In September, Westerville is expected to pass an ordinance banning discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression
Westerville feels different these days to John Gatiss than when he first filled out a change-of-address card about 14 years ago.
He remembers a sleepy Uptown where restaurants couldn’t serve alcohol and everything seemed to shut down at 5 p.m. He remembers a faction of residents who convinced city officials in 2010 to turn down federal economic-stimulus money.
But today, Gatiss describes his city with two words that haven’t been used much over the years to talk about a place whose conservative roots run from the Anti-Saloon League to John Kasich: vibrant and progressive.
One of the reasons he feels that way: After its City Council reconvenes in September, Westerville very likely will become the 26th city in Ohio to ban discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. City officials have been discussing details of a proposed ordinance since February, when a majority of council members expressed support for the idea.
“This is not the way it would have been 10 years ago,” said Gatiss, who has helped line up proponents to address council at public meetings over the last six months. “There’s been good turnout, strong support. There’s been a very small, vocal minority of critics.”
With a statewide nondiscrimination law going nowhere in the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly and local ordinances already enacted by the state’s biggest cities, college towns and liberal enclaves, LGBTQ activists are looking to Westerville and other Columbus suburbs for the next wave of progress.
Their aim is to put as many LGBTQ Ohioans as possible under the protection of local laws banning discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. The 25 existing city ordinances and a Cuyahoga County law that covers 51 more communities now extend protections to nearly 30 percent of the state’s population.
While LGBTQ people, historically, have huddled together in big-city “gayborhoods” — think of the Castro in San Francisco, Boystown in Chicago, German Village and the Short North in Columbus — wider acceptance has opened up suburban and small-town living to greater diversity.
About two-dozen Ohio communities, from Sandusky on Lake Erie to Portsmouth on the Ohio River, have hosted their own Pride festivals, parades and picnics this summer. More than 50 people showed up in June for a Pride happy hour at the Mellow Mushroom in New Albany.
“It’s not just LGBTQ people, it’s parents and allies and businesses in the community,” said Grant Stancliff, communications director for Equality Ohio, a statewide LGBTQ civil rights group. “Sometimes it starts with a kid coming out. Parents look for resources and find each other. They discover their community has no laws in place.”
Stancliff and other advocates make the same point over and over when talking about the need for a statewide law or more local protections. A queer person who works in Columbus and lives in any suburb right now save two loses civil rights every day on their drive home.
Nondiscrimination laws in Columbus have covered sexual orientation since the 1990s and gender identity and expression since 2008. Elsewhere in Franklin County, though, only Bexley and Worthington have adopted LGBTQ-inclusive anti-bias laws. Farther out in Central Ohio, Coshocton and Newark have local laws in place. Franklin County government, unlike Cuyahoga County in Northeast Ohio, doesn’t have the power to pass its own laws.
Equality Ohio has been strategic in picking its fights for nondiscrimination. The group looks at election returns, marketing data and other information before deciding whether to make a push. More informally for every LGBTQ person, Stancliff said, is the “holding-hands test.”
“How you feel holding hands in public can kind of tell you how much pushback you might get,” Stancliff said.
In Central Ohio suburbs, it’s local residents and officials who have gotten the nondiscrimination ball rolling. In Worthington, the city’s Human Rights Commission took the issue to the City Council, where it passed in May without any residents speaking in opposition. In Gahanna, Hilliard and Reynoldsburg, city council candidates are running this fall as vocal proponents of expanding local nondiscrimination laws. Some Dublin residents have begun strategizing on their own.
Gatiss said he got involved in Westerville’s push after hearing LGBTQ civil rights, environmental sustainability, bike-friendly streets and other progressive ideas addressed by City Council challengers Valerie Cumming and Alex Heckman in 2017. Both were elected and are now in office.
“This is about the kind of community we want to be,” Cumming said at the first meeting on the topic in late February.
After a resident spoke in July about a law conferring “favorite status” on LGBTQ people, Heckman said: “This is not a proposal about creating a special class of citizens. It’s just about bringing them the same protections everyone else in our community has.”
Linda Cox has sat in city council chambers everywhere the issue has come before elected officials in Central Ohio.
In Bexley, where nondiscrimination laws were expanded in 2015 after a lesbian couple was turned away by a local wedding photographer, Cox told officials about the time she was told that she couldn’t use the restroom in an ice cream shop. In Westerville, she told them about a transgender friend whose boss refused to call her by her female name.
Cox, who has driven a truck and done temp work and also is transgender, said she has been fired from jobs and been rejected by potential employers who’ve told her their customers just wouldn’t accept her. In one job, she said, she was forced to clock out, leave the office and use a convenience-store restroom down the street.
She has lived that talking point about losing one’s rights on a drive from one town to another.
“There’s places, you look through the window, you look at the people in there, and you go, ‘Hmm, I don’t know,’” she said. “Until we get laws in effect — national and state laws with teeth — you’ve got to start somewhere.”