Some LGBTQ+ advocates in Ohio are optimistic about the current General Assembly’s ability to further LGBTQ+ equality despite the state’s long withstanding lack of protections for the community. 

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the Equality Federation Institute announced Jan. 25 the release of their seventh annual State Equality Index. The index details statewide laws and policies impacting LGBTQ+ individuals and their families and ranks each state in one of four categories: “Working Toward Innovative Equality,” “Solidifying Equality,” “Building Equality” or “High Priority to Achieve Basic Equality.”

Ohio ranked in the lowest category — High Priority to Achieve Basic Equality — in 2020.

Dom Detwiler, public policy strategist at Equality Ohio, said seeing Ohio rank in the same category as states like Alabama was “striking.”

“You might not think about it, but it’s really true on our issues,” Detwiler said. “We still have a lot of a long way to go and the way that they organize these things is striking, but effective.”

The scorecard points to several areas in which Ohio hasn’t supported LGBTQ+ equality, such as public accommodations, housing, employment and the restriction of conversion therapy. 

Barry Tadlock, a political science professor at Ohio University, is unsurprised by the ranking and isn’t optimistic about Ohio improving its stances.  

“I think the primary factor contributing to the ranking is that in the last 10-15 years, Ohio has trended in a conservative direction, and conservative office-holders do not tend to be supportive of LGBTQ+-friendly legislation,” Tadlock said in an email. “You can see this conservative drift in terms of election outcomes for president and members of the U.S. House of Representatives.”

Tadlock does think, however, it’s important to recognize Ohio State Sen. Nickie Antonio and her work.

Antonio, D-Lakewood, was the first openly LGBTQ+ individual in the Ohio House of Representatives prior to becoming a state senator. Detwiler and Emilee Kerr, a senior studying social work and an intern at OU’s LGBT Center, believe people like Antonio and the overall work to build bipartisan support for LGBTQ+ friendly legislation is what could propel positive change in 2021.

Antonio sponsored the Ohio Fairness Act in 2020, which would make discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression illegal, Kerr said. OU’s LGBT Center has a partnership with Equality Ohio, and some members of the center work with Equality Ohio on phone banking. Through this, Equality Ohio hopes to persuade people to contact their elected officials and urge them to support the act in the new legislative session. 

Detwiler is hopeful the General Assembly will pass the Ohio Fairness Act into law this year.

“I think that there is a lot of possibility with this General Assembly. We got really close to passing the Fairness Act in the last General Assembly, and we've got really strong bipartisan support for that bill,” Detwiler said. “Obviously, politics is difficult, and there are a lot of things out of our control, but we have a really strong coalition of businesses, faith leaders, politicians from across the political spectrum, who are really committed to making this happen.”

Detwiler said additional progress would be achieved for LGBTQ+ individuals through the passing of Senate Bill 50. The bill, introduced Feb. 2, would prohibit certain licensed healthcare professionals from using conversion therapy on minors.

“It's something that we don't talk about as a culture a lot, but it's still happening across the state,” Detwiler said. “It does massive damage to young people who are put through that. Folks who are survivors of conversion therapy have mental health issues for the rest of their lives.”

While Athens has had protections on the basis of sexual orientation in place since 1998, Kerr is optimistic about greater LGBTQ+ equality being realized in 2021.

“I do think that throughout the years people are becoming … more open to listening to pronouns, and conversations around the LGBTQ+ community are becoming more common,” Kerr said. “I’m hoping that with the change in attitudes, there comes a change in policy as well.”

Those in Athens can help achieve LGBTQ+ equality by putting pressure on State Rep. Jay Edwards and State Sen. Frank Hoagland, Tadlock said. Both representatives average C ratings on LGBTQ+ issues on Equality Ohio’s Elected Official Scorecard, and Tadlock believes those ratings signal possible room for persuasion.

Detwiler said conversations are another easy way to combat the misinformation that protections guaranteed under the Ohio Fairness Act don’t already exist.

“Really, everybody knows somebody who's LGBTQ, and everyone has someone that they love who is LGBTQ, and it's really about bringing the state along with us,” Detwiler said. “We need to get this legislation passed so people can actually feel comfortable in their lived experience as LGBTQ folks in the state of Ohio.”

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