Senator Nickie Antonio has made state LGBTQ+ history many times over.
In 2005, she became the first out LGBTQ+ person elected to Lakewood City Council before going on to become Ohio’s first out statehouse member in 2010 and then our first out state senator in 2018. In addition, she was the first out state legislator to hold leadership positions in both the house and the senate of the Ohio General Assembly.
Now seeking reelection to continue representing District 23 in the state senate, she remains the only out LGBTQ+ state legislator in Ohio – but, if she has anything to do with it, she will soon have company.
“Being the first, there is a responsibility to use your platform to help others in the community,” she says.
In addition to mentoring LGBTQ+ candidates in her local community in the Cleveland area, she’s lent support to a number of out aspirant state legislators, including, recently, Jim Obergefell of the landmark SCOTUS decision on marriage equality.
“He called me when he was thinking about running, and I encouraged him to do it. I am very excited by the possibility of no longer being the only out LGBTQ+ state legislator. I would love to have a caucus, thank you very much!”
The Buckeye Flame caught up with the candidate about her upcoming reelection, the possibility of becoming the state senate’s first out Minority Leader, and what she’s doing to secure LGBTQ+ rights in the state against homophobic policies like HB 616.
First, a little background: What initially drew you to run for office?
I’d always worked on other people’s campaigns as a volunteer. It was important to me to see more women in office, but ironically I didn’t think of myself as one of those women until one day—my wife Jean and I were raising our girls in Lakewood—I went to city council to advocate for a skate park for the kids. We were being asked such crazy questions, and I came home frustrated. I said to Jean, I’m tired of explaining how things are in the real world; I could do that job.
This was around the time of the [2004 state referendum] to define marriage to exclude same-gender couples. A lot of our friends from the LGBTQ+ community decided to leave the state because of that. There was a real fear that legislators would come for our children next. Of course, we decided to stay and fight. Not soon after, a seat on city council opened up. Jean and I talked about it, I decided to run, and I won. After serving two terms, the seat for the statehouse became open, and it made sense to me to go for it. I saw it as a way to serve the community on a larger scale. That’s also why I ran for the senate seat when it opened up.
What are your proudest accomplishments as a state legislator? What have been the biggest challenges?
I am proud to have gotten legislation passed in both the house and the senate by working in a bipartisan way. We’ve been able to pass a number of bills that have made real, positive change in the lives of Ohioans. One bill I worked on that I am particularly proud of opened up adoption records for 400,000 citizens – something legislators had tried for 25 years to do.
Another one made it possible for pharmacists in the state to be able to give vaccinations at the pharmacy. At the time, we wanted to make it easier for children to access vaccines, but it has proven extremely beneficial through the COVID-19 pandemic, as well.
While I haven’t been able to pass the Fairness Act, [though]we keep introducing it and trying and having the conversation. In the meantime, I have been able to block any anti-LGBTQ+ bill from passing. I’m not going to say I did it alone. I have been working in collaboration with advocacy groups and allies in the legislature. But I do feel a responsibility to do whatever I can to stop anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.
The state budget passed last year – on the last day of Pride Month, no less – contained the medical practitioners conscience clause, which essentially gives medical practitioners in the state license to discriminate against patients on various grounds, including their sexual orientation. What did you do to fight this at the time and what efforts do you plan to make against this policy in your next term?
First of all, that was put in at the last minute. There was no big debate about it, regardless of what anybody says, but we certainly pushed back. I know that the LGBTQ+ community could be affected by it, but the language is ambiguous. Basically, somebody could be denied medical care because of the color of their skin, their religion, or their refugee status; whatever a medical practitioner decides is beyond their conscience to provide a patient with care.
I think reasonable people would say nothing of this nature should provide grounds for a medical practitioner to deny care. We implored Governor DeWine to line-veto the clause from the budget. Unfortunately, we were not successful. There is a lawsuit against it pending right now because many of us believe it is unconstitutional. We will also work in the next go-around with the budget to add language that would remove the clause.
There are other barriers to full LGBTQ+ equality in the state legislature, as well – HB 616 is one recent example. What can you do as a state senator to protect the LGBTQ+ community in the state from such harmful policies? And what policies will you pursue in your next term that would expand LGBTQ+ rights in the state?
[HB 616] is in committee – but not passed, fortunately. It’s important to make that clear.
[Editor’s note: Though introduced on April 4, HB 616 has not been assigned to a committee.]
In the next General Assembly, I plan to reintroduce a bill that would update and modernize the language around hate crimes to better serve our most vulnerable populations including trans people of color, and increase penalties for these crimes. Right now what we have is an ethnic intimidation law with language, I think, from the 1950s that is more about property and vandalism than actual crimes against individuals. We don’t currently have a hate crime statute. I introduced a bill [SB 149] in the house, and I will introduce it again in my next senate term. In addition to renaming and expanding the scope of the current offense of ethnic intimidation law to encompass all bias-motivated crime, the bill requires peace officer training on such crimes and requires data collection and reporting on these crimes, as well.
Also, I’ll continue to introduce the Ohio Fairness Act. We have support for the bill like never before, and I will continue to educate my colleagues about why it’s so important we pass this legislation.
I will also continue having conversations with my colleagues about why legislators should leave decisions about transgender student athletes to organizations like the NCAA., the Ohio High School Sports Association, and the Ohio Pediatric Association. We don’t need to have legislators get in the way and get involved in things that we do not have all the facts on.
We’re also working to modernize the laws around HIV. There’s a lot of archaic language when it comes to HIV and criminalization in the state. There’s a lot more we are working on, too! Those are just some of the highlights.
Many of the biggest issues affecting the population at large – addiction and mental health issues, lack of affordable housing and access to healthcare – disproportionately affect the LGBTQ+ community. What can state legislators do better to advance progress in these areas?Addressing the opioid epidemic has been a major priority for me throughout my time in the legislature. I ran an outpatient treatment center for women in the 1990s, and so I have an understanding of these issues that a lot of my colleagues with different life experiences don’t have. Through my conversations over the years, I have seen many of my colleagues shift from believing that addiction was a character flaw to actually coming to understand that it is a disease, and we have to address it that way. That’s how we were able to pass legislation making naloxone more readily available.
Suicide prevention and mental health are also important areas of focus for me. We still have more work to do, but I was able to successfully get our staff to go through a training for mental health first aid to help someone in their lives who may be contemplating suicide.
As the first out state legislator, your name is already etched in Ohio history. What does it mean to you to be the first, and with several LGBTQ+ candidates running for state office this year, how do you feel about the possibility of no longer being the only?
I love it! It really makes a difference when you bring your life experience into the room. Interacting with someone who may hold negative stereotypes against the LGBTQ+ community, you become this shining reminder right in front of them. I have also brought LGBTQ+ people in to have a discussions with legislators from their district so they could see it’s not just me telling them something. Electing more LGBTQ+ state legislators is incredibly important because it will allow more people to see us and value us for what we bring to the work.
Being the first is a huge responsibility; you chop away some of the barriers in the way just by being visible as your authentic self. But it’s also important to reach back and lift others up as you climb. I am the state senate’s first out Assistant Minority Leader and on the path to become its first out Minority Leader in my next term; if my colleagues choose me for this role, I will do everything I can to continue supporting our community.