Cover Story: Persons of the Year: Healing the Hurt

Citizens to Restore Fairness are building relationships one person, one house at a time

Feb 18, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden and Sean Hughes

It's exactly the kind of office you'd expect for this grassroots political organization. The donated space has four or five old desks, a few computers, some telephones.

Hand-written posters and low-tech maps are taped to the walls. The heat could probably work a little better.

But Citizens to Restore Fairness (CRF) couldn't ask for a better location for their campaign headquarters: a ground-floor space at the foot of the Ludlow Viaduct, where Northside — Cincinnati's most gay-friendly neighborhood — begins.

Every day a handful of paid staff and volunteers gathers to work out the logistics of their campaign to repeal Article 12. Every weekend dozens of workers fan out from here to canvass residential streets, taking the campaign message door to door.

Maybe a CRF sign could be posted on the side of the building, someone wonders aloud. A lot of eyeballs pass this place on Hamilton Avenue.

That's a job for another day, someone else says.

The next week, on Feb. 9, CRF would officially launch the campaign to repeal Article 12 of the Cincinnati City Charter, which prohibits the city from passing laws granting legal protection for gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Civic leaders would gather at the campaign news conference to put well-known faces on the repeal effort.

On this night, there's still a calm before the hoopla. The mostly anonymous people who are the backbone of CRF reflect on what they've accomplished so far and on the work ahead.

"Article 12 hurts on a personal level," says Ted Jackson, CRF's full-time field organizer. "When your neighbors pass a law to say you don't deserve rights, it hurts. People are still waiting for that hurt to be healed, and that falls on us."

Justin Turner, who moved to Cincinnati last fall to become CRF's campaign manager, says the organization is well positioned to educate voters on Article 12 before the citywide vote on Nov. 2.

"To be 10 months out (from the election) with 2,000 active volunteers, that's exciting," he says. "More than 400 people helped with signature petitions on Election Day 2003. The momentum is incredible. The plan from here on out is to have five-minute conversations with voters over and over."

Such old-fashioned politics will, of course, be supplemented by modern methods like e-mail, a Web site ( and an advertising blitz. But CRF leaders clearly feel that one-on-one meetings — especially about such a misunderstood topic as gay rights — will make the difference between winning and losing in November.

"We're building relationships, lasting relationships," says CRF Chairman Gary Wright. "Our legacy could be a very changed community in Cincinnati."

For their dedication to laying the necessary groundwork for repealing Article 12 — one of Cincinnati's last connections to its oppressive, closed-minded past — CityBeat names Citizens to Restore Fairness our 2003 Persons of the Year.

'That's a start'
Wright's story in many ways epitomizes what CRF is all about. He's stood up for workplace fairness during his decade-plus at Procter & Gamble, losing battles along the way but ultimately prevailing.

In the early 1990s, after moving to Cincinnati for a job with P&G, Wright got involved in a regular social gathering of gay and lesbian P&G employees. He says he and others were surprised how many gay employees — both those who were out and those who kept their sexuality hidden — there were in such a historically conservative corporation.

After the passage of Issue 3 in 1993, which added Article 12 to Cincinnati's charter, Wright and several of his co-workers decided to see if they could change attitudes on a somewhat smaller scale and began lobbying P&G management to offer domestic partner health benefits. Wright says their sales pitch was simple: Fairness was good for employees, and good employees were good for business.

Wright's efforts went for naught throughout the '90s, but he says he maintained cordial relations with P&G's upper management and was never punished professionally for his activism. Slowly, as younger managers moved up through the company — including key people who transferred to Cincinnati headquarters from Canada and overseas — open minds began to flourish.

Finally, Wright says, A.G. Lafley's appointment as president and CEO in 2000 tipped the scales.

"He just told everyone to get it done," Wright says, and P&G soon began offering health coverage to employees' domestic partners regardless of marital status or sexual orientation.

When P&G's twin towers didn't implode and the world didn't come to an end, Wright and his friends thought perhaps the time was right to finally take on Article 12. Stonewall Cincin-nati had formed Citizens to Restore Fairness as a subcommittee to explore repeal options, and in 2002 it was spun off as a separate nonprofit group.

"I kept thinking about how the city of Cincinnati is shrinking," says Wright, 50, of East Walnut Hills. "We have to keep people here and bring new people here. The best way to do that is to be open to others who are different."

To put a repeal of Article 12 on the ballot, CRF would have to obtain signatures of about 6,700 registered city voters — a percentage of ballots cast in the previous year's citywide election. The signature drive began in April 2003.

The first big test — and the first big influx of volunteers — came in May, when CRF sent volunteers to city polling locations for the primary election that saw voters pass the Cincinnati Public Schools tax levy. That's when Terry Payne, a longtime Stonewall supporter and board member, first became involved.

Payne got caught up firsthand in one of the defining conflicts over Article 12 — the inability of many religious leaders to separate moral objections to homosexuality from natural support for fairness and equality.

He was working a polling place at a downtown church when the pastor called the police to remove him and other CRF volunteers (see Porkopolis, issue of May 14-20, 2003). The minister said his objection to homosexuality was "a moral issue," but police officers said the volunteers had the legal right to gather voter signatures.

