Cover Story: Equal, Not Separate

Local gay rights movement takes its first major post-Article 12 step with the formation of Equality Cincinnati

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What's After Article 12

Last fall's repeal of Article 12 was rightly seen as a turning point in Cincinnati history.

Not only did it remove the 11-year-old city charter amendment that blocked the city from granting legal protection based on sexual orientation — making Cincinnati the only U.S. city to officially discriminate against its own citizens — but the repeal vote occurred on the same Election Day that anti-gay marriage measures passed overwhelmingly across the country, including in Ohio and Kentucky.

In one fell swoop, Cincinnati changed from being seen as a city hostile to gays and lesbians to a community that could be on the vanguard of the gay rights movement.

In the seven months since Article 12 was repealed in a 54-46 percent vote, however, the victory has had more symbolic value than concrete impact. Cincinnati didn't collapse under a rain of fire and brimstone, as many ultraconservative repeal opponents predicted, but neither did it become a haven for gays and lesbians overnight.

The first significant step forward in Cincinnati's post-Article 12 gay community happened last week with the announcement of the formation of a new nonprofit organization, Equality Cincinnati, from the merger of three well-known groups. The second major step, a re-energized and expanded Pride Festival, is scheduled for this weekend in Clifton and Northside (see "Pride Thrives" on page 28).

Gary Wright has been in the middle of many of the progressive ideas that have slowly moved Cincinnati toward greater acceptance of gays and lesbians.

After joining Procter & Gamble in the early 1990s, he and others began lobbying company officials to offer domestic partner health benefits, which the company finally did after A.G. Lafley became president and CEO in 2000.

Last year, Wright took a leave of absence from P&G to serve as chairman of Citizens to Restore Fairness (CRF), the organization that put the repeal of Article 12 on the city ballot.

He led a dedicated core of gay, straight, black, white, young and not-so-young Cincinnatians in the long, hard-fought campaign that ultimately prevailed in November. (CityBeat named Wright and his volunteers "Persons of the Year" for their outreach efforts; see "Healing the Hurt," issue of Feb. 18-24, 2004.)

And now Wright has been instrumental in birthing Equality Cincinnati, which he announced June 1 at the Pride Is Alive rally on Fountain Square. Both Stonewall Cincinnati and One Human Family will be dissolving, and their boards will join with CRF's board to form a new 501(c)3 nonprofit. Final approval from the Stonewall and One Human Family boards is expected by June 22.

Wright says he expects Equality Cincinnati to eventually form a political action committee (PAC) from the remains of Stonewall's PAC when that organization disbands. The PAC will allow for fund-raising and involvement in endorsing ballot issues and candidates, which could make Equality Cincinnati an instant player in the political maneuvering over gay rights, including hate crimes and gay marriage legislation.

Once again, Wright says, he feels called to help lead the fight for equality in Cincinnati. After last year's campaign, he returned to his job at Procter & Gamble, but it quickly became apparent that his heart was elsewhere.

"It only took me a couple of days back at my desk at P&G before I realized that just wasn't where I wanted to be anymore," he says.

Wright left Procter & Gamble Feb. 1 on good terms, grateful for everything the company did to support him and CRF — P&G was a visible (and controversial) monetary sponsor of the repeal campaign — and ready to devote himself full-time to the cause.

He's even been kicking around a strategy for winning the mother of all gay rights battles — legalizing gay marriage — going as far as drafting sample language for a state constitutional amendment in Ohio. Here's how Wright would define and defend marriage, in what he calls the Religious Marriage Protection Amendment:

The right of the people to enter into marriage as defined by their religion or conscience shall not be abridged by the State of Ohio. The State shall not compel any minister of any faith to perform a marriage against his or her beliefs, nor shall any religion be required to recognize marriages by ministers of any other faith.

For the purposes of the laws of the State, "marriage" shall mean civil marriage between any two persons 16 years of age or older who are not married to anyone else and who are not closely related by blood or marriage. Civil marriage shall not be construed as infringing on the free practice of religion as defined above.

It's a smart attempt to reach out to average Ohioans with a message of fairness and religious tolerance while trying to wrestle the "values" argument away from the religious right.

That battle remains farther down the road, Wright says, as Equality Cincinnati gears up to focus first on specific gay rights issues around the Tristate. But he's also clear that, if full equality is the ultimate goal, marriage is firmly on the agenda.

CityBeat: Why merge three organizations into one?

