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News: An Olympic-sized Problem?

Cincinnati's stance on gay rights could mean roadblock for group's quest for Olympic bid

By Kris Royer Henninger · April 1st, 1999 · News
  Nick Vehr, president of Cincinnati 2012 Inc., says that because striking Human Rights Ordinance protections for gays has withstood legal challenges, change will be difficult.
Nick Vehr, president of Cincinnati 2012 Inc., says that because striking Human Rights Ordinance protections for gays has withstood legal challenges, change will be difficult.

Gay-rights advocates are pointing to Issue 3 and Cincinnati's attitude toward gays as a hurdle for efforts to bring the Olympics here in 2012.

But those trying to get an Olympic bid say they don't know whether Cincinnati's gay-rights controversies pose a problem.

At the heart of those controversies is Issue 3 -- the successful ballot initiative that in 1993 overturned the portion of the city's Human Rights Ordinance that gave fair housing and other protections to gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

"It's possible that Issue 3 could cause some people to pause within the Olympic community," said Nick Vehr, president of Cincinnati 2012 Inc. "I have no way of knowing that."

But some of the city's gay and lesbian leaders said Olympic precedents were clear.

Controversy surrounded the 1996 Atlanta Olympics because of an anti-gay ordinance in neighboring Cobb County, Ga. Gay-rights activists successfully lobbied the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games to keep events and the Olympic torch relay out of that county.

"It's a precedent set that the USOC (United States Olympic Committee) will be thinking about," said Lycette Nelson, executive director of Stonewall Cincinnati. "Choosing a city with a blatantly bad record on human rights when it comes to one group of people, when there are seven other cities to choose from, would be saying something that the USOC probably wouldn't want to say."

Nelson said Stonewall's goal is not to keep the Olympics out of Cincinnati, but to repeal Issue 3.

Results of a feasibility study released last week indicated that it is reasonable for Cincinnati to pursue United States Candidate City designation for the 2012 summer Olympics.

While officials from Cincinnati 2012 Inc., the organization working to bring the Olympics here, said there still were many questions to be answered before they presented their official bid to the USOC in March 2000, they were encouraged by the results of the five studies that made up the strategic assessment process.

"The studies confirm, with supportable research, our belief that seeking to host the Olympic Games is feasible and desirable," Vehr said. "Rarely, do community residents, educators, government representatives, arts and cultural leaders and business and community leaders reach this level of consensus."

But Michael Blankenship, a local gay-rights activist who recently helped found the Pink Paradigm Club -- an organization designed to promote gay and lesbian visibility -- said that regardless of these feasibility studies, Issue 3 could keep the Olympics out.

Blankenship, who supports bringing the Olympics to Cincinnati, said that the same controversy that kept events and the Olympic torch route out of Cobb County, Ga., during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta could affect Cincinnati's chances of getting selected as a host city.

Cobb County, Ga., passed a resolution in August 1993 that described homosexuality as "incompatible with the standards to which this community subscribes." And later, the county passed an ordinance that said no public funds could go to any arts organizations that supported or promoted themes of homosexuality, Blankenship said.

As a result, gay and lesbian activists in Atlanta formed the Olympics Out of Cobb Coalition and got all Olympic events excluded from, and the Olympic torch routed around, the county, he said.

Vehr said he was aware of what happened in Cobb County, but said that events there differed from events here. The Olympics already had been awarded to Atlanta when Cobb County passed its ordinance and there was just one Olympic event in question, he said.

Blankenship said Issue 3, which he called legalized discrimination of gays and lesbians, might cause the USOC and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to avoid Cincinnati altogether.

"The last thing the Olympic Committee will want is controversy," he said.

Vehr said he did not know if Issue 3 would affect Cincinnati's chances of becoming a host city.

But in a March 28 article in The Cincinnati Enquirer, Vehr said Issue 3 was an important factor that would have to be dealt with.

In a follow-up interview with CityBeat, Vehr said, "I don't want to diminish the importance of the issue, especially to members of the gay and lesbian community. But I don't know if it will have a significant negative impact (on the city's Olympics bid) or not."

Issue 3 was approved by the voters and has withstood several court challenges so even if it should be changed, it could not be done easily, Vehr said.

"Issue 3 might be legal, but that doesn't mean it's right," Blankenship said.

And, Blankenship said, Issue 3 also is at odds with one of the fundamental principles of the IOC that says "the goal of the Olympic movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport, practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."

Blankenship said reaching out to the rest of the world, whether by trying to host the Olympics or attracting international businesses to the area is important. But being part of the world community requires a level of acceptance not yet reached in Cincinnati, he said.

"Before we start trying to bring in the world, we'd better start addressing some of the problems we have at home," he said. ©



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