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July 29, 2011

East Cleveland passes a broad civil rights ordinance

East Cleveland--After two years of bridge-building between the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats and the East Cleveland government, the city unanimously passed an expansive civil rights ordinance on July 19.

The legislation covers sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, race, gender and disability in the areas of education, employment, public accommodation and housing. It was drafted by attorney Leslye Huff, one of three Stonewall Democrats board members who live in the city, along with her wife Mary Ostendorf and fellow board member Kate Kennedy.

It replaces a narrower fair-housing ordinance, to which sexual orientation was added ten years ago.

The new measure establishes a five- to seven-member civil rights commission to investigate allegations of discrimination. If, after the investigation, the matter cannot be resolved through mediation or conciliation, it gives the person filing the complaint the right to file a lawsuit.

The Stonewall Democrats began endorsing in East Cleveland in the 2009 election cycle, and found strong, if unfocused, support for LGBT equality.

“Everyone seemed to agree that, to the extent that they understood the issues, they were proponents of LGBT rights,” Huff said, “using the fairness quotient, as I like to call it.”

She described the fairness quotient as being, when one describes a situation, the likelihood that someone says, “That isn’t right!”

Along with their endorsements, the Stonewall Democrats pledged to help the officials in East Cleveland develop legislation protecting the rights of LGBT people.

Huff drafted the ordinance and gave it to city council.

“City council takes it to the law director for vetting to see if there’s anything in conflict with other ordinances or the constitution of Ohio or the United States Constitution,” Huff noted.

She pointed out that Ronald K. Riley, the law director, had two issues with the proposed ordinance. The first was the size of the commission, which Huff envisioned as a 15-person board that could rotate as five groups of three or three groups of five. Since East Cleveland is relatively small, Riley thought 15 members was unusually large.

The second concern was that, since the state of Ohio’s Civil Rights Commission can investigate claims of discrimination based on race, gender and disability already, people whose state investigations went against them would then turn to the city to give them another chance to file their complaints.

The ordinance was changed to decrease the size of the commission and to limit the amount of time in which someone could file a complaint, which should eliminate the possibility of those already protected under state law from “double-dipping” on civil rights claims.

“Those were the only questions, the only push-back that I got,” Huff noted. “It was clear that he had read the whole thing, it was clear that the city council read the whole thing. Each one of them, and they don’t necessarily get along with each other.”

According to Huff, council president Joy Jordan had a “friendly fight” with vice-president Chantelle Lewis over which of them got to be the sponsor of the ordinance. While Lewis was unable to attend the July 19 meeting, she sent along a message of her support for it, saying, “I’m co-sponsor, right?”

In addition to the obvious benefit to the LGBT community, Huff believes the ordinance’s unanimous passage in East Cleveland also carries an important lesson with it.

“This should put another crack in the presumption that black people are more homophobic than white people,” she noted. “It just isn’t true. We have a different style when we fuss about stuff.”

“This ordinance is a wonderful nod to the friendliness of East Cleveland and how it welcomes everybody,” she continued. “The Cleveland Stonewall Democrats spent a couple years nurturing a relationship with the city and letting everyone get to know us.”

Down the road, she hopes to see East Cleveland’s LGBT-friendly actions bear fruit in revitalizing the city, as the Tremont and Gordon Square areas of Cleveland saw increased investment and opportunity.

East Cleveland is now one of seventeen Ohio cities--containing over a fifth of the state’s population--that include sexual orientation in their civil rights codes, and one of a dozen that include gender identity. Most of these include employment, housing and public accommodations, and some include ethnic intimidation, education, union practices and other areas. The measures in Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights and Lakewood do not include employment or public accommodations.

No Ohio or federal civil rights law includes any protections for sexual orientation or gender identity, although laws in 21 other states and the District of Columbia do.

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