CLEVELAND, Ohio – Since Ohio Rep. Nickie Antonio has been in office, she has fought to have Ohio’s civil rights protections to include LGBTQ people.
Six tries have been unsuccessful.
“In the past, they have just been left to languish in committee,” she said of previous bills seeking to have the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer community included in nondiscrimination laws.
The Democrat from Lakewood is hoping this year will be lucky number seven. She introduced House Bill 160, “The Ohio Fairness Act,” which would make it illegal to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations.
Antonio is optimistic this attempt will meet a better faith partly because the bill has the backing of more than 200 businesses in Ohio. The companies are part of Ohio Business Competes, or OBC, which is pushing for nondiscriminatory policies to be instituted on a statewide basis. The coalition is a project of the ACLU of Ohio, Equality Ohio, which lobbies for LGBTQ rights; the Human Rights Campaign, a major LGBTQ civil rights advocacy and political organization and TransOhio, which advocates for transgender people.
Ohio Rep. Louis Blessing III, Republican of Colerain Township and on the committee, did not return calls The Plain Dealer placed to him regarding the matter. And the Ohio Chamber of Commerce has not yet taken a stance on the bill, said Don Boyd, the organization’s director of labor and legal affairs.
Lynne Bowman, senior regional field director for the Human Rights Campaign, however, believes such strong business support for the bill will have an impact.
“What we have seen in other states, where there are business coalitions that come together on nondiscrimination legislation and other types of pro-LGBTQ laws, is that they have existing relationships with legislators and they have political power in the state because of the numbers of peoples they employ and what they bring to the economy,” she said. “So, their voices tend to be fairly loud. Their influence tends to be fairly strong.”
Many companies with operations in the Cleveland area belong to OBC, including AT&T, Eaton, General Electric, Hyland, Huntington, KeyBank, Lubrizol, Sherwin-Williams and University Hospitals. Several of these companies were among those participating in a recent OBC news conference on Public Square.
Antonio said for at least 15 years there have been attempts to include the LGBTQ community in Ohio’s civil rights laws. Currently, it is illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, military status, national origin, disability, age and ancestry. However, it is still legal to refuse to hire people because they are LGBTQ, refuse to rent them an apartment or serve them at a business.
Antonio said though her bill was introduced in March, the chairman of the Government Accountability and Oversight Committee has not scheduled a public hearing.
“I want to be able to have people who are for the bill to come in and talk about why they think it is important,” she said. “I really want to hear from people who are not supportive – if there are any – and find out why they don’t support it.”
Boyd added that while the state chamber doesn’t have a firm position on HB 160 yet, “we do believe that employees deserve robust protections from discrimination,” Boyd said. “Discrimination of any type has no place in the workplace.”
Ohio is one of 28 states in which LGBTQ people are not covered by civil rights laws, according to OBC. Bills introduced in Congress, over the years, to make LGBTQ people a protected class have been unsuccessful. Nineteen municipalities in Ohio have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as of July, according to the ACLU. They include Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland, Lakewood and Olmsted Falls.
Ohio will continue to threaten its competitive business advantage, if the General Assembly fails to pass Antonio’s bill, said Alana Jochum, Equality Ohio’s executive director. She said growing companies, including those in the technology sector, often value nondiscriminatory LGBTQ policies. It will be difficult for Ohio to attract these companies as well as to attract and retain LGBTQ workers and others, who place a high premium on such policies.
“It is an economic issue,” she said.
Antonio said many incorrectly assume that the U.S. Supreme Court recognizing same-sex marriage also meant civil rights were extended to the LGBTQ community.
Mike Brickner, the ACLU’s senior policy director at the ACLU, said Anotnio’s bill is needed because it offers the LGBTQ community an option for fighting discrimination.
He said employment discrimination against this community continues. For example, an employer is impressed with a candidate’s online application and grants the applicant an in-person interview.
“You walk into your interview, and they didn’t realize you were trans until that time.” he said. “The interview either stops or either goes really poorly.”
With housing discrimination, Brickner said apartments and houses suddenly are no longer available when landlords discover they are encountering LGBTQ renters. With public accommodation discrimination, he said matters could become hostile.
“We have a case here in Cleveland where two transgender women went to a local business to buy frozen pizzas,” Brickner said. “There was a security guard that started yelling at them, calling them derogatory names and would not allow them to purchase the pizzas simply because they were transgender. This is the type of harassment many LGBTQ face on a daily basis.”
Michelle Tomallo, is president and co-founder of Fit Technologies in Cleveland. Her company was among the first to join OBC. The coalition has gone from 60 to 200 members since January. She believes this may be a good omen for HB 160, and is optimistic “that there could be some movement on the bill in the fall.”
“It’s helpful that all these business have signed on,” said Tomallo, board president of Plexus, which is part of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. “We know the power of having more – and in the best way – louder business voices. We know it is going to take some significant pressure (to pass the bill.)”