Prizm News / January 1, 2018 / By Bob Vitale

Many LGBTQ residents give their city high marks for equality and acceptance. But a national report on local policies paints a different picture.

By Bob Vitale

Nearly four years after 10,000 LGBTQ people from 60 countries came to Northeast Ohio for the international Gay Games, people still talk about the welcome that Cleveland gave the world.

A participant who had attended previous Games in Cologne and Chicago said she heard so many fellow visitors gush about their week. Clevelanders cheered Gay Games competitors who boarded an RTA bus with medals around their necks.

- Advertisement -

The event turned a profit for the first time in decades, and it turned a lot of opinions around about open-mindedness in Ohio and the Midwest.

But on paper, in local government policies that are reviewed annually in a national Human Rights Campaign index, Cleveland is a rather tepid place for LGBTQ people.

The city that is easily Ohio’s most liberal-leaning politically scores lowest among the state’s top population centers when it comes to LGBTQ-friendly policies. Akron, Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton all scored 100 points on the HRC’s 2017 Municipal Equality Index.

Cleveland scored 81, a point below the national average for the 50 biggest U.S. cities in the index and a B-minus if that score was translated into a letter grade,

“We definitely have some work to do,” says City Council member Kerry McCormack, the city’s only openly gay office-holder, who has made it his goal to add Cleveland to a list of 68 top-scoring cities that also includes Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago.


The HRC measure found Cleveland lacking in three areas it considers important for the safety and well-being of LGBTQ residents. City government doesn’t cover gender-affirming care such as hormone-replacement therapy or gender-confirmation surgery for its transgender employees (neither do Akron or Dayton, which gained bonus points for other policies), and it is the only big city in Ohio without LGBTQ liaisons in its mayor’s office and police department.

Kerry McCormack

“We definitely have some work to do.”

Kerry McCormack
Cleveland City Council member

Cleveland also failed to gain bonus points because HRC found it lacking in city services for trans residents and LGBTQ youth, seniors and homeless

Dan Williams, the spokesman for Mayor Frank Jackson, contends that HRC researchers missed some of Cleveland’s plusses. Assistant Safety Director Laura Palinkas, for example, serves as an LGBTQ liaison to the police department and the city’s Civilian Police Review Board, he says.

Cleveland missed bonus points for services to elderly LGBTQ residents, Williams adds, but the Department on Aging recently conducted a training session with the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland and is “very much aware” of a new local LGBTQ-focused senior housing development.

HRC says in its report that drafts of its scorecards are sent to cities for their feedback.

Xavier Persad, the HRC legislative counsel who oversees the Municipal Equality Index, says the average score of U.S. cities rose four points in 2017 and the officials around the country have used the annual report as a to-do list of LGBTQ-friendly policies.

Kery Grey, who serves as Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley’s liaison to the LGBTQ community, said in 2016 that officials in his city used the report as a template for local policies.

Akron climbed from 48 points in 2013 to 100 points in 2017; Cincinnati matched Cleveland’s 77 points in 2012 but has scored 100 points every year since 2014. Cleveland’s score has gone up four points since the first index was compiled in 2012.


When the City Council resumes regular sessions this month, McCormack says he plans to meet with officials from Equality Ohio and reach out to HRC to get more details about policies Cleveland lacks. He says he then will talk with Jackson and city department heads “to make sure the city is an inclusive place for everyone.”

He and many other LGBTQ Clevelanders feel it already is in terms of lived equality.

Ginger Marshall and her partner looked at several cities as possible homes before leaving Atlanta for Cleveland in 2011. She began transitioning in 2014.

The allied health instructor, a Northeast Ohio native, says the LGBT Center and MetroHealth’s Pride Clinic were factors in their decision. Since being back home, she says, “we’ve encountered absolutely no overt prejudice or problems.”

“My transition was smooth,” Marshall says. “Healthcare has been respectful. The courts and DMV were wonderful and supportive. Other document changes…were absolutely drama-free.”

Tom Stebel moved home to Cleveland in 1992 and has seen the same changes in his hometown that he has seen everywhere else. LGBTQ spaces—and people—have shed their low, safety-induced profile, he says.

The LGBT Center broke ground in December for a new, glass-walled building on Detroit Avenue that’s three times as big as its current basement location across the street. A sign it used long ago just read, “The Center.”

Although he says he has never been a victim of violence or harassment and feels safer in Cleveland than he did while living in San Francisco, Stebel says it was the 2014 Gay Games that took tolerance to a new level in the city.

“I would never have felt comfortable holding hands with my loved one in public before the Gay Games,” he says. “Since then, we both feel more free to show affection in public. … It still feels a bit awkward, but it will take time to shed our overly protective defense mechanisms.”

Stebel acknowledges his experiences as a white, cisgender man might be different than others’.

Angelique Gates, who identifies as a black, queer femme, says she feels people’s stares and raised eyebrows when she and her partner hold hands in public. She doesn’t view Cleveland as very accepting of LGBTQ people, and she doesn’t view LGBTQ people as very accepting of intersectionality within their own community.

More efforts have been made recently, Gates says, and she praises the LGBT Center for addressing concerns within the community. She says she also appreciates the conversations sparked by events such as documentary screenings and speakers.

“A large disappointment I have, though, is the tone of the conversations that are sparked. They are often lacking the voices of those who are still marginalized in our community, and erasure happens often.”


McCormack and others are confident that conversations at City Hall will lead to policy changes that raise Cleveland’s LGBTQ-friendly scores.

“When legislation has come forward to promote equality, it has gotten through unanimously,” he says, citing the council’s 16-0 vote in 2016 to add gender identity to Cleveland’s nondiscrimination laws. “The mayor, the administration and council have very much shown a willingness to do that.”

The effort might just need a quarterback, McCormack says. It’s a position he says he’s ready to play.

Kevin Schmotzer, who serves as the city’s executive for small-business development, was one-half of the first same-sex couple married by Jackson after the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of nationwide marriage equality.

He remembers when Cleveland was preparing 10 years ago to win and host the 2014 Gay Games. Jackson promised financial support for the event, and the City Council approved a domestic-partner registry.

And he remembers LGBTQ city employees—”including myself”—bringing in photos of their significant others to put on their desks.

Tom Nobbe can attest to the support Cleveland officials and city residents showed for the Gay Games back in 2014. He was the executive director of the host committee.

“It’s a little bit of a puzzle,” he says of Cleveland’s lagging spot on the HRC index of local policies.

“I don’t know whether it’s bureaucratic inertia or there hasn’t been a sense of urgency expressed by the community,” he says. “But it does upset my sense of pride as a Clevelander. Why do we not have 100 when other cities have reached that level?”


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.