The Internet Outrage Machine is one of the most pernicious forces in modern society. Take a look: Open up your Facebook page, and you'll immediately find at least half a dozen polemical screeds about men hanging out in women's restrooms at Target, about the end of decency and the nasty rise of the "overly PC" culture that this country has embraced.
It's all very tiring and sad. It also, naturally, happens to be quite misguided. The transgender community here in Ohio has much more pressing matters to confront.
A major report was published in January 2014 by the Williams Institute, noting that 212,000 workers in Ohio identify as LGBT. (The study doesn't break down the individual identities, e.g., the transgender proportion.)
A major part of the study involved workplace discrimination against the LGBT community. Many municipalities and states have laws on the books that protect workers from various forms of discrimination, but it's only recently that we're seeing a wave of legislation that amends those laws to include protection against discrimination that targets sexual orientation or gender identity. The study found that, according to a 2013 opinion survey, 68 percent of Ohioans supported these laws; 84 percent "believed they were already in place." They're not.
It's been almost 18 months since a packed-house committee meeting was held at Cleveland City Hall. The marquee agenda item was a new ordinance that would include "gender identity or expression" in its anti-discrimination language. Most practically, the ordinance will allow people to use the restroom that corresponds to their own gender identity. The restroom clause is what brought many members of the public to that meeting, mostly overshadowing the broader brushstrokes in the legislation.
To return to the Williams Institute study: "As recently as 2010, 78 percent of respondents to the largest survey of transgender people to date reported having experienced harassment or mistreatment at work, and 47 percent reported having been discriminated against in hiring, promotion, or job retention because of their gender identity."
With that in mind, the second annual Transgender Job Fair took place at MetroHealth in late April. About 100 people showed up, prospective employees seeking work in a welcoming environment. Jacob Nash, a vocal advocate for the transgender community here in Northeast Ohio, told Scene that this year's event built off the success of last year's inaugural fair, as well as the increasing awareness that workplace discrimination is a very real and dynamic force.
"It's often very hard to, first of all, find employment or keep employment when you are transitioning or identify as trans; regardless of whether you've transitioned or not, there are always ways of finding out who you are," Nash says. "Finding employment can often be very difficult for individuals within the transgender population."
The fair was filled out by major companies — including Progressive, Starbucks, General Electric and Hilton, for example — stepping up to the plate and identifying themselves as welcoming to transgender employees. (Nash says feedback from the event was exceptionally positive from prospective employees.)
In Northeast Ohio, the narrative these days is one of local legislators sitting on their hands. Cities like Cleveland and Lakewood seem always to be very close to passing legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to anti-discrimination policies. Nothing's been approved yet in those cities. Cleveland City Council members have said that their own ordinance is still inching closer to the finish line, but that remains to be seen publicly.
The effect of having a law on the books provides more legal teeth to arguments against discrimination, of course. Brian Spitz of the Spitz Law Firm in Ohio has spent years representing those on the wrong end of that discrimination. He tells Scene that the number of gender identity cases that have landed in his office has only increased in recent years.
He draws a line from employment discrimination based on gender identity — what law firms are seeing more and more of these days — to the racial discrimination at the forefront of American society not so long ago.
"That is a failed argument from the beginning," Spitz says, "because, to me, it's essentially the same argument that we would see in the 1940s and during the Civil Rights Movement in saying, 'Look, I don't want to have an African American working here. This is going to make for an uncomfortable work environment.'"
Spitz says that the mountain of case law forming around that litigation is providing a foundation for how workplace discrimination plays out legally. Still, the need for broad, city- or statewide policies remains as great as ever.
State Rep. Nickie Antonio has put forth a bill to add sexual orientation and gender identity into the state's non-discrimination policy. It hasn't gotten much traction in the statehouse or the press. Meantime, Rep. Bill Seitz of Cincinnati has advanced an overhaul of the state's employment discrimination policies, tightening them up to mirror federal law; that bill, however, bears no mention of discrimination against the LGBT community.
Last we heard, Rep. John Becker was considering a bill that would "prevent sexual predators from posing as transgender persons in order to gain easy access to a smorgasbord of women and young girls without disrupting the lives of well-meaning people." Again, the restroom distraction. Nothing's been introduced on that front yet, though.
"I think the transgender community and the rest of the LGBT community feels more comfortable in saying, 'I'm not going to be the one that's perceived as being wrong,'" Spitz says. "There is the start of a social acceptance of this. While there's still a segment of the population that's opposed to this, there's clearly an entrenched view that they should not be discriminated against. We're really on a torrent of change, and I think this is going to happen much quicker than prior generations that dealt with this kind of class discrimination."