Ohio Business Competes is pushing for passage of Ohio S.B. 11, which drew hundreds to testify in support of adding sexual orientation to the list of protected statuses at work.

Growing out her hair cost Jessica Wilkins her job. Several years ago, Wilkins worked as a manager at a chain restaurant in the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood when her boss told her to chop off her long, honey-brown locks. Only women could have hair of that length, he said.

But Wilkins told him she was on hormones, then in the middle of transitioning from male to female.

She vividly remembers his response: “We don’t hire your kind of people, so you can just leave.”

She called corporate. They told her the same thing.

Wilkins, 27, feels lucky. She has supportive parents and a supportive wife. Lakewood, where she lives, is an LGBTQ-welcoming Cleveland suburb. She went back to school and now works an office job in sales. But she knows she’s in the minority. Most LGBTQ citizens don’t have the same support network. And that’s crucial, she says, since people identifying as anything other than heterosexual are not legally protected from workplace discrimination in Ohio.

Ohio is one of 28 states without legal protections for its LGBTQ residents who face discrimination in the workplace, in public, or when applying for housing.

Not only is this a frightening reality for those in the LGBTQ community, who can be fired, not hired, denied housing or refused service for being non-heterosexual, but many Ohioans say the state’s lack of protections for this population is a hit to its economic prosperity and bad for its brand.

Ohio Business Competes is a coalition of more than 800 (and expanding) businesses that support nondiscrimination policy for sexual minorities. Founded in 2015—a banner year for LGBTQ rights, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s July ruling legalizing same-sex marriage—the coalition was formed with the hope that marriage equality would come to pass, paving the way for other LGBTQ rights victories. The American Civil Liberties Union-Ohio, Human Rights Campaign Columbus, LGBTQ rights nonprofit Equality Ohio and TransOhio banded together to form the group, but it wasn’t until the first 10 businesses agreed to join that the coalition gained traction.

Equality Ohio CEO Alana Jochum remembers the difficulty of convincing corporations to sign on. Support finally boomed after Huntington Bank, an original backer, urged other companies to “lend their logo” to the cause. “It was just so powerful,” Jochum says. “Once we had those first 10, everything followed.”

Barbara Benham, executive vice president and chief public affairs officer at Huntington, remembers those early conversations in vivid detail. Huntington had recently achieved a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, and the company doubled down on its efforts to support LGBTQ employees. Joining the coalition was the obvious choice to reflect Huntington’s values, Benham says.

“The whole point of Ohio Business Competes is to ensure (employees) have the same rights when they leave the office as they do at work,” she says. “They shouldn’t have to lose their protections on the commute.” Businesses that sign on do nothing more than upload a logo to the coalition’s website, agreeing to go public with their commitment to nondiscrimination in the workplace. Joining the coalition is free and takes no more than two minutes.

Statehouse fight

Since 2008, Ohio lawmakers have introduced multiple bills to expand the state’s categories for nondiscrimination—which currently apply to race, gender, religion, ethnicity, disability and age—to include sexual minorities. Five versions were given hearings in the Ohio House of Representatives, according to a story on the bills from WOSU, and four made it to the Ohio Senate. All included Democrat and Republican co-sponsors. Senator Nickie Antonio, a Democrat from Lakewood, has been a primary sponsor of the bills since 2011.

Before spearheading the legal push for reform, Antonio wrote letters to legislators, drove to Columbus for nondiscrimination advocacy day and told everyone she could how the law would let her wife and two daughters breathe a bit easier. Antonio hasn’t personally experienced housing or workplace discrimination, she says, but once pretended to be her partner’s sister in an emergency room in order to be let inside. She moves through life hyper-aware of the potential that her civil rights can legally be violated.

“At this point, I don’t think this is a partisan issue. It’s not a Democrat or Republican issue. It’s good public policy for the state of Ohio. It positions the state of Ohio. It says all people are welcome, all businesses are welcome,” Antonio says. “If you do business in Ohio, if you bring your workforce here or if you already have a workforce here, your families will be welcome. Of course it’s the right thing to do, to be able to protect people from a minority group, but it’s also a very smart business move.”

She introduced Senate Bill 11— also called the Ohio Fairness Act— in February. Michael Rulli, a Republican from Salem near Youngstown, co-sponsored the bill, citing the economic and interpersonal advantages to his family’s grocery store chain should nondiscrimination laws be passed. On May 22, more than 200 individuals, businesses and nonprofits—including Jessica Wilkins—provided written and spoken testimony during the bill’s second hearing.

Multiple Republican senators trickled out of the hearing room, leaving only Judiciary Committee vice-chair Nathan Manning by the end. Despite that, for the first time the bill is expected to advance to an oppositional hearing. No date has been set.

Economic development issue

As of press time, Ohio’s unemployment rate rested at 4.3 percent, the lowest number since January 2001. Columbus was at 2.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Don DePerro, CEO of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, is apoplectic that with numbers that low, employers are still finding excuses to discriminate against LGBTQ citizens, as he expressed in an editorial in the May 7 edition of the Columbus Dispatch. The Columbus Chamber and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce are actively supporting Senate Bill 11. DePerro says it’s easily in the top 10 most important bills the chamber is currently sponsoring.

“When you have (4.3) percent unemployment, there should be no barrier to anyone who wants to work,” DePerro says. “It’s an impediment; it’s discrimination. I almost struggle with finding different ways to articulate this because it’s so crystal clear to me, and should be not only to everyone in the state of Ohio, but across the nation.”

He somehow found more words.

“To think that a group of human beings, a group of people in our community can be the victims of prejudice because of who they are—only because of who they are—is in the year 2019 outrageous to me. Absolutely outrageous. This is an economic development issue. It’s a workforce issue. It’s a community issue. It’s a business issue, but most importantly by far it’s a human rights issue.”

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