News: A Queer Little Law

Cincinnati's anti-homosexual law gets a second look

May 24, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Jon Hughes/

Love is in the air at Gay Pride March 2000. Can equal rights and tolerance be far behind?

Slowly, quietly and carefully, opponents of Cincinnati's Issue 3 — the charter amendment excluding gays and lesbians from certain legal protection — are taking the city's pulse.

More businesses are offering same-sex partners full benefits, as are more cities, states and counties. More companies are including "sexual orientation" in anti-discrimination policies, and polls indicate at least 60 percent of Americans believe gays and lesbians shouldn't be subject to discrimination.

Are Cincinnatians more tolerant of gays and lesbians than in 1993, when 62 percent of voters approved Issue 3? A new study supported by civic and business groups hopes to answer that question and more: How has Issue 3 affected the city economically, politically and socially? Have religious leaders, some of whom campaigned for Issue 3, changed their minds at all?

The work is the first small step toward what some activists hope will be a repeal of Issue 3, which made Cincinnati the only city in the United States to use a charter amendment to exclude gays and lesbians from protection. But any repeal effort is fraught with political land mines, and Issue 3 opponents are very wary of them.

Some black leaders resent the fact that gays sometimes compare their struggle to the Civil Rights movement. Many churches are deeply divided on which part of the Bible takes precedent — "Love thy neighbor" or condemnations of homosexuality.

In any case, gay rights organizations such as Stonewall Cincinnati are dedicated to repealing Issue 3 — but only when they're sure the votes are there. Maybe that's next year, maybe a year later or maybe several years from now. But one day the city is going to have to deal with Issue 3 again.

Sensing increasing tolerance of gays and lesbians, 18 months ago the staff of the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) asked its board of directors to back a study of Issue 3. Chip Harrod, executive director of the local NCCJ chapter, says the board has hired a consultant for a 90-day, four-part study.

The consultant will interview a cross-section of community leaders, conduct an in-depth public opinion survey, convene focus groups and survey personnel policies of leading businesses and institutions.

Also backing the study is the Cincinnatus Association, Downtown Cincinnati Inc., the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau and Cincinnati 2012. NCCJ was part of the Equality Foundation, the coalition that fought Issue 3 before and after it passed in November 1993.

Harrod calls Issue 3 the "most vexing" issue in his 29 years in the diversity training field. With race relations now at the top of the city's agenda — another issue NCCJ cares deeply about — Harrod doesn't want to do anything to detract attention from that work and draw fire from black leaders. Chances are the Issue 3 study won't begin for a couple of months, or until the city adopts some meaningful changes to improve race relations.

A long, divisive campaign
Cincinnati City Council passed the Human Rights Ordinance in late 1992, banning discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodation based on, among other things, race, gender and sexual orientation.

Conservatives sprung into action and founded a committee, Equal Rights Not Special Rights, to back Issue 3, a charter amendment banning the city from using sexual orientation as a standard for legal protection or forming city policy. The coalition, which included conservative black ministers, ran a campaign discrediting homosexuality as an unalterable trait and portraying the Human Rights Ordinance as granting gays "special rights."

The opposition group, the Equality Foundation, ran TV ads comparing Issue 3 to Nazi policies and unsuccessfully sued to block the vote because of vague wording.

After voters approved Issue 3, the foundation again sued, saying the measure was unconstitutional. They won some federal court battles and lost others but were most hopeful in 1996, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a similar Colorado state law.

Meanwhile, in March 1995 city council voted 5-4 to remove sexual orientation from the Human Rights Ordinance.

The court battle ended in 1998, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a U.S. Appeals Court's ruling that upheld Issue 3. The chain of events still deeply frustrates Al Gerhardstein, attorney for the Equality Foundation. The Supreme Court apparently didn't see Cincinnati's law as a high priority compared to the Colorado law, which affected many more people, Gerhardstein says.

Lycette Nelson, executive director of Stonewall Cincinnati in the late 1990s, said she never believed the vote meant 62 percent of Cincinnati was anti-gay.

"Everything was so confused in terms of the campaign," says Nelson, now serving on a repeal group.

City Councilman Phil Heimlich stands by his earlier stance supporting Issue 3. He criticizes Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI) for its involvement in the study. Heimlich says DCI should focus on economic issues, not social ones.

