News: Out of Our Bedrooms

Covington ponders gay rights law; Cincinnati moves on hate crimes

Feb 5, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Doug Trapp

Violence and harassment targeting people for being gay ordisabled would become distinct offenses under a proposal by Cincinnati City Councilmen John Cranley (left) and David Crowley.

Covington might soon be able to promote itself as the tolerance capital of the Tristate.

The largest city in Northern Kentucky is about to hold public hearings on a proposed ordinance to advance equal protection for gays and other minorities at work and in housing choices.

Not to be left out, Cincinnati — long stigmatized as a closed-minded, even hateful city — is taking steps to prosecute misdemeanor crimes targeted at gays and other unprotected minorities.

Cincinnati City Councilmen John Cranley and David Crowley want to add actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender and disability to the list of classes protected by anti-harassment laws, which already include race, color, religion and national origin.

"All violence against persons is criminal and immoral, but American history has always punished crimes differently by considering the motivation of the offense," says an introduction to the proposal.

But that's not right, according to Councilman Chris Monzel and the conservative group Citizens For Community Values (CCV).

"A crime is a crime," Monzel says.

Almost all of the input for the Cincinnati proposal has been positive, according to Cranley. But both sides are bracing for a battle. CCV has the proposed ordinance at the top of its Web site.

The proposals in Covington and Cincinnati threaten to re-open old wounds dating back to 1993, when Cincinnati voters passed Issue 3, the charter amendment prohibiting council from giving gays and lesbians specific legal protections.

With the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) stalled in Congress again, the only movement on these issues is at the local level.

A first step
The Cincinnati proposal brings up an obvious question: With the 1993 amendment on the books (as Article 12), how can the city pass any laws protecting people from mistreatment for their sexual orientation?

Former City Councilman Todd Portune, now a Hamilton County Commissioner, proposed the same ordinance in 1998. It didn't pass. But former City Solicitor Fay Dupuis said the ordinance wouldn't violate Article 12 because it wouldn't give special protection to a specific class of people based on sexual orientation. Instead, it would enforce a "general, categorical, municipal anti-discrimination law," Dupuis said.

The proposal by Cranley and Crowley covers crimes such as menacing, assault and telephone harassment. It adds physical and mental disability, age, gender and sexual orientation to the classes covered by these laws.

Monzel challenges Dupuis' opinion about the viability of the proposal under Article 12.

"The attorneys I (asked) thought it was flawed," Monzel says.

He also wonders about the timing of the proposal — introduced weeks after Gregory Beauchamp, 21, was killed on New Year's Eve in Over-the-Rhine. The perpetrators yelled anti-gay epithets from their Cadillac before shooting Beauchamp on the sidewalk, according to media reports; but the homicide is still under investigation (see Leviticus: Faggot [No. 65], issue of Jan. 8-14).

"The whole thing is being driven basically by a story that's not accurate," Monzel says.

Cranley almost admits as much. He doesn't want to use the incident as an excuse to pass the proposal.

"We just don't know what happened and I don't want to speculate," he says.

Instead Cranley points to people such as Richard Florida, an economic development professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Florida argues tolerance was one of the keys to the economic growth of cities in the 1990s, and still is today.

Cranley is cautiously optimistic about the proposal's chances.

"To give equal protection to all, sometimes you have to be mindful to what's happening in subsets of the population," he says.

When asked if expanding the hate-crimes ordinance were a first step toward repealing Article 12, Cranley hesitates.

"I think times have changed," he says. "I believe it should be repealed."

But first things first.

"Let's just deal with what's in front of us," he says.

He isn't alone.

Almost two years ago the National Conference for Community and Justice began a study on whether to attempt a repeal of Article 12. Chip Harrod, executive director of the Cincinnati chapter, was hopeful gays and black Christians could work together. Now he isn't returning phone calls on the matter.

"This is not a new issue in Cincinnati," says Doreen Cudnik, a board member of Stonewall Cincinnati. "It's just been so back-burnered."

Cudnik offers stories of people being fired for being gay, lesbian couples targeted with graffiti, a gay man who carried a gun because he was afraid of his neighbors. But Monzel is skeptical.

"I see a growing gay population in the city," he says, pointing to the redevelopment of Northside as an example.

Monzel, who lives in Winton Place — a neighborhood with a racially balanced population — says special laws divide people instead of uniting them. What if a person were fired for being white, he asks. Isn't that just as wrong?

"Any discrimination, any intimidation is wrong," Monzel says. "I don't believe we should have any special rights for any subgroup."

The probability is low that a gay person is affected more by these crimes than any other people, he says.

'Don't be timid'
The Covington Human Rights Commission, created in 1998, hears complaints from people who believe they've been discriminated against or targeted because of their age. The five-member, all-volunteer board also recommends policies to prevent discrimination in the city.

If the commission finds merit to a citizen's complaint, it sends the complaint to the city manager, who tries to mediate between the accused and the accuser. If that fails, the city commission rules.

The possible penalties for discrimination are yet to be determined, but Human Rights Commission member Charles King says other Kentucky cities with similar laws can revoke licenses or issue fines.

"Those are last ditch options," he says.

Most of the effort goes toward mediating a complaint to keep it from getting to the city commission.

In its first four years, the Human Rights Commission hasn't received any official complaints, according to member Pam Mullins, the former city commissioner largely responsible for its creation.

Mullins says she knows there are valid cases in Covington. One example: A mixed race couple living in Mainstrasse was once harassed just before Halloween.

"They burned a cross on these people's fence," Mullins says. "It scared them so badly they moved away."

The only city ordinance that might have applied was an anti-mask ordinance, apparently because the perpetrators wore masks, Mullins says.

Still, victims are hesitant to put their complaints in writing, she says.

"Some people feel like nothing's going to be done, or they're afraid (of retaliation)," she says. "It could be that people don't fully know that we exist."

Mullins — the second African American and third woman to be a city commissioner — says people are more certain their complaints will bring retaliation from their accusers than any action from Covington City Hall.

Mullins isn't sure how many incidents she's heard about over the years.

"I'd be afraid to try to estimate," she says.

Covington Mayor Butch Callery says people shouldn't be timid about going on the record.

"That would be their problem," he says. "They should go forward."

Callery says he wants a thorough debate on the issue. A public hearing on the proposed ordinance is set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Madison Theater. Up to 400 people can attend. If the crowd is too large, there will be a second public hearing, Callery says.

The proposal needs work, according to Callery.

"The ordinance that was presented to us wasn't well written," he says.

The city has hired Frank Warnock — city solicitor for Bellevue, Ky., and Melbourne, Ky., in Campbell County — to make sure the ordinance is properly worded.

The other four city commissioners haven't expressed an opinion one way or the other, according to King. The commissioners didn't return calls seeking comment.

"We're very hopeful," King says. "But in politics, when the vote comes, that's when the vote comes." ©