Columbus--A new statewide coalition working for equal rights for LGBT citizens is forming in the wake of Issue 1, the Ohio constitutional amendment barring recognition of non-marital relationships that passed in the November election.
Beginning with meetings shortly after the election, Equality Ohio already has 90 members and is a part of the Equality Federation, a national coalition of state LGBT rights groups.
Members hail from all three of Ohio�s major cities as well as many other areas, including Toledo, Youngstown, Athens, Wooster and Yellow Springs.
There have been other statewide groups in Ohio previously, but member Lynne Bowman believes one thing really sets Equality Ohio apart from its predecessors and contemporaries.
�The focus of this group is going to be proactive rather than reactive,� she said. �Every group that has formed in the past has been in response to a piece of legislation, whether local or statewide.�
She pointed to Ohio�s so-called �Defense of Marriage Act� which took effect last May, and Cincinnati�s Article 12, which barred the city from granting protections to gay men, lesbians and bisexuals until it was repealed by voters last November.
A March 1 planning session in Columbus was canceled because of a snowstorm that would have prevented members from northern Ohio from attending. It will be held in the next few weeks, although a specific date has not yet been set.
�We are working very hard right now to pull in as many people as we possibly can,� Bowman said. �I don�t know that we can ensure it [full representation] if we don�t have a contact in an area of the state, say Adams County. The benefit of having so many people involved across the state already, though, is we may have someone in Akron who knows someone in Trumbull County, people in Toledo who know somebody in Paulding County, people in Cincinnati who know someone in Adams County.�
That sort of representation is, Bowman said, what Equality Ohio will be all about as it works for full equality under the law.
�My personal desire would be to have a council of counties, with 88 different representatives,� she noted. �If we have those contacts in 88 counties, then we can impact those 88 counties and the people who live in them.�
�This is about changing the hearts and minds of the people of Ohio and using people already feel that way to do it,� she continued.
Survey seeks community input
In addition to strategic planning carried out by members of the group, there will also be a community survey on Equality Ohio�s web site from March 11 to April 8 asking for input from concerned citizens. The idea is to make the organization and its structure as responsive to the needs of LGBT people and their allies in the state as possible. The survey is at www.equalityohio.org.
�This is a long-term strategy,� she said, noting that the group is not going to immediately expend all its resources to repeal Issue 1, now Article 15, Section 11 of the Ohio Constitution. �Every other organization has formed with a short-term strategy. A long-term strategy enables you to grow and develop as you�re headed to your long-term goal. Some day we hope to get Article 15, Section 11 out of our constitution, but that�s not an immediate possibility.�
Members of the coalition come both from existing LGBT organizations and from the rank and file of Ohio citizenry.
�Right now, we have both, and that�s the goal,� Bowman said. �It�s not just to have the organizational leaders who are professionally gay . . . but to also have the grassroots activists, the people who the passage of Issue 1 has really energized. We want to have both, and that�s not something that I think has been effectively done in Ohio.�
She again pointed to the Equality Federation, as well as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, as sources for information and support. But she noted that no organization will march in and present �the� way to go about the coalition�s work.
�All of the resources that all of those folks have across the United States, we now have connections with them,� she said. �One of the board members [of the Equality Federation] is going to be down here helping us on our strategic planning. He�s currently saving every weekend in April until we decide what day we�re going to do it. And [Equality Federation executive director] Toni Broaddus has been absolutely wonderful, and they�re willing to help any way they can.�
She pointed out the success in the November election of Citizens to Restore Fairness, the Cincinnati group that got Article 12 repealed.
�Using their success, and the success of Heights Families for Equality and Yellow Springs, we can have a statewide strategy, which is something that we haven�t had,� she said. �Stonewall Columbus, Stonewall Cincinnati and the Cleveland Lesbian-Gay Center aren�t going to be able to make a change in state policy unless everyone across the state is working with them.�
The early response to the group is overwhelming, Bowman said.
�Having 90 people on our e-mail list, and we only decided on a name last week, is a great feeling,� she said. �The response has been awesome. People want to see this happen. They want to work together and learn from each other.�
She wanted to encourage everyone to go to www.equalityohio.org and fill out the survey. It and the strategic planning sessions will, in part, determine the structure of the organization.
�We are hoping that everybody that has an opinion goes out there and gives us their input,� she concluded. �This is what we want.�
A number of other Ohio statewide organizations have formed over the last two decades, including Citizens for Justice, Ohioans Against Discrimination, OutVoice, We Are Families, Equality Begins at Home-Ohio, an earlier Equality Ohio and Ohioans for Growth and Equality.
Ohioans Against Discrimination replaced Citizens for Justice, while We Are Families formed in 1997 to battle the introduction of �defense of marriage� legislation in the state�s House of Representatives.
Of all those groups, only Ohioans for Growth and Equality is still extant, and is currently evaluating its direction following the unsuccessful battle against Issue 1.
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