At the Federation, we work to strengthen state-based organizations that are making critical progress on the issues that matter most. And while that work takes many forms, it often involves on-the-ground collaboration — the kind of collaboration that keeps us traveling around the country.
As a part of our work with the Strategic Opportunity Initiative, a program funded by the State Equality Fund and focused on marshaling additional resources into passing statewide nondiscrimination laws — we have spent many days and weeks with our member organizations in Ohio: Equality Ohio and TransOhio. We are tasked with charting a course and creating a plan for building support for passage of the Equal Housing and Employment Act (EHEA) within three years.
Federation member groups are always stretched thin, and often they don’t have the capacity to embark on a thorough planning process that fully engages community leaders, activists, and organizations throughout their state. At the Federation, we have the time and the expertise to drive a planning process, to meet with community stakeholders, to connect state-based efforts with national partners, and to draft a plan that can be reviewed by state leaders. And that’s exactly what we’re doing in the Buckeye State.
During our recent visits, we traveled across Ohio and met with more than 110 people — from faith organizations and LGBT community groups to business leaders and Republican activists. We were hoping to learn as much as possible about the political and cultural landscape of Ohio, and the input from these stakeholders helped us develop a deep understanding of the opportunities and challenges that we’ll face as we seek to pass the EHEA.
We not only learned a lot, but we were incredibly moved by the people we met, from all corners of the state. For Roey, who is from Ohio but left because of the lack of acceptance that she experienced when she came out many years ago, the trip was coming full circle. For both of us, it was inspiring to see and feel so much support and excitement, especially from allies in other movements. Faith leaders of all denominations and cultural backgrounds expressed their desire to speak and be heard. Activists for racial and economic justice spoke passionately about their desire to learn more about LGBT issues and to expand their agendas. We were deeply moved by the generosity of spirit and fierce dedication to ending discrimination wherever it exists.
Through all of our conversations, we determined three critical steps for success:
1. We need to educate the public.
Anecdotal evidence and research confirms: Ohioans do not know that it is legal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Even LGBT Ohioans lack awareness of the need for a comprehensive nondiscrimination law.
If we want to build and mobilize broad-based, widespread support for the EHEA, it’s critical that we educate Ohioans about why the legislation is necessary and vital. Specifically, we must communicate two facts. One, LGBT people are not currently protected from discrimination; two, discrimination is pervasive and harmful.
2. We need to win Republican support.
There’s no question that passing the EHEA in Ohio is a challenge.
While polling shows that Ohioans are overwhelmingly supportive of nondiscrimination laws, the legislature is controlled by conservative Republicans, including a contingent of Tea Party members, whose support will be difficult to win. Nonetheless, Republicans both inside and outside the Capitol are passionate about passing the EHEA — and they’re ready to work hard to secure the support we need.
While Ohio’s status as a Presidential swing state has led to the development of a strong progressive infrastructure, we must seek out support beyond traditional progressive allies. The Republican control of the legislature and Governor’s office requires that we build a bipartisan coalition, craft messaging that reaches both sides of the aisle, and elevate conservative voices.
3. We need strong state-based leadership.
At the Equality Federation, we believe that strong state-based leaders are always critical to advancing meaningful and lasting policy change. In a state like Ohio, which lacks any protections for LGBT people, strong state leaders are even more vital. A strong nondiscrimination campaign that’s led by state-based advocates and deeply rooted in organizing in Ohio’s diverse communities will build power for future battles in the state.
Our work as the Federation is focused on strengthening state-based movement leaders in Ohio so that they can lead a successful statewide campaign to win.
Equality Ohio has built a huge grassroots base of support, and in 2009, they successfully moved the EHEA out of committee. We’re working closely with Executive Director Elyzabeth Holford and her team to grow and deepen their engagement with their supporters — as mobilizing grassroots energy will be critical to winning.
We know that leadership in the campaign to pass EHEA must include the trans community so we’re working closely with TransOhio Founder and Chair Shane Morgan. We’re strengthening the organization by building their board and creating a development plan to help them grow. From the very beginning, we’ll rely upon strong leadership from within the trans community to help us educate LGB people and our allies about the need for transgender inclusion in the bill to ensure we don’t meet with trouble later in the process.
In the coming weeks, we’ll finalize the plan to win nondiscrimination in Ohio within three years. And we’re committed to doing our part to making sure we have a big victory to celebrate — alongside LGBT and allied Ohioans. To be sure, what we’ve learned here in the Buckeye State will help us develop a replicable model for creating success in other states. And the Federation will be there for every step of that process, too.