Imagine being struck by the thunderous realization that you are uniquely positioned to create significant good in this world — the kind of good that could affect thousands and ripple positively for generations. Looking around, you notice that no one else is stepping up. Doing so would surely be difficult. You would be swimming upstream against history, bias and much more. But, through the unique combination of factors which you possess: talent, education, skill, drive, luck, experience, perception, privilege… it becomes clear that you’re the one who can create this positive change. Do you go for it, believing the task at hand to be monumental?
For Tim Downing there had never been any question as to what he wanted to do. He had been preparing to do good in this world ever since he came out as a gay man during his college years in the early ’80s. Armed with a freshly minted law degree, he set out in search of opportunities to do just that.
This is the story of Tim’s noble pursuit of civil rights. And it’s the story of how he founded Ohioans for Growth and Equality (OGE) with a little help from his friends. Tim’s lifework runs parallel to the most significant events of queer legal history in the Buckeye State. And while this story is far from over, the progress achieved by his unyielding march toward equality is undeniable.
For Tim, the inciting incident came in 1986 when a Supreme Court case essentially criminalized his life. Bowers v. Hardwick upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia law criminalizing a specific sexual act between consenting adults, 5-4. It was an egregious decision and Tim knew in his gut that he needed to find an inroad to do something about it.
The following year brought him to Washington with hundreds of thousands of people fighting for what at the time was simply known as “gay equality.” Disappointingly, this second national march for lesbian and gay rights was massively underreported by the media. However, it was at that time that Tim discovered the Human Rights Campaign (or The Human Rights Campaign Fund, as it was known then). He signed an HRC postcard indicating his willingness to write to Congress when needed, and get involved.
Back home, he organized with others around the state and in 1993 they had enough momentum to establish an HRC Federal Club chapter in Cleveland. It was the second such club in Ohio after Columbus, and they could use this steering committee to formally raise funds. Tim was fortunate that he was able to advocate publicly. His law firm, Ulmer & Berne, supported him. Not all employers did. Workers could be fired in Ohio simply for being gay. Given this luxury of knowing that he would not lose his job on account of his sexuality furthered the responsibility he felt to take action for others, even if it meant that finding volunteers (many in less secure situations) would not be easy.
The Ohio Human Rights Bar Association had been recently founded and Tim joined others – Mary Jo Hudson and Rob Eblin included – to take that group’s work to the next level. By 1997 they had members across the state of Ohio and operated as a small but respected group.
It was the prospect of same-sex marriage in Hawaii in the late ’90s that brought about an explosion of hate nationwide. State after state was contemplating and enacting “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) laws to stipulate that marriage equality or the benefits of civil unions would not be permitted there, nor would any marriage be recognized that was officiated in another state.
The activists were a bit caught off guard as no one was really talking about marriage equality as of yet. Their efforts were largely focused on employment protections. A DOMA bill came to the Ohio State legislature and only the Ohio Human Rights Bar Association was there to speak against it. Politicians were scared of the bill because public sentiment was largely against “special rights” for gays and lesbians – and many would only state privately that they were opposed to the legislation. The one notable exception was Sherrod Brown who spoke out against it.
Cultural headwinds were also extremely difficult. This was the peak of Ralph Reed and his Christian Coalition. It was a time of fear-mongering, conspiracy theory making and, in many cases, outright hate. The legislation did pass in the Ohio House but fortunately it was never signed into law. Nevertheless, it was a wake-up call. Tim and his like-minded compatriots needed to get a new message out there, one that would resonate with both politicians and voters. They decided upon a powerful economic argument: that if you want to attract the very best talent to the state of Ohio – to our colleges and to our workforce, we must be a state of tolerance and equality.
By 2004 Republicans had secured both Ohio chambers from the Democrats, and a recent round of gerrymandering tilted the scale even further. Conservative forces now had the legislative votes to pass a DOMA law in Ohio. It was time to kick things into a higher gear.
Tim founded Ohioans for Growth and Equality that same year as a political action committee largely supported by the very same group of lawyers to advocate against the proposed legislation which would be so damaging to Ohio. They were significantly outraised by the religious right but they did the hard work. They spoke passionately and articulately against the law on the Ohio statehouse floor. One of their key witnesses was a Silicon Valley executive who was planning to move her company to Ohio but stated emphatically that passage of a so-called DOMA law was a deal-breaker. (Spoiler alert: her company did not move to Ohio) But, those economic realities existed and were brought to light.
HRC again provided significant support and OGE was able to hire consultants and advocates in order to find traction for their message. And they were getting traction – every major newspaper in Ohio came out against the legislation. But it wasn’t enough. The legislation passed.
