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The Evolution of Equality

Are Ohioans ready to recognize my gay marriage?

By German Lopez · November 28th, 2012 · Cover Story
evolution of equalityIllustration: Julie Hill

In 2004, while most Democrats around me reeled from the defeat of John Kerry, I had other post-election problems: With 62-percent voter approval, gay marriage and same-sex civil unions had been officially banned in Ohio. I was devastated.

I was 14 back then. I wasn’t sure about much, especially when it came to my sexuality. I knew I had funny feelings about boys that most guys my age did not get. I even attempted to sort of come out to my brother a few years earlier by not-so-subtly admitting my feelings for a guy at school, but that didn’t take. I said it was a “joke.” I was not brave or strong enough back then. But at least some part of me knew, and in 2004 I knew what it meant when Ohio voters said loudly and clearly that they did not hold me to the same regard as everyone else.

What made it so difficult back then is that I couldn’t even tell anyone how I felt about the newly passed amendment. How could I properly convey my feelings if people were missing such a key part of my mangled self-identification? That silence, along with my disappointment toward the amendment passing, did not make my long, confusing journey to coming out any easier. It’s at least one of the reasons I really tried to like girls even though I knew I found their private parts… well, let’s just say repulsive sounds too nice in my head.

If I had been 14 in 2013, it’s increasingly looking like my story of that age would have been very different. Next year, FreedomOhio, a same-sex marriage advocacy group, will try to get a marriage equality amendment on the ballot in Ohio. The amendment could repeal the 2004 amendment that hit me personally and replace it with legalized same-sex marriage.

The organization has some wind at its back. With some polling in hand and the recent re-election of the first sitting U.S. president to support gay marriage, FreedomOhio believes that, finally, Ohioans might be ready to accept gay rights. To them, it seems the rejection I felt in 2004 could easily — almost surely, in fact — turn into acceptance and tolerance in 2013.

Surprisingly, not every same-sex rights organization is on board. Equality Ohio in particular says it wants to focus on its legislative initiatives regarding gay bullying and employment discrimination, and some of its officials seem weary about whether the timing is right. While FreedomOhio hopes Equality Ohio will come around once the amendment’s petitions are filed, there’s no guarantee. The contrast between the two gay factions is a bit of a twist in what is already set to be a fairly interesting amendment by itself.

Marriage benefits

I got married on Sept. 4, 2011. It wasn’t in Ohio, though. My husband, Derek, and I went to Massachusetts, where gay marriage has been legal since 2004 — coincidentally, the same year Ohio rejected same-sex marriage. It was a nice public ceremony on the beach. My stepdad, who had registered as a minister just for the wedding, led the proceedings as Derek’s parents and my mom gave my then-boyfriend-of-nearly-five-years and me praise and all sorts of kind words. At the end of the ceremony, my family, friends and onlookers — two who were a lesbian couple watching with what they described as pride — clapped, Derek and I high-fived and our lives went on like any other married couple.

There are real, meaningful impacts to the legal certificate, but, emotionally speaking, that ceremony was one of the first times in my life that my sexuality wasn’t even a question. The gender of the person I loved didn’t matter. It was just like any other wedding. Just by getting married, I felt the burden of discrimination leave my mind — even if it was temporary.

If Derek and I stayed in Massachusetts, the impact of that legal certificate could have been great. As Ian James, co-founder of FreedomOhio, told me, there are a lot of benefits to a same-sex marriage license. 

Taxes are probably the most obvious benefit, James said: “When you file as a married couple, you actually receive significant tax benefits.” Generally, in terms of taxes across all spectrums of government, lower income families see a lower tax burden when they file jointly, while wealthy families can see a higher burden. This means that low-income gay families — like mine — are missing key economic benefits.

Or let’s say Derek and I decided to adopt (God, no). A marriage certificate comes with plenty of benefits there as well, as James outlined to me in one example: In Ohio, if I was classified as the “caregiver” — not the parent — and I decided to pick up my child from school, James said the school would likely turn around and say, “Wait a minute. You’re not the parent. I need a letter from the parent to let us release the child.”

The same situation could happen if my child was in some sort of medical emergency. My child could be literally dying in the hospital and I would be helpless to do anything because I wouldn’t be classified as the actual parent. 

Or what if Derek was put in the hospital? His mom, his dad and his brother could all make important medical decisions. But me, his life partner? Forget about it.

