t afford to post bond.

She proposes using software that will help judges weigh a defendant’s risk factors before they impose bail.

In the school board race, Hevia wants to give teachers a greater voice in school governance, while Messer says parents need earlier input on decisions that affect their children’s schools.

NOT THE LAST

Seelbach says he didn’t doubt his ability to win a City Council seat back in 2011, even though others told him he was too young, too new to Cincinnati—and openly gay.

Toledo’s first openly gay city council member took office in 1997, and Dayton’s first openly gay city commissioner took office in 1998. History was made in Columbus in 2004 and in Cleveland in 2005.

When he recently met Mark Leno, an openly gay candidate for mayor of San Francisco, Seelbach says he told him of his place in Cincinnati history. Leno also has scored a few firsts in politics; he was the first openly gay state Assembly member in California and the first openly gay state senator. If elected in 2019, he will be San Francisco’s first openly gay mayor.

Leno had some advice for his fellow barrier-breaker.

“He told me, ‘It’s great you’re the first,’” Seelbach recalls. “Then he said, ‘What are you going to do to make sure you’re not the last?’”

Bob Vitale is the editor of Prizm.

Election Day is Tuesday Nov. 7 in Ohio. This is a local election year in which we elect city council and school board members, municipal court judges and, in some cities, mayors.

The polls are open from 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. on Election Day, but you also have options to vote early. Visit myohiovote.com to check your voter registration, get early-voting details, view a sample ballot for your community or find your polling location.

Bob Vitale
A Toledo native and graduate of Toledo Public Schools, Bob has worked as a local government and politics reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, as a Washington correspondent for Thomson Newspapers and as editor-in-chief for Outlook Ohio. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science from Ball State University and a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.