A conversation with Cincinnati Councilman Chris Seelbach (part 3 of 3)
By Natalie Porter
Cincinnati Councilman Chris Seelbach, the first openly gay elected official in Ohio in 2011, has been responsible for pro-LGBT bills that have been passed in Cincinnati in the past five years.
Seelbach successfully led the effort to pass a conversion therapy ban in Cincinnati, for minors under 18 years of age, in December 2015. I sat down with him on Feb. 9 to discuss his own experience with conversion therapy; his political awakening; and his efforts to promote pro-LGBT bills, specifically the conversion therapy ban.
Part three of this conversation includes the process of getting the conversion therapy ban bill to a final vote and his recommendations for other elected officials:
So, the timeframe, did you approach your other councilmembers before you initiated the bill? After, to get buy-in? What was the timeframe?
“So beforehand: How things like this work is that I will draft an ordinance or a motion and then I will go to councilmembers and get their support, get a signature on it. Then, once there is at least five signatures, you can submit it to our Clerk. Then the Mayor assigns it to a committee and it goes to the full committee, then it goes to the full Council.
“Before I did any of that, I went and talked to each individual Councilmember and said that this is what we are doing. With several of them, I shared my personal story. They were interested in knowing where this was coming from. So I talked to everyone beforehand. Really, the only pushback from the seven of us was, ‘Is this needed? I will support you, but are there really people out there that do this?’
“What I said was, ‘Look, a year ago, a local transgender 17-year-old killed herself, citing this exact kind of therapy. So, it absolutely exists. No, you can’t find it in a phonebook, called Barb’s Conversion Therapy, but it exists every day with therapists who use the types of things that are considered conversion therapy. So, yeah it absolutely exists, and it is super harmful!’
“Yeah, so that is how we did it. Plus it is good because it allows [councilmembers] to talk about it easier, from talking to me, and understanding why it is important. Getting those facts about how every major medical organization says it is wrong and harmful and should be banned.”
So what was the timeframe between when you were approached to, by the person and…?
“About a year.”
So it was a year between when it was introduced or when it was passed?
“Passed, it took about a year. Because at first, when Paula [Ison, a Cincinnati transgender advocate] was approaching me, I was kind of like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I will look into that,’ because I really didn’t think that it was something we could do. So it probably took a few months before I was like, ‘okay, let’s get a legal opinion on this from the solicitor.’ Once we got it, we said, ‘okay, we want to do this.’
“We spent a lot of time figuring out the best way to do this, working with our own law department, and then the other advocacy groups I talked about to make sure it was the right ordinance, the right words, [defensible] from possible attacks. Then it was just a matter of getting support from my colleagues. Once you have that, it is probably a two-month process. It shouldn’t be, but getting it to a committee, getting it to hearings, all of that.”
What did you learn along the way that may be able to help other cities or locales that might be interested in a similar bill?
“I challenge every city in Ohio to pass the same ban. You can do it, it is legal. We believe it will be upheld by any challenge.
“By the way, the four states who have passed bans, as soon as they did it tons of people said, ‘We are going to sue you,’ but not once has it been challenged.
“The only time it’s been challenged in court was in Boston, I believe (I think it was Boston), where there was a conversion therapy organization that tried to still operate under this law. The court system closed them and I think it was just two months ago that the Supreme Court refused to hear the case; therefore, the lower court’s opinion stayed so [the organization] had to close. So, the only time it has been tried in court, the law was used successfully to close conversion therapists. Any idea that you can’t do this is not true, and no court has said that.
“I challenge every city in Ohio to do it. We have done a lot of the grunt work. We have given our ordinance to Equality Ohio to help spread throughout other cities. They can take our ordinance, have their own administration change what maybe needs to be changed to apply to their city charter or constitution, and so it wouldn’t take nearly as much work.
“But then I would tell them, each one of them, that regardless of past-LGBT laws that have passed (that were controversial or there was a lack thereof) to get the community buy-in, get the local organizations and local leaders and religious leaders on board. So that if there are people (like us) who were fighting, you have your own support from a group of people who absolutely believe that you are doing the right thing. Getting that local buy-in was something that we could have done a better job of. I would encourage people to do that.
