VOICES: What message is Ohio sending to LGBTQ youth?

As Mayor of Yellow Springs, I am proud of our village’s long history of embracing the LGBTQ community. In 1979, we became the smallest municipality in the nation to offer nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation. Decades later, U.S. Census data proved the effectiveness of such legal protections in contributing to a community’s diversity. According to a recent Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Yellow Springs has the highest percentage of same-sex couples of any village in Ohio.

Our community’s welcoming of our LGBTQ neighbors is consistent with Yellow Springs’ rich tradition as a beacon for social justice. Among our early residents was a community — the Conway Colony — of 30 formerly enslaved African-Americans. The first president of Antioch College, founded here in the 1850s, was Horace Mann, the famed abolitionist and champion of public education.

Unfortunately, the opportunities that LGBTQ residents find here are not available uniformly across Ohio. The state does not have a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and LGBTQ students are not protected from harassment or bullying, either.

Meanwhile, serious efforts are underway in the Ohio State Legislature that would harm LGBTQ youth — including proposed bans on gender-affirming care for anyone under 18, on transgender participation in school sports programs, and on the inclusion of LGBTQ issues in school curriculum.

Does Ohio really want to send our young people a message that their aspirations and contributions are not welcome here?

Like municipalities in Ohio, our nation’s 50 states are also marked by a patchwork of legal approaches toward the LGBTQ community — with more than half of them lacking comprehensive nondiscrimination laws. The lack of legal protections creates real burdens in the everyday lives of LGBTQ Americans. More than one-third — including 60 percent of transgender folks — reported experiencing discrimination, whether on the job, in accessing housing, in public spaces, or in their own neighborhoods in the previous year, according to a 2020 survey.

It’s long past time for the nation to move beyond situations where LGBTQ people live in communities where their rights are protected but commute to a job, visit a hospital, or travel to a vacation destination where they are not. Early last year, the U.S. House of Representatives approved bipartisan federal nondiscrimination protections in areas including employment, housing, and public accommodations. The Senate, however, has yet to act, and the clock is ticking on this year’s legislative session.

I urge Ohio Senator Rob Portman to help the nation move beyond the polarizing anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from fringe groups by pitching in to get a federal nondiscrimination law passed in the Senate. I know from prior communications we can count on the support of Senator Sherrod Brown, an early sponsor of such legislation.

As a public official, I feel one of my greatest obligations is in protecting our young people’s safety, dignity, and opportunities. Recent data from the Trevor Project, which provides nationwide crisis support to LGBTQ youth at risk of self-harm or violence in their schools or at home, paint a disturbing picture of what faces too many young people. According to a survey by the group, 28 percent of LGBTQ youth have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Some of these young people have been rejected by their families; others have even faced violent abuse in their homes. Few communities across the nation provide appropriate shelter for LGBTQ youth, where they can be free of harassment and violence from other residents. In big cities across America, some of these neglected young people find no other choice than living on the streets or even turning to survival sex work.

This situation is a failure of politics in Washington — not a reflection of the attitudes held by most Americans. The respected Public Religion Research Institute reports that 79 percent of the public — including 69 percent of people of faith — support federal nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community. The argument that somehow religious freedom is at odds with LGBTQ people enjoying the same rights as anyone else is clearly not a convincing one in the minds of most Americans.

An estimated half-million LGBTQ people live in Ohio. May both of our senators stand with these valued neighbors this year.

Pam Conine, Mayor of Yellow Springs, Ohio, can be reached at MayorPam@vil.yellowsprings.oh.us.

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