Talking Pride

Local LGBTQ advocates discuss Cincinnati's dramatic progress, and how we can become even more inclusive

click to enlarge L-R: University of Cincinnati Professor Deborah Meem and her partner of 20 years, Michelle Gibson; Angela Vance, Cincinnati Police LBGTQ Liasonl; City Councilman Chris Seelbach and his parnter Craig Schultz.
L-R: University of Cincinnati Professor Deborah Meem and her partner of 20 years, Michelle Gibson; Angela Vance, Cincinnati Police LBGTQ Liasonl; City Councilman Chris Seelbach and his parnter Craig Schultz.


t’s not always flattering when the national spotlight shines on Cincinnati, especially when it comes to social issues. Our city not so long ago felt mired in the negative perception still lingering after Mapplethorpe, Article XII and the 2001 race riots, to name a few.

The good news is that things appear to be changing.

Last month, National Public Radio (NPR) author Alan Greenblatt recognized Cincinnati in a piece titled “Gays in Cincinnati: From Second-Class Citizen to Fully Accepted. Among his points, Greenblatt pointed to positive changes in the economic and legal landscape based on increased acceptance of the LGBT community. He heralded the repeal of Article XII, along with the recent ruling by Judge Timothy Black recognizing same-sex couples legally married outside Ohio. Greenblatt also mentioned economic coups such as landing 2,000 jobs from G.E.’s new U.S. Global Operation Center, a move partially credited to the city’s rediscovered acceptance policies. Greenblatt in general depicted Cincinnati as a place gays can live, work and thrive — a far cry from the city’s perception a decade ago.

Any journey to acceptance comes on the heels of those who paved the way. Cincinnati is no exception. Activists have fought tirelessly to change the hearts and minds of those in the city to fully recognize the LGBT community.

While the list is too long to mention all who have been a catalyst for change in this city, CityBeat discussed our recent progress with four individuals who have devoted their time and energy to make Cincinnati a place of acceptance.

Changing Laws

Scott Knox, Civil Rights Attorney

Civil rights attorney Scott Knox became an activist in the early 1980s, when gay and lesbian couples were under siege by local organizations such as Citizens for Community Values. He says back when no laws existed to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, he had to be “imaginative” in order to find ways around hostile laws attacking gay couples’ rights.

“All of our laws, if you look at them, are kind of aimed at, ‘Let’s make families stable,’ ” Knox says. “And at the time, all the laws for gay couples were, ‘Let’s do what we can to interfere.’ So what always struck me was: They’re not trying to rob a bank, they’re trying to raise their kids.”


Do you see a greater acceptance in Cincinnati for the LGBT community?

Scott Knox:

I think things are getting massively better, and some of that is from familiarity. Like with any form of discrimination it’s really hard to be mean and hostile to people when you know some of those people. When anti-gay organizations were winning, it was when a lot of people didn’t know a gay person, so they always made it ‘us against them.’ The gay people want to take your rights. And people figured out that’s not true — those are members of my family and my friends.


: Do you think corporate acceptance has helped move things along?


They’ve been well ahead of the government. If you look at Fortune 500 companies on the Human Rights Campaign evaluation of how LGBTQ friendly they are, they’re way ahead of government regulation. Locally, P&G is great. They even sent a person in 2004 to be on the committee to repeal Article XII.


Wasn’t P&G one of the first large corporations to offer domestic partner benefits?


That was brave, because they took some heat for it. They were doing the right thing, but I think any time you’re ahead of the curve in history, you get some pushback from people who want to be mean. There seemed to be this feeling that if society was mean enough to gay people, we would just stop — and that also struck me as odd. I used to ask people on the other side, ‘Do you want me marrying your daughter? Or would you rather have your daughter marry someone who would actually like to be with her?’ They should be thrilled we’re marrying each other.


And still same sex marriage isn’t legal in Ohio. How long before the law changes?


I would bet within the next year or year and half, because the statement you just made about same sex marriage isn’t always true. It’s messy — we’re in the big middle-ground area between no marriage and marriage. I had the local probate court approve the surviving spouse as the survivor of his partner who died because there’s a court order for him from Judge Black saying they’re married. So once you’re dead, because of Judge Black’s order, you’re married. So it’s kind of a running joke I tell people: ‘The good news is Ohio will recognize your marriage, the bad news is one of you has to die first.’ ”


Are you seeing fewer cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation?


