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Marriage Equality Is Great And All, But...

Cleveland's LGBT Community Is Focused On More Important Things Right Now

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Same-sex marriage is legal in 12 states, and Ohio is not one of them. That may very well change in the coming years, given several statewide efforts.

"As a lesbian and as someone who has been in serious relationships...I want the legal protections that come with what marriage could give me," Phyllis Harris, executive director of  the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, says.

Honestly, that sort of common-sense policy of equality is long overdue in Ohio. But if gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights are human rights (and they are), there are lots of other arenas where inequality still reigns. They just don't get the headlines that marriage equality does.

But those conversations play out daily in Cleveland and across the world. Harris, who goes by "Seven" within the community, connects the dots from Ohio's multifaceted push for marriage equality to the men and women she meets everyday. These are men and women who need varying forms of deserved solace, and marriage is but one of them.

"Do I need it in terms of a way of showing my commitment to a significant other? No, I don't. But there are a lot of gay and lesbian people who do."

Harris smiles.

"I do think about it with hope."

***

Tucked into the concrete folds of Gordon Square's buzzing arts district, the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland is a fairly unassuming place. A quick jaunt down the staircase takes one into the basement of what is actually the Gordon Square Arcade.

Nowadays, the center hosts a variety of events throughout the week: group Tai Chi, gay and lesbian discussion groups, LGBT AA and more. There's also the center's free HIV and STD testing, which takes place Mondays and Wednesdays. Services like that, complemented elsewhere in town by MetroHealth's LGBT Pride Clinic, combat the outright denial of basic services faced by many in the LGBT community.

Harris beams as she discusses the week's events and describes the 38-year history that shapes the present moment. Talking in the conference room at the LGBT Community Center, surrounded by chairs and tables donated from caring local groups, Harris begins to describe some of the day-to-day tribulations she faces. These are innocuous occasions that are turned into moments of hazard and profound self-awareness simply because of a slice of her identity.

When she downsized from homeownership to a cozier rental recently, she was confronted with the matter of coming out forcibly. That's an issue faced by all LGBT people. "I need to come out. I'm out, but my lesbianism is only one part of my identity...It's something that forces me to come out, and I worry: Oh my gosh, I could be denied housing." Her worries are shared by many.

To a young person facing the prospect of bullying, part-time job applications or maybe a post-high school rental, there are issues of inequality at nearly every turn.

These are conversations that run constant through the community, though they don't make headlines, nor can their solutions be entirely legislated (though attempts are underway).

Nearly 70 percent of Ohioans believe that legal protections against employment discrimination are in place to protect the LGBT community, according to Equality Ohio. Nationally, according to the Center for American Progress, that statistic leaps to nearly 90 percent of the population. To be clear, employers are allowed to fire at will any employee for his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.

The inequalities that go unchecked by so many Ohioans include wage gaps, recruitment and hiring bias, institutionalized barriers to job growth and more. One in 10 workers who have come out publicly have reported losing their job due to their sexual orientation in the past five years, according to a recent Human Rights Campaign report.

Harris talks through those realities daily with the men, women and children who stop by the center.

Often enough, she says, the need for employment, safety and comfort overshadows the need for a legal marriage. Every other state that has succeeded with a marriage equality referendum has first approved anti-discrimination legislation, such as Ohio's Senate Bill 125 and House Bill 163. Those bills comprise the Equal Housing and Employment Act (EHEA), two pieces of legislation introduced down in Columbus last month. Essentially, the bills add "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to anti-discrimination language that already includes race, religion, age and more.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is the national bill that would achieve a similar measure. None of the above efforts have had ultimate success in Ohio or at the federal level.

Dr. Henry Ng, an internist-pediatrician working as part of the LGBT Pride Clinic at MetroHealth Medical Center says, however, that they're all part of the same ongoing conversation.

"Issues relating to ENDA and our state DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act] really go hand-in-hand at this point," he says.

