THE VALUES OF OHIOIANS are clear. Dignity. Freedom. Equality. But when it comes to LGBTQ Ohioans these values have not always applied.
About 10 years ago many Ohioans had at least a passing understanding of LGBTQ people, even if that was only through the filter of TV shows like Ellen and Will & Grace. But this didn’t ensure equality for the LGBTQ community.
In fact, in 2004, the Ohio legislature passed its very own Defense of Marriage Act outlawing marriage between same-sex couples. That law further purports to prohibit recognition of anything even resembling a marriage. On the heels of that legislative effort a group of well-funded Ohioans began a ballot campaign that resulted in the passage of an amendment enshrining marriage inequality into the Ohio constitution.
They did everything they could, but it wasn’t enough. Ohio voters approved a marriage inequality amendment as did more than 30 other states.
After the loss, LGBTQ activists and allies gathered from across the state. They realized that securing equality in Ohio would require the ability to cultivate local voices into organized, statewide power. In April of 2005, Equality Ohio was founded to reach the hearts and minds of Ohioans.
The creation of a statewide network allowed local activists to learn from defeats and share successes. Cleveland could draw upon the experience of Coshocton. Columbus could learn from Toledo.
And the landscape began changing.
Even though Equality Ohio was started in the aftermath of the marriage inequality amendment battle, our founders knew that full, lived equality could not be achieved in Ohio without attending to state and local laws that govern our everyday lives at work, at home and at play.
We began partnering with local communities to lead campaigns for nondiscrimination ordinances. We communicated and collaborated to lift up domestic partnership registries. It wasn’t just the major metros that benefitted from these shared experiences; it was rural counties, towns and villages. Through it all, Equality Ohio continued to work with legislators to introduce statewide legislation to end LGBTQ discrimination in Ohio.
And we are still going strong.
In 2013, we began building the largest, multi-city infrastructure we have ever had for nondiscrimination. In the same year we formed Why Marriage Matters Ohio with local and national partners to move the hearts and minds of Ohioans forward.
By the summer of 2014, we had over two-dozen staff with offices in four Ohio cities. Organizers and volunteers canvassed the entire state – at festivals, at events and at every single Pride.
Each and every conversation has been grounded in love and kindness. Once people see, learn about and talk to a person who is LGBTQ, we become real to them. Our issues become personal. Intolerance becomes harder to sustain and shared values of dignity and fairness are easier to act on.
We moved the needle. Nearly eight in 10 Ohioans now support nondiscrimination protections and 53 percent of Ohioans now support marriage equality.
Unfortunately, the last legislative session ended without passage of a nondiscrimination bill. But we never thought it would be easy when we started down this path. We are building on the foundation that we established. This spring the Supreme Court will hear arguments on marriage equality, including two cases from Ohio. We’ll get a decision in the summer that could affect the whole country.
We’ll be even closer to legal and lived equality in Ohio. Until then, let’s keep creating change together ... one heart, one mind at a time.
Elyzabeth Holford is the Executive Director of Equality Ohio. She began her career as a trial attorney with Ohio State Legal Services Association. Holford held various roles during a 12-year career in academia at Virginia Tech as a tenured associate professor, as director of the office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and as director of two separate campuses. She left academia to pursue international organizational consulting in the nonprofit and profit sectors. Holford said, “I feel fortunate to be returning home to Ohio at this pivotal moment in time. Ohio is poised to provide full rights and recognition to all of its citizens and Equality Ohio has the team and the capacity to lead this effort.” Holford also served on the leadership council for Gay Games 9 and as the board chair of Why Marriage Matters Ohio.