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May 23, 2008

Citizens visit Ohio lawmakers to urge equality bills passage

Columbus--The Equal Housing and Employment Non-Discrimination Act was on the minds of Ohio legislators last week as 362 volunteer lobbyists fanned out around Capitol Square.

LGBT people and allies from around the state visited 81 legislative offices in the Ohio Statehouse and nearby buildings on May 14, meeting with 40 House and Senate members, both Democrats and Republicans--the most ever. The rest met with legislators’ staff members.

The third annual “Lobby Day,” sponsored by Equality Ohio, was possibly the most productive yet.

The first event in 2006 drew 485 participants and was focused on introducing LGBT people to legislators and telling the stories of their lives.

Last year’s brought 350 to the Statehouse to tell lawmakers that Ohio was ranked 51 among 50 states and the District of Columbia in protecting the rights of LGBT citizens.

This year, participants asked their representatives to remedy that by passing the non-discrimination act, also known as EHEA.

The measure prohibits discrimination by sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in public and private employment, housing and public accommodations.

The day before, it was considered by the Senate Judiciary and Civil Justice Committee.

Trisha Hershey, an aide to State Sen. Tom Niehaus of New Richmond, heard a constituent tell how she lives in fear of losing her job at a hospital.

Niehaus, a Republican, is the majority floor leader.

“With my transitioning, things are getting uncomfortable there,” said the woman, who is not out at work. She added that a friend had been fired for transitioning on the job.

Joining her in Neihaus’ office were John Farina and David Howard of Cleveland.

Farina told Hershey about his employment experience at a Cleveland area bank.

“Once my name appeared in the paper as a gay activist,” Farina said, “I got moved around to all the bad branches. These things happen all the time.”

Howard said he had been fired for coming out at work when he was 40. His attorney told him to file a suit for age discrimination because there is no protection based on sexual orientation.

“My integrity didn’t let me do it,” Howard said.

The visitors were pleasantly surprised that legislators and staffers remembered the stacks of “Fired” cards they were given when EHEA was introduced in March. The postcards, signed by dozens to hundreds of people in each lawmaker’s district, explain how LGBT Ohioans have no protection from discrimination.

“When I worked in Columbus and lived in Canal Winchester, my status changed twice a day, going to and coming home from work,” R.J. McKay told Lori Plato, who is Republican Rep. Kevin DeWine’s aide.

DeWine is the House speaker pro tempore and deputy chair of the Ohio Republican Party.

McKay, who now lives in Beavercreek, told Plato that it was wrong to lose protection by crossing into a community that does not have a human rights ordinance, and that EHEA would make protection uniform throughout the state.

McKay joined Dan and Nancy Tepfer, Dr. Juli Burnell, Patty Thompson, Antonia Harter and Judy Nablo in the visit with Plato. All live in DeWine’s district.

Plato said DeWine likes hearing from constituents.

Thompson said her gay son left Ohio because he would not be protected from discrimination.

“If laws were based on equality, we wouldn’t be destroying families,” Thompson said, with some emotion.

Burnell told the story of her partner, a psychologist for the state of Ohio who could not ask her boss for bereavement time in 2001, because she would have to explain her relationship with Burnell.

Burnell said that with Gov. Ted Strickland’s executive order last year banning discrimination in state employment, her partner was able to come out and take advantage of leave afforded married partners.

Dan Tepfer told Plato that DeWine is not risking anything by supporting EHEA.

“David Hobson voted for it in the U.S. House,” Tepfer said.

Hobson is a Republican whose congressional district includes DeWine’s Ohio House one.

Shih-Hua Yu left Cleveland on a Greyhound bus at 4:30 am to join the lobbyists. She is a first-year graduate student at Case Western Reserve University studying social administration.

Yu is not lesbian, but has a friend back home in Taiwan who is, and decided to join the lobbying effort on her behalf.

Following the legislative visits, participants discussed their experiences.

The main issue of concern is that more education has to be done around transgender needs. Lawmakers need to meet more transgender constituents.

During the day Equality Ohio also raised $11,000 from participants, allowing access to an additional $10,000 matching funds from the Gill Foundation. The money paid for the cost of the event.

Lesbian comedian Kate Clinton performed for 600 people at the Southern Theater the night before lobbyists hit the Statehouse. That event raised money for Equality Ohio’s Educational Fund.

Clinton also entertained lobbyists during the event’s Wednesday morning orientation.

The lobbyists also heard from Ohio Civil Rights Commission director G. Michael Payton, Democratic State Sen. Dale Miller of Cleveland, who is EHEA’s lead senate sponsor, and Republican State Sen.David Goodman of Columbus, who is also a sponsor and chair of the committee hearing it.

The lead sponsors in the House, Democrat Dan Stewart of Columbus and Jon Peterson of Delaware, also addressed the group.

At day’s end, a reception for lawmakers was held at the Capitol Hyatt Hotel. It raised an additional $3,000 from 50 attendees.

Legislators at the reception included State Reps. Jay Goyal of Mansfield, Mike Skindell of Lakewood, Ted Celeste of Grandview Heights, and Dan Stewart of Columbus, all Democrats. A number of others sent staff members.

State Sens. Tom Sawyer of Akron and Jason Wilson of Columbiana, both Democrats, attended.

Goyal, who is not an EHEA co-sponsor and had been uncommitted on it, told a group of his constituents at the reception that he is “supportive of EHEA” and “would vote for it.”

Wilson also said he would have to see the final version before voting yes, adding “I support the premise and believe in respect for all Ohioans.”

Wilson is also not a co-sponsor and had previously not indicated support.

Equality Ohio director Lynne Bowman said the event was “another amazing day,” adding that it signals “maturity and real change.”

“In 2006, we were all nervous about doing this,” Bowman said. “Now people know what they are doing and they get to business.”

Groups returning from visits also observed that legislative aides know who Equality Ohio is, and are getting familiar with LGBT lobbyists visiting them.

“No matter how smoothly things go or how many legislators we visit, the most impressive thing is seeing people jazzed about seeing their legislators,” Bowman said. “That’s what makes it special.”

Bowman explained the drop in attendance over the first two years by saying, “It’s not new anymore.”

According to Bowman, 70 percent of participants this year had come before.

“It’s a big commitment,” Bowman said. “The group that keeps coming each year is turning into a tight and effective one.”


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