Gary Wright: I started talking about this subject with the leaders of One Human Family right after the campaign last fall. We were just talking about the directions each of our organizations were going to take, and we wanted to capitalize on the momentum of a winning campaign and of all the relationships we'd formed. Stonewall eventually came into the discussion. We've been spending the last couple of months on the procedural matters of ending nonprofit organizations and starting a new one.

We can simply accomplish more as a big group than each of the three groups can by themselves. Everyone in the three groups understood this was the right way to go.

CB: What are Equality Cincinnati's goals?

GW: We want full equality for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered in Greater Cincinnati, which means protection from violence and intimidation. Removing Article 12 from Cincinnati's city charter was a start, but we still don't have a level playing field for GLBT. Initially we'll focus on better hate crimes legislation and human rights ordinances.

It's just a question of timing to introduce a rights ordinance in Cincinnati like what Covington passed in 2003. But we also need to make this very much a regional effort. Cincinnati is crucial, but I'd like to see a human rights ordinance passed in Norwood, for instance, or even Sharonville (home of Citizens for Community Values, which led opposition to the Article 12 repeal last year).

What Covington did with its ordinance has been all positive for that community. Covington has established itself as accepting of gays and lesbians, and gay people there are proud of their city. The way they did it was very thorough, addressing everyone's concerns about what a human rights ordinance would do and not do.

CB: The Article 12 win obviously has bolstered your enthusiasm, yet Ohio, Kentucky and other states passed anti-gay marriage amendments in the same election. Why do you think this is the time to push for full equality, which includes full marriage rights?

GW: I believe there's a direction to history. We're heading for complete acceptance of GLBT rights in this country. It's clearly the way American history is going. Wal-Mart and other companies that don't treat people well can see the handwriting on the wall, to use a Biblical expression, and they'll come around eventually.

The way I see this situation playing out is in full rights belonging to natural individuals. It's really a pretty simple way of looking at things, though a lot of people don't get it. Basically, the only thing that can have rights is a person, and every person has the same rights as everyone else — or they should have.

But just because history is moving toward full equality doesn't mean there won't be bumps in the road. It doesn't mean that progress doesn't require action.

CB: Clearly a large bump in the road are the religious fundamentalists who pushed Article 12 in the first place, pushed Issue 1 in Ohio and elsewhere and are opposed to gay rights of any kind. How do you overcome the popularity of their conservative message?

GW: Only about 25 percent of Ohioans are what you'd consider the core conservative religious voters. Everyone else needs to be convinced about the issue of religious freedom, which is what the debate over marriage is really about. The state has no business choosing one religion or another as preferable.

Citizens for Community Values outspent us in the Article 12 campaign by $500,000, and yet we won. People saw through their deceptive messages and marketing. CCV generated only $370 in individual contributions. Only four people, and one of them was Phil Burress (CCV president).

With Issue 1, there wasn't enough time to organize to work against it. If we knew who was the money behind getting Issue 1 on the ballot and passing it, it would have been very eye-opening.

CB: Is your proposed Religious Marriage Protection Amendment geared to the other 75 percent of Ohioans who might be convinced of the merits of full equality?

GW: Sure. The religious discussion surrounding gay rights is still evolving. Some religious denominations support gay marriage, and more will in the future. Full equality has a moral component that appeals to many religious people.

The conservative tradition is to support individual rights and religious freedom. I really feel that Americans' rights as individuals are being played out in the gay rights struggle. This is the nexus for the overall struggle to protect individual rights from government intrusion, from religious intolerance, from whatever.

The religious tradition in the U.S. Constitution is liberal, not conservative as the right wing would have you believe. The founding fathers were liberal with respect to religion — inclusive, tolerant, open minded.

Conservative Christians have reinterpreted the Bible over the years to be more inclusive of blacks and women. They used to use the Bible to justify discrimination against blacks and women — you know, separation of the races and women's subservience to men. Twenty to 30 years from now religious people won't be able to find a negative statement about gays in the Bible.

CB: Is one-to-one communication, which you credit with winning the Article 12 repeal, the key to Equality Cincinnati's goals?

GW: Absolutely. Everyone saw how Citizens to Restore Fairness succeeded with broad support. People rallied behind the single cause. Everyone in Equality Cincinnati is committed to full equality for GLBT. Everyone contributed something to the campaign last year, and we won in spite of what's going on in the rest of the country.

The critical ingredient in the campaign was door-to-door communication. We'll continue to use that. We also have to work with and through the media. Both elements are important.

The normalcy and breadth of Cincinnati's gay community became apparent during the Article 12 campaign. Every time The Enquirer or CityBeat did a story on the campaign, we came across as regular people. We had a lot of one-on-one conversations. We talked to business leaders directly to explain our positions to them.

