Diverse Leaders in Law: Life at work, civil rights and the legal landscape for LGBTQ+ workers

Laura Newpoff
Diverse Leaders in Law

Ohio is one of 27 states where there are no statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. There are about 34 communities in the state, however, that have protections for members of the LGBTQ+ community on the books. If you work in one of the communities that doesn’t, being out at work becomes a scary proposition. 

Legislation at both the state and federal level has been crafted to protect members of this marginalized community from discrimination, though neither the Ohio Fairness Act nor the Equality Act has made its way into law.

At Columbus CEO magazine’s quarterly Diverse Leaders in Law forum in November, lawyers, civil rights leaders and LGBTQ+ advocates shared their views on the legislation, the ongoing fight for equality and how that translates to the workplace and the business community’s support for diversity and inclusion. The forum is presented in partnership with Barnes & Thornburg and Frost Brown Todd. The panelists were:  

The following are excerpts from the conversation, which have been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Support for the Ohio Fairness Act 

While the Ohio Fairness Act and Equality Act may be in limbo, the LGBTQ+ community got a big win in 2020 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bostock v. Clayton County decision, Phelps-White says. The landmark case held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against discrimination because they are gay or transgender. Prior to that decision, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission could not investigate employment related sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination cases. While it didn’t dismiss the cases, it had to turn them over to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

Because of Bostock, the Commission now has the ability to investigate employment, housing, public accommodation and credit cases as a way to enforce Title VII protections through the Ohio Revised Code.  

“We also use federal laws of guidance, especially where the state is silent,” Phelps-White says. “So, while some jurisdictions within Ohio have adopted portions of the Bostock holding in their ordinance, the state of Ohio has not. However, the Ohio Fairness Act has been proposed, but to date has not been enacted into law.” 

Jochum, with the statewide LGBTQ+ education and advocacy organization, says “we really are watching history unfold before our eyes in terms of the legal protections” for the community. She says Bostock was limited in its scope and will take some time to spread more clearly throughout case law, which creates urgency around the Ohio Fairness Act and Equality Act. 

“Those two pieces of legislation will make clear once and for all that LGBTQ folks are protected in housing, employment, public accommodations, credit, jury services – all the areas that folks just naturally move about in their daily lives,” Jochum says. “As part of that advocacy that Equality Ohio leads toward achieving those goals, we have helped many municipalities make their own areas affirming and welcoming for LGBTQ folks.” Still, a statewide law would remedy what’s now just a patchwork of protections. 

Equality Ohio’s work also includes a partnership with the Ohio business community, which has been working to get the Ohio Fairness Act across the finish line. The Ohio Business Competes initiative is a coalition of LGBTQ rights supporters organized by Equality Ohio, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Campaign and TransOhio. The more than 1,150 members represent every facet of the Ohio business community. 

The power of allies 

The history of the LGBTQ+ movement dates to the 1920s when Henry Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights in Chicago, the first documented gay rights organization in the U.S. In the decades that followed there have been seismic shifts in how gay people are viewed in society thanks to the efforts of trailblazers like Harvey Milk and Marsha P. Johnson. Milk, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the 1970s, sponsored a bill banning discrimination in public accommodations, housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation. Johnson, a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, was a main figure in the Stonewall uprising of 1969 that ignited the modern LGBTQ+ equal rights movement.  

For the openly gay Quimby, she often thinks about those trailblazers when she reminds herself she doesn’t have to “do this alone” as she continues to come out to new colleagues and clients on a daily basis. 

“I get to stand on the shoulders of giants,” she says. “I get to stand on the shoulders of people who have paved a path that I wouldn’t be able to be here without. … It’s also reminding myself that if I don’t see anybody around me who’s like me, maybe that’s because I have to be that person for somebody else.” 

As she grew in her career, Quimby came to recognize the importance of supportive colleagues. 

“I had an enormous army of allies around me and people who gave me a place where I felt safe, like the safe space to be who I am and to not have to worry about whether or not my status as a gay woman was going to interfere with my progress and development as an attorney,” she says.   

Jarman, who openly identifies as bisexual, said corporate clients are allies, too, and have pulled the legal profession toward diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“Our clients in a lot of ways have provided leadership and have taken a relatively conservative profession like the legal profession and helped us look at things differently and be exposed to different ways of thinking,” he says. “To partner and be allies with those clients is a real opportunity. Look for opportunities to engage with clients and involve them in (LGBTQ-related activities). If you have clients who don’t have an employee resource group, invite them to be part of your Pride activities. There are innumerable ways to broaden that community and grow the pie of accessibility and inclusion.” 

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.