***

The Pride Clinic at MetroHealth, first opened in 2007, operates from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. or so on Wednesdays at the McCafferty Health Center, 4242 Lorain Ave. And that's the extent of the clinic's availability, apart from a few hours throughout the week that Ng and the crew work out of MetroHealth's Strongsville satellite.

Whether it's a matter of time or money, resources for serving LGBT patients are thin in Cuyahoga County, despite being at their most robust levels in years. But the Pride Clinic is an extraordinary asset that's advancing both real, well-rounded health services and the conversation that Harris and others continue bringing up. Ng also sees the value in maintaining public dialogue. In fact, he was kicking off those very discussions among Cleveland's medical community just shy of a decade ago.

There's no legislation on the table that would change what Ng and Dr. Douglas Van Auken are doing. Whereas the microscope of the state legislature is homing in on employment- and housing-related issues, there's no grand public effort to push the hands of private hospitals in the direction of justice. Those attempts at changing society are running under the radar to garner the attention of those who need them most.

"More people, through word-of-mouth, are hearing about the Pride Clinic," Ng says. "It all starts with the question: 'How can we help you?'"

The Pride Clinic builds on what other scattered organizations are offering (like the LGBT Community Center's free HIV and STD testing). The community's health needs go far beyond such offerings. "That's actually a very small part of what we do," Ng says, referencing child and adult health and wellness: prevention, check-ups, family planning and more. And providing that choice—the choice to receive treatment in a comfortable, caring setting, he says—is a slowly growing phenomenon in corners of the health care world.

"Five hours of medical education on average is dedicated to LGBT health in the United States in your first two years of school," Ng says, painting a picture of the roots of the matter. That's a problem—and one that echoes the country's distorted approach to considering the LGBT population in matters of health care, housing and employment.

That distortion is slowly ebbing. But the fact is that people—both leaders and followers—are starting to listen and respond to the needs of the population.

"It's a step in the right direction. There are a lot of other areas that need to be included," Jacob Nash, a board member of TransOhio, says of EHEA and ENDA. He notes additional concerts for the transgender community: "For instance, regarding documentation, Ohio is only one of three states that will not correct a birth certificate. That needs to be worked on. There's also the fact that hate crime legislation does not include gender identity."

People like Nash, Ng and Harris are working daily to promote a real shift in society, but the current state of affairs too often rests on a statewide vote nearly 10 years ago. It was a damning moment.

The approach to LGBT rights in Ohio involves a disconnect between public perception and public reality. "What we're trying to do is change hearts and minds," Nash says. "Even that one conversation can then lead to somebody else having a conversation, saying, 'Hey, you know what I just found out...'"

***

In 2004, Ohio voters took up the mantle of then-Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and human thumb Karl Rove, and certified a statewide ban on gay marriage. The ban passed with 62 percent of the vote.

A recent opinion poll cites support for marriage equality at 54 percent (compared to 40 percent opposed). That's the most visible sign of the shift in consciousness from the general public. But it touches on just one issue.

In the wake of Issue 1's passage, an organization based around statewide LGBT rights formed. Elyzabeth Holford, the current and fourth executive director of Equality Ohio, is certainly hopeful that the ban will one day be reversed in this state. But she and her organization are tailoring their efforts elsewhere now. Equality Ohio is, in fact, not outright supporting the current signature-gathering effort aimed at a 2014 referendum. Rather, the group has been lobbying state legislators to move forward with EHEA.

Ian James, meanwhile, heads up FreedomOhio. That's the group currently gathering 385,253 signatures in support of a referendum issue shooting down the marriage equality ban.

He sent out a press release June 5 jarringly announcing  a run at the ballot in November 2014. It was jarring because there's actually no consensus backing the news. Holford's organization and others in Ohio have steadfastly kept FreedomOhio at arm's length. In fact, the national Freedom to Marry Coalition hasn't even come out to support James's push.

