Hundreds rally at the Statehouse to declare a return to 'our home'
Columbus--�November 2, 2004 was a wake-up call. That day can never happen again in Ohio,� proclaimed Equality Ohio Education Fund board chair Tom Grote to a crowd gathered in front of the Statehouse.
The group had come from all parts of the state for Equality Ohio�s �Homecoming� on October 1.
Grote was referring to last November�s election, when voters passed Ohio�s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and recognition of any relationship outside opposite-sex marriage.
The amendment, however, gave rise to Equality Ohio, the first statewide LGBT advocacy organization with paid staff, a significant budget and leaders from the entire state.
The Homecoming event was the group�s first public demonstration and statement.
�It is my hope that that will be the last time people will make a decision about my life, or any of our lives, based on their misconceptions,� said Grote.
Longtime gay activist Elliot Fishman, who administers the Columbus Foundation�s LGBT Legacy Fund, said of Equality Ohio, �This is the one that will work.�
Fishman was involved in more than five attempts to start statewide LGBT organizations since the mid-1990s. All failed.
�In the past, attempts were seen as Columbus projects, not statewide organizations, and there were no budgets,� said Fishman. �It is the genius of Tom [Grote] and [executive director] Lynne [Bowman] that they put together true statewide representation and got funding.�
Fishman added, �Issue 1 pushed the [Equality Ohio] design team. They were highly motivated, and they learned from past efforts.�
The Legacy Fund was an early contributor to the organization.
The purpose of the event was to call attention to the organization and to state its demands to Ohio�s policymakers: Equal civil rights and protections for all Ohioans and families; a statewide employment non-discrimination act; foster parent and adoption laws that do not exclude loving parents who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender; a safe schools bill that truly protects all children; a hate crime act that protects all citizens; and the legal right to correct a birth certificate after sex reassignment.
In addition to Grote, eight speakers addressed the crowd, each representing different perspectives--national significance, straight allies, religious community, students, championing a statewide non-discrimination act, and family protection.
Columbus mayor and gubernatorial candidate Michael Coleman also spoke, and introduced Columbus city council member Mary Jo Hudson.
Hudson, a longtime lesbian activist who is running to keep her council seat, also acknowledged the lessons learned by Equality Ohio organizers.
She noted that previous statewide organizations were often �bucket brigades� quickly formed in response to some threat faced by the community, but that this group is permanent.
�It�s time to stand up and fight,� Hudson proclaimed.
�I want you to know that there are hundreds of faith communities with thousands of members who want Ohio to be a place of welcome and inclusion, a place of safety and security, a place of equality and justice,� said Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer of the United Church of Christ.
The previous week, the UCC hosted the National Religious Leadership Roundtable in Cleveland with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and inclusive religious organizations.
Schuenemeyer said that making Ohio an inclusive place dedicated to equality for all is �a mission worth fighting for, even if it means fighting and losing and fighting and losing, and fighting and losing until the day we fight and win.�
Wyoming High School senior Rebecca Bernstein described herself as �like any other teenager, except that every day I walk into my high school with fear.�
�I fear that one of my gay friends will come up to me, eyes full of fright, and tell me he was just threatened again. Or if that doesn�t happen, then surely a friend will come tell me she was spit on,� said Bernstein, who is lesbian and president of her school�s gay straight alliance.
Bernstein fears also that an anti-bullying bill now before the Ohio House will leave LGBT students �slipping through the cracks� because it does not specify that they must be protected.
Bernstein hopes that �one day LGBT youth all over Ohio will be able to walk into their high schools unafraid, ready to learn, and can develop into the strong lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people we all deserve to be.�
Jacob and Erin Nash told their story of being denied a marriage license in Ohio because Jacob is transsexual.
The couple since married in New Hampshire, and have continued to fight for the right to correct one�s birth certificate following a correction of gender. Currently, Ohio is one of only four states that prohibits the practice.
The Nashes were outed by Trumbull County Probate Judge Thomas Swift during a television news conference he called to tell about the denial of the couple�s marriage license.