No, I still see it. If someone calls me and says they were fired for being gay, and if they’re not within the city of Cincinnati, I have to tell them, ‘Go to Quality of Ohio and work with them to try to get legislation.’ But it’s perfectly legal right now to fire someone for being gay.


So people in Cincinnati are protected?


They are, but not very well. We have the protection, and I have used it multiple times, but it doesn’t have teeth. We’ve never had to file a case with the city because companies don’t want to violate the law. It works because if you call a reputable company and say you’re thinking about firing this guy and that violates the city’s human rights ordinance, they don’t want to be a law violator. The maximum fine is only $1,000, so it’s hardly a toothy law, but generally they comply with it.


Can you argue discrimination based on Title VII?


No — that’s what the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would add. It would add to Title VII. I think it’s gender stereotyping. The problem is if someone’s firing you because you’re gay, basically you’re not meeting the stereotype of what they think a man should be like. 

That’s what the transgender cases are based on — you’re too butch for the women I like to see, so we’re going to fire you. I’ve always thought a fundamental conservative viewpoint is if you work hard you get ahead, that you’re judged based on how productive you are. Being fired because you’re gay flies in the face of that. You could be the best worker on Earth and still be fired because you’re gay, which has nothing to do with your job.

Changing Education

Deborah Meem, University of Cincinnati Professor; Department Head of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies

When Deborah Meem arrived as a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati 1984, her life was drastically different. Married with two children, Meem explains she drifted into interdisciplinary work around sexuality, leading her to better understand and explore her own sexual orientation. She says although the university essentially had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy at the time, everyone was completely aware and accepting of any and all, regardless of sexual orientation.

“I think on the whole it’s probably true that academia has been a little more accepting than the culture at large,” Meem says. “I have to say sort of personally it was very accepting when I came out. Nobody batted an eye — it just happened.”

As department head of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Meem passes on the torch of advocacy to students through better understanding of nationality, class, gender and sexuality issues. For 50 years, Meem has been advocating to eliminate social injustice. Originally from Washington D.C., she marched on Washington in 1963. She continues to fight for equality for all, most recently with her partner of 20 years, Michelle Gibson, as participants in a lawsuit to legalize same-sex marriage in Cincinnati. Gibson retired from a teaching position at UC two years ago due to ongoing complications of multiple sclerosis.


So you and your partner are part of the class action lawsuit before Judge Black?

Deborah Meem:

The Al Gerhardstein office has spearheaded three lawsuits since last fall. The first one was death certificates, and the second one was birth certificates. Essentially, it was Ohio having to accept out-of-state marriages on both. The third one, which has already been filed, basically asks the judge to find Ohio’s Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional because of equal treatment under the law. We’re part of that, and I think there are six couples who are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. In fact, Gibson will be the name on this third lawsuit on gay marriage.


Have you seen a change in attitude at the university?


While it’s true that we didn’t have any trouble in our department, the other side of it was that the university was rigidly conservative. It was conservative in the way institutions are conservative. There were written rules and there were unwritten rules. We started agitating for domestic partner benefits for same-sex partners in the ’90s, and they did not appear in contract language on a contract until 2007. So while many corporations and institutions in the ’90s were moving toward recognizing same-sex family units, Cincinnati did not. And UC sort of waited until Ohio State and Miami University did and then went along with them.


Do you see a greater acceptance on campus for students?


I think for students there certainly has been change. The Alliance — LGBTQAI — that group didn’t have a very successful year this year, and the reason is the opposite of what you would think. They had too many members at the first fall meeting. There were about 150 students there. They had so many people they ended up falling apart into smaller groups, because you couldn’t really have a group of 150 people. It was just too many. But the fact that 150 kids showed up at this meeting, I thought it was really awesome.

And as of about three years ago, UC now has an LGBTQ Center on campus. And one of the things that was just simply brilliant is that the person they hired to be their first director is an African-American woman and, just by virtue of who she is in her own body, the complexion of queer activity has changed. She was able to start a group called Colors of Pride, which is basically for people of color who are queer. We had the award ceremony, Rainbow Graduation, a couple weeks ago, and it was held on the African American Cultural and Resource Center because the center has connections there now.


What do you think still need to be done in terms of acceptance?


One big answer to it, which needs to be done in the university, the city and the country, is we need to pay more attention to the T in the LGBT. We need to be more sensitive to people who do not fall on one end or the other of the predictable gender spectrum. So I would like to see gender fluidity. I would say for all this stuff about domestic partner benefits and same sex marriage and gays in military — the thing that gets lost in there is the idea of sexual freedom.