“The State of Ohio, the state legislature and the governor are incredibly Republican and you only win by running in a Republican primary. Any kind of action on a state level, on non-discrimination or a conversion ban, is not going to happen for a long time. So it is really up to the cities and that is across-the-board on LGBT issues.
“I just reached out to a friend of mine who was just elected mayor of Chillicothe and said, ‘Your HRC score is not good. You need to…let me help you get it up. You need to pass some laws.’ The cities really need to bunker down and take these things on. It will make a difference. This is not something that is just symbolic. There are people who are trying to perform conversion therapy every day. This will help prevent them from doing that.”
What was most surprising to you throughout the process?
“Again, I think what was surprising was that there was so much pushback. There are people who really want to fight to harm kids, basically. They want to fight in order to perform this therapy that we know, and I personally know, affects you your whole life.”
They are basically citing First Amendment, free speech, and freedom of religion to do that?
“And they are citing examples of where they say it works. We received a lot of emails from around this country that said it successfully works. So yes, they are citing their ability under the law to do it, but they are also citing that this is something that if these people are young and they don’t want to be gay or LGBT or their parents don’t want them to be LGBT they can do this and they won’t be [gay] anymore. So ‘we want that ability because we would prefer our son and daughter to be normal and so this is the therapy that will make them normal.’
“They believe that, and it is just not true, especially [for] kids. Look, if you are an adult (and no one is trying to ban this therapy for adults), if you want to go through this and feel it is the right thing for you, again I feel sad for you. But we are talking about those incredibly vulnerable years that make an impression for the rest of your life.
“I have said over and over again that people who run for local offices, especially, always say that public safety is the number one issue. That is what I am supposed to be doing, that is where we should be focused on, that is where we should be spending the most money, which we do – 70 percent of our budget is public safety.
“I disagree, because without your health it doesn’t matter if you get shot or if there is crime on your street. The number one thing the government should be investing in is the health of our people and our kids. If a young person is subjected to conversion therapy and then goes on to commit suicide, it doesn’t really matter if their street has a lot of crime on it. So I think our number one priority should be protecting young people from harmful, discredited practices. That is why this is so important.”
Are you the first openly LGBT person on the Council?
“Yep. The first openly gay person elected in the City. We think the first openly gay man elected in any city in Ohio. But, we’re sure that a school board in some rural county may have had one that we don’t know of. I am the only openly gay man that we know of. Now there have been some elected since I was elected.”
Any other suggestions that you would have for people who are interested in politics? You said earlier that you think it is really important for LGBT people to get involved and become advocates and…
“Run for office. Ohio, the seventh largest state, has some of the [lowest] percentage (compared to population) of openly gay people elected. We just saw our first openly gay person elected last year in Columbus, an openly gay person of color, which is awesome. But the fact that one of the largest cities in the country is just getting a gay person.
“We need more openly gay people to run for office, to have the courage to do it. I think it is similar to when we talk about any minorities, hesitancy to run for office. You don’t want to put yourself out there because you are worried about what people will say. All of those things are things that are real, but you can deal with them. We all have it in us to persevere in the face of adversity.
“It’s benefiting the greater good. I can’t tell you how many people – gay people and parents of gay people – who appreciate having someone that their kid can [look up to]. When I was a kid, gay people were drag queens on Jerry Springer. That was all I saw. This was pre-Ellen, pre-“Will and Grace.” That was what I thought of gay people. So to have the ability for kids to see that they can do anything – you can be in sports, you can be elected, you can be anything you want – it is so important. People need to find that courage within themselves to run for office. It can be done. It is not something that…20 years ago or 10 years ago it would have been much harder. If you have good ideas and are willing to work really, really hard, I think you can be successful.”
Awesome! Thank you for your courage!
Natalie Porter reports on LGBTQ issues in the Cincinnati area.