By Jenna Spinelle

“I think given the horribleness coming from SCOTUS, we need stories of victories for human rights,” about all of the ”the people in Cincinnati who worked like hell to make our community better.” So wrote local attorney Scot Knox in an email to me over the July 4th weekend, not long after I appeared on an episode of a podcast about the city’s struggle for LGBTQ rights in the 1990s and early 2000s. Knox was one of those very people who led the fight for LGBTQ rights and protections from discrimination after the conservative organization Citizens for Community Values introduced a ballot initiative in 1993 that would prevent the city from including sexuality in its anti-discrimination policies. That measure was supported by a number of Christian groups, including the Family Research Council. From the experience of fighting the CCV, Knox and other LGBTQ civil rights activists gathered lessons learned about grassroots organizing; lessons crucial to all of us in a democracy.

Initiatives have been included on Ohio ballots since 1912, with the idea being that they provided a mechanism for voters to decide directly on policy questions. In recent years, initiatives have been used across the country to legalize marijuana, increase the minimum wage, expand Medicaid, broaden voting rights, and more. But as the example of the anti-LGBTQ initiative from 1993 demonstrates, the tool itself has been used to far less positive end.  What groups are allowed to place an issue on a ballot, when it can appear on the ballot, and most importantly what’s actually put on that ballot, can run the gamut, as voters in Cincinnati discovered in 1993.

As part of their campaign to have discrimination protection for LGBTQ citizens removed from the Cincinnati city charter, Citizens for Community Values formed the campaign organization Equal Rights Not Special Rights, and used that same phrase as their primary slogan. Rhetorically, the group was playing on peoples’ innate desire for fairness, while obscuring what the actual goal of their proposed legislation was. A core platform of the CCV was the erroneous belief that sexuality was a choice, so that giving equal rights to people based on sexual orientation was effectively giving one group of people special treatment over another.

Stonewall Cincinnati and other organizations tried to counter the “equal rights, not special rights” message, but did so by running television ads and paying for billboards which compared Citizens for Community Values to Nazis — something Knox and others say in retrospect was doomed to fail from the start. The TV ad, captured here on Facebook, says “They promote a kind of discrimination that comes from another time and another place” while showing images of the KKK. It was a message which didn’t resonate with the majority of voters, who seemed not to understand it.

This effort to oppose the CCV was led by Nancy Minson, a straight white woman who was a lifelong gay rights advocate. According to Kimberly Dugan, a sociologist who interviewed Minson and others for her book The Struggle Over Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Rights: Facing off in Cincinnati, Minson and those who supported her clashed with the more radical Stonewall organizers. The disagreement drove a wedge in the gay community and prevented it from coming together around a uniform approach to oppose the well-organized and well-funded Citizens for Community Values. A decade later, it was clear that the community would need to rally behind a single message that resonated with a diverse group of stakeholders.

Unfortunately, the “equal rights, not special rights” strategy from Citizens for Community Values worked, at least enough to convince 62% of the city’s voters to remove the clause from its charter saying that protections could not be granted on the basis of sexual orientation. It was a dark time for the city’s gay community. According to Knox, many chose to leave Cincinnati for states and cities that they thought were more LGBTQ friendly. Knox decided to remain and work to have the Issue 3 decision overturned in court. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996.

In Romer v. Evans, the Supreme Court found that a statewide ballot initiative in Colorado to block protections for LGBTQ violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Supreme Court did not contend with the Cincinnati case in its decision about Colorado, and so the case returned to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which later found that the Romer ruling didn’t apply in Cincinnati, concluding that “Unlike Colorado Amendment 2, the Cincinnati Charter Amendment cannot be characterized as an irrational measure fashioned only to harm an unpopular segment of the population in a sweeping and unjustifiable manner.”

After losing this legal battle, Knox and the other organizers launched a ballot initiative of their own that would update the city charter and repeal the change made in 1993. Knox enlisted the help of the National LGBTQ Task Force, which brought a grassroots organizing strategy that was not part of the 1993 campaign. Rather than running blanket attack ads, the gay community went door to do to talk with people about the issue and what impacts the lack of protections had on their daily lives as city residents.

The 2004 campaign was also much more diverse and inclusive. Sayre Reece, the strategist from the National LGBTQ Task Force who worked in Cincinnati explained that “Everyone understood that this had to be a campaign that reflected the diversity of Cincinnati in all the ways. We would think about what the headline was going to be the day after election day, and what kids were going to see on that headline, particularly queer kids.”

Culture had also changed considerably between 1993 and 2004. Millions of people watched Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out on her sitcom TV in 1995, and Will & Grace premiered in 1998, all contributing to the mainstreaming of openly gay people in American life. Progress is always uneven, however – the same election that Cincinnati residents voted to reinstate protections for LGBTQ people, a statewide initiative defining marriage as between a man and a woman passed with more than 60% of the vote.

What happened in Cincinnati is, in some ways, unique to the city, and its particularly conservative reputation, despite being a large city. But in other ways, the struggle is the same one faced by any group of people who feels that they are at a political disadvantage, whether they’re in Birmingham Alabama or Berkely California.

The Cincinnati LGBTQ community’s strategy of getting to their neighbors and focusing on real-world impact has proven successful in many other initiative campaigns. For example, organizers working to restore voting rights to formerly-incarcerated people in Florida began their conversations with voters by using language that framed it as an issue of  second chances rather than debating people on their views about the criminal justice system. And those pushing to create an independent redistricting commission in Michigan started with the premise that all voters should have a say in American democracy, rather than fruitlessly trying to engage with people over the wonky details about why gerrymandering makes that more difficult.

In some cases, this approach also leads to the formation of new political coalitions that transcend traditional partisan divides. One example of this is Reclaim Idaho, which led a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid in the state in 2018. The measure’s supporters included former Republican Gov. Butch Otter and the Idaho Sheriffs Association.

Ballot initiatives aren’t perfect, as we’ve seen with decisions like California’s Three Strikes law and efforts to keep gig economy workers classified as independent contractors. However, at a time when state legislatures and the Supreme Court seem to be united against democracy, it might be the only tool we have to truly ensure equal rights and protections and continue working toward the promise of making America a successful multiracial, multiethnic democracy.

Groups like the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center and the Fairness Project are helping organizers across the country fight for change using the initiative process in much the same way that the National LGBTQ Task Force helped the 2004 Cincinnati campaign. The goal is to put political power in the hands of people and groups that have not traditionally had it and make the initiative a tool to advance economic and social justice.

Will it work? As we’ve seen, the forces pushing against democracy are strong, but so too are the forces pushing to expand it. In my mind, ballot initiatives are one of the brightest spots in politics today — dare I say, even a little hopeful.

Knox agrees and hopes, as I do, that the turnaround in Cincinnati can serve as an inspiration.

He said, “My hope is that it will inspire others to work on social justice issues and to do it as a diverse campaign.”

About half of the states and hundreds of cities allow citizens to organize ballot initiative campaigns. There’s nothing special about Scott Knox or anyone else who worked on the Cincinnati campaign in 2004, as he himself would remind you. Rather they simply put their heads down and did the hard work of democracy.

Jenna Spinelle is a writer and podcast producer based in State College, Pennsylvania. She told the story of Cincinnati’s Issue 3 campaigns as part of the podcast series When the People Decide.