I grew up Northern Kentucky but have lived in the Cincinnati area for nearly 20 years. I’ve stayed, through periods of shame, embarrassment and downright anger, because my roots are here. What can I say? I’ve watched fireworks over the Ohio River, made out in Eden Park and buried a father and brother at Mother of God Cemetery. It’s here we live, in a tiny Cape Cod house with creaky floorboards in Zip code 45243 — one of the top fundraising Zip codes for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. It’s only the fourth place I’ve lived in my 40 years, and the only home my children have known. Staying is a very Cincinnati thing to do.
For a long time, I viewed Cincinnati like the guy you keep dating for his potential, believing you can change him. I mean, have you seen our Painted Ladies in Columbia-Tusculum? The sunset from the Devou Park overlook? The amazing architecture in Over-the-Rhine? We are the birthplace of branding, thanks to Mr. Procter and Mr. Gamble. Not only are our storied hills the setting for Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved,” we are George Clooney’s hometown!
But all of it failed to launch us into progressiveness.
Cincinnati has finally decided to move on one of the nation’s most pressing social issues: gay marriage. The mass of local support for Jim Obergefell, Cincinnatian and plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, is stunning. The city’s response to the case (Cincinnati’s lawyers refused to defend the state’s same-sex marriage ban) and work of the past decade around LGBT issues has nudged us that much closer to being the progressive river town I’ve always dreamed we could be.
But getting here has been…interesting.
I grew up the youngest of seven children in a liberal-leaning Catholic family. That in itself was an anomaly in a region that birthed both the Creation Museum and Northern Kentucky Right to Life, one of the most controversial and outspoken right-to-life groups in the country. When I was a freshman at my all-girls Catholic high school in 1988, George Bush dominated our mock election with something like 90 percent of the vote. In 1990, the city of Cincinnati charged the Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, with obscenity for displaying the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. Though he was acquitted, it was the first time an art museum director faced a criminal trial by its city for an exhibition.Thank God the Reds won the World Series that year.
Of course, in 1992, it was revealed that Reds owner Marge Schott owned a Nazi swastika armband, had called several of her players the N-word and disparaged Jewish people as “sneaky” and “all alike.” That blew over just in time for the KKK to get approval to display a cross on Fountain Square that Christmas. But it was Article 12, an amendment to the city charter that passed in 1993 making it legal to fire someone because they were gay, that truly put us on the map not just as conservative, but as actively hostile to the gay community. It wasn’t repealed until 2004.
“Article 12 was bad for business,” says Chris Seelbach, 35, who was elected to Cincinnati City Council in 2011 and is Cincinnati’s first openly gay councilmember. In the 10 years the law was on the books, the city lost $50 million in convention business, he says. Beginning in 2002, he worked with the group Citizens to Restore Fairness to get it repealed. Procter & Gamble dedicated a full-time employee to the effort, realizing that the discriminatory law made it impossible to attract top talent. Even the Cincinnati Enquirer, which long had a reputation for being conservative, advocated repeal.
I remember the energy and enthusiasm that went into repealing Article 12. I also remember feeling heartbroken when I saw our beloved Civil Rights hero, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speak out against repealing Article 12, citing the unfairness of “special rights.” (Coretta Scott King did support the repeal, Seelbach points out.) Carl Lindner, Jr., Cincinnati’s great benefactor, who built an empire in the Queen City, employed thousands of people, and was a major philanthropist, also worked against the repeal. The thing is, both men were from another generation, and Cincinnati has always been a place where the generations cling to ideas whose time is up.
“Coming here, there was a sense of going back in time 20 years,” says John Alberti, 56, a professor in the English department at Northern Kentucky University. He and his wife and infant daughter moved here from Los Angeles in 1991. “I’ll never forget seeing the first lawn jockey in Northern Kentucky,” he says. And students who came out as gay at NKU? They had to deal with Bible verses being thrown at them if they tried to speak about it in class, he says. Karen Wittenberg, 45, relocated here in 1998 from the Bay Area of California. “I was married at the time, and people here didn’t understand why I didn’t take my husband’s last name, or why we had decided not to have children. I was shocked that this sentiment existed in 1998,” she says.
Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky’s conservatism have always seemed ironic, given some of our history. Harriet Beecher Stowe lived here for a time, and the area was a hub for abolitionism. German Catholics had come to the area in the 1830s, and grew to be a major force in the city by the 1850s. Although they were a constant target of the temperance movement, in the end, the Catholics kept their beer, built dozens of churches and schools and left a mark on the area that continues to this day: a kind of secret handshake of Catholic schooling that never fails to befuddle outsiders. “People would ask me: where did you go to school?” Wittenberg says. She’d tell them UC San Diego and be met with a strange look. “They wanted to know where I went to high school.” Their disappointment that it was a school in California was matched only by their disappointment that it wasn’t a Catholic high school. “I wanted to run to the airport every day and go home.”
That sense of the closed circuit, of suspicion of outsiders, is surely why our ideas stayed stale for so long. Yet people like Wittenberg, Alberti and Seelbach stayed — because, like me, they saw something in the city. Alberti got involved in first-year curriculum and policymaking at NKU, Wittenberg moved downtown to Over-the-Rhine and got involved in neighborhood redevelopment, and Seelbach geared up for a fight. “I’ve always been a fighter and someone who wants to be part of making change,” Seelbach says. “If there was any place where we were going to take the battle head on, it was here.”
In this city of a dozen different fights, it’s gratifying to see a fight that has come so far, so fast. The Pew Research Center shows that in the U.S. in 1996, only 27 percent were in favor of same-sex marriage, but by 2015, that number had jumped to 54 percent. The percentage of U.S. Catholics in favor of same-sex marriage went from 40 percent in 2001 to 57 percent in 2014. In one way, Cincinnati merely reflects the country. But development remains remarkable because for we spent so many years not reflecting what was going on in the rest of the country. Much of the evolution in Cincinnati took place on a personal level, as residents grappled with the implication of denying rights to gay friends and family members, but business forces played a role too: P&G, our bedrock as much as the Catholic church, took the lead. I grew up thinking P&G was stuffy and corporate and conservative, but it has sponsored numerous LGBT events in the city, and the Advocate recently included it in a top 10 list of the most innovative and LGBT-friendly companies.
So here we are. In 2014, Cincinnati got a perfect score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index. Today, a transgender student is president of the Presidential Ambassadors at NKU. “We now have an office for LGBT affairs at NKU, with a director and programming. In 1991, this didn’t seem possible at NKU,” Alberti says. It certainly didn’t seem possible to me, when I was a student at NKU 20 years ago. And while there are still things I’d like to change, I see that my kids are growing up in a vastly different world than I did. They embrace notion that families look all different, whether it means a friend has two mommies or a mommy and daddy who don’t live together, rather beautifully and without the sense of something being wrong with any of it.
I’m also heartened to see the next generation moving here. Kayla Eiler, 25, is a filmmaker. She doesn’t know the history of Article 12 or Mapplethorpe. Originally from a small town in Indiana, she has been coming here since she was little because she has cousins here. But she didn’t form much of an impression until she worked at a production company in downtown Cincinnati during the summers while getting her a master’s in digital storytelling from Ball State. She liked what she saw. After she got her degree in 2014, she could have gone to any city. She’s young, talented and creative: the exact kind of person we need. And she chose here. My city. This place that finally found its empathy, opened its gates, and is actively writing a new story.