Marriages were now fully, ah-hem, “defended”, but that wasn’t enough. The haters had more hate to give. They now wanted to enshrine this discrimination in the state’s constitution. OGE fought like hell to keep the amendment proposal off of the November ballot. The language of the amendment was particularly misleading: a vote for the measure was a vote against equality. Many were confused. A friend of mine was told by his grandmother that she had proudly voted for him and in support of Issue 1. Sigh. The amendment was approved with nearly 62% of the vote.
And yet, there were glimmers of hope. OGE had built significant momentum in support of equality in Ohio’s metropolitan areas. Ohio business leaders got it and were finally supporting equality. Many politicians had also come on board for the first time and all of Ohio’s major newspaper editorial boards – even Cincinnati! – were universally against the discriminatory measure.
Another notable shift could be seen in the voting data which revealed that Ohio’s seven major urban areas voted against the amendment. It was in rural areas where discrimination won the day by significant margins. Fear is a powerful force. Rural areas were targeted with the message that marriage equality would unleash pedophiles and other toxic elements upon their communities. This isn’t conjecture – this is the language that was used by the culture warriors in their campaign of bigotry. Still, there was solace to be found in the trends. They had something significant to build upon. Undeterred, the fight would continue.
A meeting was held in the state’s capital and it was decided that Ohioans for Growth and Equality would transform into a larger statewide organization with an expansive mandate for change. That organization became Equality Ohio which has accomplished so much in these intervening years. After Tim’s two decades of steady work and activism, Ohio had its first statewide LGBTQ+ rights organization. Certainly, the climate remains challenging and gerry-mandering is still a problem here, but a great many setbacks have been prevented because of their good work. And as it happens, a woman that Tim mentored years ago is now their executive director.
One of the most significant conversations held that day in Columbus was that OGE consisted almost entirely of white lawyers and to be successful the new group had to reflect and look like the people of Ohio. New efforts toward broader inclusion began.
Of course, marriage equality was achieved nationwide in 2015 with the Obergefell decision. I should note here that Jim Obergefell was born in Sandusky, graduated from the University of Cincinnati and took his case to the Supreme Court because of Ohio’s same-sex marriage ban – another person in a position to do good who lived up to his potential to do so.
All of these cases from the overturning of Hardwick to marriage equality up to the recent Bostock decision required bold advocacy both nationally and on the ground in states like Ohio. So frequently this work isn’t given the credit it’s due, nor do we appreciate the work left undone.
The Bostock decision from last summer states that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits an employer from discriminating against an individual on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. That was all well and good but you could still get married on Sunday and be fired for being gay on Monday in many places in Ohio.
Until this week. President Biden’s substantive, wide-ranging LGBTQ executive order implements the Bostock U.S. Supreme Court ruling fully. You may be surprised to learn that the previous administration was not properly enforcing it.
Still, presidential executive orders can be reversed by future administrations. And this is why the Equality Act (which passed the House but was never brought to the floor of the Senate) is critical. The march toward equality never truly ends. The new battlefronts slowly reveal themselves. I still wonder to this day how many Ohio jobs weren’t created and how much brain drain Ohio suffered due to the passage of that DOMA law in 2004.
My personal association with this effort began in 2003 when I emailed Tim, whom I didn’t know at the time. I had read about OGE in the newspaper and offered to donate a website to their cause, which I did build the next year as their campaign went public. Along the way, I became an activist for equality. I too found myself in a truly reflective moment with the talent and inclination to do good. I made the choice to take action, and broadcast their efforts to a wider audience.
I have also advised LBGTQ+ students in the college setting, but truthfully, we were always teaching each other. I would convey these lessons of history and they would share their efforts to bring awareness to issues of gender identity and those affecting the transgender community. We try our best to learn from history in hopes of history not repeating itself.
The remarkable history and accomplishments of Tim Downing continue to ripple. We have benefited from his bravery, advocacy and drive to do the good work. If it’s true that none of us are free until all of us are free, then all Ohioans owe a debt of gratitude to Tim Downing and the many activists who forged these difficult early paths to equality.
All of us have it within ourselves to create positive change. We need only to find the courage and personal permission to do so. Speaking with Tim recently, I wondered what sparked his determination. He reminisced about his decision to come out during his college days in the early ’80s, a very difficult time for the community. He kept thinking of a mantra often repeated to him by his grandmother, “Be true to yourself… because if you’re not, you’re no use to anybody.”
Tim continues his work as a Senior Counsel and Chief Diversity Officer at Ulmer & Berne LLP in Cleveland, Ohio. He legally married his partner of more than 30 years, Ken Press in Massachusetts in 2005. They live in Beachwood with their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Ella.
Thanks for this post — tremendously informative and inspiring.
I’m always taken back by how recent any LGBTQ civil rights progress is. Maybe that’s just my perspective as a straight/cis 50 year old, but damn, this is all playing out in REAL TIME in my lifetime. It is the story of my friends’ lives. That looks obtuse when I write it, but I mean it with heart and vulnerability.