Monday, October 18, 2004

Hell In Ohio

The Buckeye State is the latest battleground for gay rights. Michelle Goldberg reports on Issue 1 in

Julie Reeves and Leigh Mamlin live in a split-level, stucco-and-brick house in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, with their two children, 18-month-old Frannie and 3-year-old Charlie. Reeves, a silver-haired 45-year-old, works full-time as an administrator at Ohio State University, her alma matter, while 40-year-old Mamlin, the children’s biological mother, stays home. A grey minivan is parked in the driveway and baby books are piled on the coffee table. As they sit in their cozy living room on Sunday evening, Frannie nestles in Mamlin’s lap while Charlie perches on Reeves’ knee.

If Reeves and Mamlin weren’t lesbians, their nuclear family would seem almost anachronistically average. Because they are, they find themselves in the middle of a raging election-season culture war that could leave Mamlin and the children without health insurance and Reeves without child custody. “It’s such a personal assault,” says Mamlin. “We feel violated, misunderstood, misrepresented and hated by people who are ignorant of who we truly are.” And it’s all coming from their fellow citizens.

On Nov. 2, Ohio will vote on Issue 1, a state constitutional amendment that purports to simply ban same-sex marriage but actually goes much further. Ten other states — Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah — are also voting on anti-gay marriage amendments. They’re all expected to pass, most by wide margins. Eight of the state amendments prohibit domestic partnerships or any other public benefits or recognition for gay couples. But as a headline on the front page of Columbus Dispatch recently said, “Issue 1 wording makes it the strictest.” Polls show support for it hovering above 60 percent.


If passed, Issue 1 will force Ohio’s cities and universities to stop offering domestic partner benefits, including health insurance. Right now, such benefits are offered by the city of Columbus, Ohio’s Miami University, Ohio University and Ohio State University, the largest university in America. Cleveland Heights has a domestic partnership registry, and some Ohio public schools give gay employees family leave to care for ailing partners. Issue 1 would probably mean they could no longer do so. Because Ohio doesn’t allow two-parent gay adoptions, Reeves had to go through a lengthy legal process to become Frannie and Charlies’ legal co-parent. Her lawyer told her that if Issue 1 passes, her parental rights could be nullified.

The amendment’s impact won’t stop there. “Because the state can’t create any legal status for unmarried couples, it’s very possible that domestic-violence protection orders could no longer be used if there’s a domestic violence situation with an unmarried couple,” says Alan Melamed, an attorney and chairman of the anti-Issue 1 group Ohioans Protecting the Constitution. Private companies can continue to offer domestic partner benefits, he adds, but “if the employee feels that those benefits were being improperly denied, an employee won’t be able to go to court and enforce those benefits.”

Issue 1 is only two sentences long, but there’s a world of uncertainty in it. While the first sentence simply decrees that marriage is between a man and a woman, the second says, “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.”

Not only will the amendment legalize bigotry, it will also drive a lot of people out of the state and prompt a boycott by gays and those sympathetic with gay causes. This can’t help in a state where the economy is already in the crapper.

If Issue 1 prevails, political and business leaders are extremely worried that an exodus of educated professionals will follow, along with a decrease in tourism and convention business. As the Plain Dealer reported on Sept. 25, Julie Harrison Calvert, spokeswoman for the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau, says that the city’s 1994 anti-gay amendment charter has cost Cincinnati at least $46 million in potential convention business. “More than a dozen firms that had considered Cincinnati, or already booked its convention center, pointed to the anti-gay measure as the reason for going elsewhere,” the story said, adding, “Now, such icons as Procter & Gamble and the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce are trying to get rid of the provision, saying it harms corporate recruiting.”

The state’s universities say that Issue 1 will make it harder for them to attract top talent and to keep the people they already have. Karen Holbrook, president of Ohio State University, recently issued a statement saying that the amendment would be “harmful to our institution’s ability to remain competitive with other employers and institutions of higher learning.”

Recruiting is especially important to local employers because of the way the state is hemorrhaging young people. “We’re losing our talent and somehow, as our economy gets back on track, we’ve got to attract in additional talent,” says Cheryl McClellan, a Republican sales consultant who is working with Ohioans Protecting the Constitution to organize business opposition to Issue 1. “We’re going to restrict our ability to bring new talent and retain talent within Ohio if we say, ‘Hey, we want you here, but you better leave your domestic partner behind.'”

That’s just fine with some of the organizers behind Issue 1. They want to purge the state of anyone who harbors any sympathy for gays.

This dynamic is on stark display on Friday, Oct. 8, when Columbus community leaders, activists and concerned citizens gather for a luncheon debate on Issue 1. Organized by the Columbus Metropolitan Club, a local civic group, the event is held in a second-floor dining room at the Columbus Athletic Club, an elegant place full of burnished dark wood and chandeliers. Several local businesspeople are there, including Cheryl McClellan. Every chair is taken.

The debate is between Melamed and Patrick Johnston, a physician and vice chairman of the Ohio branch of the far-right Constitution Party. Johnston isn’t officially affiliated with Burress’ group, Citizens for Community Values, but the two men worked together collecting signatures to put Issue 1 on the ballot, and Johnston says they talk often. He’s also close to Minutemen United, whose members have turned up to support him at past speaking engagements.

Melamed, a distinguished-looking, gray-haired man in a well-cut blue suit and burgundy tie, begins the debate by emphasizing the likely legal and economic fallout from Issue 1. But Johnston, a blond, pink-faced 33-year-old, has no intention of arguing on Melamed’s terms. “Even if Ohio would be better off, gays should not be allowed to marry,” he says, because homosexuality is a sin that “merits discrimination.” In fact, he says, “I support and endorse the criminalization of homosexuality.”

Preaching like a street-corner revivalist, Johnston musters quotes from both the Bible and Dostoevski to make the tautological argument that those who reject his vision of Christianity lack the foundation to make any moral arguments. “The proof for the Christian ethic which condemns homosexual marriage is the impossibility of the contrary,” he says. “Reject the Christian ethic and you have no basis for making moral judgments.”

The audience stares at him in open-mouthed amazement. Looking like she’s been slapped, McClellan walks out of the room and starts crying. “My father was a D-Day lander and a World War II hero,” she says later. “He freed two concentration camps. All I could think of was here are all of these people who have fought and given their lives to keep our country free of maniacal people like that guy. This guy reminded me of a Hitler youth. At this stage of our evolution, why is there such a maniacal hatred of people?”

This is just the beginning. And the RNC is behind it, too. So if you think that all there is at stake on November 2 is the presidential election, you’re missing the bigger picture. To quote Candide (the musical), “What a day, what a day for an auto da fe!”

I truly feel sorry for the people of Ohio. The only saving grace is that the chances are that Issue 1 will ever become law are remote; the challenges will be in court for years. But it will not change the hearts and minds of the bigots. That is the real war on terrorism.