Thursday, December 8

ICYMI: Columbus Adds Enhanced LGBTQ+ Protections to Anti-Discrimination Code

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With all of the anti-LGBTQ+ activity coming out of the Columbus Statehouse during Pride Month, you might have missed that the City of Columbus itself took steps in the exact opposite direction: to provide greater protections to the LGBTQ+ community.

Spearheaded by the Columbus Community Relations Commission, the city’s already comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinances have now been updated to ensure residents, employees, and visitors to Columbus have the most up-to-date protections possible. Changes approved by Columbus City Council include:

  • Adding the ability for the Community Relations Commission to issue a civil fine when discrimination has occurred. For a first offense, a fine not to exceed $1,000 can be imposed. (Note: this does not exclude the criminal options already present in the code for more egregious cases of discrimination.)
  • Providing protections for those who choose to wear natural hair styles.
  • Ensuring protection for LGBTQ+ youth.
  • Protecting those who receive gender affirming care.
  • Protecting individuals who exercise their reproductive rights

The Buckeye Flame spoke with Syd Gross, a commissioner on the Community Relations Commission, to learn more about these updates.

Congratulations on these updates!
SG: Thank you. We’re all really pleased with the updates to the code that were passed and enacted on June 24th. It was nice to do this during Pride Month and add protections for the community including focusing on gender affirming care and LGBTQ+ youth. It was also huge to increase our authority and put in measures that allow for greater enforcement. That’s what’s exciting as we begin to relaunch these protections in the community and let people know that we’re here with accessible resources.

Letting people know about these resources and the updated code seems like a key piece here.
It very much is. The Commission is working on community engagement, an education piece, and professional development. We have to get out there and talk to as many people as we can, particularly underserved communities who have been historically impacted by discrimination. We also have to talk to corporate entities to make sure they know about the updated code and understand their expectations, especially because there is liability associated with people who don’t understand or don’t adhere to the new code.

Was there an impetus for making these changes?
The Commission is constantly benchmarking with communities around the country who are displaying best practices. Our code was already pretty advanced, and has been implemented since 1991. But the code also needs to evolve as the community evolves.

So we engaged in a two year process to review and update the language. For example, one of the issues we were seeing in the community was with natural hair situations, particularly with Black women who were facing difficulty with their choice to maintain their hair in a natural fashion. We enacted a variation on the CROWN Act (“Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”). That’s an example of something that was driven by the community.

Tell us more about the enforcement aspect to these updates.
One of the big pieces is that we now have the ability to fine up to $1,000 for a first offense. Prior to the June update, we didn’t feel we had the teeth to make a difference and get people’s attention. That fine can be significant. It’s not about the money as much as it would be a scar on the face of that entity.

I would suspect that many people don’t even know about the Community Relations Commission.
We’re kind of a quiet commission. That should change as we begin to push ourselves out there. The goal is not to gain notoriety for ourselves, but to push out the protections that have been in place for a couple of decades. [Community Relations Commissioner] Chris Cozad produced a great video and we’re blasting that out to people to raise awareness.

We are fortunate to have a City Council and Mayor that feel passionately about these protections. Our Commission is focused on civil rights protections in Columbus. We want employers, employees, residents, shoppers, people that stay in hotels in Columbus, and everyone to recognize the fact that Columbus is a safe, just and inclusive place to be, to visit, to live, and to work.  Those aren’t just words, but something that we want to actually embody.

What’s it like to do this work right this second, in Columbus when so much of the action coming out of the Statehouse is not supportive of the LGBTQ+ community?
That’s the difficulty when a state law supersedes our municipality’s authority. It makes it really tough.

And the Statehouse is right there! If Cleveland or Cincinnati do something in support of pro-LGBTQ+ equality, people are able to separate out that action from our state legislators. But you’re geographically next door to the Statehouse, which has to make this work difficult.
Absolutely. When you’ve got messaging from other entities within the Statehouse that is hard, fast and aggressive in the opposite direction of equality, it really does make it difficult. And that attention can muddy the waters and serve to make sure that people don’t ever ring the bell if they need resources.

With things like the governor signing the bill on the [medical conscience clause], it’s a battle. We’re always going to have a disparity in leadership particularly at this very volatile moment in time. So we have to do our best to build a coalition around these protections and rights.

What do you want people to walk away knowing about these protections?
Our goal is not to find a bunch of guilty business and fine them. It’s to create and enforce a safe, just, and inclusive community for all.

If we’re able to bring something to the attention of an employer, they are usually receptive. Discrimination is not part of the company or corporate culture. It’s not something they want or accept. Often these complaints don’t reach even litigation or mediation because 99 out of 100 employers are incredibly responsive.

Individuals with a complaint can dial 311 or visit the website to learn more about resources to file a complaint. There are a number of confidential avenues. We just want people to reach out if they have any questions so we can do our part to help make Columbus the best place possible to live, work, and play. 🔥

Ignite Action:

  • Learn more about Columbus’ updated anti-discrimination code by visiting their website. You can file a complaint via the website or calling 311. 

About Author

Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame. He received the 2021 Sarah Pettit Memorial Award for the LGBTQ Journalist of the Year from the NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. He is the author of "Seriously, What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew" (2017), "LGBTQ Cleveland" (2018), "LGBTQ Columbus" (2019), and "LGBTQ Cincinnati" (2020). In his spare time, he is a professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University.

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