Close Ohio gay-rights vote mirrors national debate

Story by The Associated Press posted on

"Thirty years ago, a vote like the one just decided in this university town wouldn't have happened; gay-rights activism hadn't taken root across most of America. Thirty years hence, such votes may seem a historical curiosity in a time of equality for gays.

"Right now, though, the gay rights movement is at a tipping point, as epitomized by Bowling Green's divisive referendum on extending anti-discrimination protections to gays. The vote was so close that it took three extra weeks to determine whether the two measures passed.

"Nationally, gay-rights supporters and their conservative opponents are trading victories and setbacks, and the public is deeply divided on the freedom to marry. Could the push for full equality be stalled or reversed? Probably not, if public opinion evolves at its current pace.

"'All you have to do is look at the demographics and you can see this is as inevitable as anything,' said Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor who has studied the civil rights and gay rights movements.

"Surveys repeatedly find that young adults, far more so than their elders, support the rights of gays to marry and serve openly in the military. A Gallup poll earlier this year showed, for the first time, a majority of Americans saying same-sex relations were morally acceptable. Increasing numbers of Americans personally know gays and lesbians, and positive portrayals of them abound on TV and in films.

"'The more gay-friendly an environment you create, the more people come out as gay,' Klarman said. 'When people know other people are gay — family, co-workers — they find it harder and harder to dislike them and deny them equal rights.'

"Social conservatives see those trends as clearly as liberals do, though they may hope for a different outcome.

... "Both sides in the Bowling Green campaign recognized that they were part of a bigger picture — evidenced by the involvement of national gay-rights organizers whose savvy, in the end, helped the ordinances win approval after a bitter 16-month debate.

"'We became a small battleground in a larger war,' said John Zanfardino, the city councilor who introduced the ordinances in 2009, miscalculating that their enactment would be swift and smooth.

"The battleground is a northwest Ohio town of 30,000 residents, plus 18,000 university students. Its county was carried by George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election and by Barack Obama in 2008.

"Mayor John Quinn is already talking about the need to heal the wounds opened by the referendum campaign.

"'Some of it wasn't as pretty as I'd have liked,' he said. 'I don't want to use the word hate, but some people have very strong anti-gay feelings.'

... "Yet longer term, many trends seem to promise advancement of the gay-rights cause.


"Obama has appointed more openly gay officials than any other president — an estimated 150 so far. An ever-growing number of actors and singers remain popular after coming out of the closet; hit TV shows such as "Glee" and the Emmy-winning "Modern Family" portray gays prominently and empathetically. Openly gay politicians are taking office in ever-wider swaths of America — Nov. 2 victories included the mayoral election in Lexington, Ky., and a legislative seat in North Carolina.

"In December, the Senate is expected to vote on whether to allow gays to serve openly in the military — a goal supported by several top Pentagon officials and a majority of the public. Leaked portions of an upcoming Pentagon report suggest most service members foresee no major problems if 'don't ask, don't tell' is repealed.

"There's a widely held belief that repeal could prove to be a turning point for gay rights comparable to the racial integration of the military after World War II.

"'That was a stepping stone for a lot of other rights that followed,' said Sara Benson, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.

"The ultimate gay-rights goal is national recognition of the freedom to marry, which now is legal in five states and the subject of several pending lawsuits filed by gay-rights groups that could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Gay-rights activists hope to add Maryland, Rhode Island and possibly New York to the ranks of states honoring same-sex couples' marriages. ...

... "Several recent national polls show support for marriage equality at a record high — nearing or topping 50 percent overall while gaining backing even among older people and Republicans.

"Evan Wolfson, a gay-rights lawyer who heads the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, said that even in an election where the Republicans triumphed, few GOP leaders seem eager to speak out against gay rights.

"'They realize this is not where history is going,' Wolfson said.

"Klarman, the Harvard law professor, says the freedom to marry question could reach the Supreme Court in the next few years and foresees the possibility that the principal swing justice — Anthony Kennedy — could write a majority opinion recognizing gays' marriage rights.

"'If you think the change is inevitable, why wouldn't you want to be the author of the great opinion of our times advancing social justice?' Klarman asked. Yet he doesn't see the path ahead as tranquil.

"'Evangelical Christians — you can tell them it's inevitable and some of them might agree,' he said. 'But that doesn't mean they will stop fighting.'

"In Bowling Green, the battle lines for the referendum were drawn in August 2009, when the city council heard earnest testimony, pro and con, from dozens of citizens, and then approved the two ordinances by votes of 7-0 and 6-1.

"The measures add sexual orientation and gender identity as categories covered by local anti-discrimination laws — one deals with housing, the other with access to public facilities and employment by businesses and schools.

... "Within weeks after the council passed the ordinances, conservative opponents collected enough signatures to challenge them — and on Nov. 2 voters had the final say.

The initial tally revealed an almost 50-50 split: The housing measure was approved by 24 votes out of more than 8,100 ballots cast while the other measure lost by 116. Over the next three weeks, the election board reviewed hundreds of provisional ballots — mostly cast by Bowling Green State University students — and on Monday announced the final result: Both measures had won approval.

David Miller, for 30 years the editor of the local newspaper, the Sentinel-Tribune, said the ordinances generated the largest outpouring of letters to the editor in the paper's history, 119 published letters in all.

"It was a good fight on both sides," Miller said.

... "The Yes side was outraged at dire warnings emerging from the No camp in speeches and fliers — that passing the ordinances might fuel the spread of AIDS or enable men dressed as women to make menacing forays into women's restrooms on the premise that they were transgender. Problems related to bathrooms have been negligible in the 13 states and scores of municipalities which have such anti-discrimination laws, gay-rights activists say.

"Yes campaign leader Jane Rosser, who oversees community-service programs at Bowling Green State, said it was sobering that her side barely prevailed despite a huge advantage in money and volunteers. "If change is going to happen, it has to happen community by community, face to face," she said.

"Charlie Applebaum, a professor emeritus of math, said the opposition to gay-rights measures reminded him of the animosity toward advances by blacks and women in past decades.

"'I know people on the other side — people I've known for years,' he said. 'I was surprised that they were on that side.'

"Kay Chapman, 53, who has lived openly in the town with her lesbian partner for many years, said, 'It hurts that your neighbors and possibly even some of your friends don't think you deserve the same rights that they have.'

"High school chemistry teacher Ken Diamond also was dismayed by the closeness of the vote, but added of gay-rights opponents: 'History will prove them wrong. It's generational. For younger people it's a no-brainer.' "

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