A Statehouse hearing scheduled for Jan. 31 is the furthest an LGBTQ anti-bias bill has advanced in Ohio since 2009.
By Bob Vitale
On the day last year that a bill was introduced in the Ohio House to bar discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, reporters ran into Gov. John Kasich on the Statehouse lawn and took the opportunity to ask his opinion on the issue.
The governor said he didn’t know much about whether LGBTQ Ohioans faced such troubles but promised to “check it out.”
“I just have to see exactly what the problem is, but I don’t want discrimination anywhere,” Kasich said as reporters relayed what they had just been told by LGBTQ advocates: that Ohio’s lack of an anti-discrimination law means same-sex couples can get married on one day and lose their jobs or get kicked out of their houses the next.
“I don’t like that idea so I’ve got to see. See what we have. See what we’re doing,” Kasich said. “I haven’t heard much about this, OK? But if it’s happening, we have to deal with it.”
If Kasich reads his mail, he has learned a lot since March 2017. Equality Ohio, the statewide LGBTQ civil rights group, has sent the governor a letter every week from an Ohioan who has been fired from a job, denied service in a store or other business, or kicked out of a house or apartment for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
And on Wednesday, proponents of that bill to ban such discrimination will tell state legislators why such a law is needed. The House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee will have a hearing on the Ohio Fairness Act, which would expand state laws barring discrimination based on race, religion, sex, ancestry, disability or military status to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said state Rep. Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, who has introduced a nondiscrimination bill in every legislative session since taking office in 2011. Antonio is the only openly gay member of the Ohio General Assembly.
After nine years of futility in a General Assembly dominated by conservatives, her efforts seem to be gaining momentum:
- The hearing on Wednesday—it’s at 9:30 a.m. in Columbus, in Statehouse Room 313—marks the furthest such a proposal has advanced in the General Assembly since approval by the entire Ohio House in 2009.
- A total of 287 businesses—including Ohio heavyweights such as Procter & Gamble, Abercrombie & Fitch, Huntington, KeyBank and the Cleveland Clinic—have joined a coalition called Ohio Business Competes to put their collective clout behind the idea of expanded nondiscrimination policies.
- The Ohio Chamber of Commerce, a business organization that’s influential with Republican lawmakers, announced its support for House Bill 160 earlier this month.
“We’ve talked in the past about the economic impact of nondiscrimination,” Antonio said. “It hasn’t necessarily been picked up and talked about in-depth the way it has this time. Those business leaders said this is what Ohio needs to do from an economic standpoint.”
Equality Ohio spokesman Grant Stancliff said 85 people have signed up to tell Government Accountability and Oversight Committee members about their experiences with anti-LGBTQ bias in Ohio, about their businesses’ and organizations’ support for the measure, and about how the lack of expansive nondiscrimination laws hurt the state’s efforts to attract new businesses and jobs.
Ohio is one of 31 states whose anti-bias laws don’t cover gender identity and sexual orientation.
Just as LGBTQ activists have pushed for local nondiscrimination laws as a way to mitigate the lack of protections at the state level, a statewide law now seems more likely than action in Washington on national nondiscrimination proposals, Stancliff said.
“If we can’t count on the feds, we can at least do this here at home.”
Still, while recent developments are encouraging to nondiscrimination bill backers, there are lingering reasons to wonder whether the bill will advance much further.
Antonio has 17 cosponsors for House Bill 160, but not one is a Republican. Republicans control both the Ohio House and the Ohio Senate, and this is an election year in which lawmakers typically try to keep their core supporters happy.
Stancliff said Equality Ohio also has been sending weekly letters about anti-LGBTQ discrimination to House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville, and Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina.