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Symbolism vs. Substance on Gay Rights

Prominent group clashes with grassroots activists on domestic registry

By Will Kohler · September 15th, 2010 · News
As the push for African-American civil rights heated to a boil in the early 1960s, some people urged the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to take a slower, less confrontational approach to accomplish his goals.

When King planned a non-violent protest against segregated retailers in downtown Birmingham, Ala., eight white clergymen published a letter asking him to cancel the event. They argued that the fight for civil rights should be pursued in the courts, not the streets.

King's reply, written from a Birmingham jail cell, has become historic.

“Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation,” King wrote. “For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Some activists believe the struggle for gay rights in Cincinnati has reached a similar turning point, albeit one that's much quieter and behind the scenes.

During Cincinnati's Gay Pride festival in July, Equality Cincinnati launched a “symbolic” Domestic Partner Registry (DPR). Unlike the registries enacted by three other Ohio cities, the local one wouldn't have any official sanction or entail legal rights.

Rather, as Equality Cincinnati has touted, it would “recognize and celebrate your relationship and let you and the community know that LGBTQ relationships are valid, legitimate and supported.”

By comparison, registries in Cleveland, Cleveland Heights and Toledo allow same-sex couples who are living together and responsible for each other’s welfare to obtain a certificate from the city. The document, in turn, could be used to help secure benefits from employers and insurance companies in some instances.

More importantly, perhaps, the registries provide an official recognition that the city itself is tolerant and inclusive of all its citizens.

Last year Cincinnati came close to becoming the fourth city in Ohio to have an official registry, not only for same-sex relationships but also to recognize heterosexual committed couples in relationships outside of marriage.

Grassroots activists led the push for the registry, and it appeared they had enough votes on Cincinnati City Council at the time for the measure to pass. That's probably because council was facing a $50 million deficit and registries have proven to be a revenue generator for municipal governments.

Instead, Equality Cincinnati — the group that spearheaded the repeal of Article 12 in 2004 — put the brakes on the effort, stating it wasn't the right time.

Equality Cincinnati believed the registry would trigger an expensive lawsuit by Citizens for Community Values (CCV) or a similar group and interfere with its low-key efforts to lobby for extending benefits to the domestic partners of city employees.

“We didn’t find it strategically wise to get our supporters on City Council into expensive litigation with an unclear outcome at a time when the city was facing a deficit and the end result would be a symbolic registry that provides no substantive rights to any gay or lesbian person,” says Kristen Shrimplin, Equality Cincinnati’s board president.

Of course, the registry push wasn't Equality Cincinnati’s idea to begin with but was headed by some concerned citizens — both gay and straight — who were tired of waiting after many years for Cincinnati to create a registry.

The wide-ranging group consisted of bloggers Barry Floore and Jason Haap, Cameron Tolle of Impact Cincinnati and Michael Chanak of the Greater Cincinnati Gay & Lesbian Center, plus Equality Ohio and its then-executive director, Lynne Bowman.

By all accounts, the rag-tag coalition did everything right.

It contacted City Council members and secured the majority needed to pass the registry before the next council election cycle in November 2009.

Also, the group researched Ohio laws and contacted various political and social groups to receive their support and backing. Everything was progressing nicely until March 12, 2009. That's when the grassroots activists ran afoul of the gay power structure.

According to Haap: “Here's the snag we've hit: the (Human Rights Campaign) and Equality Cincinnati freaked out when they found out we're in initial contacts with City Hall.” At that point, Equality Cincinnati insisted it be included in any talks about creating a registry. Its members attended two meetings on the effort, and they didn't go smoothly.

“It was like fighting for territory, not fighting for rights,” Tolle says. “Equality Cincinnati was concerned with lawsuits, money and whether 'the community' actually wanted a DPR.”

After heated debate, it was decided that Equality Cincinnati would assume responsibility for the registry. That was the last that was heard about the effort until a follow-up article on Haap's blog in April and Equality Cincinnati debuted its “symbolic” registry at Pride in July.

The original supporters say there's much more to the tale.

“I had a phone call from a local politician who wanted to hear from me what I had gotten myself into,” Haap says.

Haap, who promised the politician anonymity, says that person told him Equality Cincinnati was working with City Hall to get domestic partnership benefits for gay municipal employees. The group was afraid a registry would be too high profile and prompt a lawsuit from someone like CCV or Tom Brinkman Jr. of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) that could jeopardize the push for benefits.

“The sad truth appears to be that, had we reached out to these other organizations first, they still would have shot down the concept because they seem to operate out of fear of radical fringe groups like the CCV,” Haap says.

CityBeat attempted to contact representatives of the Human Rights Campaign's Cincinnati chapter for comment. Although both Ron Hirth and Karen Aronoff-Holtmeier were at the final meeting held about the registry, they state they didn't attend in their HRC capacity. (Aronoff-Holtmeier also was a founding member of Equality Cincinnati.)

In an e-mail, Aronoff-Holtmeier wrote: “It was decided ownership of the registry would reside with Equality Cincinnati as a local initiative. … Actions of being 'organized first with a unified strategy' should not be interpreted as 'dropping the ball.' Any communication otherwise could be divisive and damaging to LGBT community and leaders.”

Others connected with Equality Cincinnati had requested everyone contacted for this article meet jointly and “make sure we're all on the same page,” a request CityBeat denied. One EC member said the group was concerned that its reputation not be damaged.

Several activists have complained that Equality Cincinnati hasn't accomplished much in the six years since the Article 12 repeal campaign. EC members, though, point to their efforts at raising money for candidates sympathetic to gay rights as well as sending speakers to promote tolerance among African-American groups and to discourage bullying in area schools.

Agitation between grassroots and more formal gay rights groups isn't unique to Cincinnati.

When attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California's anti-gay Proposition 8 in May 2009, the gay power structure — including groups like the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal and GLAAD — urged they not pursue the case.

In an open letter, the groups wrote, “Rather than filing premature lawsuits, we need to talk to our friends, family and neighbors and help them understand why denial of the freedom to marry is wrong.”

Once a federal judge ruled in August that Prop 8 was unconstitutional, however, many of the same groups were quick to praise the decision and use it to solicit donations.

As David Hauslaib noted on his popular Queerty Web site, “While (the case) has a long way and likely several years to go before today's ruling becomes the law of the land, it is unarguably the most significant victory in the history of the marriage equality battle. And HRC, an organization devoted to securing federal equality, didn't have a single hand in it.

“These 'Gay Inc.' groups proved that while they remain sometimes useful they are not necessary to securing LGBT rights. That is a shift change only one year ago might have seemed unthinkable.”

Meanwhile, local grassroots activists insist that no single person or group “owns” the fight for civil rights, adding that the struggle shouldn't be held hostage to money and politics.



09.15.2010 at 01:40 Reply
HRC is completely useless on the local level. Most of the leadership in Cincinnati doesn’t care about anything if it doesn't involve their small, elitist clique (which is why I resigned from their Federal Club). While I am a member of EC, I have never heard from them until last week when they asked me to renew my membership. A few volunteers in Covington last month did more for the community than both of these organizations have in the last two years.


09.15.2010 at 03:09
Ken you are proving to be an old, bitter queen. Just because you had personal disagreements with several HRC players is no reason to caste a pall of incompetence or priviledge on the whole hard-working group. Maybe you should work on your own ability to foster interpersonal relationships and solve problems rather than bashing people. How perfect are you? Maybe you're the useless one. Frankly I'm tired of the LGBT community cannibalizing each other in this city and Ken, you are at the head of the table.


09.16.2010 at 06:31
Voice of Reaso, At least I didn't call any one names, as you chose to do. And I also had used my name, because I stand by what I say. It is not based on a personal disagreement with some members. It is based on a couple years of watching HRC's workings and how they are extremely non-inclusive.


