Symbolism vs. Substance on Gay Rights

Prominent group clashes with grassroots activists on domestic registry

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As the push for African-American civil rights heated to a boil in the early 1960s, some people urged the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to take a slower, less confrontational approach to accomplish his goals.

When King planned a non-violent protest against segregated retailers in downtown Birmingham, Ala., eight white clergymen published a letter asking him to cancel the event. They argued that the fight for civil rights should be pursued in the courts, not the streets.

King's reply, written from a Birmingham jail cell, has become historic.

“Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation,” King wrote. “For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Some activists believe the struggle for gay rights in Cincinnati has reached a similar turning point, albeit one that's much quieter and behind the scenes.

During Cincinnati's Gay Pride festival in July, Equality Cincinnati launched a “symbolic” Domestic Partner Registry (DPR). Unlike the registries enacted by three other Ohio cities, the local one wouldn't have any official sanction or entail legal rights.

Rather, as Equality Cincinnati has touted, it would “recognize and celebrate your relationship and let you and the community know that LGBTQ relationships are valid, legitimate and supported


By comparison, registries in Cleveland, Cleveland Heights and Toledo allow same-sex couples who are living together and responsible for each other’s welfare to obtain a certificate from the city. The document, in turn, could be used to help secure benefits from employers and insurance companies in some instances.

More importantly, perhaps, the registries provide an

official recognition that the city itself is tolerant and inclusive of all its citizens.

Last year Cincinnati came close to becoming the fourth city in Ohio to have an official registry, not only for same-sex relationships but also to recognize heterosexual committed couples in relationships outside of marriage.

Grassroots activists led the push for the registry, and it appeared they had enough votes on Cincinnati City Council at the time for the measure to pass. That's probably because council was facing a $50 million deficit and registries have proven to be a revenue generator for municipal governments.

Instead, Equality Cincinnati — the group that spearheaded the repeal of Article 12 in 2004 — put the brakes on the effort, stating it wasn't the right time.

Equality Cincinnati believed the registry would trigger an expensive lawsuit by Citizens for Community Values (CCV) or a similar group and interfere with its low-key efforts to lobby for extending benefits to the domestic partners of city employees.

“We didn’t find it strategically wise to get our supporters on City Council into expensive litigation with an unclear outcome at a time when the city was facing a deficit and the end result would be a symbolic registry that provides no substantive rights to any gay or lesbian person,” says Kristen Shrimplin, Equality Cincinnati’s board president.

Of course, the registry push wasn't Equality Cincinnati’s idea to begin with but was headed by some concerned citizens — both gay and straight — who were tired of waiting after many years for Cincinnati to create a registry.

The wide-ranging group consisted of bloggers Barry Floore and Jason Haap, Cameron Tolle of Impact Cincinnati and Michael Chanak of the Greater Cincinnati Gay & Lesbian Center, plus Equality Ohio and its then-executive director, Lynne Bowman.

By all accounts, the rag-tag coalition did everything right. It contacted City Council members and secured the majority needed to pass the registry before the next council election cycle in November 2009.

Also, the group researched Ohio laws and contacted various political and social groups to receive their support and backing. Everything was progressing nicely until March 12, 2009. That's when the grassroots activists ran afoul of the gay power structure.

According to Haap: “Here's the snag we've hit: the (Human Rights Campaign) and Equality Cincinnati freaked out when they found out we're in initial contacts with City Hall.” At that point, Equality Cincinnati insisted it be included in any talks about creating a registry. Its members attended two meetings on the effort, and they didn't go smoothly.

“It was like fighting for territory, not fighting for rights,” Tolle says. “Equality Cincinnati was concerned with lawsuits, money and whether 'the community' actually wanted a DPR.”

After heated debate, it was decided that Equality Cincinnati would assume responsibility for the registry. That was the last that was heard about the effort until a follow-up article on Haap's blog in April and Equality Cincinnati debuted its “symbolic” registry at Pride in July.

The original supporters say there's much more to the tale.

“I had a phone call from a local politician who wanted to hear from me what I had gotten myself into,” Haap says.

Haap, who promised the politician anonymity, says that person told him Equality Cincinnati was working with City Hall to get domestic partnership benefits for gay municipal employees. The group was afraid a registry would be too high profile and prompt a lawsuit from someone like CCV or Tom Brinkman Jr. of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) that could jeopardize the push for benefits.

“The sad truth appears to be that, had we reached out to these other organizations first, they still would have shot down the concept because they seem to operate out of fear of radical fringe groups like the CCV,” Haap says.

CityBeat attempted to contact representatives of the Human Rights Campaign's Cincinnati chapter for comment. Although both Ron Hirth and Karen Aronoff-Holtmeier were at the final meeting held about the registry, they state they didn't attend in their HRC capacity. (Aronoff-Holtmeier also was a founding member of Equality Cincinnati.)

In an e-mail, Aronoff-Holtmeier wrote: “It was decided ownership of the registry would reside with Equality Cincinnati as a local initiative. … Actions of being 'organized first with a unified strategy' should not be interpreted as 'dropping the ball.' Any communication otherwise could be divisive and damaging to LGBT community and leaders.”

Others connected with Equality Cincinnati had requested everyone contacted for this article meet jointly and “make sure we're all on the same page,” a request CityBeat denied. One EC member said the group was concerned that its reputation not be damaged.

Several activists have complained that Equality Cincinnati hasn't accomplished much in the six years since the Article 12 repeal campaign. EC members, though, point to their efforts at raising money for candidates sympathetic to gay rights as well as sending speakers to promote tolerance among African-American groups and to discourage bullying in area schools.

Agitation between grassroots and more formal gay rights groups isn't unique to Cincinnati.

When attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California's anti-gay Proposition 8 in May 2009, the gay power structure — including groups like the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal and GLAAD — urged they not pursue the case.

In an open letter, the groups wrote, “Rather than filing premature lawsuits, we need to talk to our friends, family and neighbors and help them understand why denial of the freedom to marry is wrong.”

Once a federal judge ruled in August that Prop 8 was unconstitutional, however, many of the same groups were quick to praise the decision and use it to solicit donations.

As David Hauslaib noted on his popular Queerty Web site, “While (the case) has a long way and likely several years to go before today's ruling becomes the law of the land, it is unarguably the most significant victory in the history of the marriage equality battle. And HRC, an organization devoted to securing federal equality, didn't have a single hand in it.

“These 'Gay Inc.' groups proved that while they remain sometimes useful they are not necessary to securing LGBT rights. That is a shift change only one year ago might have seemed unthinkable.”

Meanwhile, local grassroots activists insist that no single person or group “owns” the fight for civil rights, adding that the struggle shouldn't be held hostage to money and politics.

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