The examples could really go on and on. Our society is largely built around marriage. Husbands and wives in Ohio gain a lot of benefits — some subtle, some not — that improve their freedoms and financial situations. Those are services gays are left without. When I talked to him, James pointed out one of the absurd realities of the situation: “Britney Spears gets married and is married for 15 minutes. She has more rights than someone who got married in Canada or another state and has been together for a decade.”

But same-sex marriage has benefits that go beyond gay couples.

When Derek and I went to Massachusetts, we didn’t magically appear there, declare our marriage on the spot and whisk away back to Ohio. Our entire party had to pay for plane tickets, places to stay and food while we were there. The wedding obviously required ornaments and flowers (ugh), and the reception, for us, required reservations at an awesome seafood restaurant. Also, cake.

That’s a lot of revenue for Massachusetts, and to think that with a gay marriage amendment in place it could have all gone to Ohio. A recent study from Bill LaFayette, founder of Regionomics LLC, found that legalizing gay marriage would grow Ohio’s gross domestic product, which measures economic worth, by $100-$126 million within three years. Statewide, that would sustain 740 to 930 jobs within the first year of legalization, 250 to 310 jobs within the second year and 170 to 210 within the third year. In Hamilton County alone, legalization could produce $8.2 million in growth.

And that’s only considering the marriages of Ohio’s same-sex couples. If it included what Derek and I did when we went to Massachusetts to get married — “marriage tourism” — the economic growth and jobs sustained and created would be greater. Imagine all the same-sex couples from neighboring, more-conservative states like Indiana and Kentucky coming to Ohio to get married.

But it isn’t all studies and estimates; there’s some real-world evidence for this kind of economic impact. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced on July 29 that same-sex marriage produced $259 million in economic benefits for the city within the first year of legalization. 

It makes sense to me. Weddings are happy times with lots of festivities. Even my admittedly humble wedding involved a bit of partying and celebrating. That creates a great benefit even straight couples can enjoy.

Freedom and equality 

Unfortunately, in the political landscape, facts don’t always win out. Just because Derek and I getting married somehow benefits everyone (you can email your thanks to glopez@citybeat.com) does not mean same-sex marriage legalization is a sure thing. That’s where campaigns come in, and FreedomOhio has a few plans to make sure its amendment gets enough petitions to go on the ballot and then gain voter approval. 

In the simplest terms, the amendment repeals the 2004 amendment and legalizes same-sex marriage, but that’s not all it does. The amendment also has some built-in protections for religious institutions. James pointed out that these types of protections were included in all the same-sex marriage initiatives that passed in the Nov. 6 election. He also explained why it’s necessary: “It protects the religious freedom of institutions and individuals. Churches will not be required to perform or recognize a marriage, but, likewise, a church, religious institution and individuals will not be permitted to prohibit two people from being married by a lawful marriage officiant and have their marriage recognized by the government.” 

It’s basically separation of church and state. What it means is the government can’t go into a church, mosque or temple and demand the institution privately recognize my marriage, but the church, mosque or temple is unable to tell the government or its officials that Derek and I can’t get legally married elsewhere.

James assured me the amendment has seen “fantastic support across the state.” He said his organization has thousands of identified volunteers right now, which has helped the organization meet all its goals so far. 

But as someone invested in this issue, I still had some concerns. I asked James if bringing up the amendment on an off-year for elections was a good idea. I touted the common assumption that off-years are typically better election years for Republicans. He said this is a common misconception. 

“When we did the casino campaign in 2009 … there were a lot of folks who were fearful that it was going to be heavy Republican turnout,” James said. “The reality is that there was actually a decent and significant Democratic turnout.”

James attributed the decent turnout to the fact that more than 72 percent of turnout comes from just 22 Ohio counties. He said those counties include metropolitan counties and counties that surround them, such as Hamilton, Cuyahoga, Franklin, Lucas, Lorain and Summit. “When you start going through the list of the counties, these will have heavy Democratic turnout,” he said.

OK, so turnout might not be a problem. My attention then shifted to the Republican-controlled state government. Republicans like Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted have let their political motives influence ballot decisions before. A good example is Issue 2, a losing amendment on the ballot this past Nov. 6 that attempted to reform Ohio’s redistricting process. When Husted lost a court case calling Issue 2’s old ballot language bad, the secretary of state and his board copied and pasted all of Issue 2’s language onto the ballot — legalese and confusing technicalities included. What if Husted and his buddies try something along those lines with a gay marriage amendment?

