t’s legal in most of Ohio for someone to be fired over his or her sexual orientation and gender identity, but a new bill sitting in both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly could ban the practice and other forms of anti-LGBT discrimination.
The proposal is supported by more than two-thirds of Ohioans, and its bipartisan co-sponsors insist it will be good for the economy. Still, legislators in the Republican-controlled House and Senate have failed to take action on the bills since they were introduced in May, leaving Ohio’s workplaces open to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Equal Housing and Employment Act would change the Ohio Revised Code to ban workplace and housing discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity, just like discrimination against race, gender, age, national origin and religion is disallowed today.
The portions regarding LGBT identification also contain some exemptions for religious institutions and only apply to businesses with 15 or more employees, which the bill’s authors say helps address concerns about ensuing lawsuits if the legislation becomes law.
Cincinnati passed a law in 2006 that imposed employment and housing protections for LGBT individuals. The move made Cincinnati the second city in Ohio to take up LGBT protections, after Toledo in 1998, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC); eight other Ohio cities and counties have followed with their own nondiscrimination laws since then.
While LGBT advocacy group Equality Ohio applauds the cities’ efforts, it points out the local laws are ineffective beyond city borders. That means someone living in Cincinnati but working in the Hamilton County suburbs could still be fired for his sexual orientation or gender identity.
Critics argue that the law would lead to a flood of lawsuits against Ohio companies, but Equality Ohio says that just hasn’t happened in other states that took up nondiscrimination statutes. On the contrary, supporters insist the bill would boost Ohio’s economy.
“It puts Ohio in a place where we can recruit the best and the brightest from the entire pool of workers,” says State Rep. Nickie Antonio, the main Democratic sponsor of the House bill.
Elyzabeth Holford, executive director of Equality Ohio, adds that it’s also a matter of retaining employees who might fear discrimination: “In Ohio, we don’t want to lose our best graduates as they come out of school because they go somewhere else.”
State Rep. Ross McGregor, the Republican sponsor of the House bill, emphasizes that the legislation is not directly connected to marriage equality or other controversial LGBT issues. He says the bill addresses an economic problem — and that’s how he envisions his fellow Republicans, who have historically opposed LGBT efforts, taking on the issue.
“If we want to have the type of people that are going to be needed to have a vibrant and growing economy, then we have to be inclusive,” he says.
McGregor says the bill was introduced in May to coincide with some of Equality Ohio’s public events supporting the effort, but he adds that there was little expectation the bill would be voted on back then because the General Assembly was in the middle of putting together a state budget. Instead, McGregor says the intent has always been to push the legislation after the General Assembly reconvenes in October.
Recently, Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble came out in favor of the nondiscrimination efforts. Although the company’s policy already includes protections for LGBT employees, P&G joined HRC and dozens of other companies around the nation that support codifying the protections into law.
Nondiscrimination efforts are also backed by a clear majority of Ohioans. The 2013 Ohio Values Survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found 68 percent of Ohio voters support job protections for gays and lesbians and only 25 percent opposed such laws, with a margin of error of 3.9 percent.
The survey also revealed a potential discrepancy between Ohioans’ expectations and reality: At least four in five respondents mistakenly assumed LGBT protections already exist at the state or federal level for employment and housing opportunities.
McGregor says the discrepancy shows a clear need to educate Ohio voters.
The pronounced support in the Ohio Values Survey came despite mixed results on same-sex marriage. According to the survey, Ohioans were split evenly 47-47 percent on whether they support marriage equality.
Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, renewed by executive order nondiscrimination protections for gay and lesbian state employees when he came into office in 2011.
But the renewal didn’t apply for transgendered state employees — an omission that troubled Equality Ohio at the time. Holford says that issue is in the past and Ohioans are now ready to provide protections for gender identity alongside sexual orientation.
That might be important for members of the LGBT community who still live in fear of losing their jobs. In a 2011 study that looked at 2008 data, UCLA Law School’s LGBT-focused Williams Institute found that 9.2 percent of openly gay, lesbian or bisexual people were fired or denied employment based on their sexual orientation and 38.2 percent were harassed on the job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity during the five years prior to the survey.
The claims of workplace discrimination reflect what’s still a majority trend for most LGBT individuals in the United States: According to the Movement Advancement Project, 52 percent of the LGBT population lives in states that don’t prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
But with the momentum the LGBT movement has gained in the past few years, Equality Ohio and other advocates seem confident they’ll be able to get legislation passed.
“What we’re seeing is a pretty deep understanding across the board and a large level of support from voters,” Holford says. “The expectation of voters is that the laws will reflect where they are and not be out of step with their beliefs.” ©