Ohio's out lesbian Senate Dem leader works to stop "out of touch" anti-LGBTQ bills
"[W]e're talking about people's lives here." The Law Dork Q&A with Ohio Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio, including the state's Aug. 8 vote on Issue One.
Ohio — perhaps unexpectedly to some — is one of the few Republican-led states that hasn’t enacted any anti-LGBTQ laws thus far this year.
Across the nation, the ACLU reports than more than 75 of nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have become law. These anti-LGBTQ measures have been passed into law this year in 22 states, including 19 of the 22 states across the country with a so-called “Republican trifecta” in control of the executive and legislative branches. (In Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana, meanwhile, Republican-dominated legislatures overrode at least one veto from their state’s Democratic governor.)
Thus far, however, no anti-LGBTQ bills have been passed into law this year in three of those Republican trifecta states: Ohio, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. And while some state legislatures are done meeting for the year, others — like Ohio’s legislature — will be back in session after Labor Day.
So, to find out what’s going on in Ohio, and what people should be paying attention to in the months to come, Law Dork reached out to Ohio Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio.
First elected to Ohio’s legislature in 2010, Antonio has risen through the ranks to become the top Democrat in the legislature this January, where Republicans hold a supermajority. (In the Ohio Senate, Republicans outnumber Democrats 26 to 7. The Ohio House is only slightly less lopsided, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats 67 to 32.) Antonio is also a married lesbian, and has been making “firsts” as such throughout her political career in the Buckeye State.
Talking with Law Dork about the anti-LGBTQ legislative wave — and the reason why she is still pressing for passage of a nondiscrimination bill in the state in the midst of that wave and in a Republican trifecta state — Antonio sounded a defiant note.
“Their narrative is that we are somehow second-class citizens. No out person from the LGBTQ community should accept that. I absolutely do not accept their narrative on our lives,” Antonio told Law Dork. “We are fabulous. We actually make the world better.”
Before the legislature even returns in September, though, there is a high-profile political moment on the calendar in Ohio: Ohioans are already early and absentee voting and will go to the polls Aug. 8 on Issue One — a measure backed by Republicans and funded largely by out-of-state interests that is seeking to raise the bar to a 60% vote for initiatives aimed at amending Ohio’s Constitution, among other changes that would make people’s efforts to amend the Constitution significantly more difficult.
What’s more, just this past week, the Ohio Secretary of State’s office announced that a proposed reproductive rights amendment gathered sufficient signature to be on the November ballot — subject to a passage requirement that will depend on the outcome of the Aug. 8 vote.
Antonio talked about LGBTQ people’s lives, the anti-LGBTQ bills, why affirmative bills matter even in a Republican trifecta state, and those upcoming votes in her Law Dork Q&A, which follows, edited for length and clarity.
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LAW DORK: For people who don't know you, what your history? How did you get to be the minority leader?
SEN. NICKIE ANTONIO: I currently serve in Senate District 23, which is Cleveland, Lakewood, Parma, and Parma Heights. I am also the minority leader. I was elected as the leader of the Democratic caucus in the Senate in January. I'm in my second term in the Senate. I [previously] was the assistant leader. I did eight years in the House; I was part of the leadership team there, serving as the whip.
And before that, I have a Mary Poppins life — I was a teacher of kids with special needs for about 10 years, I ran a nonprofit outpatient treatment program for women for about eight years, and then I did consulting and teaching as an adjunct professor for a number of years — and did some governmental stints. I've done a little bit of a lot of things, including work with a lot of nonprofit organizations, and brought all of that to the legislature. I also served for five years on City Council in the City of Lakewood. I was also very active in my community when my kids were growing up. My now-wife, my partner and I, raised our two daughters in Lakewood.
I was the first person to run and get elected to City Council in Lakewood from the LGBT community. Same thing in the House. We broke a glass ceiling that was 208 years old by becoming the first member of the LGBT community to serve in the legislature and in leadership, and now I've done the same thing in the Senate.
LAW DORK: For people outside of Ohio, they might be surprised to find out that the Senate Minority Leader is a lesbian.
ANTONIO: Right. I think what it proves is that being from the LGBT community is part of who you are, it's not all of who any of us are. I don't think it affects or makes a difference in how I do my job. Maybe because I'm a woman and also a lesbian, I work a little harder to push through some of the barriers that are put in my way. I refuse to take no for an answer most of the time. But I've been like that since I was a little kid. The persistence, though, serves me well in this position. Basically, it's just being the best person for the job.
LAW DORK: Persistence is certainly something needed as being the minority leader in the Ohio Senate these days.
LAW DORK: So, I've been covering these bills across the nation really attacking the LGBTQ community on several fronts. None of those have become laws thus far in Ohio. But there are two bills that have passed the House — H.B. 8 and H.B. 68 — and others that have been introduced. What negative bills are you facing in the Senate? And what do you think is going on with them?