"When people are discriminated against, we all feel it," says Payne, 40, of College Hill. "And when you're moved to take action, the light just goes on."

CRF collected 2,385 signatures that day, which — along with Covington City Commission's unanimous vote to expand its Human Rights Ordinance to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing and employment — moved the group forward into the summer.

Jackson, an event planner by trade, discovered CRF while helping with a fund-raiser in June. He volunteered for four months, leading the effort to finish off signature collections in November on the day of Cincinnati City Council elections.

Now he's in charge of CRF volunteers, who are being asked to canvass neighborhoods to talk about Article 12 and eventually will be assigned all the little things a political campaign demands.

"I'm hoping to have 8,000 to 9,000 volunteers, maybe 10,000," says Jackson, 34, of Clifton. "I go do talks at college campuses every day. I do outreach to churches all over town. We can't do this without volunteers who believe in our mission."

Rex Van Alstine literally stumbled on to CRF after the Gay Pride Parade last summer. A retired pastor, he'd moved to Cincinnati from Lexington, Ky., in January 2003 with his partner, who took a job here.

"When he told me he was interested in the job in Cincinnati, I immediately thought of Article 12," says Van Alstine, 60, of Finneytown.

Meeting CRF people at their booth at the post-parade festival, he quickly offered to volunteer. Although he was in the office almost every day right before the November election, he says he limits his office work now to Fridays only so he can spend time looking for a full-time job.

Like many of the CRF leaders, he wasn't sure what kind of reception he'd get walking up to people's front doors to talk about Article 12.

"My first time out, I was nervous," Van Alstine says. "I went five or six houses talking to friendly, supportive people, and then I got a 'No.' But they were friendly, too."

"Most of us haven't ever worked on a political campaign, much less a gay rights campaign," Jackson says. "I tell you, it's hard to walk up to someone's house and say, 'I'd like to talk to you about gay rights in Cincinnati.' "

Jackson tells the story of a volunteer named Frank, who joined a group of CRF folks canvassing in Hyde Park.

"Frank is gay and he's Jewish," Jackson says, "and one of the first houses he approaches he sees a large crucifix through the front window, and he gets scared. But it turns out the woman who lives there has seven kids, and two of them are gay. She tells Frank she'll support the repeal of Article 12. You just don't know until you ask."

Another important aspect that CRF didn't realize until talking to Cincinnatians is the lack of basic awareness of Article 12.

"I couldn't go five houses without someone saying they didn't know Article 12 was still on the books," Van Alstine says. "When you explain to them what Article 12 says, they can't believe the law exists."

In fact, a large number of registered Cincinnati voters polled in 2002 were unaware of the existence of Article 12. Yet, when told about the charter provision, 62 percent said they'd support its repeal.

The telephone poll was instigated by the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), the culmination of five years of studying gay rights issues as public policy. Chip Harrod, executive director of NCCJ's Cincinnati chapter, says that Cincinnati's dubious distinction as the only U.S. city with an anti-gay charter provision caught his organization's eye.

"We basically wanted to know if feelings had changed locally about this law," Harrod says.

When the study clearly showed that attitudes had in fact changed — Issue 3 passed overwhelmingly in 1993 — NCCJ decided to merge its public education efforts on Article 12 with CRF. NCCJ helped raise funds to begin hiring a campaign staff.

After a national search, Turner was hired as campaign manager. He and his wife, Susan, moved here from Florida in October and live downtown.

"I've always been involved in social justice causes, and this campaign is about an important issue of justice," says Turner, 32; Susan, 29, is a full-time volunteer for CRF and the de facto office manager. ("We got a two-for-one," Harrod says gratefully.)

Turner has been running issue campaigns in recent years, most recently a winning ballot campaign in Florida to create smoke-free workplaces. He once worked on the staff of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

His arrival — along with the hiring of three other full-time campaign positions, including Jackson and Payne — signaled a new era for CRF and for the movement to restore rights to all Cincinnatians. The November poll canvassing put an exclamation on the year's work.

"I drove all over the city on Election Day and kept looking at my map to see where everyone was working," Jackson says. "I'm still shocked at how many volunteers we had. We collected enough signatures on that one day to get us on the ballot."

"Some of the city council candidates were upset with us on Election Day because they couldn't round up poll workers," Wright says, laughing. "We had them all."

With the deluge of signatures gathered that day, CRF ended 2003 with more than 13,000 voter names — almost twice the required amount to get the repeal question on the ballot. CRF has been turning in signature sheets in small batches for "pre-certification," trying not to overwhelm the Board of Elections.

With its signature effort behind them, CRF leaders look to the next phase — the political campaign itself. The main goals are to avoid the pitfalls of the 1993 campaign and, of course, to connect with voters one to one.

"For so long we just kept trying to get from Point A to Point B, just keep moving one phase at a time, just keep going," Wright says. "Now we have a sustainable organization, and it's much more than the six or seven people in this room. It's hundreds and thousands of people who believe in this cause."

"Hey, the day after we repeal Article 12, life doesn't get better immediately for gay people in Cincinnati," Van Alstine says. "But the day after means it won't get any worse, and that's a start."

