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MAY 22, 2009

Lawmakers visited to urge equality bill’s passage

Columbus--For the fourth consecutive year, hundreds of volunteers descended upon the Ohio Statehouse to lobby for LGBT equality.

For the second year, the focus was on passing the Equal Housing and Employment Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Ohio’s anti-discrimination laws.

The May 13 event, organized by the LGBT advocacy group Equality Ohio, began with a speech by Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray.

Speaking to nearly 400 people who came from all of the state’s 33 Senate districts and 71 of the 99 House districts, Cordray described EHEA as “something the broad middle of the people of the state would be able to support.”

“Sexual orientation is a category worthy of protection,” Cordray said, “and EHEA is a great place to start it.”

Twenty other states now include sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination laws; 13 of these include gender identity. Fifteen Ohio cities do likewise, with five covering transgender people.

The lobbyists were also armed with postcards emblazoned with the word “Fired,” and facts about how, in Ohio, people can lose their jobs just for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

The cards, signed by people in all parts of the state, were to be given to lawmakers in addition to others sent earlier.

According to Equality Ohio director Lynne Bowman, 17,000 cards were distributed.

“But the important number today is one,” Bowman told the volunteers. “That represents each of you, the story of your life in Ohio, and what it’s like to live and love and be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in Ohio. While the other numbers are great, they don’t mean a thing without you and your personal story.”

“It just takes one story to reach one legislator and we add one sponsor or one vote,” Bowman said.

A complete attendance was not available at press time, but early figures indicate that the event was larger than last year’s 362 by a significant number.

Attendance was broader, solving last year’s problem of the small groups visiting lawmakers being only straight allies with no LGBT participants. But fewer than a half-dozen people of color were present. This has been an issue each of the four years.

Legislators and their aides heard varied stories from their visitors, and many remembered talking with LGBT people in previous years.

Only two lawmakers, Senator Gary Cates, a Republican from West Chester and Rep. John Adams, a Republican from Shelby, refused to set appointments with their constituents from Equality Ohio.

Cates reportedly told the organization, “We know what you stand for and we are not interested in meeting with you.”

Two appointments were cancelled at the last minute by the lawmakers.

The nine Akron area lobbyists who went to visit Senator--and Republican gubernatorial candidate--Kevin Coughlin were instead met by page Eric Campfield, who told the group the senator, with whom they had an appointment, was at a meeting.

This is the fourth year in a row it happened that way.

Akron PFLAG president Bill Libby, a Republican precinct committee chair, came prepared with a letter expressing indignation that all nine signed before filling Campfield’s ear.

“I’m just a page,” Campfield protested.

Rabbi David Horowitz, who was one of the nine, accused Coughlin, a right wing Republican, of “hiding behind a small constituency in his district.”

“If he wants to be governor he has to represent all people, not just his group,” Horowitz said.

But most visits went far better.

Noah Wolf, the aide to first-term Rep. Mark Schneider of Mentor was handed a stack of “Fired” cards and told EHEA is a “dollars and sense” issue.

Twenty-four lobbyists from central Ohio visited with Aleah Page, an aide to senate president Bill Harris of Ashland. The group was so large, it had to convene in the Warren G. Harding Senate Committee Room.

Sue Marotte of Mount Vernon told Page about being denied housing by landlords who would not rent to two women.

“I had to live at my place of business, separated from my children,” Marotte said.

Marotte’s children, Meredith, 13 and Adam, 11, were with her.

Adam told Page, “We just want what other families have.”

Gwen Andrix of Delaware said, “Because of the governor’s orders [barring discrimination by sexual orientation or gender identity in state employment] I have been able to work the polls as a presiding judge.”

Andrix noted that she lost her private-sector job for transitioning.

“It takes away security and safety not to have protection,” Andrix said.

Karen Aronoff and Ashley Wilson of Cincinnati visited the office of Senator Bill Seitz, a Republican known for passing Ohio’s “defense of marriage act” in 2004.

Seitz spoke with them briefly before heading off to a meeting. The two then met with Seitz’s aide Jessie Crews.

Aronoff is the daughter-in-law of former Senate President Stanley Aronoff and the mother of his grandchildren, ages 16 and 23.

This caught Seitz’s attention because the men are friends. Seitz occupies the Senate seat Aronoff once held.

Aronoff works for Sprint. Her wife Vickie works for Oracle. The couple married in California in June. Both of their employers protect LGBT workers from discrimination.

Wilson, however, works for a small conservative company and cannot let anyone there know about her female partner.

Crews heard the stories, and nodded in agreement when Aronoff said, “This is completely separate from marriage. This is about business equality.”

The day ended with a fundraising reception attended by Democratic Reps. Peter Ujvagi, Ted Celeste, Dale Mallory, Dan Stewart, Mike Skindell, Denise Driehaus, and John Patrick Carney and Republican Ross McGregor.

Democratic Senators Tom Sawyer and Dale Miller attended, as did Secretary of State and U.S. Senate candidate Jennifer Brunner.

McGregor, a primary EHEA sponsor, said “It was easy to say yes when Dan Stewart asked” him to sponsor the bill.

“I will be vocal. I will not hide in the shadows,” McGregor said.

House Speaker Armond Budish of Beachwood said, “Ohio has a long way to move,” adding “there are many legislators, a growing number, who see the importance of treating people equally.”

“[EHEA] is just one item of legislation,” Budish said. “After it, there is a whole lot more that needs done.”

Equality Ohio has scheduled next year’s lobby day for May 19, 2010.

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