Several people identifying as LGBT went before a Senate committee to tell their stories of discrimination. They want lawmakers to approve a bill that would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under the state’s anti-discrimination law.
Sitting in a Senate committee room in downtown Columbus, Jody Davis waits patiently to tell her story.
“I’m also a Christian, I’m also a mom, I’m also a wife who happens to be transgender,” says Davis during her turn to testify before the Senate Judicary Committee. “I face discrimination from a majority of places from which I try to rent an apartment for identifying myself as transgender.”
She says she experiences this prejudice in a number of scenarios, such as when it came time to buy a wedding dress.
“After hesitation, some discussion with a manager, they were able to find one person, one person at the store who was willing to work with me and fit me,” Davis says.
Davis is testifying in support of SB11 which would add gender identity and sexual orientation to the list of classes protected by the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
Also known as the Ohio Fairness Act, the bill would apply to issues with employment, housing, and public accommodations.
Davis emphasizes the importance of creating these protections, which exist in some local municipalities but not statewide. But she adds that this can send a message of support for the LGBTQ community, including young people.
“They’re still trying to figure out themselves and any kind of legislation that they can look to and say ‘it’s safe for me to be here, it’s safe for me to be myself in my high school, in my college, in my jobs, in my family.’ I mean it’s so important,” says Davis.
She was not the only one to share their story. One by one, different people who identify as LGBTQ and allies who stepped up to talk about how the bill could help them.
Tom Grote is an entrepreneur, his family owns several businesses including Donatos Pizza. Grote along with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO discussed how important these laws can be for the business community and attracting workers.
“Having non-discrimination protections in place empowers our employees to perform at their best because they don’t have to be afraid every single day when they come to work,” Grote says.
The Senate committee only heard testimony from supporters. If this bill gets another hearing, it will likely be time for opponents to offer their stance.
Those against the legislation include Citizens for Community Values. The group’s president Aaron Baer says these changes can open the door to unnecessary lawsuits.
“When you look at a bill like this that is as vague as sexual orientation and gender identity, how does a business owner know if one of their employees is gay? The idea that you can be sued by somebody for firing them because they’re gay, that’s a plaintiff lawyers dream,” Baer says.
He adds that there are a lot of groups and businesses against the bill that are too afraid to speak out.
“There is no doubt that the proponents of this bill have run a campaign of fear and intimidation to try and bully people to either support this bill or be quiet on the bill. Nobody wants to be called a bigot. Nobody wants to be seen as anti-LGBT. But you can support and love your LGBT neighbors and still see this bill as harmful,” says Baer, who believes more people could come out in opposition to the bill when the time comes.
As for Jody Davis, she says she’s privileged to have a place to live and work without discrimination. She says that’s all the more reason to fight for this bill.
“I know other people in the state don’t have the same privilege, don’t have the same access to bathrooms and health care and jobs and employment that I do, then I want to be here to speak out.”
Similar legislation has been proposed in the Ohio House and Senate since 2008. The furthest it’s gone is through the House when Democrats had control of the chamber in 2009.
Timeline of LGBTQ anti-discrimination legislation:
March 2008: Rep. Dan Stewart (D-Columbus) introduces HB502 in the 127th General Assembly which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation which, according to an analysis of the bill, was described as "heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, or transgenderism, whether actual or perceived."
May 2009: Stewart introduces the legislation again as HB176, this time with Republican co-sponsor Rep. Ross McGregor (R-Springfield). The bill moves through committee and passes the Ohio House, with a Democrat majority, by a vote of 56-38. It then moves to the Republican-controlled Senate where it never receives a hearing.
September 2011: Stewart leaves the House because of term limits, but Rep. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) picks up the bill and introduces HB335 with McGregor as a co-sponsor again. This time Democrats in the Senate, Sens. Charleta Tavares (D-Columbus) and Michael Skindell (D-Lakewood) draft a companion piece, SB231. Those bills only receive one hearing each.
May 2013: Antonio and McGregor sponsor HB163 in the House and the bill only gets one hearing. The Senate version finds a Republican sponsor in Sen. Frank LaRose (R-Copley) with Skindell co-sponsoring. SB125 does not have any hearings in a Senate committee.
November 2015: McGregor was term limited out of the House leaving Antonio to sponsor HB389 with Rep. Denise Driehaus (D-Cincinnati). As with any other version of the bill introduced after 2009, the legislation only has one hearing.
March 2017: Antonio sponsors HB160, the last opportunity for the representative serving her last House term. The bill has had one hearing but Antonio, along with other advocates, remain hopeful about the bill's chances with the addition of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce as a proponent.
February 2019: Antonio introduces SB11 as a new member of the Ohio Senate. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Michael Rulli (R-Salem) and is once again backed by the business community.