There’s been a lot of recent progress in the local LGBTQ world, but Cincinnati still has a long way to go. And like many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, City Councilman Chris Seelbach and his partner Craig Schultz have a skeptical sense of optimism about the city’s changing attitudes.
Although the two men have stood together for eight years now, their starting points were fairly different.
As Schultz recalls, his coming out experience wasn’t too difficult: “My mother was most upset when she found out I was gay that my partner was a Democrat.”
Seelbach, in contrast, didn’t have an easy time, which he says is “a big part of my story.” When Seelbach came out, his parents took him to Christian counseling and put him through psychological evaluations. Relations with his parents remained sour for 11 years, lingering into his adult life.
Things finally changed when Seelbach’s parents came to the realization that homosexuality did not alter the fundamentals of their son; it only shifted how they chose to see him.
In March 2010, Seelbach convinced his parents to meet him and Schultz at their apartment. The meeting didn’t go well, but Seelbach says it was a necessary first step.
The tipping point came later in November 2010, when Seelbach’s parents met him, Schultz and their friends for Seelbach’s birthday.
At that point, it clicked: Their son was still the person they had loved from birth; he had just fallen in love with a man.
Seelbach’s experience echoes the broader experience of LGBTQ individuals in Cincinnati and around the nation. As each generation has become more exposed to LGBTQ individuals, tolerance and acceptance has grown with the realization that the homophobic prejudices of old are as unsubstantiated as racism, sexism and any other “-isms” were decades ago.
Today, Seelbach and Schultz live much like any other couple. Country music plays in the background during a recent interview in the couple’s welcoming duplex. They don’t have any children, but they do have four cats. (Their “kids,” as Schultz jokingly calls them.)
As Cincinnati’s first openly gay council member, Seelbach has a unique perspective on the city. Luckily for residents, he has a fairly optimistic take. Seelbach says moments of discomfort are rare in the campaign trail and public meetings, with most awkward confrontations resulting from politics — such as his support for the city’s streetcar project or City Council approving a parking lease, which Seelbach voted against.
Seelbach has also been recognized for his political successes. On May 22, the White House awarded Seelbach the Harvey Milk Champion of Change award — named after California’s first openly gay elected official. Seelbach attributes the honor to his local efforts for LGBTQ rights, including passed legislation that extends city health benefits to gay couples and requires anyone accepting city funds or subsidies to agree to Cincinnati’s non-discrimination policies.
Schultz, on the other hand, says his private work in the landscape industry has been largely unaffected, even with the public spotlight as the gay spouse of a council member. Instead, the biggest change has been clients using Schultz as a “pipeline” to convey political ideas to Seelbach. “Like a spigot, I just turn it off,” he says, laughing.
That’s not to say everything is perfect. On a personal level, Seelbach and Schultz still feel uncomfortable with public displays of affection. Although Seelbach acknowledges it could just be a part of their personality as a couple, he says the displays can still produce judgmental looks and occasional comments.
In the political arena, Seelbach and Schultz say some attacks clearly go beyond policy and are likely rooted in homophobia. They point to the conservative Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), which relentlessly attacks Seelbach in social media and emails. Seelbach points out that the group’s members have a history of supporting anti-gay measures, including Article XII, which kept Cincinnati from banning discrimination against homosexuals until it was repealed by voters in 2004.
Still, the problems aren’t as bad as decades ago, when LGBTQ individuals faced open disgust from bigots in the political world. Today Seelbach and Schultz can go together to campaign events, fundraisers and public meetings without a hitch. That, the couple notes, is the right direction. ©