A Conversation with Cincinnati Councilman Seelbach (part 2)
By Natalie Porter
According to his biography on the Cincinnati City Council website, Councilman Chris Seelbach was a key player in the effort of repeal Article XII in Cincinnati, which denied legal protection to gays and lesbians in the city and led to many gay men leaving Cincinnati.*
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 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.
Part one of the interview was published in the March edition of The Word. Part two focuses on the process of getting the anti-conversion therapy bill passed in Cincinnati:
Was this your idea or did someone approach you to introduce the bill? How did that process come about?
“Yeah, that is interesting because when I got into office in 2011, we passed a lot of LGBT-issued ordinances/laws and we went from something like 67 on the Human Rights Campaign Equality Index to 100. I really thought that we had done everything, legislatively, that we could do to make Cincinnati as gay-friendly as possible…
“About almost two years ago, a woman named Paula Ison came to me, who is a friend, a supporter and fighter for LGBT rights and a transgender advocate in Cincinnati and said, ‘We should ban conversion therapy,’ and she kept saying it. My pushback was, ‘We can’t do that. It is not a city issue, that’s a state issue because states license medical doctors and so there are home-rule laws that prevent cities from doing things that are the state’s responsibility.’
“She kept pushing on me and I said, ‘Look, what I will do is go to our law department and say, draft us a memo as to whether or not we can do this. If so, why, and if not why?’
“Very surprisingly, they came back and said, ‘Here is the legal analysis that shows that we can do this. And we believe that not only can we do it but, if challenged, we could successfully defend it in court because of X, Y and Z.’ It was to my surprise and to others’ surprise as well. Councilman Kevin Flynn, when we passed this, said that his initial reaction was the same. He’s an attorney and he read the analysis and said ‘Not only can we do this, but we must do this.’
“So we found out it was very much a possibility because state law doesn’t speak to this. There is a whole legal analysis of why we can do it. We said full on, ‘Let’s do it now. But let’s do it knowing how important this is. Because if we do this as the first city in the country and then we are challenged and fail, then it’s going to be harder for any other city to do it.’ So that’s why we made sure that every legal argument that could be thrown against us we kind of defended in the ordinance. Any issue of first amendment speech or due process, all of those are very clearly articulated and why they are not violated by this ordinance.
“We passed it 7-2, and I think one of the really interesting points that I talk about is that all the other LGBT stuff that I passed… none of it was controversial. They were either 7-2 or 8-1 votes, but there was hardly any fanfare. We didn’t have hundreds of people emailing and calling and coming down to Council saying we were wrong for passing this. For [the conversion therapy ban] we did.
“There were probably 50 people that spoke out against the ordinance and hundreds, maybe a thousand, emails from across the country saying that we shouldn’t be doing this, that if parents want to subject their kids to conversion therapy they should be able to. Even though every major medical organization says it’s harmful.
“So I think it was an eye-opener for a lot of people. Because as (I think it was) my colleague, the Vice-mayor David Mann said, ‘Of course you have my vote, of course I am going to support this, but is this needed? Is this more symbolic?’
“I think people kind of had that attitude that maybe gay people aren’t discriminated against; maybe conversion therapy isn’t real. Things have really changed. I think people really saw when all of these people came down saying, ‘We want conversion therapy,’ that it’s real. Even though the laws have changed, it is still really tough to be gay. So I think it was a really good eye-opener for people, that there are people who want to fight in order to have this harmful therapy.”
I just cannot understand how anyone can justify that this should be parental choice.
“Yeah, we had people coming down here testifying that conversion therapy saved their life. I felt so sad for them. Because they would say, ‘When I was 14 or 15 I thought I was gay, and conversion therapy helped me know that I am not.’ None of us like to buy into the stereotypes of gender – masculine or feminine and stuff – but you could look at these people and say, ‘You probably are gay and it’s so sad that you are having to live this life where it’s a lie.’ So it was tough.”
Did you pre-gauge interest in the bill before introducing it, with the other councilmembers, with the community?
“For sure the other council members. I will tell you that all of the LGBT stuff I have done, the votes were there before I was elected. It really proves the point of how important it is to have LGBT people elected in office. Because the votes were always there, it just never was a priority. It was never a priority because there was never a gay person elected. And so, you know, I think there is a sense because we still have a majority of council members that are Democrats and then we have a Conservative/Independent who has a gay brother and so is very supportive, then Councilmember Flynn, who is a third-party Charterite [Third Party unique to Cincinnati], who is also supportive.
“So I know, pretty much, that there is 7 people of 9 [voting yes] if I go to them with a well-thought-out, legal, LGBT-related ordinance, that I will have their support. So I did that. I was right about all of them. Some of them are like, ‘You don’t have to tell me, I am with you.’ They know how hard I work on LGBT-related stuff. [I] didn’t even have to tell them the specifics, [just that] it is LGBT-related stuff.
“One of things that we did not do, which I wish we would have done a better job on, was getting real community buy-in.
“On the transgender-inclusive healthcare, we thought it was going to be explosive. We thought there may be a ballot initiative to repeal it, so we were very purposeful in getting the whole gay community of Cincinnati on board, understanding why it is important, how you talk about it, and all of those things. We did it and there was hardly any [pushback]; there was nothing.
“So for this, we did not do all of that groundwork. We just kind of thought, ‘This is the right thing to do.’
“We talked to attorneys, the Southern Poverty Law Center, HRC [Human Rights Campaign], attorneys around the country and advocacy groups that helped us to make the law strong. But we did not spend the time getting all of the local LGBT groups and leaders on board because we knew they would be on board. We didn’t think we needed them to show up at meetings (which we didn’t, we made it into a law), but when we had the committee hearing on this, there were 50-60 people against it, and one person for it. Which kind of made it look lopsided. I wish we would have taken the time to really get that support. In the end it didn’t matter, it just looked like the community wasn’t there.”