ANTONIO: So the bills have come over from the House, there's a couple of them. And honestly, all of this, all of these negative bills are — the arguments to pass them are red herrings. They are solutions looking for problems. They are creating wedge issues in their culture wars, if you want to refer to them as that. They serve as a fundraiser. So they're fundraising with the lives of LGBT people, which I really resent. And I think is a terrible, terrible way to make any kind of political points with anyone — because we're talking about people's lives here.
Some of these bills get introduced in Ohio, just like across the country, so that the legislators introducing them can get their five minutes — or 30 seconds — on Fox News nationally. They're looking for a spotlight, they're wanting to say that they represent some kind of conservative point of view that would demonize, denigrate, and, frankly, take away life-saving health care from members of the LGBTQ community. I think it's wrong. I think it's really depressing that people would do stuff like this. But unfortunately, that's what's happening right now. So there are a number of these bills.
But, again, I think it's very important to note, nothing has passed into law — of all the times that they've been introducing them. I've been proud to be a part of the firewall to prevent them from being voted into law. As we've worked in the Senate, there was a bill that's that got sent over from the Senate, but they stopped it in the house. So we work together to try to stop these bills. My hope is we can continue — but we have gerrymandered districts. So the representation in the state of Ohio is out of proportion to the attitudes of the people of Ohio. I believe most of the people in Ohio really believe in fairness and equity, but the legislators have used these bills to message to their base in a way that's really sad.
“They're looking for a spotlight, they're wanting to say that they represent some kind of conservative point of view that would demonize, denigrate, and, frankly, take away life-saving health care from members of the LGBTQ community. I think it's wrong.”
LAW DORK: So, what bills are you looking at?
ANTONIO: There's a bill for preventing children from playing sports if they're transgender. At this point, there were only six girls in the whole state [who are transgender and play school sports]. And, by the way, the Ohio High School Athletic Association has guidelines for whether or not a transgender girl fits into the criteria to be able to compete with girls. It's already there. There is no reason for legislation to demonize these children and, frankly, to bully them.
Then there's a bill that was passed at the end of June. It's House Bill 8, and it's got all kinds of items in it trying to define gender, what it means, what it doesn't. And these bills conflate gender identity and gender, the word gender with sexuality. It's really a perverse twisting of defining language, that again, works to scare people, to confuse people. But there's no there's no real depth of understanding or the premise that they're going by why these bills exist to begin with has nothing to do with protecting children, in fact, these bills bully children.
Then there's one — someone just introduced a bill to ban drag performances. That’s over in the house, and that we've seen that across the country. So I guess Shakespeare is going to be outlawed real soon, in the United States, if all these bills pass.
And then, because we didn't learn enough years ago, when states that passed bathroom bills and lost major contracts to sporting events and conferences because they were limiting the ability of people to just access public accommodations, we have some kind of bathroom bill.
Again, all of these things, they're out of touch with the majority of people today. They are introduced to frighten people, to divide people into camps, and to really create diversions from what we really should be working on.
We really should be working on making sure that every kid has food on the table every day, that … public school education is available to every child regardless of their zip code. We should be doing everything we can to make sure that pregnant women have access to all the health care they need to carry their children to term, and to address our abysmal infant mortality numbers and our maternal mortality numbers, when it comes to, especially women of color. We should be dealing with the opioid crisis, which continues to be out of control. These are the kinds of issues we should be focusing our attention on, instead of moving in this culture war direction, of which nobody wins anything.
LAW DORK: And the sports bill was amended into the gender-affirming care ban bill that they passed. Both of them together.
ANTONIO: The thing about all these bills is that they all are presented with a false premise that something is going on that doesn't even exist. We didn't have anyone come forward and talk about any kind of gender reassignment surgery for children who come to their parents and say they're questioning their gender identity.
This always happens, where you get into areas where legislators should not be — we are not doctors. Even the ones that are doctors need to stay in the lane of whatever they practice. But we should not be practicing medicine as a legislature.
“[W]e are not doctors. … [W]e should not be practicing medicine as a legislature.”
LAW DORK: So now, these bills have passed the House, and they've been sent over to the Senate. For people who don't know, what is the process for what will happen in Ohio now? Are they likely to move forward? What happens?
ANTONIO: I have no idea. My hope is they will not move forward. I don't know. We will do everything and the advocates and everyone will do everything they can to not have them move forward.
What happens next is they get assigned to a committee, and then there are hearings in the committee. If the chair so chooses, the chair can decide not to have hearings and not to have the bill move forward. What people who want to be good advocates can do is pay attention to, when they see these bills being assigned to a committee, look and see who the committee chair is and then contact the committee chair’s office and say, “Please don't advance that bill. We don't need that bill.” That's very helpful.
Calling the leadership — the senate president — and saying, “We don't need that bill to go forward.”
And right now, I don't know what kind of an advanced schedule any of that stuff is going to be on. I think the most critical one is the women in sports. I think there may be an appetite in the Senate to move that bill, so that should be the one people probably focus the most on right now as far as their advocacy efforts. It has not been assigned to a committee. We're on summer recess, you should be very happy about that. Not taking away anybody's rights right now. And so sometime in the fall when we come back would be when that bill gets assigned to committee.
