Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Matter of Preference: Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Sara Shookman

The state of Ohio may ban discrimination based on sexual preference, and the city of Athens is behind the measure.

At Monday's Athens City Council meeting, Council voted unanimously to endorse two separate Ohio bills that would add sexual orientation to Ohio's anti-discrimination law. The law currently includes race, color, religion, gender, familial status, ancestry, disability and national origin. The Athens City resolution endorsed House Bill 502 and Senate Bill 305 which would add sexual orientation to that list.

Council's resolution lists 15 Ohio cities and 20 other states that have already adopted laws which prohibit this kind of discrimination. Many local businesses, Ohio University and the city of Athens all have their own bans against the sexual orientation bias.

What the Bills Would Do
The current bills would make it illegal statewide to fire someone, deny them housing or force them to leave a public place simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Mickey Hart is an Athens resident and a founding member of Equality Ohio, a gay rights group that supports the bills.

Hart said not only is this an issue for homosexual Ohioans, but heterosexual workers as well.

Equality Ohio founding member said the law would also apply to heterosexual workers.

If passed, these bills would change current Athens laws with the addition of language on gender identity. Hart said when Athens City Council enacted the local anti-discrimination law, gender identity was a relatively new concept.

According to the language of the bill, "Sexual orientation means actual or perceived, heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, or gender identity and expression."

Gender identity and expression is defined as "the gender-related identity, appearance, expression, or behavior of an individual regardless of the individual's assigned sex at birth."

Passage of the two bills would give transgender or transitioning members of the gay community the right to dress according to their identity when in their workplace or other public arenas.

A violation of this bill could result in fines of up to $25,000 for a single offense.

Why the Bills are Necessary
Hart said Equality Ohio's campaigns are focused on one idea: Ohioans values don't match their laws. He said if you look at state laws, Ohio is one of the most unwelcoming states in the nation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Although Hart isn't aware of specific cases of discrimination, he said a subtle undertone exists in the state.

"It's people not feeling they can be themselves fully in the workplace and just always wondering and worrying about being fired or having some kind of restrictions put on," Hart said.

Mickey Hart of Equality Ohio talks about the necessity of the bills.

"The sooner we do this, the better we make Ohio," he said.

Several rights activist groups have come together to back the idea. The Columbus City Council, as well as many other areas of the state, have already voiced their support of the statewide measure.

Opponents of the Bill
But not everyone is in favor of the legislation. Several Christian organizations, including the Ohio Christian Alliance have testified against the measures.

OCA President Chris Long provided written testimony to the House committee, stating, “This bill seeks to provide a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist."

The Christian Alliance has also suggested the bills could ultimately be used to challenge our state’s constitution - including laws against gay marriage.

The Next Step
Athens City Council members briefly discussed the possibility of expanding current city laws to include gender identity discrimination.

Council member Jim Sands, who introduced the resolution, said hopefully with the state's passage, that would be a mute point.

Ohio University graduate student Michael Evans said he hasn't experienced discrimination because he is gay. But regardless of his own experience, Evans said he supports the measure.

"If people aren't being accepting of other people, it's kinda nice to have the law on our side," Evans said. "And it's great that the state of Ohio wants to be on our side."

VIDEO: Athens City Council votes to endorse sexual orientation anti-discrimination bills.

Text of Senate Bill 305
Explanation of Senate Bill 305

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