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December 19, 2008

Columbus TG equality law passes with few opponents

Columbus--Ohio’s capital city became its fifth to protect transgender people from discrimination with passage of an ordinance on December 15.

City council passed the measure unanimously before a packed chamber, with many people wearing rainbow stickers. The move came after last week’s hearings and public comment that revealed little opposition.

The ordinance updates sections of the city code to bar discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and “ethnic intimidation,” which is Ohio’s term for hate crime.

These sections already include race, religion and sexual orientation, and some include other factors. Along with gender identity or expression, the changes add sex, age, ancestry, military status, disability and familial status where needed to make all the sections uniform.

Four other Ohio cities--Cincinnati, Oxford, Toledo and Dayton--include gender identity and sexual orientation in their anti-bias codes. Ten more cover sexual orientation only.

The new measure was initiated by the city’s Community Relations Commission and supported by Mayor Michael Coleman. The commission has two LGBT members, Chris Cozad and Brian Shinn.

Cozad said it took four years to get the measure passed because proponents were “committed to getting it right.”

Adding gender identity and expression was never an issue for the commission nor council. Military status was.

The changes protect military servicemembers. The need to protect them has arisen because National Guard and reservists deployed long-term in Iraq and Afghanistan have faced discrimination at home, especially when returning to work or looking for housing, according to testimony.

The controversial part was whether or not to include veterans. This was left out because the category is too broad, and might make it too difficult to protect current servicemembers.

The LGBT proponents moved slowly and exercised caution, according to Cozad, because they remember what happened ten years ago when city council enacted domestic partner benefits for employees, only to repeal them weeks later after religious conservatives threatened to force a referendum.

The Columbus charter prohibits city council from enacting a law that has been repealed by voters, even years earlier, without another ballot action.

Had the 1998 ordinance been repealed, council could never have addressed the matter again. In 2004, the city began allowing domestic partners to access their partner’s city benefits if the couple pays 100 percent of the cost. Married spouses have no cost.

A referendum on the new human rights ordinance would have to repeal all of it, including protections for military servicemembers and the disabled, so no challenge is expected.

Even so, Carl Williams, a staffer for councilor Priscilla Tyson who sponsored the measure, said there has been little phone or e-mail opposition to it.

At the ordinance’s December 11 committee hearing, all six witnesses testified in favor of it.

“We have spent years educating people about the costs of discrimination in all forms,” said Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization director Gloria McCauley.

Three people spoke at Monday’s council meeting: two in favor, one opposed.

The opponent, Shirley Mahar Cotter, described herself to councilors as “a Daughter of the American Revolution, a Biblical Conservationist, and an ambassador of truth.”

“I ask that you not approve any more individuals for discrimination practices until you take action to stop the 50-year oppression and religious discrimination against POLs; people of light,” Cotter began.

Cotter then described POLs as “people who refuse or cannot or will not pay property taxes.”

“People who are children of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will never pay tribute to treason, tyranny or injustice in any way,” Cotter said.

In response, councilor Charleta Tavares asked city attorney Richard Pfeiffer if the “city code includes religion, does it not?”

“Yes,” replied Pfeiffer.

Tyson was not present to see her ordinance pass, due to the death of her mother.

Councilor Andrew Guinther, a co-sponsor, said the ordinance will send a message to the rest of the nation “that Columbus, Ohio, is a diverse, welcoming city that refuses to discriminate against any of its citizens.”

“These changes to the city code are a long time in coming,” Guinther said.

Acting Community Relations Commission director Napoleon Bell told council that the city’s non-discrimination codes should be updated periodically to reflect the changing values of the diverse population.

Veterans Affairs director Richard Isbell praised council for putting teeth into protections for military servicemembers.

Cozad testified for the ordinance.

“Stand with me on behalf of those too busy just trying to survive to stand for themselves,” Cozad said.

“You have before you an opportunity to lead this city,” Cozad continued, “to make Columbus a city where human rights are inalienable rights.”

Phyllis Cunningham, an employee of the city’s department of development told the council members that passage would be good for the economy.

Cunningham said failing to pass the ordinance strengthening non-discrimination laws would be a violation of public trust.

Testimony on behalf of the ordinance was given to the Administration Committee four days earlier by six citizen witnesses, Cozad as a Community Relations commissioner, Isbell and Bell.

“The city of Columbus prides itself on being a diverse city where everyone is welcome,” Cozad said. “The civil rights code of our city needs to reflect that.”

“Columbus is behind the times,” Cozad continued. “When existing codes were written in the 1970s and 80s, and then last updated in the 1990s, they were cutting edge,” Cozad said. “Columbus was ahead of every other city in Ohio, ahead of the state, and we were ahead of federal protections.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not true any more,” Cozad said. “Other jurisdictions have caught up and even passed Columbus.”

That led to comments lamenting that Cincinnati beat Columbus to this updating of code. Cincinnati revised its ordinance to include sexual orientation and gender identity in 2005.

Shane Morgan, who is transgender, told the committee some of his personal story of transitioning.

“I just want to see all people have the same opportunity to succeed in life,” Morgan said, “and no more violence.”

Karen Patrick, who is also transgender and a Cincinnati native, also emphasized that Columbus is behind the times now.

Mental health professional Michelle Crane testified “in support of the whole package” and told the committee that with discriminating conditions against transgender people going largely unaddressed, 50 percent attempt suicide by age 30.

McCauley testified that 12 percent of hate crimes are committed on the basis of gender identity and expression.

The ordinance adds new hate crime protection on the bases of gender identity and expression and disability.

Dr. Rosemarie Rosetti testified that protecting the disabled from discrimination is critical to the disabled being employed.

City employee and veteran advocate Mike Maloney urged passage of the ordinance on behalf of the military servicemembers.

Bell concluded, “I am pleasantly surprised that there was no opposition. We took a long time [to do this] because we wanted to make sure we got it right.”





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