When is Ohio finally going to give LGBTQ+ people full civil rights? The business case

Laura Newpoff
For Columbus CEO
State Sen. Nickie Antonio has introduced legislation granting LGBTQ+ people civil rights in the Ohio General Assembly several times. It has never passed. “How do you recruit the best and brightest from the LGBTQ community when presenting them with a patchwork quilt of rights?”

In 2004, Nickie Antonio was a nonprofit consultant in Lakewood, a vibrant and diverse community on Cleveland’s west side. That was the year a ballot initiative sought to embed in the state constitution that only marriages between one man and one woman would be recognized by law. It passed with over 60 percent of the vote.

To Antonio, a lesbian living openly who was raising two children with her partner at the time, it was “a finger in the eye, a punch in the gut” and a message to members of the LGBTQ+ community that their relationships didn’t matter. The result was devastating for members of the marginalized community, and it prompted many of them to make life-altering decisions.

“After that, many people left Ohio. I had friends who left,” Antonio says. “They were upset. This let us know we now lived in a state that doesn’t acknowledge our relationships, and [at the time] there was no chance of marriage equality. The thinking was, ‘Maybe tomorrow they’ll come after our children.’”

For family reasons, moving wasn’t an option for Antonio. But she wouldn’t let the Ohio Definition of Marriage Amendment go unanswered. It just so happened the next year a seat on Lakewood City Council was opening up.

“I thought, ‘I’ll run to respond to this. I’ll run and I’m going to win,’” Antonio says. “Some people told me I would never win.”

Antonio did win, becoming the first lesbian Lakewood City Council member. In 2010, she became the first open member of the LGBTQ community ever elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in the 208-year history of the Ohio General Assembly. One of her top priorities when she began serving her first term in 2011 was to pick up legislation first introduced in 2008 by State Rep. Dan Stewart (D-Columbus) that aimed to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment and public accommodations. She had a Republican co-sponsor–Rep. Ross McGregor from Springfield.

State Sen. Nickie Antonio first ran for office after Ohioans voted to make marriage only for heterosexual couples. "I’ll run to respond to this. I’ll run, and I’m going to win."

Antonio, who now is a state senator, has introduced the legislation during every new two-year session of the General Assembly since then. It finally received a committee hearing in 2017, her last House term, with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce on board as a proponent.

More:Here are all the bills impacting the LGBTQ community in Ohio

Since then, there’s been a groundswell of support in the Ohio business community for the Fairness Act. Equality Ohio is working in tandem with Ohio Business Competes to continue to add to the list of more than 1,100 organizations of all sizes that support nondiscrimination polices at the state level. There also are more than 200 faith organizations in the Ohio Faith Coalition for Nondiscrimination. And while there’s more bipartisan support than ever before, the legislation faces an uphill climb if it can’t gain enough backing from Republicans who have super-majority status in both chambers. The legislation now is waiting for proponent testimony in the senate Government Oversight and Reform Committee.

Businesses and the groups that represent them think the legislation not only is the right thing to do, but it would make Ohio more competitive by facilitating the attraction and retention of members of the LGBTQ community and those who support them like allies, family members and large corporations with progressive stances. The question that remains is whether Republicans will finally make LGBTQ non-discrimination a part of Ohio law.

For LGBTQ+ people in Ohio, ‘A patchwork quilt of rights’

Members of the LGBTQ community in Ohio can indeed get married thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges marriage equality decision in 2015. Despite that, language in the Ohio Revised Code continues to say: “A marriage may only be entered into by one man and one woman.”

In 27 states, including Ohio, there are no statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. Complicating the matter is that about 30 communities in Ohio, including Columbus, have some sort of protections like those proposed in the Fairness Act. The result is a patchwork of laws across the state that could result in people losing their rights during their commute to work.

The Ohio Fairness Act is being led by Senators Antonio, D-Lakewood, and Michael Rulli, R-Salem, and Representatives Brett Hillyer, R-Uhrichsville, and Michael Skindell, D-Lakewood. The legislation would work in harmony with protections against employment discrimination at the federal level and include the housing and public accommodations components. If passed, it would give the Ohio business community another arrow in its quiver for attracting and retaining an inclusive and diverse workforce, sources say.

State Sen. Nickie Antonio: "Not having these protections doesn’t advance the idea of being business friendly and open to all workers."

“How do you recruit the best and brightest from the LGBTQ community when presenting them with a patchwork quilt of rights?” Antonio asks. “Can you imagine a business saying to someone from the community, ‘Hey, we want you to transfer to Ohio but we don’t have protections in place to be welcoming to all families.’ Not having these protections doesn’t advance the idea of being business friendly and open to all workers.”

Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, has been on the record in opposition to the legislation. He told the Ohio Capital Journal in March that “as a general notion, creating another set of parameters for lawsuits that of course inevitably fall on the back of the employers…will be fairly devastating to employers.”