'Message having real impact'
CRF's leaders acknowledge that, if their effort is to work, they'll need to avoid making the same mistakes the pro-gay rights campaign did in '93.

First off, they won't be out-hustled and out-organized by the opposition. They might be outspent by the powerful conservative political groups that will pour money into Cincinnati to maintain Article 12, but CRF says they won't be out-worked.

Secondly, CRF won't allow the opposition to again pit local African Americans against gays. In 1993, a number of black religious leaders backed the conservative groups' message that civil rights was a finite pie and giving any rights to gays diminished the gains that African Americans had fought generations to secure.

Finally, CRF plans to run a positive campaign of putting faces with the issue of gay rights and building support one person and one household at a time. The '93 campaign fell into a negative tone, CRF leaders feel, especially ads that equated anti-gay conservatives with Nazis.

Based on its official coming out party, the Feb. 9 kickoff news conference, CRF has already made inroads toward those goals.

Dozens of well-known and well-connected Cincinnati-ans stood behind the podium at Christ Church Cathedral downtown as speakers announced broad-based support for the repeal of Article 12. There were current politicians (Mayor Charlie Luken, Councilmen John Cranley and David Crowley), retired politicians (Marian Spencer, Bobbie Sterne, Tom Neyer Jr.) and former council candidates (Rev. Damon Lynch III, John Schlagetter); executives from the local Democratic Party and Charter Committee; business leaders (Convention & Visitors Bureau President Lisa Haller, ex-DCI President Rick Greiwe, Towne Properties' Neil Bortz); and arts supporters (Kathy Wade, David Herriman).

Speakers included two African Americans (attorney Sharon Zealey, Rev. Damon Lynch Jr.); three clergy members (Lynch, Rev. Paula Jackson and Rabbi Robert Barr); a prominent business leader (Port Authority Chairman Jack Rouse); and Wright.

Looming behind those supporters — figuratively at least — was Wright's employer, Procter & Gamble. P&G's financial support of CRF gives this campaign an entirely different dynamic from 1993.

"Many businesses have tolerance policies, certainly more than ever before," Turner says. "People will be surprised at how many companies recognize issues of fairness and are behind our efforts."

Some people also were surprised that Luken called for the repeal of Article 12 in his Feb. 2 State of the City speech. His remarks simultaneously fed off the momentum CRF built in 2003 and provided cover for other mainstream Cincinnatians to join the cause.

Wright says he expects more political, business, arts and African-American leaders to inch toward endorsing the repeal campaign as they see how widespread the support is. His CRF colleagues agree.

"It will take time and patience and relationships," Jackson says. "We have to reach out, particularly to African Americans. Robert Harris (of NCCJ) and I are taking this on to start to build a web of support among black churches."

"We have to challenge perceptions," Turner says. "More than half of our key volunteers are heterosexual. I always caution our people, 'Don't assume how someone will vote on this issue or why they're involved.' "

As the CRF bandwagon picks up supporters — both The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Cincinnati Post endorsed the repeal of Article 12 last week — it can gain strength from another bandwagon that ran roughshod over Cincinnati recently: the creative class.

Peeling away the "young professional happy hour" machinery built to dazzle twentysomethings into thinking Cincinnati is hip, the essence of Richard Florida's creative class argument is this: Young, creative people can work anywhere they want to. They're not attracted to cities for the usual reasons we think (salaries, quality of schools, sports teams). Instead they seem to choose cities that are tolerant, diverse and open-minded.

Unfortunately, Cincinnati's deep-seated reputation for being intolerant, vanilla and closed-minded is difficult to turn around on a dime. The business community has had an easier time building new stadiums and expanding the convention center.

Finally, though, an opportunity presents itself to define Cincinnati as a forward-thinking, tolerant, friendly city — the repeal of Article 12. Local corporations that depend on attracting the best and the brightest talent (i.e., P&G) might see this campaign as crucial to their sales effort to the creative class.

The creative class — well, at least its guru — has already noticed. Florida calls P&G's involvement with CRF a leading example of how corporate America is changing its outdated ways.

"This message is having real impact," Florida says in a recent interview with City Paper, the alternative newsweekly in Pittsburgh, where he lives. "To cite just one case: In Cincinnati, Procter & Gamble has joined with civic activists and gays to try and overturn the heinous Article 12, which forbids the city from passing anti-discrimination legislation that would apply to gays and lesbians."

And so the repeal effort has attracted some strangely mainstream bedfellows: Procter & Gamble, Mayor Luken, seven of nine city council members, clergy of various faiths, leaders of Xavier University and College of Mount St. Joseph, The Enquirer, The Post. If the intention is to paint the pro-Article 12 forces as the fringe radicals this time, the campaign is off to a good start.

Behind the flashy names, however, Citizens to Restore Fairness is a bunch of ordinary people trying to make a difference. And that makes them extraordinary.

"This isn't our campaign to win," Van Alstine says. "It's someone else's to lose. The main thing I've learned in this campaign is that people are fundamentally for fairness."

See related editorial, Defense of Decency,.

See our Article 12 archives for further background stories.