LAW DORK: So things won't even be assigned to committee for the time being.
ANTONIO: Not in the month of July or August. Not until after Labor Day.
LAW DORK: The way that I saw it, and let me know if I'm wrong, is that the sports bill was passed as part of the gender affirming care bill.
ANTONIO: Yeah, somehow they got mixed up together. It's possible to separate them [in the Senate], too. I have no idea, again, because there was also a bill in the Senate that was just a sports bill. So it's real possible that they could even advance that. I really don't know what exactly folks are thinking.
LAW DORK: Has Republican Gov. Mike DeWine spoken out about any of this?
ANTONIO: You tell me, have you heard him?
LAW DORK: No.
ANTONIO: No. Look, the good news is, and I know this is hard for people, with incremental stuff, but the win is that none of these bills made their way into the budget. We just passed this incredibly huge budget. None of these bills were in. And let me tell you, legislators tried to put them in. But we were able to stop that. Democrats, working alongside Republicans, saying, “Do not. If you really believe in this, then those bills need to stand up in the light of day and be considered on an individual basis. Don't hide it in the back pages of a budget.” And they didn't do that. So that's a huge win for us, because every time we delay, or have more time to advocate to stop something, it's a win.
“[W]e have every right to not only ask for but to demand equality in housing, employment, and moving about the public sphere. … In a democracy, we have a right to that.”
LAW DORK: You also said that there is there is a positive bill that's been introduced as well.
ANTONIO: Yes. Yes, there is! So we have just reintroduced the Fairness Act. This is a bill that I've been introducing since I got to the legislature and people before me [had done as well]. It's been introduced since I think 2008. It's the Ohio Fairness Act. And it's very simple. It just would give standing for people in the LGBT community to be protected with regard to discrimination in employment, housing and the public sphere. It's Senate Bill 132.
It's important that we — at this time when people are being attacked and maligned and marginalized — that we also talk about the contribution that LGBT people make to our economy, as well as to the world. This is an economic issue. It's a fairness issue, but it's also an economic issue. No one can find enough employees. This is not the time to discriminate against people. This is the time for employers to say, “We welcome all people, including people from the LGBTQ community, because we can't fill our ranks any other way.”
We've got into Intel and some of these other manufacturers coming into Ohio. Guess what kind of policies they have on the books? They have these wonderful, welcoming, open-minded policies in their employee guidelines. And so then they're coming into a state where some folks would move us backwards. If we're going to really be competitive and be this place of employment for today and tomorrow, and really prepare workers for a global economy, then that means we need to welcome members of the LGBTQ community. And that's what the Fairness Act is all about.
LAW DORK: Obviously, that faces an uphill fight, as it has in the past. In what way does that matter — to be presenting that sort of opposing vision — while some Republicans are proposing basically the opposite.
ANTONIO: Because it's important to not believe their narrative. Their narrative is that we are somehow second-class citizens. No out person from the LGBTQ community should accept that. I absolutely do not accept their narrative on our lives. We are fabulous. We actually make the world better. And so by introducing this legislation and talking about this legislation, we have every right to not only ask for but to demand equality in housing, employment, and moving about the public sphere. We have a right to that. In a democracy, we have a right to that. We should accept nothing less, and I refuse to accept anything less. So I'm going to keep on introducing it.
LAW DORK: What else do you think that people should be thinking about when they look at what's going on in Ohio?
ANTONIO: They should be thinking about being registered to vote, being an educated and informed voter, and really researching or finding a friend who understands the issues, doing your homework to — but don't ever not vote — get the information, be informed, and find people that have your self-interest in mind, at the ballot box. And if you don't see them there, if you can't find them, then maybe you need to look in the mirror and say to yourself, “Maybe I should run for office, maybe I can make a difference. Maybe I can get involved in a campaign or help someone else.”
Right now, we have Issue One. It's going to make a big difference in whether the voice of the people ends up being being listened to with regard to amending our state's constitution because radical politicians want to quash our voice and they want to make all the decisions. And that's just not right. Not right in a democracy, for sure.
LAW DORK: And that is going to immediately now be followed up by the abortion-related measure?
ANTONIO: Exactly. The reproductive rights ballot measure is going to be on at the end of the year. That's the whole reason why Issue One is here. You hear conflicting things, but the bottom line is that's why it's there. And, it is, but it's about more than that — because today it's about reproductive rights and abortion. Tomorrow, it's going to be about something else. And we need to be able to have a voice in that.
For over 100 years, the state of Ohio has had referendum and being able to amend the Constitution when the people say we disagree with our representatives. We have to continue to have the ability to do that in a majority vote way. Not in not in this way where 40% decides for 60%. No no. In a democracy, we've been doing 50% plus one for a long time. It works real well for us — for over 100 years. That's what we need to keep doing.
So, it’s a vote no on Issue One. That’s the end on that.
LAW DORK: Well, thanks so much for your time.
ANTONIO: Thank you, too.
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