Are Ohio voters ready, in 2014, to legalize same-sex marriage? Debate on that question is roiling the state’s gay-rights community, but it also has vital implications for all other Ohioans.
Ohio needs — as soon as possible — to join the 17 states (and the District of Columbia) that have authorized same-gender couples to marry. It’s not only a matter of basic fairness.
It’s also a way to strengthen families, by enabling loving couples to express their permanent commitment to each other. It encourages job creation and economic growth, by removing a reason for talented, productive people not to stay and move here.
But don’t expect this state’s reactionary General Assembly to look favorably on a same-sex marriage measure, especially in an election year. Even a positive court ruling, were Ohio to get one, would likely be subject to potentially time-consuming appeals, as are occurring in Utah and Oklahoma.
So a voter initiative on the November statewide ballot might seem the most promising option. Yet despite the remarkable speed with which other states have moved to permit gay marriage within the past year, polls suggest that voter approval in Ohio is far from a sure thing.
A same-sex marriage law would work best within a broader framework that outlaws discrimination against the estimated 437,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Ohioans — another area in which our state lags distressingly. The worst outcome would be to place a marriage-equality proposal before voters this year, and have them reject it.
“There is no more important state than this one,” says Michael Premo, the campaign manager of Why Marriage Matters Ohio, a group launched last fall to educate Ohioans about marriage equality before they vote on the issue. “When we win, that will be the ballgame.
“But 2014 looks very difficult,” says Mr. Premo, who recently led a successful campaign for same-sex marriage in New Jersey. “To go prematurely to the ballot, to come full bore and bring everything to bear, and then to lose — no one wants to make this an academic exercise.” As a result, he told me last week, his group “isn’t pushing” for a Ohio ballot initiative this year.
Adds Elyzabeth Holford, the executive director of Equality Ohio, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy group, and board chair of Why Marriage Matters Ohio: “Timing is everything. You are talking to someone who really wants things to go forward. But I also want to win.”
In 2004, 62 percent of Ohio voters approved a state constitutional amendment that defined marriage as “a union between one man and one woman.” The initiative also banned civil unions that would provide spousal rights to same-sex couples. Since then, polls report that Ohioans’ attitudes toward same-sex marriage have changed significantly.
A poll of more than 1,000 Ohio voters last month by the political research firm Public Policy Polling found that 47 percent said they favor same-sex marriage — but 48 percent oppose it. Nearly half said they would vote against a political candidate who did not share their views on the issue.
Support for the proposed ballot initiative grew to more than half after the poll respondents were given details about it: No religious institution would be forced to recognize or perform a same-sex wedding. Bigamy and marriage of people closer than second cousins would remain prohibited.
Still, a vote in 2014 would seem a roll of the dice. A separate group, FreedomOhio, is gathering voters’ signatures on petitions to get a proposal on the ballot this year, and has until July 2 to file them.
The group said late last week that a November vote remains its goal. Ms. Holford acknowledges it’s “pretty likely” that effort will succeed.
“But getting signatures on a petition is not converting people to support” the issue, she warns. “We need deep pylons of support — identifying leaders in the community, identifying the message and the messengers.”
Americans, and Ohioans, increasingly accept the case for marriage equality. Allowing same-sex couples to realize the economic and legal benefits of marriage — gaining tax advantages, sharing a pension, visiting a spouse in the hospital, getting a mortgage or student loan — is a matter of equal rights, not the canard of “special privileges” routinely cited by opponents.
As it conducts its public-education campaign for same-sex marriage, Equality Ohio also is pursuing legislation that would prohibit discrimination — including hate crimes — against LGBT Ohioans. Similar measures have been before the General Assembly five times, and died each time.
Ms. Holford notes that Ohio is among 30 states, along with the federal government, that do not provide safeguards against bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Many of the Ohioans she talks to are shocked to learn that, she adds.
“I live in a state where my community has absolutely no protection — where you can be fired for being gay,” she says. “We don’t want to be the state that has a line around it: It’s OK to hate.”
Mr. Premo says Ohio’s advocates of same-sex marriage hope to reach a consensus by early spring on how to proceed. His group has scheduled town hall meetings across the state to hear from Ohioans.
It’s a dilemma. Ohio needs to move quickly on marriage equality — but not so quickly as to risk failure. How to know the difference? Some very smart and sophisticated political strategists will have to figure that out in the next few months.
● Please join me in welcoming Suzette Hackney to The Blade’s editorial board. It’s a homecoming for Ms. Hackney, a Toledo native and alumna of Notre Dame Academy.
Ms. Hackney is a graduate of Michigan State University, where she was the first African-American woman to serve as editor in chief of the campus newspaper. In two decades at the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, and Philadelphia Inquirer, she won major national awards for her reporting.
Last year, Ms. Hackney completed a prestigious Knight-Wallace fellowship at the University of Michigan, where she examined how social media are transforming journalism and local communities. She is a fan of the National Football League, theater, gardening, photography, and the Dave Matthews Band.
As an editorial writer and columnist, Ms. Hackney will provide a fresh, fact-based perspective on close-to-home issues that Blade readers are sure to appreciate. It’s good to have her back in town.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.