Sunday, March 28, 1999

Gay rights issue could be an obstacle

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati's chances of staging the Olympics may have suffered a fatal blow on Nov. 2, 1993 — long before anyone had the idea of bringing the games here.

        That was the day when more than 56,000 Cincinnati residents voted for Issue 3, a charter amendment prohibiting the city from adopting any laws protecting gays and lesbians.

        The charter amendment stripped the city's Human Rights Amendment — barring discrimination in housing or employment — of its provision protecting people on the basis of “sexual orientation.” It set off a five-year court battle that ended last fall when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the charter amendment to stand.

        In an era when Olympic officials are sensitive about the potential political land mines waiting in cities that want to host the games, some boosters of Cincinnati's bid are concerned Issue 3 has the potential to set off a boycott by gay and lesbian groups that could scare away the Olympics.

        “Of course, it's an issue we will have to address,” said Nick Vehr, the former city councilman who is president of Cincinnati 2012, the group seeking to bring the games to Cincinnati. “Is it important? Sure it is. Is it going to mean we won't have a chance? No one knows.”

        One reason the Issue 3 controversy has Olympic boosters in Cincinnati worried is what happened five years ago when Atlanta was preparing to play host to the 1996 Olympic games.

        In Cobb County, just north of Atlanta, county commissioners passed a resolution saying the gay lifestyle is incompatible with community standards.

        Cobb County had been chosen by the Atlanta Olympics committee as the volleyball venue. After gay and lesbian groups protested the inclusion of Cobb County and the dispute received national media attention, the Atlanta committee pulled the games out of Cobb County and moved them to Athens, Ga., 62 miles from Atlanta.

        In February, former NBA star and Olympic athlete Magic Johnson spoke at Northern Kentucky University and said he believes the games will never come to Cincinnati because of the anti-gay ordinance.

        Issue 3 has already cost Cincinnati some convention business. In January, Patricia Friend, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), said her union had planned its 1999 annual meeting in Cincinnati, but pulled out after Issue 3 had been upheld by the courts.

        “AFA members do not feel welcome in Cincinnati because it is the only major city in the country that prohibits equal protection for gays, lesbians and bisexuals from discrimination,” Ms. Friend said.

        Lycette Nelson, the president of Stonewall Cincinnati, the city's major gay rights organization, said she has discussed the issue with Mr. Vehr and made it clear that Stonewall and other gay and lesbian organizations would raise the issue with Olympic officials who will make the site selection decision.

        “Given the fact that this is the only city in the country with an ordinance like this, I think it will get their attention,” Ms. Nelson said.

        Mr. Vehr said when Cincinnati prepares its bid to become the American entrant for the 2012 Olympic games, Olympic officials will want to know “what potential political problems out there could produce opposition.”

        “Obviously, this will be an issue we will have to deal with,” Mr. Vehr said. “Most cities that have sought the Olympics have faced opposition — whether it's from environmentalists, housing advocates, human rights groups.”

        Gay rights organizations, Mr. Vehr said, “will certainly make their case. I would never tell any group not to advance their cause.”

        But Mr. Vehr said that opponents of the Olympic bid should look at the games as “an opportunity, a chance to showcase the most talented people on earth, without regard to race, religion or sexual orientation.”

        Cincinnati City Councilman Todd Portune, who would like to see the Issue 3 charter amendment taken off the books, said Cincinnati's Olympic boosters should be "'out front” in trying to get the law changed.

        “If they are really serious about pursuing the Olympics,” Mr. Portune said, “they are going to have to be out there making the case to the community that this law is wrong and needs to be reversed.”


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