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LGBTQ debate shows democracy in all its messy glory: Andrea Simakis

September 30, 2018

LGBTQ debate shows democracy in all its messy glory: Andrea Simakis

CLEVELAND, Ohio – I made the mistake of arriving on time to the 5 p.m. Cuyahoga County Council meeting Tuesday. Not only were there no empty chairs in Council Chambers, but I could barely push past the crush of bodies to get inside.

On the agenda: A vote on a law that would protect people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer from discrimination along with the rest of us.

An estimated 225 people were there. Those wanting to speak had to sign up no later than 5:30. Eighty-six people did: 85 to weigh in on the anti-discrimination ordinance; one to opine on a resolution to pay for road work for the future site of the Amazon fulfillment center.

What followed was a civics lesson on steroids – nearly four hours of testimony that was messy, emotional, often outrageously fact-free, eloquent and deeply moving all at once. Council heard everyone out – everyone – in three-minute increments.

There were pastors and parents on both sides. Council people from Cleveland, Parma, the Village of Bratenahl and more came to show their support. Cuyahoga County Republican Party Chairman Rob Frost showed up to argue you can’t legislate morality.

There was no better illustration of the drama and divisiveness than the statement of restaurateur Bobby George, owner of trendy, GMO-free TownHall in Ohio City among other eateries. Weeks earlier, during a similarly packed and raucous council meeting, his father, Tony George, owner of the neighboring Ohio City restaurant Crop, had spoken against the human rights law, saying it would drive businesses out of the county.

“Although I love my father, I disagree strongly on this issue and wholeheartedly support the ordinance . . .,” said the younger George. ”. . . In my experience, customers run to communities where diversity is valued.”

Civil rights attorney Subodh Chandra gave a fiery defense of Ordinance O2018-0009, which says LGBTQ folks can no longer be fired, evicted or denied a mortgage or service at a restaurant or any other public accommodation, because of who they are or who they love.

″. . .It’s a wonderful thing what you’re doing here, giving people an opportunity to be heard,” Chandra finished. ”. . .I commend you for doing it, as fatiguing as it may be.

“This,” he said, “is what democracy looks like.”

Remarks ranged from the sublime (“equal value for every life is what this legislation is all about”) to the ridiculous (this legislation opens the door for “perverts and pedophiles” and “transsexuals masquerading as women” to prey on ladies and children in bathrooms). Trust me – transwomen don’t want to molest you and your kids in the john; they just have to pee.

You’ve likely already seen the news: The 11-member council voted 8 to 3 to make Cuyahoga County a more welcoming place.

Ours is the first county in Ohio to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Bigots can still be bigots – no law will change that – but it might cost them, in the form of fines levied by a new, three-member commission.

Much of the opposition had left by the time the historic vote was cast. I was swept away by the hugs and cheers and tears of the supporters who’d stuck it out, holding their breaths.

One of them was Dan. Clean-cut and wearing a rainbow pin on his pink oxford, I almost didn’t recognize him. The last time I’d seen him was at Case Western Reserve University as a student in my writing class. He was scruffier then, and fond of ironic T-shirts (my favorite showing a unicorn eating a rainbow).

We caught up during breaks from the testimony. He’d graduated in 2016 with a B.S. in chemical engineering. Born in Akron, he’s stayed in Northeast Ohio. His dad has MS. “Mom is his primary caretaker,” he said. “I like being near them.”

He lives in Euclid, one of the 59 cities, villages and townships under the protective umbrella of the ordinance. “This is my very first council meeting,” he said.

Dan had been out at school, and pretty much everywhere else. But when he landed a gig at a company in a neighboring county in November, he kept his private life private. One day, he got tired of pretending. It was exhausting. So he texted his boss, also a millennial: “You know I’m gay . . . right?”

The company has been “warm and welcoming,” Dan said. But what if, one day, it isn’t? What if cool boss leaves and old-school boss takes his place? Someone like the parade of local business owners who decried the anti-discrimination legislation Tuesday as burdensome to small businesses.

“I could be fired tomorrow,” Dan said. And he’d have no legal recourse. That’s because although Cuyahoga County has chosen progress over prejudice, the rest of Ohio has yet to catch up, creating what Gwen Stembridge of Equality Ohio calls “a patchwork of protections.”

House Bill 160, known as the Ohio Fairness Act and sponsored by State Rep Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood), has been languishing in Columbus for years. It would provide blanket, statewide non-discrimination protection for LGBTQ taxpayers.

The state, one of 30 without such protections – must follow our lead. Dan – and Ohio – deserve nothing less.

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