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December 5, 2008

Partner registry and TG rights bills approved

Cleveland--City Council is well on its way to including transgender people in the city’s non-discrimination code and creating Ohio’s third domestic partner registry.

Ordinances to do both were been approved on December 1 by council’s Legislative Committee and will likely be passed by the full council at their December 8 meeting.

Mayor Frank Jackson is expected to sign both the registry and the measure to add gender identity to the city’s equal rights ordinances, said his spokesperson Maureen Harper. The equality ordinances have included “sexual orientation” since 1994.

Sixty-five people squeezed into council’s 44-seat hearing room for the committee session on both measures. Most wore rainbow stickers supporting them.

The committee took up the partner registry first. It is sponsored by 13 of council’s 21 members.

The proposal would allow unmarried couples over the age of 18, same-sex or opposite sex, to register their partnership with the city. It would be open to both residents and non-residents of Cleveland.

The registry confers no rights or benefits. However, registration will allow couples to access benefits offered by insurance companies, employers and health care providers.

There were 29 witnesses speaking for the registry, including clergy, attorneys, activists and Cleveland Heights officials.

Voters approved the Cleveland Heights registry in 2003. The Cleveland proposal, like the Toledo registry created in 2007, are modeled after it.

Committee chair Phyllis Cleveland of Ward 5 opened testimony after accepting an amendment from the city administration to make the registry effective 120 days after passage, rather than 90 days.

Clergy supports partner measure

Six priests, ministers and rabbis opened the supporter testimony.

Rev. Melanie Sunderland of the Cleveland Clinic spoke of hospital visitation and said the registry would “begin to change the culture of hospital settings.”

Rev. Amy Greene, an American Baptist who also works at the Cleveland Clinic, said that the Clinic has its own registry.

“It’s hugely important to me,” said Greene, “that my grown sons be free to choose whom they will love and whom they will live with.”

The Very Rev. Tracey Lind, Trinity Cathedral’s openly lesbian dean, said it was not about marriage.

“This legislation before you is not a religious issue, simply put,” Lind said. “It does not have anything to do with marriage.”

“Frankly, as a member of the clergy licensed by the state to officiate at weddings, I believe, and I think a number of my colleagues do, that marriage is another matter.”

“However, what this legislation does is something very, very important for the rebuilding of our city,” Lind continued. It says “that this city respects, welcomes and wants everyone.”

“We bring time, talent and treasure, including our tax dollars, usually without putting additional strain on social services and public education,” Lind said of LGBT citizens.

Lind presented members with a letter of support for the registry from the interfaith clergy organization We Believe Ohio. The message also called for adding “gender identity” to the equal rights ordinances and backed the Equal Housing and Employment Act currently in the Ohio legislature. The letter was signed by ten religious leaders, including Lind, Rev. Allen Harris of Franklin Circle Church and Rabbi Stephen Weiss of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation, who also testified.

An asset for the city

Cleveland Heights Mayor Ed Kelley said his city’s registry is an asset that fosters diversity. He added that it is an economic engine because people choose to live in welcoming cities, and support their businesses.

“Many of the people who have signed up for the registry are our family members, our friends and our neighbors,” Kelley said.

“Implementing a domestic partner registry tells people all over the world that the city of Cleveland is a progressive, forward-thinking city,” Kelley said.

Equality Ohio director Lynne Bowman told the panel that Cleveland’s registry would be the 77th in the nation.

“Including, ironically enough, Salt Lake City,” she added.

Michael “Buck” Harris, a long-time gay activist and resident of the Ohio City neighborhood, said he and his current partner have been in their house 20 years and pay more than $5,000 in taxes.

“It’s not my current relationship, however, that I want to focus on,” said Harris. “It’s the relationship prior.”

Harris told the committee of his 11 years with a man who died in 1986. The house they lived in was in his partner’s name for tax purposes.

“When he died, his family came in and took over the house,” Harris said. “I lost all of our savings and received no benefits at all from his insurance policies.”

“That’s why I think we need domestic partner registration in Cleveland,” said Harris, “to make relationships as solid as possible so that doesn’t have to happen to anyone else.”