“It’s apples and oranges,” James said. “Their amendment was pages long. Our amendment is one sentence.”

But if Husted did try anything, James said there would definitely be a legal challenge. However, he seemed fairly confident it wouldn’t come to that, and he gave one fairly persuasive reason: Husted and Republican Gov. John Kasich will be up for re-election in 2014. If a gay marriage amendment failed in 2013, chances are it would come up again in 2014. Would Kasich and Husted really want an amendment on the ballot that can rile up Democrats to vote?

As confident as James is, there’s some skepticism from other groups, including Equality Ohio. The group, which is the powerhouse among gay activists in Ohio, doesn’t oppose the amendment, but it holds some reservations on the timing and specifics. The gay faction conflict adds a bit of a twist to the electoral drama that is sure to come in the next year, so when I found out about it, I immediately made it a priority to talk to Kim Welter, who was the interim executive director of Equality Ohio until she was replaced by Elyzabeth Holford on Nov. 26. (Welter remains with Equality Ohio, but her new position is to be determined.)

I have to admit I went into my conversation with Welter with some skepticism about Equality Ohio’s stance. I’m a little more than a year into my gay marriage, and I want it to be recognized in Ohio. But, as usually happens in these interviews, my skepticism was challenged by some solid reasoning.

The problem for Equality Ohio, according to Welter, is the amendment doesn’t go far enough. Currently, there are no employment protections for gays in state law. Some Ohio cities have passed legislation protecting gays from discrimination, including Cincinnati in 2006; but in most of Ohio, a legally recognized same-sex marriage could have unexpected repercussions, at least until statewide protections are passed as well. 

“If somebody gets married in Ohio and the marriage is put on public record, they could be fired by their employer just for getting married. (Marriage) would be legal, but they could still get fired for getting married,” Welter says.

That’s also why Equality Ohio would rather focus on its legislative agenda, which is pushing local domestic partnership registries, anti-bullying measures in schools and recognition of discrimination based on sexual orientation in state law.

Welter also voiced some concerns about timing. Throughout our conversation, she repeatedly restated the need to establish “groundwork” before same-sex marriage can be realistically legalized. To me, that sounded like doubts about whether the amendment could get voter approval.

Still, Welter said there is some chance FreedomOhio and Equality “may work in the future.” Nothing is written in stone just yet. James echoed the sentiment, and he said it’s likely Equality Ohio will come on board when the petitions are filed and gay marriage is officially on the ballot.

Call it un-journalistic bias, but I don’t really buy Equality Ohio’s stance. Gay marriage legalization is still legalization. It’s still a step forward. Even if the amendment doesn’t do everything to solve major gay rights issues, it at least helps couples like Derek and me. 

But it’s worth pointing out Equality Ohio is not alone. Welter told me other organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, have also conveyed some concerns about the amendment and its timing.

Signs of change

I’m not sure I agree with Equality Ohio’s stance that the amendment’s timing is poor. A Washington Post poll conducted Sept. 19-Sept. 23 found Ohioans were, for the very first time, in favor of same-sex marriage. With a margin of error of 4.5 points, about 52 percent of Ohioans were in support, and only 37 percent were against. Among those who felt strongly about the issue, 36 percent supported same-sex marriage and 30 percent were in opposition.

Then there’s Nov. 6. Personally, I can’t help but see it as the biggest day for gay rights in the U.S. in recent years. Americans — including a majority of Ohioans — elected President Barack Obama, the first sitting president to come out in support of same-sex marriage. Ohioans re-elected Sen. Sherrod Brown, who also supports same-sex marriage. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin was the first openly gay candidate to win election for the U.S. Senate. Maine and Maryland voters approved same-sex marriage. Minnesota rejected a same-sex marriage ban.

We can’t take our local victories for granted, either. In 2011, Chris Seelbach became the first openly gay candidate to be elected to City Council. Shortly after, City Council expanded health benefits to gay public employees and their partners. Around the state, more and more cities are adopting domestic partner registries, with Columbus being the most recent.

It’s an amazing contrast to those devastating days in 2004. Just eight years later, the nation and state are turning around. It seems when Obama spoke about his own evolution with the same-sex marriage issue, he wasn’t speaking just for himself — he was speaking for the country as a whole. 

But was Obama speaking for Ohio? On Nov. 6, 2013, we could know for sure.  ©

CONTACT GERMAN LOPEZ: glopez@citybeat.com



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