The Big Push Towards Gay Marriage in Ohio

Kristen Schmidt

Down an impromptu aisle they walk, seven couples in long white dresses and sharp black suits, some with babies and toddlers in arms, all joined by other relatives. Bruno Mars' pop hit "Marry You" blares from speakers set up on the lawn just outside the Kilcawley Center at Youngstown State University.

Their vows pronounced and their bonds sealed by an officiant, the couples take a spin on the grassy dance floor. Shutters click. The 100 or so onlookers watch from lawn chairs and spots in the shade. Afterward, cake and sparkling cider is served on a nearby patio.

Just out of sight, two police officers stand next to their cruisers.

The ceremony for same-sex couples was merely symbolic-there were no marriage licenses to sign. On tax forms and mundane questionnaires, couples will still check the box marked "single."

The event dubbed Rally in the Valley lacked many of the typical hallmarks of a rally. No protesters, no boisterous crowd, no picket signs, no chants. No television cameras. No need for those police officers to budge an inch from their cars.

Speakers take turns at the microphone, sharing personal stories of discrimination. Then Ian James, co-founder of FreedomOhio, a Columbus-based group trying to overturn Ohio's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, speaks.

"I started a little group about a year ago with some really good friends because we got just sick and tired of waiting for marriage equality to come organically. You can wait organically if you want. You can wait and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait," James says, intoning Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," in which he equated "wait" with "never."

"You ain't ever gonna get anything if you're not willing to ask for it," James says. "We can overturn the marriage ban if we work together smartly."

Nearly everyone in the economically, ethnically and even politically diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community wants the right to marry. Not surprisingly, there are divergent ideas about how to get there in Ohio. Those differences are playing out in real time as FreedomOhio crisscrosses the state collecting signatures needed to launch a ballot initiative. Visibly absent from the effort are the folks at Equality Ohio, the statewide organization launched in the aftermath of the 2004 Ohio constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Also on the sidelines are the influential national organizations that have brought money and resources to other states that have legalized same-sex marriage.

Hardly a week has gone by this year without a mention of same-sex marriage in headlines and newscasts. Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, says the national landscape marriage is changing quickly.

"A week ago I was in Rhode Island for the passage and signing. Two days ago I was in Delaware, and right now they're debating on the floor of the House of Representatives in Minnesota," Solomon says. "But that doesn't mean that every state is ready yet to go to the ballot to try and overturn where there are constitutional amendments."

In Ohio, LGBT activists say reversing the marriage ban would be a massive undertaking and is probably not going to happen soon. James and FreedomOhio couldn't disagree more with that last bit.

On Nov. 3, 2004, activist Lynne Bowman went to work, closed her door, put her head on her desk and cried for most of the day. The day after Election Day 2004 was a painful one for the LGBT community who had tried to fend off a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

More than 60 percent of Ohio voters approved the ban. Gay activists say they were underprepared to counter efforts by pro-ban group Citizens for Community Values and its allies.

"We didn't know what we were up against," says Bowman, regional field director for Human Rights Campaign and Equality Ohio founder. "We didn't have the resources to run a strong campaign. As a result people were just absolutely devastated. It was so painful to know that our neighbors felt this way."

A lot of people felt like Bowman did, and they quickly organized, incorporating Equality Ohio in August 2005. By the time Bowman left the organization in 2009, it had a $650,000 annual budget.

Since the ban, Ohio cities have added anti-discrimination laws and domestic partnership registries. Corporations and public universities and colleges have created policies that offer benefits to same-sex partners. But the state has no anti-discrimination law, and sexual orientation is not covered by anti-bullying statutes.

That's how Ohio has (and has not) changed in the years since the ban passed. Nationally, the change is more visible. In 2004, Massachusetts was the only state where gay people could marry. Now same-sex marriage has been approved in 12 states and the District of Columbia. Bowman, James and others say popular culture has changed the public's perception of gay people, too. Millions of people watch "Glee" and "Modern Family." An NBA player came out on the cover of Sports Illustrated. More gay people are coming out, increasing the number of people who know someone who is gay. That number now includes Ohio Republican junior U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, who began to favor same-sex marriage when his son came out.

"When someone you know and love is gay, it puts it in a different perspective," Bowman says.

Dozens of Republicans, including former governors and congressmen, signed a friend-of-the-court brief earlier this year as part of the California Proposition 8 case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Republican supporters want Prop 8, a ban on same-sex marriage, overturned because it amounts to government interference in citizens' lives. The same cohort would not have signed that document in 2004.

James runs FreedomOhio out of a hulking old house on Broad Street he shares with his husband, Stephen Letourneau-James (they were married in Canada). It's filled with dark wood paneling, high ceilings and heaps of built-in cabinetry. Boxes in the dining room contain campaign materials-T-shirts, button-making supplies, clipboards. On the day he's interviewed, the house is quiet, though that's not always the case, James says.

FreedomOhio, founded in 2011, was told to back off the effort in 2012, James says. Other activists were concerned a loud push for marriage would hurt the chances of Democrats, particularly President Obama and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, in the November election.