Qualifying partners for benefits

David Caldwell, one of the community leaders who campaigned for the Cleveland Heights registry, said it removes barriers for small businesses that might want to adopt a more comprehensive family policy.”

“Small institutions might not want to open the can of worms of trying to figure out who qualifies as a family member,” said Caldwell. “So the city putting its stamp on a family relationship is an easy way for a smaller institution not to have to bother who qualifies as a domestic partner.”

Cleveland Heights councilor Phyllis Evans assured her Cleveland colleagues that being supportive of the registry is good politics.

Evans was the only council member to endorse the registry when it was her city’s ballot in 2003. She was also among three councilors seeking re-election that year, and was the top vote-getter in the city.

“It was the right thing to do,” Evans said, adding that Cleveland Heights currently has 192 registered couples, including 53 opposite-sex ones. Some of the couples live outside the city, and there have also been five partnership terminations.

Registry helped build a tree house

Keli Zehnder of Cleveland Heights testified that with two young children she and her partner “have to prove our relationship a lot.”

Though their home is in her partner’s name, all Zehnder needed to do to get a zoning variance to build a tree house was to call the city and say that she was a registered domestic partner of the homeowner.

“The inspector came out and made our children very happy,” Zehnder said, “which saved me from calling my council member and complaining.”

Tami Brown of Positively Cleveland, the convention and visitors bureau, told the committee the registry would help generate tourism to the city and new jobs.

Kevin Schmotzer of the city’s department of development noted that Cleveland is “aggressively going after the Gay Games in 2014.”

Schmotzer expects the Games could bring 100,000 people and $80-85 million to Cleveland during the ten-day event.

“Part of the decision is the acceptance of the cities,” Schmotzer said.

Case Western Reserve history professor Lisa Hazirjan talked about how creating the registry could help relieve poverty by creating a “one-stop shop” and a single document for people who don’t have the ability to take off work or spend lots of money to draw up legal documents to benefit their families.

Attorney Tim Downing, a partner at Ulmer and Berne, said domestic partner benefits help his firm attract new talent, and said the registry can do the same for the city.

Attorney Leslye Huff said the registry is “the minimum we can do to respect families in Cleveland.”

“We have already heard how benign it is,” Huff continued, “but it is a gesture of respect.”

“Our goals are higher in the long run than just the domestic partner registry.”

ACLU staff attorney Carrie Davis assured the committee that the registry would not conflict with the state constitution’s marriage ban amendment.

The fall of Rome

Before any of the measure’s supporters spoke, two opponents addressed the panel.

Doris Durica of Ward 20 described herself as a school voucher advocate, a widow, a former first grade teacher and mother of an Eagle Scout. She told the committee to “put the well being of Cleveland children first.”

“Two thousand years of human civilization have shown that children grow best, both physically and psychologically when they are raised by their mothers and fathers,” Durica said.

“Remember that the homosexual lifestyle was very common in ancient Greece and Rome,” she added. “The nuclear family was weakened and this was one of the factors contributing to the end of these great civilizations.”

Durica passed out small photocopied dollar bills to the committee, then compared domestic partnerships to counterfeit money. She claimed that gays and lesbians are unhealthy and have short life spans, that “ex-gay” programs work, and that churches in Canada had lost the freedom to preach their beliefs when full marriage passed there.

Finally, she focused on European countries “where the homosexual lifestyle is open and common.”

“Can those countries defend themselves against a terrorist attack?” she asked. “How many inventions have come out of those countries?”

Committee members had no questions for witnesses, and the registry ordinance passed committee without objection.

An objection came later from Ward 8 councilor Sabra Pierce Scott, who was not present for most of the hearing, nor the vote.

The majority leader, Pierce Scott was also the sole vote against a pair of resolutions passed on November 17 to support the state Equal Housing and Employment Act and the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

No witnesses against TG rights bill

After a recess, the committee considered the second measure, to add gender identity as a protected class to every city ordinance where race, religion, sex and sexual orientation are now included. Offered by Ward 14 councilor Joe Santiago, the city’s first openly gay council member, it has five other sponsors.

