Prizm News / May 20, 2019 / By Joshua Culbertson

Senator Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) poses with Senator Michael Rulli (R-33rd Senate District), and Alana Jochum (Executive Director of Equality Ohio.)

One attendee’s reflection on the public testimony submitted in support of the Ohio Fairness Act

By Joshua Culbertson

Optimism and persistence. Those were the two words that I contemplated as I walked to the Ohio Statehouse on Wednesday morning. For General Assembly after General Assembly, Representative, and now Senator, Nickie Antonio has introduced legislation to protect LGBTQ+ persons from discrimination in the State of Ohio. These bills have received hearings only twice in the last 10 years. They consistently die without passage. The bill did get voted out of the House in 2009, but it died in the Senate without a vote. The current piece of legislation, Senate Bill 11, dubbed the Ohio Fairness Act, was introduced earlier this year on February 12th. 

Generally, the Republican and Democratic caucuses will indicate their key legislative priorities by introducing their highest-priority bills at the beginning of the legislation session, thereby assigning them a low bill number. The fact that the Ohio Fairness Act is Senate Bill 11 is significant because it suggests that the bill is a high priority for Senate Democrats. In addition, SB11 has a Republican co-sponsor, Senator Michael Rulli, making this bill a truly bipartisan initiative.

This time around, things feel different in other ways. One of those ways is how quickly this bill is moving. The event that had me walking towards the Statehouse was the third hearing for the bill, and this third hearing allowed supporters of the bill to provide written and proponent testimony. Past pieces of legislation have never moved this quickly. Also, over 630 businesses, large and small, have signed on to support LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections under a coalition called Ohio Business Competes, and there has been an incredible swell of support from communities of faith as well.

Jodi Davis poses for a selfie with other attendees.

There was a large turnout for the hearing on Wednesday morning, with all seats in the North Hearing Room full and others lining the wall around the inside of the room as well as waiting outside in the hall. Matthew Smith, Legislative Director for the AFL-CIO, spoke about the need for protections in the workplace in his oral testimony, saying, “Working people are diverse. We are different colors, gender identities, religions, sexual orientations and ages. The labor movement has been at the forefront of the struggle for every major civil rights law.” He went on to add, “America’s legacy of racism, exclusion and injustice continues to obstruct working people’s efforts to act together to build better lives. Since its inception, the labor movement has aspired to include all working people, irrespective of race, gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Kevin Shimp, the Director of Labor and Legal Affairs for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce also testified in support. He stated, “In our efforts to champion economic competitiveness, the Ohio Camber recognizes the value and power of diversity. We believe that employees deserve robust protections from discrimination and that discrimination of any type has no place in the workplace.”

Jody Davis (Board member for Equality Ohio.)

The Ohio Fairness Act would offer protections not just in the area of employment but also in the areas of housing and public accommodations. “Public accommodations” covers things such as shopping in a retail store, getting a room at a hotel, a table at a restaurant, or any other service generally available to the public. Facing discrimination or the threat of discrimination in these areas can take a heavy toll on a person or family such as Jody Davis, a transgender woman who is a social worker and nurse at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and a board member for Equality Ohio. Davis shared, “I remember the first time I ever shopped as a woman for a wedding dress. I will never forget the looks I received and the rejection I felt at David’s Bridal from some of the staff. After some hesitation and discussion with a manager, they were able to find one person at the store who was willing to fit me. The staff made me feel like a reject, which didn’t help change the attitude of customers who openly sneered. I tell you all of this because people like me need your support. We are vulnerable to discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, and we need laws like the Ohio Fairness Act to help us participate fully in society.”

Sarah Taylor, a legislative aide in the Ohio Statehouse shared about the importance of this legislation to families and about growing up with her two moms, Karen and Nancy, “Having two moms is the best thing that could have happened to me. My moms make the lives of everyone around them better through their quiet activism, their hard work, and their emotional intelligence. They are heavily involved in their local church and give their time and money to countless charities. They are the models for me for what makes a great parent. Great parents, in my opinion, love their children unconditionally, are selfless, and support their children’s mental, emotional, and physical health.”

Tom Grote talked about his life growing up in Ohio and working in the family business, Donatos Pizza, and building a life as a father, a husband, and an entrepreneur. In his testimony, he shared, “On a personal note, I can share with you that being gay has not been an easy road for me. I came out in the early 1990’s and I struggled. Fortunately, my family supported me and as a result, I have had an incredible couple of decades helping to build businesses here in Ohio, getting married and adopting two beautiful girls. It could have been very different for me. Rejection can do a tremendous amount of damage. And rejection in the workplace hurts not only one’s ability to support themselves and their family, but also can do a lot of emotional and psychological damage. It is important to recognize the human toll of discrimination and rejection.”

Alana Jochum (Executive Director of Equality Ohio.)

Following the hearing, Senator Michael Rulli, the bill’s Republican co-sponsor and a small business owner himself had this to say, “I’m a big supporter of Senate Bill 11. It’s 2019. It’s time we get up to snuff, and we need to be the leader in the entire country. I have a lot of friends, people that I cherish. It’s sad that it’s even an issue in this day and age. We’re going to do right by it. We’re going to take care of this.”

Senator Nickie Antonio also had some thoughts about Wednesday’s hearing, stating, ”We had wonderful testimony. Sadly, it was not live-streamed , even though we’re in a room where livestream is possible with just the flick of a switch, which is highly unusual, and I’m mystified why in the world that happened. We had wonderful testimony from folks, from business, folks from labor, my legislative aide who also has two moms. I mean we did the depth and breadth. Equality Ohio, Alana [Jochum] always does a wonderful job of really summarizing what the importance is with this legislation. So, we just move forward. We’re hoping to have further hearings, and we’re in a process, and we push forward, no matter whether the cameras on or off, we know, and, frankly, in 2019, where everyone has a phone that has a camera on it and everyone has the ability to use social media this hearing was not silenced, but I feel like there was an attempt to keep it within this room. Just like we cannot keep, there’s no closet big enough to put LGBT back in somewhere, this room could not contain what went on today, and I’m very proud of the people that testified, and we will just keep pushing forward.”

Lean more about the Ohio Fairness Act by going to Equality Ohio’s website

Joshua Culbertson is a board member for Equality Ohio, and he serves as part of the Community Engagement Team for HRC Columbus. He works as a psychotherapist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and also engages in private practice counseling under the name Authentic Pathways Counseling & Consulting.