We’re making a deal with mainstream society in which we say, ‘I will participate in your institution in exchange for pretending to be just like you.’ To me, I’m not always sure that’s a good exchange. To some extent we’ve been coopted by mainstream institutions and attitudes. I understand why: If you give a benefit to somebody, our culture pays you to be straight, basically, to get married. They’re willing to give you tangible benefits, and if they’re willing to pay you, why wouldn’t you do it? It certainly should be available to everybody, but I do think that our edginess has been blunted. 

So to return to the idea about transgender — the idea of sexual freedom to me is a very worthy goal and it doesn’t necessarily go right along with gay marriage. What you’re fighting for is acceptance of a whole range of gender identities and possibilities. A whole range of sexual relationships and practices, that’s where I really get on the bus.

Changing Politics

Chris Seelbach, Cincinnati City Councilman

City Councilmember Chris Seelbach first met his mentor David Crowley in 2001. He says Crowley impressed him as an unassuming man who retired from the military to come home and run the family business, Crowley’s Pub in Mount Adams. He says Crowley spoke openly of his four children, two gay and two straight.

“So here was this guy who was running for the office for the right reason,” Seelbach says. “He wasn’t trying to become governor or president — he was trying to give back. He valued all of his kids, and he was pretty funny. So I was really inspired by him to get involved in politics.”

While in law school at the University of Dayton, Seelbach campaigned and then subsequently worked for Vice Mayor Crowley as council staff.  During 2004, Seelbach actively worked to repeal Cincinnati albatross Article XII, a law that prohibited council from passing legislation to protect gays and lesbians. In 2011, Seelbach became the first openly gay candidate to be elected to Cincinnati City Council.


How significant has it been to the city economically since we finally repealed Article XII?

Chris Seelbach:

It’s incredible. Before Article XII, the convention and visitors bureau documented $26 million in convention business that made plans to come here and then pulled out just because of Article XII. They estimate that there’s probably $50 million more of convention business that just didn’t consider Cincinnati. You’re talking in that 10-year time frame or a little over 10 years that we lived under Article XII, almost $100 million in lost business, so it’s a huge economic impact. And that doesn’t even take into account the amount of people who left the city because of Article XII.


So the turnaround has been significant for business as well?


I don’t think you’d see businesses like Dunnhumby USA or GE or others who would even consider bringing jobs to Cincinnati if we weren’t an LGBT-inclusive city. We still struggle with this. We want young people to be excited about living, working and raising a family in Cincinnati. Young people nowadays don’t even want to consider living in a city that’s anti-gay. So big companies like GE and Dunnhumby USA, they know that. I can’t quote them, but I’m pretty confident they wouldn’t have brought the thousands of new jobs here if we still lived under Article XII or we hadn’t taken proactive steps to say everyone is welcome here regardless of who you love.


What signs have you seen that prove Cincinnati is becoming more accepting?


We’re set to score 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index, making us one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in terms of policy in the country. We scored a 90 last year, which made us second in the three states: Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. Columbus is the one that beat us out. But since then we’re in the middle of passing the Domestic Partner Registry Act this month or next month, and that should give us the 10 points we need. So when it comes out in the fall, we should score 100. It will tie us with Columbus and put us in a handful of cities in the country that score 100 on their index.

It’s amazing to think just 10 years ago is when we were in the middle of the Article XII campaign. Ten years ago, I would say we scored a zero or close to it. We were absolutely one of the most anti-gay cities in the country — if not the most. No other city had a law like Article XII, which was like a double whammy. It said, not only can you not include sexual orientation in the city’s non-discrimination policy, but if you ever want to include it you first have to ask the voters for permission to repeal it. No other city had taken those measures to discriminate against gay people.


Do you think it’s a significant victory that you ran and were elected as an openly gay candidate for City Council?


The gay rights movement has gone so fast, and I can’t imagine living under what it was like 10 or 15 ago. I can’t believe Cincinnati would have elected an openly gay person. The problem with that answer is there have been gay people elected to council in Cincinnati. It’s their own choice to expose their sexual orientation or not. It’s that “openly gay” part that didn’t happen until me. A lot of things came together in 2011 to make it possible. But as I said in the article for NPR, it was a light switch. I really do think those door-to-door conversations helped change people’s hearts and minds with a light switch in Cincinnati. People started thinking you shouldn’t be fired from your job because who you love. If you’re doing a good job, you shouldn’t be fired for your sexual orientation. You should be evaluated on the merits of how good you are at your job.