There were 11 witnesses in favor of the ordinance and none opposed, although committee chair Phyllis Cleveland asked Durica if she would like to testify.

First to speak was TransFamily director Jake Nash.

“To understand the importance of this ordinance, you have to understand me,” said Nash.

Nash passed around an old photo of himself as Pam, and explained, “Transgender people are judged by their appearance, not by what is in their heart.”

Nash spoke of violence against transgender people.

“I hope I don’t see any more transgender Clevelanders out on the street because no one will hire them,” he said. “Please do not let fear stop you from doing the right thing and passing this ordinance.”

LeAnne Bauer said she currently has an employer who supports her, “but with the economy the way it is, what if I have to find new work?”

“No one knows I used live life as a man,” said Bauer. “My landlord doesn’t know.”

“As far as work history goes, there is no history of LeAnne. No diploma, no other work experiences. I would have to explain that I was not always LeAnne, and then it’s like rolling the dice,” Bauer said.

Adam Tokar said that Adam is not yet his legal name.

“If I send a résumé, my résumé has my birth name on it,” Tokar said, describing what happens when potential employers learn of that situation.

“I have run into that circumstance several times already,” he added.

“Most people don’t question whatsoever me being male. Most people question me being female, so if they have to address me with a female name, they get all uncomfortable,” Tokar said.

Tokar also told the committee he had been denied use of the restroom at work by an employer.

Four Ohio cities have similar laws

Bowman told the committee that the last three Ohio cities that have passed gay and lesbian non-discrimination ordinances have included gender identity. Those cities are Cincinnati, Oxford and Dayton, along with Toledo’s decade-old ordinance. Eleven other Ohio cities cover sexual orientation only.

Ohio has no state non-discrimination law covering either, but 20 states do. Thirteen of these cover gender identity--including all eight measures passed since 2002.

Bowman pointed out that council last month passed a resolution urging state lawmakers to pass the Equal Housing and Employment Act, which includes gender identity.

“Keeping with what you have already supported, passing this ordinance makes sense,” Bowman said.

“Law is slow to catch up with society,” said ACLU’s Davis. “Cleveland was one of earliest cities to embrace sexual orientation in its non-discrimination ordinance, and now it’s time that we add gender identity and expression to that as well.”

Davis told the story of retired Army Col. Diane Schroer, formerly David, who was hired in 2004 at the Library of Congress, then turned down once they learned she would be transitioning on the job.

Schroer is an insurgency and counterterrorism expert, and was hired by the library to work in the congressional research service.

With the help of the ACLU, Schroer successfully sued the library in federal court.

Davis read from the court’s September decision: “Imagine that an employee is fired because she converts from Christianity to Judaism. Imagine too, that his employer testified that he harbors no bias against either Christians or Jews, but only converts.”

Davis continued, “That would be a clear case of discrimination because of religion. No court would take seriously that converts are not covered by the statute.”

‘Expression’ included in definition

The bill’s sponsor, Joe Santiago, asked if there was a need to add the phrase “and expression” after “gender identity” in the bill’s wording.

Davis said adding “expression” would be a broader definition and more inclusive.

After discussion, however, Santiago and the members agreed that the measure’s definition of “gender identity” essentially includes “expression.”

The discussion brought in Pierce Scott, who was present for about two thirds of the second hearing.

“I think I’m the only council person who voted against both ordinances when they were introduced and I will be doing the same today,” said Pierce Scott.

She said this was “based on discussion I have had with people in your community and about not being educated enough on the transgender identity piece as well as the registry.”

“I had the opportunity to hear everybody today, although my vote is not changed, I find myself just inkling along to better understand,” Pierce Scott said.

“However, ‘expression,’ councilman Santiago, I’m unsure, because while identity is clear, ‘expression’ can mean white Ts, do-rags and saggy pants,” Pierce Scott added.

“So if [the ordinance] is going to move, let’s not overdo it,” she continued. “ ‘Expression’ could be anything. It could be piercings, tattoos.”

After the hearing, Pierce Scott approached Tokar, and told him that she appreciated his story and was moved by it. Then she hugged him before telling a reporter that she would vote against the ordinances and would give no further comment.  |

 

 


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