A Conversation with Cincinnati Councilman Seelbach (Part One)
By Natalie Porter
In an article published in the January issue of The Word, I reported the Cincinnati City Council voted to ban conversion therapy tactics for individuals under the age of 18 in a 7-2 vote on Dec. 9, 2015.
City Councilman Chris Seelbach introduced this bill to the Council. As a new Ohio resident (and resident of the Midwest), I wanted to learn more about Councilman Seelbach, his experiences with conversion therapy, and how the passage of this bill came about.
According to his biography on the Cincinnati City Council website, Councilman Seelbach was a key player in the effort of repeal the city’s Article XII, which denied legal protection to gays and lesbians in the city and led many gay men to leave Cincinnati (www.npr.org/2014/04/30/307967244/gays-in-cincinnati-from-second-class-citizens-to-fully-accepted). This anti-gay law cost the city over $25 million in lost revenue, an estimate provided by the Visitor’s bureau.
Councilman Seelbach grew up in Kentucky and began advocating for LGBT rights as a college student at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He became the first openly gay City Council member in Ohio in 2011.
On Feb. 9, I sat down with the City Councilman in his office in City Hall to discuss his personal experiences with conversion therapy, how he became involved in local politics, and the process of getting this bill passed:
Can you describe your introduction to conversion therapy?
“I came out when I was 18, the day after I graduated high school. When I was around 16, I had gone through normal problems, as teenagers do with their parents, but mine were exacerbated by me knowing that I was gay and not being able to talk to anyone about that and feeling angry. We had normal teenage parent-children problems, but they were a little more intense because I was angry at them because I didn’t feel comfortable coming out.
“When I was 16, we started going to counseling, she was a Christian counselor, and it was for typical teenager stuff. It [the counseling] didn’t really last very long and we stopped going to her. When I came out, my parents asked me, the day after I graduated high school, they brought me downstairs and said ‘Please tell us you are not gay.’ I told them the truth and they very quickly reached back out to this person and I agreed to go meet with her as a family. That’s when things really started to fall down. Not only were my parents very unaccepting, and incredibly angry, hurt, and upset with me, we went to a counselor who said that I was the problem, that there was something wrong with me. She agreed with my parents and [asked] how could I do this to them.
“I try to not talk about a lot of details [about] my parents because we have gotten to such a great place in our lives and I don’t want to make them seem like bad people. At the time, they really had a difficult time dealing with it and it really hurt me. But this counselor, instead of saying ‘Could it be possible that your son is just gay and you need to help and accept him?’ put all of the focus on me and subjected me to…psychologists very rarely call themselves conversion therapists, but the techniques they use [support] conversion therapy. They subjected me to personality tests and psychotherapy and wanted me to do blood work, which I refused, and I was 18 so they couldn’t force me.”
What was the rationale for the blood work?
“They wanted to test for hormones to see if maybe I was confused and just wasn’t attracted to anyone. But I knew who I was attracted to. It was just a nightmare and so hurtful. I have written probably 20 letters to this woman [therapist] and I have never sent one. I have thought more recently about contact because I looked her up and she is still practicing family psychology. It was incredibly hurtful because it gave my parents the basis to feel like their feelings were right and there was something wrong with me. We [me and my parents] had an estranged relationship for 11 years. I absolutely think if we had gone to a medical doctor [he/she] would have just said ‘It is very possible that your son is just gay and let me talk to you about how you can deal with that.’
“It is tough for parents; it is a loss, it is a change in everything. That is real and you have to deal with that. It is hurtful and all of those things are real. That doesn’t mean that you can use those feelings to justify trying to change your son or daughter or vilify them and make it seem like they are hurting you because of who they love.”
When did you start to develop an interest in politics?
“I was always kind of interested in politics. My grandfather was a City Councilman in his home town. Politics were something we always talked about growing up. My parents were actually very Democrat, very Democratic, they still are. Unions were a big focus. My mother had five brothers and they were all non-college educated but provided great for their families by having union jobs in tobacco plants and automobile plants in Louisville, so that was a big conversation.
“I came to Cincinnati to go to Xavier when I was 18. I kind of started getting active at Xavier and tried to do LGBT stuff there and then I met a guy named David Crowley, who was running for City Council in 2001. I really had an ‘aha’ moment for me and I was really inspired by him. He was this older, grandfather-type guy with four kids and grandkids and two of his children were gay. He had been in the military and was super accepting of them [his gay kids], in the way I wanted my parents to be. I was really inspired by this person who was also a progressive Democrat running for office [and] who was super accepting of his gay kids.
“So that’s where there was really a turning moment and I got involved in his campaign and eventually went to work for him. This was his office. I ran his third campaign and then eventually in 2009, he was term-limited. He passed away in 2011, which was the year I ran and won. A lot of my involvement in local politics and running stems back to David Crowley.”
Part two of this interview (in the April 2016 issue) will focus on the process of getting the anti-conversion therapy bill passed in Cincinnati.