Changing Conservative Hearts, One Door at a Time

Who would have thought that a door-to-door, gay rights grassroots campaign could have won the hearts and minds of the people in one of the most conservative cities in this country?

But that's exactly what members of Citizens to Restore Fairness did in Cincinnati, Ohio. Led by Campaign Manager Justin Turner, and People for the American Way, this broad coalition of grass-roots groups and local residents directly outreached to their neighbors to repeal Cincinnati's 11-year-old anti-gay charter amendment that explicitly discriminated against gays, lesbians and bisexuals. More than that -- it resulted in the only gay rights victory around the 2004 elections, the same time 11 states added anti-gay amendments to their state's constitutions.

It takes some pretty tough individuals to go door to door, using the word "gay," in one of the most conservative cities in this country, in one of the top five most conservative counties in America.

In 1993, 62 percent of Cincinnati voters approved a discriminatory law called Article XII, which essentially stated that gays, lesbians and bisexuals were no longer protected under the human rights ordinance of the city. Which further meant that if you're gay, lesbian or bisexual, you can't lobby for the same protection that other groups of the city can lobby for. In other words, you can be fired from your job for being gay. You can be thrown out of a restaurant because you're a lesbian. And you may not get that apartment because you are bisexual.

A new film "A Blinding Flash of the Obvious" documents this momentous victory. Produced by People for the American Way -- a national progressive advocacy group -- the film highlights some of the individuals and collective strategies behind this historic victory. The campaign participants ranged from straight Jenny O' Donnell who had never been told, "I don't want to talk to you if you are a lesbian," to Rev. Damon Lynch Jr. of the New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Cincinnati, who was tired of seeing his religion hijacked by anti-gay rhetoric. The 22-minute documentary succeeds especially in showing what it takes for a campaign to work -- the different strategies and factors that are involved, and the bare courage that is needed.

In the film, Campaign Manager Justin Turner breaks down the plan of attack that wasn't hiding behind soft rhetoric and instead focused on the core values of fairness. "This is a gay campaign," he says. "When voters go to the polls, that's the word that's going to stick out. You have to deal with 'gay' first and foremost. The rights, discrimination, marriage -- whatever it is -- is secondary. Get the first word first, and that's 'gay.'"

Thousands of volunteers knocked on doors throughout Cincinnati using the word "gay" to directly and personally engage with voters on gay rights. Many residents who spoke to volunteers confessed to thinking about the issue for the first time. And for most, it came down to the obvious -- what was right, and what was wrong. The anti-gay charter was wrong.

The anti-gay charter was done away with by 54 percent of Cincinnati voters. And it didn't stop there -- the citizens of Cincinnati voted against adding an anti-gay marriage amendment to their state's constitution.

Jenny O'Donnell is still flustered by her experience on the campaign, "The assumptions I was making about the people I was approaching were wrong."

The mayor of Cincinnati, Charlie Luken, admits towards the end of the documentary of not being the most liberal guy, and in fact, being a hard sell. But he was sold and got community groups and businesses to follow.

If you've been feeling down and out since 2004, "A Blinding Flash of the Obvious" will definitely add a spring to your step and get you thinking about what your community needs to do for 2008. If the people of Cincinnati could change some of the most conservative hearts in their city, there's definitely hope for the rest of the country.


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