Prizm News / April 1, 2019 / By Celina Nader
Ohio’s first LGBTQ state lawmaker has defied expectations her whole life. Don’t expect any different from her in the Ohio Senate.
By Celina Nader
“It didn’t start as a career,” Nickie Antonio says of a political journey that began 13 years ago with her election to the Lakewood City Council and has since wound its way into Ohio’s history books.
The 63-year-old was elected last fall and sworn in this January as the first out LGBTQ member of the Ohio Senate. That milestone came eight years after she took office in 2011 as the first out LGBTQ member of the Ohio House.
But growing up in a working-class family in Northeast Ohio, Antonio wasn’t groomed to become one of the most ground-breaking and important figures in the Ohio General Assembly.
People doubted her abilities throughout every step of her journey, but she says their skepticism only fueled her fire.
“When I was a kid, I was told that I couldn’t go to college. The counselor knew my family didn’t have enough money to pay for it. But what he didn’t know was that I was determined and that I was going to figure out a way,” she says.
“He was right. My family couldn’t afford it. But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t go. It just meant that I was going to have to be a little more creative, work a little harder and be a little more adaptive. In the end, I was going to accomplish what I set out to do. That’s sort of been a driving
principle for my whole life.”
Antonio—who, by the way, earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Cleveland State University—is full of laughter and grace as she talks about life and politics. Even the most personal questions elicit chuckles and thoughtful answers that directly tie into her views on public policy.
Her life is inherently political. As an out lesbian woman, wife and mother, her experience informs her push for LGBTQ-inclusive anti-discrimination laws, equal pay for equal work and adequate funding for public schools.
It was a moment in her childhood that framed her conviction for equality and outrage toward discrimination. When Antonio went to a new church in a new town with her newly divorced mother, she heard one woman turn to another and say, “Look, there’s the divorcée and her daughter.”
Judgment was dripping from her words and her stare. Antonio watched as the congregation turned its backs on her mother.
Since she was a child, Antonio knew she wanted to be a teacher. She wanted to open doors and cultivate opportunities for other kids the way her teachers had done for her. Her first degree from Cleveland State was in education, and she became a teacher for troubled youth.
She also participated in protests and community programs and began running a nonprofit women’s outpatient program in the 1990s, a time when more women began contracting HIV.
As a teacher and a nonprofit administrator trying to carve out the best possible futures for her students and clients, Antonio kept hitting road blocks in the form of bad laws and policies.
She kept asking why things were done a certain way, and at the end of every line of questioning stood a prohibitive public policy.
“The more I was doing this kind of work, the more I realized how important public policy was,” she says. Her second degree was in public administration.
One pivotal day, she attended a City Council meeting as a frustrated citizen in her hometown of Lakewood and realized how tired she was of telling people in power what real life was like. She heard herself say, “I could do that job.”
The community in which she and her wife, Jean Kosmac, had been so active as self-proclaimed “super lesbian soccer moms” got behind her. And people stayed supportive as Antonio moved on to state politics.
When the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party endorsed a less-respected but better-connected rival last year for the Ohio Senate, Antonio forged on with a grassroots army of volunteers—LGBTQ activists, women, progressives and organized labor—who raised money, knocked on doors and called their neighbors.
She ended up winning the Democratic primary with 55 percent of the vote and the general\ election with 65 percent.
“People realize that Nickie is authentic,” says Rob Rivera, president of Cleveland Stonewall Democrats, the party’s LGBTQ group. “She listens to her constituents and truly understands what her district needs. … We’ve been with Nickie from the start of her career in public service because she represents the best about our communities.”
Kosmac says her wife’s entry into politics didn’t surprise her, because Antonio had long been a political activist and advocate. She has stayed true to her roots during eight-plus years at the Statehouse, Kosmac says.
The couple have been together more than 24 years and have been married since 2016. They have two daughters, Ariel and Stacey. They enjoy walks along Lake Erie and catching local plays and performances in Cleveland and their hometown of Lakewood.
Although it has been a long-term and ongoing effort to win passage of the Ohio Fairness Act, Kosmac is certain Antonio will prevail. The LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination measure was introduced as Senate Bill 11 in February and received a Senate committee hearing in March.
Antonio lets out a hearty laugh and then a sigh when asked if she has any hope of working with Gov. Mike DeWine, whose history against the LGBTQ community dates back to his opposition to HIV/AIDS funding in the 1990s.
She’s been through this before. During John Kasich’s least year as governor, the Republican wouldn’t even allow Antonio to make an appointment to talk about the nondiscrimination bills she has introduced in every General Assembly session since 2011.
DeWine offered an early sign of hope, though. Within minutes of taking office in January, he issued an executive order barring discrimination against LGBTQ state employees. Kasich’s nondiscrimination order covered only sexual orientation until he added gender identity and expression in the final month of his second term.
“I’d like to believe that people can always evolve and grow,” Antonio says of DeWine. “With every piece of legislation that I’ve ever been able to pass, I’ve always worked across the aisle. I’ve always worked with Republican colleagues. But it starts with having a relationship and having a conversation. I am open and certainly will initiate that with our new governor. I’m hoping that he welcomes the conversation.”
Celina Nader is a Syrian-American writer, chef and blogger currently working on a collection of creative nonfiction stories about the Syrian people and their lives during war. You can read more of her writing at insatiableblog.com or follow her on Instagram at @Insatiableblog.
FIND OUT MORE
Nickie Antonio represents Ohio’s 23rd Senate District, which includes Cleveland’s West Side, Brook Park, Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, Cuyahoga Heights, Lakewood, Middleburg Heights, Parma and Parma Heights. Her term runs through January 2023.
Antonio’s official Ohio Senate website is ohiosenate.gov/senators/antonio.
Her campaign website is nickieantonio.com. You also can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @nickieantonio.
Follow progress of the Ohio Fairness Act (Senate Bill 11) at equalityohio.org/legislation/ohio-fairness-act.