LGBTQ RIGHTS IN CLEVELAND have been shaped by legal decisions at the local, state, and national levels. This article provides an overview of the laws and legal changes that have shaped LGBTQ rights in Cleveland, including policies concerning sodomy, domestic partnerships, marriage, discrimination, identity documentation, and access to gendered bathrooms.

SODOMY. The criminalization of sodomy in Cleveland was shaped most significantly by policies at the state level. Sodomy broadly refers to sexual behaviors that are considered to be deviant, often referred to in the law as “crimes against nature.” These prohibited sexual behaviors were often unclearly defined, but American courts tended to follow English buggery laws in criminalizing sexual acts with animals, both heterosexual and homosexual anal sex, and other forms of sexual activity deemed to be unnatural. Ohio adopted its first sodomy law in 1885 and expanded it in 1889 to explicitly prohibit engaging in oral sex, among other acts.

In 1972, Ohio became the eighth state in the country to repeal its sodomy statute. At that time, consensual sodomy was decriminalized, but the new penal code contained a misdemeanor offense for “importuning” another to engage in sexual intercourse considered to be deviant, including soliciting a sexual partner of the same sex. In 1979, the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling in State v. Phipps narrowed the the misdemeanor offense to include only unwelcome sexual solicitation.

The state of Ohio decriminalized sodomy earlier than the federal government. In 1986, fourteen years after Ohio repealed its sodomy law, the United States Supreme Court upheld a Georgia sodomy law in Bowers v. Hardwick, holding that the Fourteenth Amendment does not prevent states from banning private sex between same-sex couples. This ruling was reversed in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, in which the court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects against laws criminalizing private same-sex intercourse between consenting adults, overturning remaining sodomy laws across the United States.

DOMESTIC PARTNERSHIPS. For same-sex couples, the legalization of domestic partnerships was a significant step towards legal equality, granting some of the legal benefits extended to married couples, such as the right to make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner, child custody and visitation rights, rights to inheritance, and the right to receive employer-provided health insurance benefits. Domestic partnership laws in the United States were generally implemented on the local level, rather than the state or federal level, and this was true for Cleveland and its surrounding areas, which began creating domestic partnership registries in the 2000s.

In April 2002, the Cleveland Heights City Council voted to approve a domestic partnership registry for city employees that would allow their partners to receive benefits, becoming the first city in the state of Ohio to do so, shortly after a similar proposal in the city of Lakewood failed to pass in January 2000. In November 2003, Cleveland Heights voters approved a ballot initiative to create a domestic partnership registry for all unmarried couples, expanding the previous registry that included only city employees. 

In December 2008, the Cleveland City Council voted to create a domestic partnership registry for unmarried couples, which was soon approved by Mayor Frank Jackson. In July 2011, the council passed an ordinance to extend insurance coverage to domestic partners of city employees who had registered before a May 1, 2011 deadline. The deadline was later extended to March 31, 2012, but those who missed the deadline to register would be forced to pay nearly $8,000 annually to extend coverage to a partner. In May 2012, the Cleveland City Council passed an ordinance that eliminated the deadline for registry, allowing all domestic partners to apply for benefits during the open enrollment period in March.

Cuyahoga County took its first steps to grant rights to domestic partners in 2012. On February 14 of that year, the council voted to extend benefits to county employees in a registered domestic partnership.

Local domestic partnership laws changed significantly in 2015 when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the Fourteenth Amendment requires that states allow marriages between same-sex couples and recognize marriages between same-sex couples from other jurisdictions. Following this ruling, the Cleveland City Council ended the program that extended benefits to domestic partners and began efforts to eliminate the domestic partnership registry. Domestic partners who wished to continue to receive benefits were expected to marry in order to do so.

MARRIAGE. For same-sex couples in Ohio, the right to marry was shaped most significantly by laws on the state and federal levels. 

