On LGBT issues, Cleveland needs to get its house in order first

gay games cleveland

Downtown Cleveland decked out in rainbow lights after the Opening Ceremonies of the 2014 Gay Games.

Last week, PayPal announced it was scrapping plans to expand its operations in North Carolina. The company’s decision to call off its $3.6 million expansion in Charlotte, which would have created 400 jobs, came in reaction to a despicable (and almost certainly unconstitutional) law that Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed into law on March 23.

The bill, which bars municipalities from extending non-discrimination protections to LGBT individuals, particularly targets transgender residents by requiring that they use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex listed on their birth certificates.

While Gov. McCrory sought to tamp down some of the controversy this week by issuing an Executive Order “clarifying” the bill, it amounts to little more than putting lipstick on this proverbial pig. As David Graham of The Atlantic notes, all public buildings will still enforce the draconian bathroom restrictions on transgender individuals, and the state still precludes any effort to prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination by private entities.

PayPal was just the latest in a series of groups that decided to pull out of North Carolina in the aftermath to this law. Deutsche Bank froze plans to hire 250 people in the state, and entertainers including Bruce Springsteen cancelled their performances.

All of this gets to a larger debate about the impacts of these types of boycotts. There is no doubt that applying economic and political pressure on states in response to such acts of blatant discrimination is an important tool – one that has worked on a number of occasions.

These sorts of boycotts can also have unintended consequences. For one, they may drive supporters of these bills to simply dig in their heels against outside pressure. More importantly, they may harm innocent people living within these states (including LGBT individuals) who oppose such laws. Blue cities, like Charlotte and Raleigh, already chafe under the control of GOP-dominated state legislatures. Economic boycotts of this sort might punish them further for policies they ardently oppose.

This should be readily apparent to those of us in Cleveland, a deep blue city stuck in an (artificially) bright red state.

But the tone deaf political and business leaders of Northeast Ohio completely missed this point. Following PayPal’s announcement, a group of leaders, including Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, sent a self-congratulatory letter to CEO Daniel Schulman. In the letter, Budish et al. commend Schulman and his company for their progressive values, noting that “the City of Cleveland shares those same values.”

The letter highlights the fact that Cleveland is, in many ways, quite progressive on LGBT equality. Both the City and Cuyahoga County governments extended benefits to same-sex couples prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. The administration flies the pride flag above City Hall each year during Pride Week. And, of course, we hosted the 2014 Gay Games, which I helped plan and execute.

pride flag cleveland

The pride flag flies above Cleveland City Hall in June 2014.

But, in their haste to sell the Cleveland Renaissance narrative, Budish et al. end up coming off as too cute by half.

The authors completely ignore a number of important details. First, Republicans rammed this legislation through the North Carolina legislature as a direct response to a law passed by Charlotte’s City Council. That bill extended nondiscrimination protection to LGBT residents and required that all public and private entities allow transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identities. PayPal is not leaving Charlotte because the city does not “share its values,” but because state leaders went off the deep end to legislate against those values.

Second, Budish et al. conveniently ignore that Cleveland City Council failed to pass exactly this same type of legislation last year. While Charlotte leaders stood up for their constituents, transgender Clevelanders had to listen as members of Council and the local media evoked the bullshit specter of transgender predators invading bathrooms around the city. As a bill opponent said, with a straight face, that “the most discriminated against group of people in this country…is not transgender people or gay people, it is people of faith.” As Plain Dealer editorial board members claimed allowing them to use the bathroom could “create a fertile environment for predators to strike.”

But the reality that transgender Americans are nearly twice as likely to be the victims of a sexual violence as cisgender Americans did not win the day. The fact that three transgender women were murdered in this city in less than a year did was not enough. No, the hatemongers peddling their lies on the pages of the PD made sure the bill never even got a vote.

Third, unlike North Carolina, the State of Ohio has no protections in place for LGBT residents. A gay person can still be legally fired for being gay; a lesbian can still legally be evicted for being a lesbian. In the wake of Gov. McCrory’s Executive Order, North Carolina is now more progressive than Ohio on this front, for government employees at least.

Moreover, the only way for a transgender person to guarantee access to services and accommodations that match their gender identity in states like Ohio and North Carolina is for them to go through the absurdly arduous process of getting a new birth certificate issued. Except, you cannot actually do that in Ohio at all, because this is one of just three states that refuses to issue updated birth certificates to transgender residents.

There is no question that Cleveland is a fairly welcoming place, regardless of one’s gender identity or sexual orientation. The week of the Gay Games was an incredible experience specifically because of the way that Clevelanders graciously welcomed LGBT people from around the world with open arms. I will never forget seeing a Cleveland police cruiser with a rainbow flag bumper sticker parked outside of the Convention Center.

But none of this does away with the truth that we still have an awful lot to do in order to ensure that LGBT Clevelanders are guaranteed their equal rights. I just wish that our leaders would spend more time working on this and less time patting themselves on the back.