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MAY 22, 2009

As registry challenge fades, groups shift their focus

Cleveland--While there may be a challenge to Cleveland’s new domestic partner registry in the future, it will not happen before next year. So, both groups organized to protect it have shifted focus.

Ask Cleveland, the larger group, has hired a field organizer and has launched a campaign to ban discrimination by gender identity and gender expression in the city of Cleveland.

The group is getting behind an ordinance introduced last August by openly gay Ward 14 councilor Joe Santiago. The measure was put on a back burner when a challenge to the registry ordinance loomed.

The bill would make Cleveland the sixth Ohio city to protect transgender people from discrimination, after Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Oxford.

“We still need to do a lot of education--among both city officials and the public--to make this non-discrimination law a reality,” said Ask Cleveland organizer David Caldwell. “The fight over the domestic partnership registry allowed our opposition in Cleveland to create the perception that protecting the LGBT community is politically risky. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Ask Cleveland is going to make sure that our elected officials also hear from fair-minded residents who believe that in our city, equality and justice should belong to everyone.”

Ask Cleveland has knocked on more than 10,000 doors identifying LGBT friendly voters and raised more than $14,000 to date.

Registry opponents, after many threats, have failed to present petitions by the deadlines to get the matter on the ballot this year. That group, led by now mostly white West Side and suburban pastors, has gathered only 3,000 of the needed 5,000 signatures needed to force the registry repeal question to the ballot.

The group was previously headed by politically savvy black pastors who have apparently begun to back out.

The early organizer, Rev. C. Jay Matthews of Mount Sinai Baptist Church, said May 7 that he is “not out of the picture” but “has not been involved” in gathering signatures. He added that he may again become involved around mid-June, depending on his schedule.

Cleveland Families Count, the other pro-registry group, has also changed their focus away from the registry to forming alliances with other community groups working for social justice, said LGBT Center director Sue Doerfer, the group’s spokesperson.

“Make no mistake,” said Caldwell. “This threat is still real, and we are taking nothing for granted.”

“But our current assessment is that it’s unlikely the opposition can put the domestic partnership registry on the ballot until 2010, and they may never do it at all. In the meantime, the transgender community lacks even the most fundamental protections against discrimination. We believe that--while we remain vigilant about the opposition’s signature drive--it’s time to move forward.”

Full time staffer hired

In order to organize volunteers and further grow the effort, Ask Cleveland has hired Jennifer Dowd, 20, for at least 12 weeks.

Dowd, of Florida, was a leader of the successful campaign to protect transgender rights in Gainesville in March.

Voters there defeated an attempt to remove protections for transgender people from that city’s laws.

“One of the things that the Gainesville campaign taught me is that voters will stand against discrimination if they have the facts,” said Dowd. “Another is that there’s untapped potential out there in the community to fight for LGBT rights.”

“Almost everyone who was involved in our campaign at the University of Miami was completely new to politics,” she noted. “A lot of them were straight. But a lot of people care enough about LGBT rights to help--if you ask.”

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