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Gays In Cincinnati: From Second-Class Citizens To Fully Accepted

Gay rights issues led Ryan Messer (left) to move away from Cincinnati. It also led to Mike Moroski losing his job. Today, both men agree that gays are more accepted in the city than they've ever been.
Alan Greenblatt

Ryan Messer decided he could go home again.

Messer was one of a number of gay men of his generation who packed up and left Cincinnati, a city with a history of official discrimination, for friendlier cities on the coasts.

"They still have this Cincinnati group in San Diego," he says. "They're doing great things, and we lost that talent."

But the city charter, which blocked legal protections for gays and lesbians up until a decade ago, has since been amended.

"When I was 23, we were such a novelty," Messer says. "Now, there is no issue."

It's not just people like Messer who are coming back. For the first time in decades, Cincinnati is drawing more young people — those who identify as gay, as well as straights who insist on a more tolerant atmosphere.

The city's downtown is undergoing a major revitalization, attracting more employers, including GE, which announced earlier this month it will be bringing up to 2,000 jobs to staff a new U.S. Global Operations Center. The Cincinnati Enquirer described the announcement as "the biggest economic coup for Ohio in a decade."

The city's emphasis on inclusion and economic development have gone hand in hand, suggests Mayor John Cranley. One was predicated on the other, he says.

In other words, no gay rights, no GE.

That's why greater equality was a long-sought goal not only of gay activists, but a corporate community that pressed for greater tolerance both for "moral" and "business-driven" reasons, says Lynn Marmer, corporate affairs vice president for Kroger, a grocery store chain headquartered in downtown Cincinnati.

"Inclusion particularly implies the idea that we welcome divergent points of view," Marmer says. "We know as a company, in order to have that, you have to have a culture where people are free to be who they are."

Flipping The Switch

As in much of the nation, there are still legal battles on a number of fronts, but the city's culture and attitudes toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have changed markedly.

"I'm a trans woman, yet I was in the mayor's office yesterday, and he gave me a hug," says Paula Ison, who was just appointed to a city diversity board. "He shook hands with two guys and gave me a hug. That's a miracle in my lifetime."

"Generally, this is a place where as a gay person or gay family, you can feel welcome," says Chris Seelbach, the city's first openly gay city councilman.
Alan Greenblatt / NPR
"Generally, this is a place where as a gay person or gay family, you can feel welcome," says Chris Seelbach, the city's first openly gay city councilman.

Things began to change in 2004, when voters repealed Article XII, which blocked job and housing protections for gays. Cranley, the city's current mayor, describes it as "this horrible albatross" the city had around its neck, costing Cincinnati, among other things, millions of dollars in tourism and convention business.

Locals credit a two-year door-knocking campaign that helped citizens see gays as rounded human beings, not simply as creatures defined by sexuality.

"I really think that the Article XII campaign was a transformational movement," says Chris Seelbach, Cincinnati's first openly gay city councilman. "It was like a light switch flipped."

There are still parts of town where gay couples wouldn't be smart to kiss or hold hands in public. For the most part, though, acceptance is now almost taken for granted.

"There's definitely still a pocket of people against gay rights, but they're definitely a minority," says Dan Traicoff, a University of Cincinnati graduate student and president of the Hamilton County Young Democrats. "Even my conservative friends, who vote Republican down the line, support gay rights."

Fighting Symbolic Fights

Still, there are ongoing skirmishes. Gays were not welcome to march in this year's St. Patrick's Day parade, for instance. And, last year, Mike Moroski was fired for supporting gay rights.

Moroski is a straight man who worked as an administrator for a Catholic high school. After writing a blog post supporting same-sex marriage, his employer instructed him to take it down.

Moroski refused, and the battle is still ongoing. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati last month released a new contract that bars "teacher-ministers" from publicly expressing support for gay rights.

The contract led to a parents' protest last week, and some Catholic school teachers are thinking of unionizing.

The new guidelines simply make clear prohibitions that were already in place, says Dan Andriacco, communications director for the archdiocese. He draws a comparison with journalists, who may have their own opinions but aren't allowed to express them in letters to the editor.

"For teachers, representing the institution doesn't end at the classroom doors," he says. "We've had a moral conduct clause in our contract for years, perhaps decades."

Andriacco recognizes that church teachings regarding homosexuality are "under challenge." For his part, Moroski argues that Cincinnati's Catholic schools, which have been losing enrollment, risk becoming marginalized.

"Any critical thinking young person is not going to sign a contract saying they can't support their gay friends," he says.

Changing Legal Landscape

The overall legal landscape is changing so rapidly that Scott Knox, a local gay-rights attorney, sometimes waves clients away. They're welcome to pay him a fee to fight over something like adoption, he says, but if they wait a year or two the law is bound to change in their favor.

"You have financial administrators and human resources people who need to know, either you're married or you're not," Knox says. "Muddy isn't good."

Jim Obergefell flew out of state to marry his longtime partner, John Arthur, shortly before John's death last year. "In our hearts and minds, we were married, but we wanted legal recognition that we were a couple," he says.
Alan Greenblatt / NPR
Jim Obergefell flew out of state to marry his longtime partner, John Arthur, shortly before John's death last year. "In our hearts and minds, we were married, but we wanted legal recognition that we were a couple," he says.

Earlier this month, a federal judge in Cincinnati ruled that Ohio, which doesn't grant same-sex marriages, had to offer legal recognition to couples married elsewhere. That didn't come soon enough to help Jim Obergefell and John Arthur.

They'd been together more than 20 years. Following the Supreme Court's decisions on same-sex marriage last June, Obergefell decided it was time to get married. Arthur was dying of ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

With financial help from friends, the couple hired a medical jet to take them to Maryland in July. "Instead of putting John in his wheelchair and walking five blocks to the Hamilton County Courthouse, it was an extreme hardship we had to go through," Obergefell says. Arthur died in October.

Obergefell became irate when he returned home and was told by an attorney that he wouldn't be listed as Arthur's husband on the death certificate. He sued for the recognition, and won.

Obergefell longs for the day when Ohio will not wait until someone dies to recognize same-sex marriages. Still, like many gay people in the city, he's pleased that the overall picture has changed so dramatically and rapidly in recent years.

He says he felt "unbelievably" supported as he went through his legal and emotional travails.

"It made me happy that I stuck with Cincinnati," he says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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