He went on to tell the publication that there are “many forms of discrimination in the private workplace,” and protections need to be in place “if this is a chronic societal problem. I don’t think that this measures up to that same kind of problem.”

Huffman couldn’t be reached for comment.

The legislation maintains religious exemption language currently in Ohio law related to housing and employment. However, many churches have signed on as proponents of the bill.

The lawsuit issue also is addressed by allowing people who have a discrimination claim to pursue mediation with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.

“People in our community say it is necessary and would be helpful,” Antonio says in response to those who are opposed and aren’t members of the LGBTQ community. “This makes clear what the line in the sand is for expected behaviors, and businesses can rise to that occasion.”

Bill Nolan, managing partner of Barnes & Thornburg’s Ohio office, is following the Ohio Fairness Act on three fronts—as a company leader, as a recognized inclusion and diversity champion in the Ohio legal community and as an employment defense lawyer.

Nolan has written in support of the legislation, saying “frankly, Barnes & Thornburg doesn’t need this law, in Ohio or elsewhere, to include people of all orientations and identities in its success, but it is necessary as a community to clearly state that all people are included in the exciting direction that Ohio continues to head.” Nolan also conveyed that Ohio should not exclude sexual orientation and gender identity from its discrimination laws any more than it should remove protection for any group already covered. “This is a large group of our citizens who have historically experienced discrimination.”  

Nolan also told Columbus CEO magazine that he does not expect the Ohio Fairness Act to create more lawsuits for employers. That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bostock decision in 2020 paves the way for a LGBTQ person to file a discrimination-related lawsuit under federal law.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 1,857 LGBTQ-based sex discrimination charges in 2020, down slightly from 1,868 the year before, but up from 1,100 charges in the first full year of tracking in 2014. Nolan said there’s rarely an easy way to officially track these claims because they can go to state and federal courts or other venues.

What happened in Virginia with LGBTQ+ protections

The business community’s support was vital to getting the Virginia Values Act passed a little more than year ago. AT&T, Dell Technologies and IBM Corp. are a few of the heavyweights that put their names behind the legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, public and private employment, public accommodations and access to credit. Virginia was the first southern state to enact these protections.

After the act was signed into law, those aforementioned companies and others published a thank-you letter in the Richmond Times-Dispatch to “applaud the bipartisan efforts of Virginia lawmakers to bring equal opportunity to the more than 250,000 LGBTQ Virginians who deserve the freedom to live, work, raise families and participate fully in their communities, free from discrimination.”

Vee Lamneck, executive director of advocacy group Equality Virginia, says, like in Ohio, there was overwhelming support for the legislation from the business community—from mom-and-pop shops to global corporations. Similar to Ohio Business Competes, Virginia Competes believes that “to compete for top talent, workplaces and communities must be welcoming of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”

Lamneck says as Equality Virginia approached companies in the years leading up to passage of the legislation, the themes that emerged were that the absence of these protections would hurt employee recruitment and retention, would limit the diversity of the pool of possible candidates to choose from and would limit the number of people who would patronize businesses as well.

“We heard that inclusive policies not only were the right thing to do, but companies realize they’re also good for the bottom line,” Lamneck says. “When you open the door to inclusive policies, people thrive, they’re healthier and more productive and can do really great things in the community. There’s so much possibility when people have these protections and truly feel like they can be authentic and feel safe in doing so.”

The Virginia General Assembly is controlled by the Democratic party and the state’s governor is a Democrat.

The business case for LGBTQ+ rights

As executive director of Equality Ohio, Alana Jochum has been at the forefront of advocating for LGBTQ+ equality statewide since 2014. Key to doing so was the formation of Ohio Business Competes the same year the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Huntington Bank, Bob Evans, United Way, Squire Patton Boggs and Arconic were some of the larger companies that lent their support early on.

Ohio Business Competes is a coalition of LGBTQ rights supporters organized by Equality Ohio, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Campaign and TransOhio. Those groups oversee its efforts collaboratively.

Jochum remembers that it took a year to get to 50 members. It took meetings, phone calls and education about the fact that, even with marriage equality, basic nondiscrimination protections did not cover LGBTQ people and that a united front was needed to make that change manifest. Now, she marvels at the fact that there are more than 1,100 members that represent every facet of the Ohio business community. Many businesses, she says, are far ahead of lawmakers on this issue and have made non-discrimination policies and LGBTQ inclusion part of their corporate credos. Still, formalizing non-discrimination at the statewide level would send a message that a person’s equality doesn’t depend on his or her ZIP code.

“The business community knew early on that they had employees who just wanted to be able to feel safe putting a picture of the person they love on their desk,” Jochum says. “These businesses also knew to be competitive they needed students who are graduating college to stay in Ohio. That becomes challenging if we can’t agree on basic equality.”

One of those businesses is IGS Energy in Dublin. In 2019, Jenni Kovach, chief people officer, was at the Statehouse ready to testify in person in support of the Ohio Fairness Act. She never got the chance to read her testimony to members of the House Civil Justice Committee because the number of speakers was limited that day.