�To be outed on TV by a local official because he thought we would be scared enough to just go away or have to worry that our lives are in danger because of one man�s bias is not right,� said Erin Nash.
�Today we stand before the statehouse in optimism, in support of our dream of realizing the eventual legalization of civil marriage for same gender couples, of overturning Ohio�s constitutional ban on marriage equality and restoring fairness to gay couples, our families, our communities, and our Ohio,� said Nick Staup standing beside his legal spouse Rolando Ramon, who he married in Canada.
�Rolando and I were married out of love, respect, trust and dedication to a common goal.� said Staup. �For our state to deny us civil rights stands in stark contradiction to the values this country holds dear.�
Equality Ohio board chair Jeanette Birkhoff, who was born in Canada, said she has been asked why, since November 2, she hasn�t returned.
�My reply was and still is, Ohio is my home,� said Birkhoff.
�But Ohio was feeling like a pretty unwelcoming place to live,� said Birkhoff.
�So, I made some decisions,� said Birkhoff. �I decided that I will not be made to feel like a second class citizen in my home state. That employment, child custody, adoption, and marriage are rights I claim from my government. I will organize for change in Ohio and this is the battle I pick.�
�This won�t happen over night or even in the next year,� said Birkhoff, �Yes, we have a gay agenda and we are proud to tell you all about it.�
Bowman said, �Failure is free. Results cost money. We must make financial investment in success if we are to see long term change.�
In addition to membership in Equality Ohio and financial support of it, Bowman talked about the need to know your legislators and pay attention to how they vote.
�They must come to expect a call from you every time they vote against fairness, and a letter of thanks each time they take a stand for equality,� said Bowman.
�But as you reach out and grab the hand of the person standing next to you, we all must realize that this organization cannot do it alone,� said Bowman. �Just like we are connected right now, it will take each and every one of us working together, standing together, planning together, and celebrating together.�
Bowman said, �Ohio is ready for a change and it is our charge and our responsibility to make that change happen.�
Smaller rallies first
Communities gathered for smaller rallies and car caravans to Columbus for the main event.
Thirty-one people gathered in Springfield for a rally after decorating cars with rainbow flags and equality messages in Dayton and Yellow Springs.
Wittenberg student Melissa Niese spoke out against children in Ohio being socialized that being gay is not OK.
Activist Nancy McHugh railed against the proposed legislation to ban adoptions and foster parenting by LGBT people.
�Who benefits from this legislation?� asked McHugh.
�Those seeking to put forth the legislation,� she continued, �Those with a bigoted, narrow-minded agenda who are really a very small minority.�
Mark Hassel of Dayton, a veteran who served during the 1979 hostage crisis said, �I may have to leave this country.�
Hassel�s partner Jason Cochrane is from Canada, and due to immigration law, cannot be sponsored by Hassel, as an opposite-sex partner can do.
�The message,� said Hassel, �is you have to leave if you want to stay with this guy.�
Need to grow and diversify
Equality Ohio held its first membership meeting the following day. Six people attended.
�The turnout points to the fact that it�s a new organization,� said Bowman. �Also, there�s no wolf at the door right now, no legislation or ballot initiative.�
�Our community has been taught only to react,� said Bowman, emphasizing that was the first thing Equality Ohio needs to work to change.
�We need to create a culture of being pro-active,� said Bowman. �We need to start planning for success 8 to 10 years in advance� like the anti-gays do.
Bowman also acknowledged that the turnout at the Homecoming event was diverse along nearly every demographic except racial.
�We recognize this is a need,� said Bowman, �and we have done outreach but have not been successful reaching African-Americans or Asian Pacific Islanders.�
Bowman hopes the nominations process in place to complete the boards of the organizations will help diversify them as well as add members.
Equality Ohio currently has 3,000 people on its e-mail list.
�We need to grow it to 30,000,� said Bowman.
Equality Ohio is on the Internet at www.equalityohio.org.
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