What’s still is lacking in terms of acceptance and equality?


We changed the laws as they relate to race 60 years ago. We have full equality when it comes to policy and race — and we’ve had that for decades and decades. But racism still exists every day and in everything we’re a part of. And we’ve seen that very blatantly with the Donald Sterling comments. So that’s the same thing when it comes to sexual orientation.

We will see a time when all of the laws have changed, where there’s full equality in every state and every city in our country. But there will be a lot more work to do to still combat homophobia and anti-gay discrimination. So that work is changing the hearts and minds of people. And that work is not government related, it’s next-door neighbor related and co-worker related and parent related. There are still many young people who are kicked out of their house or bullied at school just because of their perceived or real sexual orientation. So no law is going to eradicate all forms of anti-gay bullying. That’s going to take a lot more work. So that’s the work we still have to do.

Changing the Community

Angela Vance, Cincinnati Police Officer; CPD LGBTQ Liason

In 1990, Angela Vance joined the Cincinnati Police Department. During her career, she taught other officers as a firearms instructor, a recruit advisor and a training instructor. She was the sole woman on the SWAT team as a tactical operator for 13 years. During Cincinnati’s least accepting era, she joined the force as an openly out lesbian from day one.

“It was a little bit of a struggle back in 1990, because back in the day it was hard for women to be on the force, let alone a lesbian woman who’s out,” Vance says. “And there I was saying, ‘Here I am, deal with me.’ ” 

In 2012, Vance was appointed by former Chief of Police James Craig as CPD’s first acting LGBTQ liaison. As part of her duties, Vance helps educate officers and the LGBT community on proper reporting of hate crimes and breaking down stereotypes on both sides. She’s currently working with the city to increase awareness and benefits for the transgender community. In terms of youth, Vance travels to local schools to help set up Gay Straight Alliances (GSA). She also works with the LGBTQ Youth Homeless Prevention Initiative.


Do you find Cincinnati to be more accepting these days?


My opinion of the city from 1990 to 2014 is night and day, especially the police department. It’s absolutely the most amazing thing I’ve seen with the acceptance. This year will be the second year I got our police department, our sheriff’s department and our fire department to march in the Pride Parade — the first time ever was last year. Again this year, we’ll be leading the parade, so I’m very excited to again be marching in my uniform in the Pride Parade.


Do you think the perception of CPD has changed in terms of the LGBT community?


Absolutely. There’s overwhelming support from the department and the LGBTQ community — just think about an LGBTQ liaison on this department, no one including me ever thought this would happen. The perception is our city and our police department is finally more accepting, realizing this is a necessity and we’re actually doing it.

But overall, this police department is amazing. Consider when I came here — I could go into some of the stories, but it’s not worth it. But this department has come a long way. We have openly gay recruits sometimes who come in to the department. That would never have had happened in 1992, even though I did because I didn’t care, but we actually have recruits now who are standing up in the class and saying, ‘I’m an openly gay, lesbian or bisexual,’ whatever their preference may be. It’s huge.


Do you see resistance from officers within the force?

There’s always going to be police officers that you can’t change, even though most of them are gone now. We all have prejudice, and if you say you don’t you’re a liar. You might not like the fact that I have blue eyes. That’s a prejudice or bias on your account. What I say, and I’ll say this ’til the day I retire from this department, once you put this uniform on, any of those bias or prejudice you need to leave at home. Here’s how I look at it, I use this analogy: The LGBTQ is a movement like a train or a bus, so here’s your option — get on the train and ride it with us and be an ally or an advocate. Get off the train and we’ll leave you behind or get in front of the train and we’ll run you over. We’re not going away.


What still needs to be done?


First of all, the city needs to work on transgender health benefits. There was a lawsuit with Felicia Barnes who sued the city of Cincinnati and the police department for discrimination and won because she was transgender and they demoted her. It’s still used in case law today to teach about discriminatory practices. My thing is, knowledge is power, and the more you know, the less that you’ll be afraid. We still have a long way to go. We still need to break down some barriers of communications because there still are incidents of police officers making comments that are unacceptable or doing or treating an individual, not discriminatory, but not treating the individual the proper way — respectfully.

Another thing in the LGBT community is there have been victims of discrimination who are still scared to call the police. We need to work on that and break that down so if you are a victim of a crime and you need the police, you’re not afraid to call them and just be who you are. So that’s a huge step. ©

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