In her prepared remarks she said it was a “natural decision” for IGS to incorporate domestic partnership benefits for all of its eligible employees in 2015, and protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression were put into its equal employment opportunity policy that same year.

“While IGS and other employers have instituted protections for these employees, LGBTQ people may experience discrimination when looking for housing or in other aspects of their daily lives,” she wrote. “This potential for discrimination plays into a current or potential employee’s decision to stay in or move to Ohio, putting our state at a competitive disadvantage.”

Kovach also wrote that “Millennial and Gen Z employees especially want to work in communities and states that extend basic protections to everyone. To attract the best talent to Ohio, we must demonstrate that we are serious about extending these basic protections to everyone.”

Densil Porteous agrees. He’s the CEO of Pride Fund 1, which was launched a little more than a year ago by Loud Capital. It’s a $10 million venture capital vehicle to invest in companies led by LGBTQ founders or entrepreneurs or firms serving that community. Porteous used to work as a college admissions officer at Kenyon College, Stanford University and the Columbus College of Art & Design, and thinks the Ohio Fairness Act will help stem the “brain drain,” which refers to students who leave Ohio after graduating from college. Ohio is one of the nation’s outbound states where the number of residents leaving outpaces the number of people coming in.  

“If students feel like they can be denied housing and medical care, they won’t want to stay in a place that doesn’t feel welcoming to them,” Porteous says. “That’s not a recipe for recruiting and retaining top talent and businesses. To have a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, we want the brightest minds and the best hearts. We shouldn’t be doing things that cause people to leave.”

Small business support for LGBTQ rights

The Ohio Business Competes membership roster is overflowing with support from the small business community, including Tasty Main, which is co-owned by Tom Dailey and Sung Jin Pak. It has the development rights for Zoup! in central and southern Ohio and there are plans to open a gourmet hot dog concept called Tasty Dawg downtown in August. Amid a labor shortage, small employers have to pull out all the stops to hire employees these days.

Before the pandemic, Tasty Main had 46 employees. It has 21 now, with a need to add about 20 new team members over the next few months. Employees who are socially conscious will flock to places that align with their interests, Dailey says.

“When I tell people that in Ohio it’s perfectly legal to discriminate in housing, employment and goods and services, they can’t believe it,” Dailey says. “When you are hiring, wages are always the No. 1 issue, but the environment people work in is a close second. So, in addition to what someone will get paid, they are looking closely at the environment they work in and whether that includes a supportive community.”

Bob Capace, who owns Worthington Jewelers with his wife, Theresa, has made it part of his business model to support the LBGTQ community through advertising and participation in a variety of community events. He, too, supports the legislation.

“A, it’s the right thing to do and, B, it would be a horrible business decision not to (support the community),” he says. “The little part of the world I can control is my business and my home. Everyone who comes through our door is a guest of honor.”

Ohio Chamber weighs in

The business community also is actively trying to get the legislation across the finish line with good old fashioned lobbying efforts.

Kevin Shimp, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce’s director of labor and legal affairs, says the Ohio Fairness Act is a priority for the organization.

Shimp cited a Deloitte survey in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report where 80% of respondents in a study on diversity and inclusion said that inclusion is an important factor in choosing an employer and 72% said they would leave an organization for one they believe is more inclusive.

It should be noted former congressman Steve Stivers became the new president and CEO of the Ohio Chamber in May. While in Congress, he did not support the Equality Act, a landmark piece of legislation designed to provide broad anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community. Stivers consistently scored a zero on the Human Rights Commission’s Congressional Scorecard because of his positions on LGBTQ-related legislation. He could not be reached for comment.

The Columbus Partnership also is using its influence to lobby on behalf of the legislation as part of a desire to pursue a “modern, welcoming economy,” says Jeff Polesovsky, vice president of public policy. He’s encouraged that there’s more Republican support for the effort this time around.

That includes Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, who released a statement in March that said, “along with Ohio’s competitive state taxes, reduced regulations and effective workforce training programs, the Fairness Act will make Ohio a more welcoming place to operate a business, relocate to and raise a family.”

Polesovsky says “Ohio citizens want economic opportunity, diversity and for the state to keep moving forward.” The Partnership has prioritized the legislation and plans to ask for hearings.

Jen Bowden, IGS’ vice president for brand and social impact, says the company used its sphere of influence in 2019 to try to get the legislation passed. When its regulatory and lobbying team members met with elected officials, they made a point to communicate that IGS submitted testimony in support of the legislation.

“It ties in to our leadership’s focus on creating a workplace where employees feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work,” she says. “We want them to have a sense of belonging because when that happens, you create a culture where people want to stay. The other thing we know is that employees who bring their whole selves to work are employees who contribute better ideas and are part of innovative teams. There’s a higher level of trust and therefore a healthier debate where people are willing to bring new ideas forward. It all just makes great business sense.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.