Friday, October 23

Zooming Towards Equality

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by Ken Schneck

Equality Ohio continues to fight for LGBTQ+ rights despite the pandemic changing the setting

Though the halls of the Ohio Statehouse have been quiet over the past few months, the fight for equality has raged on, albeit in different and decidedly more Zoom-like mediums. To catch us up on the legislation that targets the LGBTQ+ Ohio community (2 bills supporting us, 2 bills very much against us), The Buckeye Flame editor Ken Schneck spoke with Alana Jochum (Executive Director) and Grant Stancliff (Communications Director) of Equality Ohio, our statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy organization about to celebrate its 15th anniversary.

(Note: This interview took place before the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests.)

How has COVID-19 changed your work?
Stancliff: I’ve been talking to our attorneys quite a bit lately to get a sense of how things are going there. A lot of their day looks pretty similar in that they’re figuring out things like, say, somebody needs a name change. So they have to get to the probate court, and they have to get in front of a judge. But now you can’t drive down to the courthouse, and you can’t meet the client face to face.

A lot of times it’s all of these extra steps we have to take in some cases to work with people, maybe to get something in the mail and certify it so we can be sure that things are going where they need to go.

Jochum: Or to meet with people in the park. You put the document they physically need to sign at one end of the picnic table, you sit at the other, you socially distance yourselves, you wear masks. There have been so many park meetings like that with clients.

Stancliff: We’re dealing with the same things that LGBTQ people have always been dealing with: troubles with systems that weren’t set up for LGBTQ folx and then the additional stress and environmental factors that COVID-19 has caused. We’ve been helping out a lot of people with the unemployment system and have been talking to people at the highest levels in Jobs and Family Services. We’ve found a few things that are just an artifact of well-meaning people who coded the unemployment software 40 years ago. Now there’s trouble because it’s connecting to different databases like the Ohio BMV or social security and all these things are feeding it and a trans person often doesn’t fit into the coding. There will be a name mismatch or a fraud alert.  So a lot of our work has been trying to find these places where there are open wounds that are actively bleeding and both plan for the long-term even as we patch things up for right now.

At last count, there are three specifically LGBTQ-related bills: two for us (Ohio Fairness Act and one prohibiting conversion therapy on minors), and two against us (H.B. 513 targeting LGBTQ+ youth and H.B. 527 targeting trans athletes). How do you do this work with four bills on the table and no physical table in front of you?
Jochum: It’s fascinating. Having texting relationships with lawmakers has never been more helpful. In many ways, this work has stayed the same in terms of phone calls, and having constituents contacting their legislators. We have had Zoom meetings with legislators and constituents have also connected with legislators over Zoom which has been fascinating to watch. [Lawmakers] are starting to go back to the state house now and we are seeing hearings. Although a lot of the legislation they are considering is COVID-related, we are seeing a pull towards some of the items that had momentum before-COVID. So we are pushing for hearings to happen on the Ohio Fairness Act, and we are diligently watching to see if 513 and 527 to make sure that they get no traction. We saw in Idaho moves to slip those anti-LGBTQ bills as part of COVID legislation and we are watching for that. But we are pushing for hearings on the Ohio Fairness Act with the same momentum as we did before.

Do we have a sense of timeline?
Jochum:  We are pushing for as soon as possible. Our hope is that we can get hearings to happen before they recess for summer. That comes with the caveat that we’re not sure, in light of COVID, how the Senate and the House might meet more or less than they usually do.

Everything is still lame duck, which is the period the day after the election through the end of the year. That is a period that we are always operating fast and furiously within because that’s where opportunities and threats can always happen.

How about the fact that we had a community passing nondiscrimination on Zoom?!
Jochum: How amazing was that?! Gambier, Ohio was the first entity to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance on Zoom in the whole country. They did it unanimously and they did it very proudly. It was really exciting. We’re hopeful there will be more in the works.

What do you want readers to do to help move equality forward?
Jochum: We want people to call their legislators now and say that when Ohio reopens for business it should actually be open for everybody, including LGBTQ Ohioans. We have been focusing a new series on heroes on the front lines who are LGBTQ, and who are operating in this space despite the fact that they could be fired or they could be denied service or housing because of who they are in the time of  a pandemic. That’s just ridiculous and we need to get rid of any barriers possible for LGBTQ folks.

Specifically we would love for people to call John Eklund who is the chair of the judiciary committee in the Senate. And Stephen Hambley in the House who is the chair of the committee where the Ohio Fairness Act sits on the House side. They are the folks that need to be inspired and pushed to have this on the agenda.

How does the postponing of so many Pride celebrations affect Equality Ohio?
Stancliff: We have quite a few great things planned. One of the coolest things is going to be on June 26th with Jim Obergefell to celebrate the 5-year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. Everybody is going to be invited. We’re going to have an online space for people to come and hang out and remember what they were doing on that day. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

Jochum: They key thing is that love does win. Equality also wins. People should take a look at the piece that we put out a couple of days after the election. Every person who ran an anti-LGBTQ campaign lost. They lost hard and they lost big. Equality is a winning issue and equality is winning in Ohio.

I’m sorry we won’t be able to cover Candace Keller anymore!
Jochum: She does provide a lot of fodder. But I’m sure there are others who will express some of the same views.

Stancliff: We can say for sure that we want readers to contact their people in Columbus and ask them to support LGBTQ issues. With a time like this, with COVID-19, [lawmakers]are going to be passing some really big legislation and we want to be sure LGBTQ people are thought of when they are passing these bills. When they start committees to study things, when they do all the work they need to do to untangle ourselves from the pandemic, we have to make sure LGBTQ people are in there and fully included in our public health efforts. It’s going to affect people’s lives.

Jochum: For example, the governor has put together a strike force to look at the disproportionate impacts of COVID on minority communities. We put forward statistics from various research sources of how LGBTQ folks have been part and parcel to the people most hit by the pandemic. We are asking, Please center LGBTQ folks. Don’t invisiblize us yet again in this work.

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