The head-butting does little more than obscure the more practical issues faced by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Ohioans. It also maintains the legacy emblazoned across the state when Issue 1 was thrust into Ohio's constitution. It's a struggle, and it's never been anything but.

"There is really not one face [of the LGBT community]," Holford says, chatting with Scene after one of her frequent stops in Cleveland. "There are so many strata of what issues are impactful that we need to always be inclusive. There are so many different needs across the state."

With a cohesive plan and an ongoing openness to all ideas, Holford adds, all of those needs can be addressed. They're complex, they're multifaceted, they're often obscured from the public eye. But attentive action can improve society.

Several illustrations: It is 100-percent legal to fire someone because he or she is gay, leading to abrupt unemployment and all the problems that come with that. A person transitioning genders cannot change his or her birth certificate information, leading to a contradiction in legal identity. At nearly every point of professional interaction an LGBT person must confront the question of coming out or not, leading to an immediate shift in response from the people around them.

Legal and social realities often don't become apparent to the afflicted until moments of direct confrontation. It's typically not until a young woman is trying to get a job and being outright denied on the basis of her lesbianism, for instance, that she'll even learn of this matter.

"They're more likely to know what's going on around marriage equality than they are to know that they could be fired because of their sexual orientation—or that they could be denied housing because of their sexual orientation. Many LGBT people don't know that," Harris says. She adds that conversations do blossom in the wake of a friend or a family member being fired or being evicted. But it takes multifaceted devastation to get to that point, often enough.

Currently, 29 states legally allow private employers to fire an employee based on sexual orientation. In 24 states, gender identity is a valid reason for termination. And federally, there is no protection of any of the above.

State Rep. Nickie Antonio, a Lakewood Democrat and the first openly gay member of the state legislature, is one of the co-sponsors of the House bill. She's spent a lifetime supporting change like the EHEA, nudging Ohio further from the inequity of Issue 1 and toward a status quo of even footing for all.

And echoing Holford's look to the future, she notes that none of the 12 states that have opened the door to gay marriage have done so without first ending employment discriminations.

"It gives us the opportunity to be whole, three-dimensional people—not a stereotype, not some kind of caricature that was designed by someone who doesn't really have any relationship to my life and my family," Antonio says. "For all of us, it's this opportunity to be our authentic selves. Does that include having a job? Of course. Should it then surprise someone that the other thing that many in the LGBT community would also like to have is a full acknowledgement of their relationship? We can have that discussion, as well."

Social equality bills have a history of dying in committee down in Columbus —most recently, an employment-related rights bill died in the Ohio Senate in 2009 after the House approved it.  The latest bipartisan effort now—and once again—proposes a pair of bills that would ban discrimination in matters relating to housing, employment, certain government contracts and various health services.

But like all the talk and all the headlines, real change is in the air. Harris cautions, however: "As much as we have done, there's still a lot to do...Part of it is letting people know what their rights are—or finding out that you don't have the rights. You can get involved in advocating for yourself."

"These patients go to see a doctor just for a cold and they're told, 'We don't take care of you. We don't do that,'" Ng says, passing along stories he's seen play out in Cleveland. "They're not even asking for hormones or surgery. We see patients who are rejected by health care providers when they're most vulnerable."

Whether via termination of employment, denial of housing, or simply the day-to-day pressure of social constructs, members of the LGBT community often find their health deteriorating. An entire field of study—minority stress theory—is devoted to understanding the crossroads of health and discrimination. In corners of Cleveland, there are doctors and healthcare professionals ensuring that those matters are addressed.

A startling percentage of LGBT patients (typically in the realm of 20 percent or so, depending on geography and population) report being denied health services.

Ng, now working exclusively in the field of LGBT health at MetroHealth Medical Center and its LGBT Pride Clinic, has has helped lead the local discussion for years. He's seen those denials, those turned backs and indifferent physicians.