09.16.2010 at 07:35
It is weird that ken_Smith took such a hit for voicing an opinion that was generic in terms and did not slander anyone. He at least used his own name. I think it is obvious that there is an issue that people do not want brought to the surface. Some groups want total control and have other voices stopped. That would be HRC. I am saying this as a hetro whose only connect to the gay life is my neighbor. Let people voice their opinions without personal attacks.


09.16.2010 at 08:11
Ken - I believe the name calling started first with you - words like "useless" and "elitist." You can make any oberservation that you wish. My issue is with your indictment of an entire group of volunteers that spend countless numbers of hours and give of their own personal resources, many times selfishly. You and I can snipe at each other endlessly reagrding the issue. I encourage you to spend your time finding another way to spend your energy and turn your obvious hate and anger into something productive for the community. Do something better than the local HRC group rather than smear an entire group of volunteers because of your distaste for one person. And yes Ken, it was one person who caused you anguish and started you down this path. Remember that you walked away choosing not to directly address this issue. I have to go now and do something positive for the community. You're hatred has done enough damage for this week.


09.16.2010 at 08:57
voice of reason must be from HRC (Aronoff or Hirth. Voice is still chicken to use his or her name. Childish. Smith has done nothign detructive. Only said what most people think.


09.16.2010 at 01:19
Anyone who knows me knows that I am constantly volunteering for events (GLBT and Non-GLBT). I work for a non-profit for god's sake. My issues are with HRC Cincinnati (I left out the Greater part because they have no interest in anything outside their particular neighborhoods). I keep hearing this is a personality conflict. It is NOT about personalities. Yes there is one member of the Federal Club that greatly offended me, but that is certainly not why I loathe the organization. She was merely the worst example of the general attitude. Even as Federal Club donors, we felt that we (and several other folks) were excluded from the social clique that really runs that group. There were several of us that I can only assume were not from the right part of town or they assumed were not as wealthy or perhaps weren't as pretty who were expected to do all the work, while the elite were to show up and mingle. It was worse than a high school cheerleader squad. I felt like there was some assumption that we were less than them, and they made little attempt to change that. We finally got HRC to hold a FC event in Covington, and I actually heard one of the leaders making fun of my community/state.


09.15.2010 at 05:28 Reply
This article is ridiculous. I was at a couple of those meetings and I know the people involved. There is no way there was a "power struggle" between the "grassroots activists" and the "gay power structure". Gay power structure btw? Are you kidding me?? Those DPR meetings consisted of some of the best networked people in the gay community, including the leaders of state and local organizations. Since when is that ragtag? And let's be very clear: The people working in the LGBT activist community in Cincinnati are devoted to a cause they feel very strongly about-not out for power and some vague notion of elitism. Disagreeing with their tactics is one thing but slinging mud on their characters and the organizations they have worked so hard to build is indefensible. And FYI, Cameron Tolle is now a paid employee for the National Organization for Marriage if I hear correctly. So much for the "grassroots". Do more research and get a clue.


09.16.2010 at 05:45 Reply
Just a quick note. I see some conversations here pro and con but what strikes me a strange is that the negatives do not adress the real issue of this article as to the reasons WHY a DPR wasn't pushed further As for questioning the integrity of Cameron Tolle I find that highly offensive especially since you are talking about his professional career now as compared he was a grassroots activist at UC student in 2009 when the DPR push was happening is just beneath contempt and only proves the point of the article further.


09.17.2010 at 03:57 Reply
While HRC has done some good, they are tied to a legislative access model, wherein the HRC members talk to legislators in order to try to create new laws. They have a big office in DC, and spend time raising money for candidates, etc. However, this last year has shown (as it did with the African-American community) that the courts offer a much faster and satisfying path to equality. The existing organizations have not embraced this strategy, which is why such organizations as AFER, LCRs and others are now taking the lead in the fight for equality. I'm not sure why the local HCR or EC would be discussing a DPR at a time when many states are mounting a court case. Why wouldn't they rather put their efforts into developing a court case that could win?