Supporters wait 10 years to testify on LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill to an empty row of seats

Ohio Statehouse News

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WDTN) – For the past 10 years lawmakers at the Ohio Statehouse have been trying to get an anti-discrimination bill passed that would extend protections to members of the LGBTQ community. 

Currently, they enjoy protections at the State level, but the private sector can still openly discriminate against them. 

“You can get married on a Saturday and fired on a Monday for being LGBTQ and that’s something that many of us as LGBTQ Ohioans grapple with on a daily basis,” said Lena Tenney, a board member with Trans Ohio. 

Tenney was at the Ohio Statehouse this week for a historic hearing. 

For the first time ever, State Senators had an opportunity to hear for themselves the kinds of discrimination unprotected individuals who identify as LBGTQ suffer. 

More than 200 people signed up to testify in support of the bill, eight were chosen by the bill’s sponsor to testify in person. 

That many people trying to testify in person simply is not possible to accommodate practically in a single hearing. 

Those eight individuals showed up for the committee and were given their chance to speak their truth, share their experiences, and field any questions the lawmakers had of them; if they wanted to know anything that could help them make a better decision; or clarify why something happened or didn’t happen as a result of discrimination. 

At one point, only one of the seven Republican Senators on the committee were present to hear the testimony. 

The Chairman had a meeting on another bill and left right after he started the hearing, leaving the duties of running it in the hands of Sen. Nathan Manning. 

Manning was alone in the room with a few Democrat senators, when we were denied the ability to use our cameras to record the hearing. 

The decision to deny our request to document the hearing was made by the Chairman through decree at the beginning of committee. 

Because our cameras were in another hearing on the other side of the building at the time his committee started and he had not received any requests to record, he used discretion granted to him through Senate Rules to disallow all electronic recording of the proceedings; including video, audio, and still photography. Though it should be noted, some people in the gallery ignored this and took photos with their phones anyway. 

The decision to do all of this is rarely made at the Statehouse. Perhaps only a handful of times each GA, if that.  

The reason why the chairman decided to do this for this particular bill, or in this particular instance, outside of no one being present at the time committee began has not been shared. 

The week prior in the same committee, with the same chairman, the same situation occurred with the complete opposite outcome. 

The hearing for Senate Bill 3 had already begun while we were covering another story on the other side of the building. 

When we arrived in the hearing room to cover SB 3, we were given a form to fill out, did so, and were allowed to record the hearing. This is how things normally go, and how they have operated for the nearly two years we have been covering the Statehouse. 

As word spread that the media were being denied the ability to record the hearing supporters and opponents of the bill became less than pleased. 

While it is true that the hearing could still be covered by the media, interviews could be conducted during in the hallway outside the committee room or inside it after the hearing was over, what was lost are those moments like when a transgender female stepped to the microphone and was able to testify for the first time. 

We will never be able to show you that, and future generations will never be able to see that moment because its documentation was denied. 

The committee was not even recorded by the Ohio Channel, Ohio’s equivalent to CSPAN, which has been live streaming all of the House Committees this year for the first time ever. 

Lawmakers missing from the hearing will only have the written word to read, if they so choose; they will have missed their opportunity to ask those questions or hear those answers mentioned above. 

They did not stay and hear testimony from a marginalized and discriminated against group of people. Other matters they had to attend to, took precedence.  

For some of the State Senators it was the State Operating Budget.  

Of the six missing Republicans, three of them are also on the Finance Committee which was scheduled to start a hearing on the budget 15 minutes prior to the Judiciary Committee where the testimony was being given. 

It is unknown where the remaining three Republicans went, as there were no bills being heard on the House side of the building that required them for Sponsor testimony at that time. 

Prior to the Judiciary Committee hearing, we interviewed some of those who had come to the Statehouse to attend the hearing. 

They were excited; eager; nervous; and optimistic. This is the furthest the bill has gotten in the Senate, ever.  

Their optimism was buoyed by the actions of Governor Mike DeWine, who just moments after being sworn in as Ohio’s Governor signed an executive order extending protections at the state level for the group. 

And then they were subjected to talking to a room nearly empty of lawmakers, leaving some of them wondering if the bill will really get a fair shake. 

It should be noted that State Senators are incredibly busy individuals. Many of them are booked with meetings from the time they start their day to the moment they end it. 

It is unknown at this time if those meetings are encroaching on when they’ve been assigned to be sitting in committee listening to testimony, asking questions, and hearing answers. 

On top of meetings, when they are lucky enough to have a bill make it out of the Senate and go to the House, they too must be present for the bill’s first House Committee hearing to deliver that sponsor testimony.  

It is also unknown at this time if the scheduling of committees that share multiple members could be done more efficiently. 

There are 24 Republican and 9 Democrat State Senators. 

Each committee has 3 Democrats but the number of Republicans varies depending on the Committee. Some have 7, some have 9, at least one committee (Finance) has 10. 

Only one of the democrats on the Judiciary Committee also serves on the Finance Committee. 

Additionally, members of both parties can be temporarily assigned to a committee if one of the lawmakers cannot be there, or in some cases the parties may want their members to sit in on a committee to gain deeper understanding of a particular issue. 

None of that was done this week. Instead just an empty bench stared back at the full gallery of people who had come to witness the testimony for the Ohio Fairness Act; a bill similar to a bipartisan one passed out of the Democrat controlled Ohio House in 2009 which was never given a hearing in the Republican controlled Senate. 

That would be the only time the bill made it through the Ohio House. 

In 2010, Republicans won the Governorship and control of the House ushering in the current era of complete control over the State Legislature and policy decisions. 

Every two years, with each new General Assembly, the bill was introduced and virtually ignored. 

In 2011, sponsors of the bi-partisan bill in the House were allowed to testify on it, as were the two Democrat sponsors of the bill in the Senate given the same courtesy. 

In 2013, the same bi-partisan sponsors in the House are given a single hearing, while over in the Senate then State Senator (current Secretary of State) Frank LaRose became a bi-partisan sponsor on the bill which was given no hearings at all. That would be the last time the bill was introduced in the Senate until this year. 

The trend in the House of giving the bill a single hearing would continue without a bi-partisan sponsor from the GOP.  

With the bill’s long-time sponsor having transitioned to the State Senate, she has found a new joint sponsor to once again make the bill bi-partisan from the start. 

She says she has a commitment from the Chairman of the Judiciary committee to hold several hearings on her bill. 

If that comes to pass, it will be because the Chairman deems it so.

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