"This is one of the things I feel is very important to change. Health care cannot be uncaring," he says. "But all this work in queer health and LGBT health was not completely planned."

He points to a Grand Rounds conversation on LGBT health care in 2005 as a sort of fulcrum pivoting toward the Pride Clinic's genesis. "After I talked about it once, other people started talking about it. This is one of the things I feel is natural about advocacy."

Talking about it matters, Ng says, because there's still a vast gulf between the public perception of "queer health" and the realities of the work of Ng and his colleagues.

And though the Pride Clinic's existence and successes travel fairly well by word-of-mouth, the work is still mostly under-the-radar. The face of LGBT health needs—HIV and STD testing—obscures the simple fact that there's a plethora of day-to-day treatments, conversations and needs that exist for gay and transgender people of all ages.

"Queer people also have other health and wellness needs. What are we going to do about that?" Harris says. She invokes an illustration of a female-to-male transition. Imagine: Reproductive health services become a convoluted question, given the person's male identity and female organs. The Pride Clinic opens the door for those very questions.

"One of my girls came by—and this is after a complete exam, including a private genital exam," Ng says. "They bare their bodies and their souls to me. She said, 'I come here because you make me feel comfortable.' We're able to create a safe place where some of our potentially most marginalized people in the LGBT communities can come and feel safe."

***

What's apparent in discussing gay and trans rights and, specifically, marriage equality is that the face of that movement has, perhaps unintentionally, become the picture of two gay white men. Among the LGBT community, the "gay, white male" identity absorbs a certain amount of privilege via the intersections of gender and race. But it does little to cover the entirety of the population.

Intersectionality, a term first coined by Canton-born Kimberle Crenshaw in the late 1980s, is the study of minority identities and the intersections among them—race, gender identity, sexual orientation and the like. It's also a term that demands, perhaps, a bit more mainstream understanding.

"Who marriage will benefit the most is sometimes talked about," Harris says. "And that is white, gay men, because of the privilege." She refers to varying points of access to public imagery, taxation, health care, employment and much more. Embedded within the marriage equality argument appears to be a red herring, a monolithic idea that purports that everything will be at peace once this matter gets approved. But access to all manners of social equality is a much broader and more important concept.

"It's not that people are disinterested in marriage equality, but these are all parts of the conversation," Harris says. "While some people are trying to figure out where they're going to pee, other people are trying to figure out if they have somewhere to sleep. [Marriage rights] matter, but there are some other things."

"If you really want to know what the community wants, you need to come to where they're at and you need to ask them," Nash says. "People are saying 'marriage, marriage, marriage' or even 'employment, employment, employment'—and those are very critical—but the number one thing I keep hearing from folks in the trans community is, 'We want our birth certificates corrected.' To our community, that is number one because with it there is validation of who we are."

Language matters. From anti-discrimination policy, to the media reporting of transgender hate crimes, to the identification on one's legal documents, language matters.

***

A brisk wind snapped off the lakeshore and whipped through a crowd of about 200 people gathered outside Cleveland City Hall on March 24. The informal group—drawing on all corners of the regional population—had come together to rally in support of equal marriage rights. The day's activities were conveniently parlayed, as well, as a complement to the U.S. Supreme Court hearings on the legality of 1996's Defense of Marriage Act. (Those hearings will resume later this month.)

The event mirrored something similar—a mock wedding rally during which gay couples exchanged vows—one year prior in downtown Cleveland. More than 250 same-sex couples said "I do" that day, though none of it was legally sanctioned by the state.

The image, the experience, the words: All of that is pure when citizens congregate publicly to flash glimpses of the faces of change at passersby. In more private arenas, those experiences transform into that very sense of change—little by little.

"As someone who's not heterosexual and someone who's not Caucasian, I'm generally reminded in big and small ways about being different. That's been my experience all my life," Ng says. "Discrimination does happen. And it does happen everywhere at varying degrees."

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