Local Gay Rights Group Intolerant of Dissent

Humans — straight or gay, black or white, Democrat or Republican — often are creatures driven by ego, power or a need for control and inevitably will find ways to organize themselves around common interests and goals. It should come as little surprise, t

In an old episode of the sitcom Will & Grace, the male half of the titular pair scoffed when his flighty pal, Jack, said the gay mafia was out to get him for booting one of his well-connected students out of an acting class.

“Jack! Enough,” Will shouts near the episode's end. “There is no gay mafia. It does not exist.”

Will soon changes his mind once a waiter purposely spills wine on him, and singer Elton John reveals himself from around a corner. “Don't joke, it's real,” Elton says. “So watch yourself, Will, ’cause we're watching you. One wrong move, and this bitch will be back.”

An exaggeration of reality? Yes, but not by much.

Humans — straight or gay, black or white, Democrat or Republican — often are creatures driven by ego, power or a need for control and inevitably will find ways to organize themselves around common interests and goals.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Cincinnati's gay power structure didn't react well to a recent CityBeat article detailing how Equality Cincinnati strong-armed itself into talks last year about establishing a domestic partnership registry (“Symbolism vs. Substance on Gay Rights,” issue of Sept. 15). What was surprising, however, was the arrogance and condescension seeping from EC's reaction.

The news article explained how a wide-ranging coalition of grassroots activists including Cameron Tolle of Impact Cincinnati, Michael Chanak of the Greater Cincinnati Gay & Lesbian Center and bloggers Barry Floore and Jason Haap, among others, lobbied City Hall to create a registry in early 2009. Modeled after similar ones in three Ohio cities including Cleveland, the registry would've provide a city-issued certificate, for a fee, to same-sex couples who lived together and were responsible for each other’s welfare. The document could be used in efforts to help secure benefits from employers and insurance companies.

Also, the registry would've provided an official recognition that the city itself was tolerant and inclusive of all its citizens.

The activists had the ear of some City Council members, who were gearing up to take a vote before the November 2009 council elections. Although some of the support was altruistic, council members also realized the registry could help generate some cash as the city was facing a $50 million deficit.

That's when EC joined the fray. It's best known as the organization that spearheaded the repeal of Article 12 in 2004 and, well, not much else legislatively in the six years since. (It does help sponsor LGBT groups like the Cincinnati Men's Chorus and donate money to politicians.)

Using its clout, Equality Cincinnati told city officials it would assume responsibility for creating a purely symbolic registry. EC believed an officially sanctioned registry would trigger an expensive lawsuit by Citizens for Community Values (CCV) or other conservative groups and interfere with its efforts to lobby for extending benefits to the domestic partners of city employees.

By scuttling the city-backed registry, EC has effectively killed the idea for at least three years and perhaps longer. That's because City Council became more conservative after 2009's elections and not enough members support the idea now. It won't be until 2013, when several incumbents can't seek reelection due to term limits, that the group's makeup could undergo a major shift politically.

All of this was described in the article, which was published on Wednesday, Sept 15. Three days later, on Saturday, the article's writer, Will Kohler, received a letter at his home from Scott Knox, an EC board member who's also a prominent attorney. The two-page, single-spaced letter was written on letterhead from Knox's law firm and sharply criticized the article's tone.

“The bottom line for me is that I'm not willing to encourage getting us and our allies on City Council into an expensive fight with CCV over something with no substance,” Knox wrote.

He then lists EC's efforts in 2004 at overturning Article 12, a charter amendment that prohibited Cincinnati officials from passing any laws allowing gays and lesbians to seek protection from discrimination, and then the city’s adoption 18 months later of the Human Rights Ordinance.

It was instructive that those urging us to move forward, initiatives be damned, were not those who gave money, sweat and time to … the Article 12 fights,” Knox added. “Do the people who want to risk fighting another CCV referendum have the ability, time and energy to raise the $1 million we spent in the last campaign? Will they meet with P&G, unions, church groups, the Chamber of Commerce, and assign their weekends for a year to fight that referendum, as we did?”

Perhaps I should have realized the article would elicit such a strong reaction based on EC's attitudes while it was being prepared. While seeking comment, members treated the topic like a hot potato, passing it from one to another. Later, they wanted everyone interviewed for the article — not just EC members — to sit down together “to make sure we're all on the same page” and didn't harm EC's reputation.

So much for respecting diversity and differing views.

The kicker is that Kohler tried to interview Knox for the article, but he declined. Then, rather than send a letter to CityBeat, the attorney tracked down the writer's unpublished home address and sent his missive there. Kohler, rightfully I think, viewed this as an intimidation tactic, although he was undeterred.

On the same day the article appeared, local resident Ken Smith posted a comment on the online version at CityBeat's Web site, criticizing EC and the Human Rights Campaign for being too concerned with image and elitism. “While I am a member of EC, I have never heard from them until last week when they asked me to renew my membership.”

That night, Smith and his partner, Chris Henry, were abruptly dismissed from serving on the host committee for a local politician's fundraiser by Mary Armor.

“I read the below article in CityBeat today and I strongly disagree with your comments and I am so sorry that this community is torn apart by such dissension once again,” Armor wrote. “While I believe in freedom of speech, I also believe that we must show support for our common goals.”

Here's a translation: Toe the line; we must not disagree in polite society, dear.

For an organization fighting for the rights that would be denied people just because they're different from the majority, that's an odd stance to take. It screams, “It might be OK to love who you choose, but not to believe as you choose.”

When I wrote to Knox about the letter he sent to our writer's home, I asked him if only Equality Cincinnati has the right to press ahead with any local LGBT initiatives, because only it devotes volunteer time and raises money for subsequent legal efforts.

Knox replied, “My opinion is that any group or individual who wants to petition its government for redress has the absolute right to do so. Whether that's wise strategically depends on that group, its ability to foresee consequences and make contingency plans, its ability to coordinate with the any necessary politicians and/or the community, its ability to follow through, and whether they're cognizant of the history of similar struggles and what

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