Issue 3 has caused the loss of $63.7 million in convention business, according to the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau. But Heimlich doesn't believe it.

"I'm skeptical of (those numbers)," he says.

Issue 3 has boosted the city's family-friendly image, according to Heimlich.

"I think our city has had an image of very high community standards," he says.

Rev. K.Z. Smith, pastor of Corinthian Baptist Church in Avondale, is more certain of his support for Issue 3 than he was several years ago. Smith, who was the spokesperson for Equal Rights Not Special Rights, says he doesn't want gays and lesbians fired or kicked out of their apartments. But he believes homosexuality is wrong and should not qualify for protected status.

Besides, Smith says, how can gays and lesbians be suffering when Stonewall's own data show they have a relatively high average income?

But losing jobs and housing is exactly what has happened under Issue 3, according to Nelson. As Stonewall director, she received a few phone calls a month from gays and lesbians who believed they were treated unfairly.

"It was not infrequent," Nelson says.

Others in the community remain divided or silent.

The NAACP, neutral in the early 1990s, doesn't have a position on the issue now, because the board hasn't discussed it in a couple of years, according to Norma Holt Davis, president of the Cincinnati chapter of NAACP.

Members of the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati (MARC) are deeply divided on how to address homosexuality in terms of the Bible's teachings, according to MARC Director Duane Holm. MARC represents 16 Christian, Jewish and other denominations.

If P&G changed, maybe there's hope
Harrod and other Issue 3 opponents have reasons to be optimistic — at least about the nation. Of the Fortune 500 companies, 104 give employees' same-sex partners the same benefits as other couples. In 1993, only seven did so, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a national gay rights organization.

In 2000, at least 116 cities and counties included "sexual orientation" in anti-discrimination policies, compared to 42 in 1990. At least 260 Fortune 500 companies had similar anti-discrimination policies last year, including Procter & Gamble and Federated Department Stores.

"It was a relatively new issue for people a decade ago," Harrod says. "I think Cincinnati has made progress on this issue."

Federated, which employs 130,000 nationally, is the only local company on the Fortune list to offer domestic-partner benefits. The company began offering them in 1998, because it was the most requested benefit the company didn't have, according to Carol Sanger, vice president of corporate affairs for Federated.

Cincinnati 2012, the Olympic bid committee, at first didn't seem to want to address Issue 3 but now is a study co-sponsor.

"(Issue 3) has always been an issue that we knew could have an impact on our bid," says Nick Vehr, president of Cincinnati 2012.

Vehr declines to discuss his opinion but says Issue 3 was not rationally debated in the early 1990s. While on city council, he voted to remove protection for gays and lesbians from the Human Rights Ordinance.

"I think that, in retrospect, the issue, when it hit city council, unfortunately became a heated debate in the extremes," Vehr says. "Perhaps now, a half-decade later, a more reasoned and rational discussion will (happen), with no preconception of what the outcome will be."

Issue 3 continues to have a definite impact on the city's convention business.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati is hosting the National Association of Catholic Diocesan and Gay Ministries conference in 2002 — in Blue Ash, according to Peg Black, director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati's Family Life Office. Black expects 200 to 300 people to attend.

That's the latest in a long list of conventions that have avoided Cincinnati specifically because of Issue 3. No one besides the archdiocese has cited Issue 3 as a reason for skipping Cincinnati in the past two years, but that might or might not mean the law is still having a negative impact, according to Gale Harden-Renfro, communications director of the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Many churches are struggling to find the line separating their obligation to support human rights and their devotion to the Bible, Holm says. Few churches have reached a consensus, so few are likely to address Issue 3 head-on if it becomes a prominent topic again, he says.

Black, who has been working on a Catholic ministry for gays and lesbians for two years, says the archdiocese distinguishes the act of homosexuality from the homosexual person. While that's a more progressive stance than some churches, it still leaves many gays and lesbians feeling judged — and many conservatives upset.

"We do walk a fine line between compassion, fidelity and church leadership," Black says. "And we've ruffled a lot of people's feathers."

Black says the archdiocese doesn't presume to have all the answers.

"How do we live in the kingdom of God side by side?" she says. "We don't know. It's always a work in progress." ©