Does the arrival of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in Cincinnati mean the time is right for a referendum to guarantee equal rights without regard to sexual orientation?
Actually, it means the opposite, according to Bill Bridges, state coordinator for HRC. Activists have a lot of work to do before asking voters to reverse the ban they passed in 1993, prohibiting laws guaranteeing equal rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender (GLBT) persons.
"I think it could be years coming," Bridges says.
But HRC, a 400,000-member nationwide grassroots lobby for sexual equality, is ready to help.
"I think the time in Cincinnati is right to start this work," Bridges says. "I couldn't see the point of doing it until I saw a shift in spirit in Cincinnati. I'm really excited about what I see happening in Cincinnati."
Although a repeal initiative is not on the ballot this year, the mayoral race has helped renew interest in Article 12, more commonly known as Issue 3, as it originally appeared on the ballot. Charter candidate Courtis Fuller has called for making repeal a priority for the city.
Mayor Charlie Luken has said he'll keep "an open mind" about repeal proposals.
That is the one quality needed to succeed, according to Bridges.
"We as a responsible GLBT community have to go out and educate people about why basic human rights for everyone is OK, and why restricting people's rights — in the name of God or anyone else — is not OK," he says. "Demonizing and finger-pointing do nothing for us. They build barriers. There's always reason for compassion and understanding. We as a gay community in Cincinnati have not done our job."
The mayor's race is not the only reason Article 12 is under discussion again. The April rebellion that followed the Cincinnati Police shooting of an unarmed African American has spotlighted civil rights in this city. A study by the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce showed Article 12 has caused the loss of an estimated $63 million in convention business.
Bridges says he knows firsthand the cost of discrimination. He has a complaint pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over a job termination that resulted, he says, from his sexual preference. Article 12 is not merely a theoretical menace, he says.
"The reason we have laws against discrimination because of race, religion and nationality is because we're a country that discriminates," Bridges says. "To be part of society and pay your taxes and then have people take your rights away is very terrible. I'm funding my own discrimination, and I should be very angry about that."
But the fact is Bridges does not project anger. He refuses to damn his opponents, preferring to say they need education.
"I can't tell you I believe they're malicious, evil people," he says. "I believe they have God's spirit inside them. A lot of this stuff just comes out of fear."
Bridges cites his meeting with U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Cincinnati) as an example of the role HRC hopes to play.
"Every move that we make in Cincinnati has to be reason, and not passion," he says. "Let's face it. Steve Chabot is not gay. How can he know about all these issues? We haven't come forward to give this man a fair break. It's what we have to do."
If outreach and advocacy — rather than strident demonstrations — are the key to repealing Cincinnati's discrimination against gays and lesbians, Bridges seems well-named. He breaches the gap between sexual revolution and conservative values by highlighting common interests.
"I don't think you'll find a community with stronger family values than the gay community, because we have had to scratch and dig for it," Bridges says. "We've done it because we've had to."
By contrast, the people who backed Issue 3 come across as anything but moral — or even patriotic.
"There's a group of people who organized to put it in the charter so gay people can never get protection," Bridges said. "That's not spiritual. That's mean-spirited. We live in America. Isn't it okay that we disagree morally and spiritually?"