By Bryan Cole and Bob Vitale Zxandyr Oktavian’s boss gave him two options: wear a nametag with the female name from his birth certificate or walk out the door of the Subway where he had just started working in Youngstown.
The bearded, transgender man walked out the door.
And, under the laws of the United States, Ohio and Youngstown, he had little if any recourse.
Less than three dozen Ohio cities ban discrimination by employers, landlords, businesses or schools based on people’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Just 18 states ban discrimination based on gender identity, while 21 ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Federal law does neither. With marriage equality secured from coast to coast, nondiscrimination legislation is emerging as the top priority of established LGBT civil-rights groups and young activists alike. Alana Jochum, the Northeast Ohio director for Equality Ohio, mailed letters in July to every mayor in Ohio – 900 in all – asking them to get involved with the effort to expand the state’s anti-discrimination laws. “Every Ohioan must have the freedom to work without being harassed for who they are. Every Ohioan must have the freedom to obtain and live in housing without being harassed for who they are. Every Ohioan must have the freedom to go to the grocery store or go out to eat without being harassed for who they are,” she wrote in an announcement of the effort. And Equality Ohio, the Human Rights Campaign and the ACLU – three groups that helped form Why Marriage Matters Ohio in 2013 – now are coming together to create a new group aimed at passing a statewide nondiscrimination law. Ohio Competes will be run by Trevor Vessels, a political strategist who has worked in the past for US Rep. Pat Tiberi, a Republican from suburban Columbus. “What’s different about this issue is that many Ohioans already think there are nondiscrimination protections in place throughout the state,” Vessels said. “We are very confident that when Ohioans learn that these laws aren’t in place statewide, they will be very supportive of our efforts.” Another new group already has begun pushing local governments to adopt anti-discrimination ordinances. Omar Faruk was working last winter to establish his non-profit activism organization, Wenited, when he read the stories about a Columbus couple who were rejected by a suburban wedding photographer because they’re lesbians. Although Columbus has a local ordinance against discrimination based on people’s sexual orientation or gender identity, the suburb of Bexley did not. Faruk joined the effort to win passage of a nondiscrimination law in Bexley – the new law was approved in June and took effect in July – and now is focusing on another Columbus suburb, New Albany. With Wenited, Faruk said he hopes to catalyze awareness in other Ohio cities. Many officials aren’t even aware that their municipalities don’t protect LGBT people until they’re told so, he said. They’re not alone. More than 80 percent of Ohio voters said in a 2013 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute that they thought existing laws covered discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation. Some of the push for anti-discrimination laws will include defense against proposals to sanction bias against LGBT people under the guise of religious freedom. Bexley City Council members rejected an amendment to that city’s legislation that would have allowed business owners to cite their religion as a reason to refuse services for people they don’t like. Statehouse sponsors withdrew a proposal in 2014 for a “religious freedom” law similar to those that created controversy in Arizona and Indiana, but Gov. John Kasich and Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger said earlier this year that they might support a compromise that would pair anti-discrimination with those types of provisions. Although Oktavian’s boss in Youngstown wouldn’t be counted among them – she insisted on the female name tag even after he pointed out that he felt it could put him in physical danger – a poll released in July by a national business group found widespread support for anti-discrimination laws. The poll conducted for Small Business Majority found that 80 percent of small-business owners favored passage of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which has languished in Congress for more than two decades. Sixty-six percent said they didn’t think business owners should be able to deny services to people because of their own religious beliefs. And 55 percent said their fellow business owners shouldn’t deny wedding services to same-sex couples for religious reasons. Bryan Cole is an Outlook intern who will begin work on his master’s degree this fall at Ohio State University. Bob Vitale is the editor-in-chief of Outlook and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.