In the early 2000s, the state of Ohio took several steps to prohibit same-sex marriage. In February 2004, Governor Bob Taft signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law, which declared that “a marriage may only be entered into by one man and one woman,” prohibited the recognition of same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions, and prohibited the extension of any benefits of legal marriage from being extended to same-sex couples. In November 2004, Ohio voters also approved a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and preventing local governments from granting legal status to unmarried couples.

The introduction and passage of these laws closely followed the decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, a 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case that found that the Massachusetts Constitution requires the state to recognize same-sex marriages. Ohio's prohibitions on same-sex marriage also followed the United States Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which prohibited the criminalization of private same-sex intercourse. Ohio was one of a number of states to reinforce bans on same-sex marriage in November 2004 through amendments to state constitutions, including Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah.

Same-sex marriage would not become legal in Ohio until the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage across the United states.

ADOPTION. The ability to adopt children has been another significant rights issue for same-sex couples. In Ohio, same-sex couples have been legally permitted to adopt children together since the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage. However, the language in the Ohio Revised Code concerning adoption does not reflect this change. Ohio’s adoption law was last updated in 1996 and only explicitly permits adoption by a couple if it is “a husband and wife together.” While the interpretation of this law has changed to allow adoption by same-sex couples in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, efforts to change the language to match this have been unsuccessful. In 2021, Governor Mike DeWine proposed changing the language to state that any “legally married couple” can adopt, but the effort failed due to resistance from other Republican lawmakers. 

DISCRIMINATION. LGBTQ people have fought for protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity to be included among protections against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, national origin, age, disability, and other protected statuses. Protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in Cleveland have been shaped most significantly by local and federal decisions.  

Since 2009, the City of Cleveland’s code on fair employment practices has specifically prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender presentation. In September 2018, the Cuyahoga County Council expanded protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in areas concerning employment, housing, and public accommodations. 

In June 2020, the United States Supreme Court significantly increased protections against discrimination when it decided in Bostock v. Clayton County that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity constitute discrimination on the basis of sex and are thereby prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Over the past two decades, the Ohio State Legislature has repeatedly considered passing laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, but none have been signed into law.

IDENTITY DOCUMENTATION. The ability to change one’s identity documentation to match their gender identity has been a significant issue for transgender individuals who often face harassment and discrimination when they show identification that does not match their gender presentation. The right to change this documentation in Cleveland has been shaped most significantly by decisions on the state level, as states play a large role in creating and issuing identification documents like driver’s licenses. 

In Ohio, it became possible to correct the gender or sex marker on birth certificates, and thereby identification that relies on birth certificates, after the Ohio Department of Health declined to appeal a decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio that found the state’s ban on birth certificate gender changes to be unconstitutional. The new state policy, implemented in June 2021, requires a person to obtain an order from a probate court to correct the birth certificate gender marker. Unlike many other states, Ohio’s policy does not require proof of gender-affirming surgical procedures, which are often difficult to access and create significant barriers to changing identity documentation.

BATHROOM ACCESS. Access to bathrooms is another significant rights issue for LGBTQ individuals. Using public bathrooms can put transgender and gender non-conforming individuals at significant risk of harassment and assault, and those who are prevented from using bathrooms that match their gender presentation have been found to be at even greater risk. 

In Cleveland, steps were taken to address these issues when Mayor Frank Jackson signed Ordinance No. 1446-13 into law in 2016, changing Cleveland’s anti-discrimination law to allow individuals to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. 

While policies on the local level have been implemented to allow individuals to use bathrooms that match their gender identity, other government regulations have interfered. This was the case in 2019, when Cleveland bar and restaurant Good Company was prevented from operating gender neutral bathrooms due to a state regulation by the Ohio Liquor Control Commission. In order for the restaurant to keep its liquor license, it was informed that it must have “separate toilet facilities for men and women.” Previously, the restaurant had signs on the doors that indicated which bathrooms had toilets only and which ones had toilets and urinals, allowing patrons to choose which bathroom fit their needs without gender markers that may not match their identity. 

Sidney Negron

Last Updated: 2/10/2022

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