It’s been a half-decade since local activists won a pair of major battles to ensure equal rights for Cincinnati’s LGBTQ community.
First with the 2004 repeal of the notorious Article 12, a charter amendment that prohibited Cincinnati officials from passing any laws allowing gays and lesbians to seek protection from discrimination, and then the city’s subsequent adoption 18 months later of the Human Rights Ordinance that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, the twin victories were seen as a watershed event in the history of equal rights in the Queen City.
Topics that once fueled election propaganda featuring Ku Klux Klan images and stoked violent talk radio segments are barely mentioned these days, as equal rights for all has become an accepted part of life in Cincinnati.
That fact is hardly lost on Scott Knox, who became a leading attorney in sexual discrimination cases during the 11 long years of the Article 12 fight. Leading up to the passage, he had several cases pending. Afterward, he’s hardly seen any.
“The passage of the Human Rights Ordinance means I can walk in and show an employer the law,” Knox says. “That resolves things pretty quickly. The law’s effect is largely unseen, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an important win. It’s the law. People — especially employers — accept it. They’re not going to be on the wrong side of the law. There’s no way to track people doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Former Vice Mayor David Crowley, one of the ordinance’s sponsors, still thinks it was a “watershed event” in the local history of equal rights.
“It was a major accomplishment,” says the now-retired Crowley, who has gay children. “It meant the city was on the record as saying that equal rights were for everybody, regardless of race or religion or sexual orientation.
“It was a big fight, and a fight that we needed to win. The by-products of all of it are hard to enumerate, but there’s no doubt the fight was worth it.”
The twin victories might have produced everything that was hoped for in the realm of employment and housing rights, where the lack of news is good news. But in the one area where hard and fast statistics can gauge the city’s progress in gay rights — hate crime incidents — the findings are a bit shocking. Those crimes persist, and local gay rights advocates say the incidents are being under-reported or under-pursued by police.
Since Article 12’s repeal, the Cincinnati Police Department has processed only seven sexual orientation-based hate crime charges, which includes a more than four-year span from the end of 2004 to the spring of 2008 when no crimes were reported at all.
When compared to national statistics — which averaged about 1,300 sexual orientation hate crimes each year — or statewide numbers from Ohio, which ranged from 30-45 charges annually, Cincinnati’s seven charges over six years is conspicuous.
“It’s absurdly low,” says Gary Wright, the former president of Equality Cincinnati and a member of Citizens to Restore Fairness, which helped win the Article 12 fight and later defeat an effort to repeal the Human Rights Ordinance.
“Police, in general, will under-report hate crimes. Across the state, if you look at Columbus, (they) always seem to report more hate crimes than Cincinnati. Does that mean they have more hate crimes? No, it’s just that they do a better job of tracking and reporting them.”
For instance, in 2007, Columbus reported 94 hate crimes — 19 involving sexual orientation — while Cincinnati reported none. The disparity has some local advocates concerned, including Truth & Destiny Covenant Ministries’ Pastor Lesley Jones, now serving as president of Equality Cincinnati. Last year, she and Equality stepped in when a gay man was attacked outside a Camp Washington bar by two teens hurling homophobic epithets and punches.
Initially, police had listed the charges as simple assault.
“He was outside a gay bar,” Jones says. “They called him ‘faggot’ and they beat him, and the police didn’t call that a hate crime. We got involved, but to my knowledge neither was charged with a hate crime.”
She says the under-reporting of hate crimes, especially when sexual orientation is involved, isn’t new. Having served as the director of the city’s Human Relations Committee until 2006, Jones often saw unreported crimes.
“I know what crossed my desk on a regular basis, and there were plenty of hate crimes involving sexual orientation,” Jones says. “Our job was to follow up on initial reports. We’d find a number of hate crimes that weren’t being reported, but we weren’t law enforcement. We couldn’t bring charges or make a report.”
The Police Department, however, might not be entirely to blame. Victims sometimes don’t report hate crimes for a number of reasons, advocates say. They include ignorance of the protection afforded by the ordinance, fear of retaliation or a fear of being “outed.”
Additionally, the lack of significant penalties attached to the current law is another reason for low reporting numbers.
According to Knox, the punishment clause of the Human Rights Ordinance for employers and landlords doesn’t provide a severe enough penalty to be truly effective.
“In the discrimination cases, it has almost no teeth,” Knox says. “If you look at the punishment clause, it’s a $1,000 fine. That’s not a big deterrent for companies.”
In the case of hate crimes, Knox adds, current laws on the books only deal with misdemeanor cases.
“It doesn’t attach anything more to a felony charge,” he says. “So, if you’re a police officer and you’re filling out a form for someone charged with a felony, it’s not going to have any effect on the sentence. Why check another box? I don’t think there’s any animus there. In the end, it’s just another box to check.”
That probably points to the need for more police training, Knox adds.
Jones agrees. She would also like to see a city-sponsored organization or group to monitor hate crime reporting.
“Without someone to oversee reporting, those kind of reports tend to get lost,” Jones says. “We receive all sorts of calls at Equality Cincinnati. I hear plenty of stories, but nothing gets officially reported. If there were someone overseeing those reports, I’m sure we’d see the numbers going up.”
Patrick Moloughney, co-chair of GLSEN Greater Cincinnati, wants a better working relationship between the Police Department and the LGBTQ community. Having arrived in Cincinnati four years ago from Washington, D.C., he’d like to see the department pattern itself after police in the nation’s capitol and other police forces around the nation, all of which have a designated liaison officer.
“D.C. has a liaison department funded and staffed with a LGBT officer,” Moloughney says. “He’s the face of the department to the community and works to improve the department’s relationship with the community. The effect it’s had is to lower the barriers that are there. It’s led to frank discussion of problems and a mutual understanding and increased the local LGBT communities’ trust in the department.”