City voters voted the right way on Issue 1 (it actually lost in the city of Cincinnati), so I think we had a real impact on people's perceptions about gay rights.

I was pleased with 54 percent on the Article 12 vote. I would have liked 60 (percent). But it takes time to build up numbers like that.

People are now coming to us for advice on how to run a winning campaign. But there's not a magic formula. The results just proved what we knew all along — that people are fundamentally in favor of fairness. We just had to talk to people and get our positions in front of them, and they responded.

CB: There's some disagreement even among those who support gay rights about how quickly gay marriage and full equality are being pushed. Some think it's gone too fast, providing an easy target for the religious right and a wary public. Others say that, if full equality is inevitable, why wait? Locally, Stonewall has had very public squabbles over contentious political issues. How do you keep this merged organization focused?

GW: The civil rights movement and the women's movement weren't easy journeys. There was a lot of internal strife along the way, a lot of personalities involved. It's the same with gay rights. But they ultimately accomplished amazing goals, and we hope to as well.

We want to preserve the legacy of Stonewall. The Article 12 campaign helped heal divisions within the gay rights community. It focused everyone on one thing and overcame the divide. We'll continue to disagree, like any organization, but we'll move beyond the divisions.

Gay marriage will take a long time to get. If full equality is the goal, that doesn't mean there aren't intermediate steps along the way. You might not be at the end of the road, but you still have to walk along the path.

CB: As you move along, will Equality Cincinnati focus solely on gay rights issues or, like Stonewall and One Human Family, will you participate in debates over citywide and regional issues?

GW: Our purpose is education and advocacy. We're a nonprofit, so we have limits on how much we can lobby. We'll probably create our own PAC for political purposes.

The focus of Equality Cincinnati is on a very specific mission. We still have allies all over, so we want to stay involved in a lot of issues. If we can make the case that an issue involves our interests, we'll get involved.

Police-community relations, for instance, are something we could weigh in on. I feel that the police are still under-reporting hate crimes. Enforcement against those kinds of crimes must be fair.

Cincinnati's political community took notice of us because of the thousands of people we were able to get involved in last year's campaign. But whether we endorse candidates and ballot issues like Stonewall's PAC did, I don't know yet.

CB: Your then-employer, Procter & Gamble, made a very public show of support for your efforts to repeal Article 12, and in response some right-wing groups called for a boycott of P&G products. There's been a lot of debate over Microsoft's involvement in a gay rights legislation in Washington state — first they supported it and then, after conservative groups applied pressure, they took a neutral stand; they've since gone back to a supportive position. How do you view corporate involvement in the gay rights movement?

GW: P&G has a number of high-ranking people who value the contributions the gay community has made and will make to the company, and they've always seen the big picture of inclusion. It's a complex situation, since P&G operates in a lot of countries and communities with various local customs and values. They have to choose the best ways to support those local communitites.

Do I think we would have won the election without P&G's support? Maybe.

In some ways I wish corporations had less influence on social policy. Big businesses tend to be supported by conservatives who favor business policy, and those people don't tend to be all that socially progressive. Yet the average conservative is protective of their individual rights. Those conservatives are now being held hostage by the religious right.

CB: Besides hate crimes legislation, human rights ordinances and the Religious Marriage Protection Amendment, what's on your radar screen going forward?

GW: Well, if a constitutional amendment on marriage comes out of Washington, D.C., we have to be sure the Ohio legislature votes it down. We have to focus on the states and have to influence the legislators. We can't depend on the courts to interpret these constitutional amendments correctly. We have to get each state to vote down the federal amendment.

Of course, 2006 is important in Ohio, with (Secretary of State) Ken Blackwell running for governor as the standard-bearer for the religious right. (Attorney General) Jim Petro might be considered more moderate, but he chose (Hamilton County Commissioner) Phil Heimlich as his running mate. Whose votes is he courting with that move?

CB: What's the legacy of Citizens to Restore Fairness and the repeal of Article 12?

GW: The symbolism of winning Article 12 was very important. I think more gays are comfortable being out in Cincinnati. We're a lot closer to full equality than before.

The June 1 event on Fountain Square was good. There's a sense of empowerment that comes from these types of public events that will make a difference in the long run. We need to keep the momentum going.

On the other hand, we have work to do in a number of areas. If 40 percent of Cincinnati is black, for instance, then 40 percent of gay people here are black, but we're not fully engaged with the African-American community. Many black churches worked against our repeal efforts.

The great middle ground of Cincinnati and Ohio doesn't yet agree with us on full equality, but they will. It agrees with their sense of fairness. Our values are their values. ©

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