by Gwen Stembridge, Statewide Civic Engagement Director, Equality Ohio
Last week, the Ohio House of Representatives held a hearing on the Ohio Fairness Act, a bill that has been around in the Ohio Statehouse for over a decade. In case you’re not familiar, the Fairness Act is the bill that will add sexual orientation and gender identity to Ohio’s nondiscrimination code, finally fixing the issue that it’s still generally legal to fire someone, deny them housing or access to public goods and services simply because of who they are or whom they love. Ohio is 1 of 29 states lacking these basic protections.
By now, most folks in the circles of LGBTQ+ advocacy in Ohio are weary of hearing about the Fairness Act. “Hasn’t that passed by now?” “Oh, I thought we already had those protections.” And here at Equality Ohio: “When can we pass the Ohio Fairness Act so we can move on to other pressing issues impacting the LGBTQ+ community?!”
It’s exhausting to sit through hearing after hearing at the Statehouse and in local city and village councils where, at the very least, our authentic identities are questioned. Far too often, opposition will even claim that if the LGBTQ+ community has equal rights, somehow more people will commit violent sexual assault on children.
WOAH! You have to be pretty limber to go through the mental gymnastics on that one!
The hearing last week brought forth the same arguments over and over: mostly quotes from the Bible shared in a context many of us would not associate with love of God or neighbor. If anyone is hearing these voices louder than the millions of Ohioans who support basic rights for LGBTQ+ Americans, that means it’s time to organize!
As easy as it is to focus on the awful things that were said by groups opposing the Fairness Act at the hearing last week, the thing that keeps me in this work on the hardest of days is the incredible community organizers in Ohio.
Fred Rogers famously said he was comforted by something his mother would tell him during times of disaster: “Look for the helpers. You can always find people who are helping.” In what has been a disaster of a political moment/year/years for so many, I’m looking for the organizers, and not just those who have that title on a business card. I’m looking to those who are actually:
- having tough conversations with family or coworkers (PFLAG, GLSEN and Plexus);
- taking time between schooling kids at home or caring for loved ones to write letters to the editor in their local newspaper (Elaine Schleiffer on the Cuyahoga County lawsuit, Will Crimi about anti-trans legislation, Nancy Dollard on Mansfield Pride);
- recruiting friends to phone-bank for progress in criminal justice and reproductive freedom (SURJ, Black Lives Matter, Operation Change Cincy, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, New Voices, Freedom Bloc);
- engaging new leaders by building community over a shared love of wine (Red Wine and Blue, and GRR);
- providing spaces for people to connect and build community (LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, Akron AIDS Collaborative, Black Out and Proud, Dayton LGBT Center, LGBT Centers at Bowling Green, Oberlin, Ohio University, Cleveland State University and Kent State, Colors+, Margie’s Hope, Southeast Ohio Rainbow Alliance, Out Support Medina, B.Riley Sober House);
- demystifying the workings of our government systems and making democracy more accessible to those historically excluded (Black Queer and Intersectional Collective, How things work at the Ohio Statehouse, Cleveland Votes, TransOhio);
- creating art and music that encourages us to be our most authentic selves (Kyle Kidd, Cincinnati Opera and countless others);
- being visible and proud in their rural hometowns (Delaware Pride, 6 out LGBTQ+ Statehouse candidates, Findlay, Middletown, Upper Sandusky);
- organizing fundraisers to fill the gaps between paychecks (mutual aid groups);
- crafting strategically persuasive testimony (testimony from Ose Arheghan begins at this link about 42 minutes in, or Billy Tyler at this link at 1:28:22);
- and so many more.
Organizers are the backbone of this movement, and we honor these organizers. Community organizing is not just done by folks with those words in their job title. It is most often done by those who are angry enough to take action.
It is organizers who got us to that hearing last week and will continue to push this movement forward. I’m calling on my fellow Ohioans to continue to organize in whatever ways you can. This work is most certainly not over after the election. In the words of my friend and colleague Siobhan Boyd-Nelson, we must not only strike while the iron is hot but we must keep the iron hot.
If you’re organizing around LGBTQ+ issues in Ohio, I’d love to share a virtual coffee with you and talk about how we can organize together to build on the momentum of last week’s hearing and grow the impact of LGBTQ+ voices in our great state.