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May 25, 2007

The second Lobby Day focuses on specific items

Columbus--Citizen lobbyists for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality are now asking state legislators for specific things, not just telling their personal stories.

The second annual lobby day organized by Equality Ohio drew more than 350 volunteers to Columbus on May 16, from nearly every legislative district in Ohio.

Last year’s event was about building relationships and telling personal stories to legislators. But this one was about asking for things, specifically a law protecting all public and private employees from discrimination by sexual orientation and gender identity, and the ability to correct the sex marker on one’s birth certificate after transitioning.

The latter is important because of the federal Real ID Act, which requires a federal photo identification card for every citizen based on one’s birth certificate. The act goes into effect next year and could force transgender Ohioans to carry cards that don’t match them.

Ohio is one of only four states that do not allow the birth certificate corrections.

“Last year I said lobby day was the most amazing day ever, and in January, I said our inaugural celebration was an incredible day,” said Equality Ohio director Lynne Bowman as she kicked the event off. “Well, today? Today is totally fabulous in my book!”

Bowman introduced Wade Rakes, director of public liaison for Governor Ted Strickland.

Rakes announced, to thunderous applause, that Strickland would sign an executive order the next day prohibiting discrimination by sexual orientation or gender identity in state employment.

Speaking to the group before they fanned out to visit lawmakers’ offices, Bowman said their number had grown by 50 over last year, that a $10,000 grant had been secured from the Gill Action Fund to hire a professional lobbyist, and that Equality Ohio’s paid staff had increased from three to five.

“Last year, we had no idea where the voters of Ohio really stood on equality issues other than marriage,” said Bowman.

“This year, we have solid polling data that tells us that the vocal minority of anti-gay extremists who have been at the forefront of the debate in Ohio are just that--a minority,” said Bowman.

That message was carried to the legislators by the volunteers, visiting them in small groups.

State Rep. Joyce Beatty of Columbus, the House Democratic leader, also addressed the group, as did openly gay former Arizona legislator Steve May.

May served as a Republican in the Arizona House after his tenure as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s First Infantry division.

Most recently, May was the treasurer for Arizonans Together, the group that led the first defeat of a state anti-gay marriage amendment last fall.

University of Akron student and transgender activist Kayden Healy told the group, “Because I was born in Illinois, I can legally correct the gender marker on my birth certificate.”

“I do not plan on staying in Ohio,” said Healy. “To be truthful, the fact that Illinois is more welcoming for LGBT people does influence my desire to go back there.”

That theme was also delivered to legislators--that Ohio, despite small improvements since last year, still ranks 51 of 50 states and the District of Columbia in affirmation and protection of LGBT citizens.

According to Bowman, constituent lobbyists visited every senator and 77 percent of House offices. This was a slight drop from last year when 83 percent of House offices were visited, attributed to fewer participants from some rural districts.

However, more of the groups this year met with their legislators as opposed to their aides, according to Bowman.

Another difference that conjures mixed feelings from organizers is the shrinking gap between the number of LGBT lobbyists and those who are non-LGBT allies.

Bowman said there were about 60 percent LGBT people.

“What accounts for that is that we have intentionally reached out to straight allies because we are not going to win these issues without them,” said Bowman, “and some of these issues are bigger than just gay.”

However, Bowman acknowledges, there were legislators who were visited by groups composed of only non-LGBT allies, which allows legislators to maintain the myth that they have no LGBT constituents.

Bowman also expressed concern that the event did not attract more people of color.

“We did a fair amount of outreach,” Bowman said, “and I think we saw the response, and it’s not an okay thing.”

State Rep. Dan Stewart, a Columbus Democrat, will be introducing an employment and housing non-discrimination bill in the House. State Sen. Dale Miller a Cleveland Democrat, is expected to introduce the same bill in that chamber. He is looking for Republican co-sponsorship.

Stewart said it will be after the state budget is finished, and probably before summer ends. He is hoping Rep. Jon Peterson of Delaware will jointly sponsor it, as new House rules allow.

Peterson is a socially moderate Republican who is term-limited. Having joint Republican sponsorship makes it more likely that the bill will be assigned a committee and have full hearings, which has not occurred with past versions.

“There’s a new climate here,” Peterson told his constituent lobbyists. He was referring to the election of Democratic governor Ted Strickland and Democratic gains in the House.

“There’s a new sheriff in town, and people are in dialogue on things for the first time,” Peterson said. “It’s a hopeful sign. In the past, issues have been shelved because they are considered controversial.”

Peterson told the group of his acquaintances with gay people and of his 14-year-old daughter’s gay friends.

“This is not a healthy Ohio when it comes to equal rights,” Peterson said. “Your issues need a voice in this caucus, and I will try to be that.”

However, Peterson did not commit to sponsoring the bill.

Carrollton Democrat Mark Okey, a first-term representative, talked with his five constituents about the “stripper bill” passed by the House moments before their meeting.

The controversial bill to limit activity in strip clubs is spearheaded by Citizens for Community Values, which is the group responsible for most of the anti-LGBT activity in Ohio.

Okey, who has a strong relationship with his LGBT constituents, talked about the strategy used by the Democratic caucus to “tear the bill apart.”

Democrats are still in the minority, and can’t stop such bills, but Okey said they picked up seats since the 2006 election, including his. This makes it possible for them to put up more defense than before.

“This is a new group,” said Okey. “We’re not laying down.”

Okey called the stripper bill the “tip of the iceberg” of the “morals” issues CCV is expected to bring to the legislature.

“Here’s how this relates to you,” Okey said. “If they bring a nasty, horrible bill that is discriminating, we will take it apart.”

“However,” Okey continued, “the ability to stop it does not exist. We are still the minority.”

“Don’t get too discouraged,” said Okey, reminding the group of the gains since the 2006 election.

The evening before the lobby event, Equality Ohio held a fundraising reception for legislators, featuring former State Sen. C.J. Prentiss of Cleveland as a speaker.

The legislators who came were House Democrats Joyce Beatty of Columbus, Ted Celeste of Grandview Heights, Mike Foley of Cleveland, William J. Healy II of Canton, Robert Otterman of Akron, Michael Skindell of Lakewood, Dan Stewart of Columbus, and Brian Williams of Akron.

Democratic senators participating were Tom Roberts of Trotwood and Jason Wilson of Columbiana.

Republican Sen. Robert Schuler of Sycamore Township came briefly, delivering the news that House and Senate Republicans had called caucus meetings and would not be attending.

“We have hit a stride,” said Bowman summing it up.

“People know who Equality Ohio was when we went in now, and they treat us seriously.”

Bowman said half this year’s lobbyists were also at last year’s lobby day, “so people knew what they were doing and what to expect. They were more comfortable.”

Next year, Equality Ohio has scheduled the event for May 14. Lesbian comedian and activist Kate Clinton will perform at a special kickoff event the day before.



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