"There was a freakout. It was palpable," James says. "But there were those of us who said, you know what? You've gotta have the conversation. All this concern is really just fear. You've got to get beyond the fear and into action, and action then will get to the point of winning."

FreedomOhio says it is well on its way to meeting a July deadline to collect the more than 385,000 valid signatures required to get the measure on the November 2013 ballot. But more than that, James says, FreedomOhio also needs the right resources to run a winning campaign and polling that shows a "clear path" to success. If all three requirements are not met, the organization will wait until November 2014-or possibly later, since petition signatures have no expiration date in Ohio-to launch a campaign.

Efforts haven't gone unnoticed. Mayors, religious organizations and like-minded groups have endorsed FreedomOhio. Earlier this year, Greg Schultz, who ran Barack Obama's 2012 campaign in Ohio, joined the organization's executive committee.

James has worked in issue advocacy for several years, and he previously worked for campaigns and former Ohio House Speaker Vern Riffe. He grew up in Athens County and came out when he was 27.

"I've always had a fascination with issue campaigns and issue advocacy," he says. "You actually turn the power over to the people, as it should be. You give people the opportunity to really have their say."

James has faith in the process and in people, including his counterparts at other organizations: He is confident that Equality Ohio and the national organizations will bring resources to Ohio once Freedom-

Ohio decides to put the issue on the ballot.

"This state is too critical and the movement is too strong for any gay equality group to stay on the sidelines," James says. When he talks about his cause, he grows animated, spins one-liners off sentences, lets a vague Southern drawl show. "As Ohio goes, so goes the nation. We will win in Ohio, we absolutely, positively will.

"This is inevitable. It's gonna happen."

By contrast, Elyzabeth Holford, executive director of Equality Ohio is serene, deliberate and intense (though she's pretty adept at zingers herself). Her organization desires a building progression of rights for the LGBT community, and marriage is not first or even second on the list.

Equality Ohio advocates passage of the Equal Housing and Employment Act in the Ohio legislature. And the organization wants to see sexual orientation included in state anti-bullying laws.

"We are not an organization that is focused only on marriage," Holford says. "There is so much more that needs to happen in this state. We are building the kind of organization that reaches out across the state and that is about infrastructure building, capacity building, that's about opening up avenues for Ohioans to become actively engaged not only in LGBT issues but in community issues that move us toward equality for Ohioans."

Ohio is one of 30 states that bans same-sex marriage (in a handful of other states, it is simply not legal). Most states that have legalized it have done so through legislation. No other state has overturned a constitutional ban on marriage by ballot measure.

In each case of legalization, at least one, and often all, of the national organizations have provided people and money, Bowman says.

Even if voters do overturn a constitutional ban in another state, she says, there is no blueprint that can be endlessly repeated. Strategy differs from state to state. Human Rights Campaign mines data to pinpoint supporters or likely supporters and voters or likely voters, then it targets messaging to them. In Rhode Island, for example, Human Rights Campaign focused on persuading Catholics, who are a dominant faith group in the state.

That's another difference from 2004-data and technology have become essential tools in waging a campaign. FreedomOhio is working with five volunteer statisticians to crunch numbers. And the organization developed a mobile-phone app to help volunteers approach voters no matter where they are canvassing, suggesting an opening salvo according to location.

Before there can be strategy or organization, there must be money, and lots of it, for advertising, personnel, events, campaign materials.

"We have eight primary media markets. That's expensive. And running an ad at 11 p.m. on cable isn't necessarily going to do the job. We are one of the more expensive states to run a campaign in," Bowman says.

Despite their differences, Equality Ohio and FreedomOhio have found common ground in the last year, keeping in constant contact even though Equality Ohio is not helping gather signatures for the ballot measure. In May, FreedomOhio encouraged people in its social networks to join Equality Ohio's Lobby Day effort to persuade legislators to support the Equal Housing and Employment Act.

Meanwhile, Equality Ohio continues to build its statewide network, reaching out to the LGBT community on issues like unemployment, immigration and child care.

There is perceptible concern among LGBT activists about a "worst-case scenario" in which a measure does get to the ballot and is defeated. It might feel like 2004 all over again. Equality Ohio's field coordinator, Aliya Rahman, has a different take.

"Well, we may be set back, but the reality is if you were running a campaign where people from the ground up built the community, no matter what happens on the ballot, you have built community relationships and people are committed to each other and that's not undone," she says.

James insists FreedomOhio won't let that happen.

"We don't file the petitions until we're certain that we're going to win," he says. "If that means that there's not 100 percent unanimous support in the LGBT community for this, but we have majority support in Ohio, I'd call that majority support, and we move forward."

Ohio Constitution says:

Only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this state and its political subdivisions. This state and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage.

FreedomOhio proposed constitutional amendment says:

Be it Resolved by the People of the State of Ohio that Article XV, Section 11 of the Ohio Constitution be adopted and read as follows: Section 11. In the State of Ohio and its political subdivisions, marriage shall be a union of two consenting adults not nearer of kin than second cousins, and not having a husband or wife living, and no religious institution shall be required to perform or recognize a marriage.