Voters in Ohio Create Domestic Partner Registry

November 04, 2003

First Time in Nation's Heartland a Pro-Gay Measure Has Been Adopted by Voter Initiative

Roberta Sklar, Director of Communications

Cleveland Heights, OH - November 4, 2003 - In an historic victory for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, voters in Cleveland Heights, OH, today voted overwhelmingly in favor of Issue 35, a measure establishing a domestic partner registry. (With 98% of the vote in at press time, the count was 55% in favor, 45% opposed). While domestic partner registries exist in more than 60 localities across the country, today's win marks the first time* a domestic partner registry has ever been adopted through a ballot initiative introduced by citizen petition in the country. A dynamic collaboration between Heights Families for Equality (HFE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force helped secure the victory.

"This is a landmark victory for our movement," said Task Force Executive Director Matt Foreman. "With the extraordinary dedication of the people involved with Heights Families for Equality, we were able not only to turn back anti-gay attacks but convince the majority of voters that our families deserve recognition."

"The Task Force was essential to our victory in Cleveland Heights," said David Caldwell, the leader of Heights Families for Equality. "Their organizing and training staff brought critical organizing and voter ID expertise, and their financial support carried us through some tough times."

The Task Force donated $27,500 and brought seven members of its field staff and 18 volunteers from across the country to Cleveland Heights for the final 10 days of the campaign.

"Cleveland Heights represents the future for advancing equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people," said Dave Fleischer, Director of the Task Force Organizing and Training Department. "Instead of waiting for the next attack by a homophobic ballot initiative, we go on the offensive and speak directly to voters about issues affecting our community - and that's exactly what happened here."

Fleischer noted that this evening's victory marks the third consecutive year in which the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has successfully battled the forces of homophobia at the ballot box. "Up until 2001, our community lost three out of every four anti-gay or gay-related ballot measures," Fleischer said. "We've now won 11 out of 14 - an unprecedented winning streak that the great people in Cleveland Heights have just kept going."

The registry, which will be open to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, will provide committed couples a certified record of their relationship. While conferring no outright benefits, this official documentation has been used in other jurisdictions with registries to qualify for domestic partner health insurance benefits and to secure other basic rights, such as visiting a sick partner in the hospital. More than 60 localities across the country have such registries in place, though just one of them was created through ballot initiative - more than 13 years ago in San Francisco.

The effort to create the registry started more than a year ago, after Cleveland Heights granted health benefits to domestic partners of city employees. Local anti-gay groups and individuals then mounted a campaign to repeal those benefits and Heights Families for Equality was formed in response to these efforts. HFE sent leaders to attend a skills training led by Task Force staff and then launched a successful counter-campaign that preserved the benefits. The group was then faced with a difficult choice.

"Should we stop now? That was the question," says Keli Zehnder, an HFE leader. "We succeeded in keeping the benefits in place, but there was a group still out there spreading lies and homophobia. We didn't know what would come next. So we decided to do something about it."

HFE's leaders decided not to wait for the next homophobic attack. They began a massive signature gathering effort to place a domestic partner registry on the ballot, so that everyone, not just city employees, would have some basic protections. In July of this year, HFE submitted more than 5,000 valid petition signatures to the board of elections - the largest grassroots electoral effort in the history of Cleveland Heights - thus placing the measure on the November ballot. Since then, HFE worked to identify a base of 7,500 supportive-voters, making Cleveland Heights the fifth largest geographic base of pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender identified voters in the nation. On election day, HFE and the Task Force executed a sophisticated get-out-the-vote effort, including volunteers stationed at every single polling place tracking the turnout of supportive voters.

Opponents of the measure argued that the registry was the first step toward "gay marriage." Cleveland Heights Family First Initiative, the leading anti-gay organization in the fight to defeat the measure, claimed the registry "attempts to convey marital privileges to people who are merely cohabiting" and "(t)heir registry is an effort to circumvent the court system and redefine marriage." They also falsely intimated that the registry would require companies to offer health benefits to the domestic partners of their employees. Overt appeals to homophobia were also common. The Family First Initiative said Cleveland Heights "is a tolerant community but one that does not accept unlawful, dangerous, or self-destructive behavior."

"Heights Families for Equality ran an exceptional campaign that shows people across the country that we can overcome base appeals to homophobia and win," said Don Rodrigues, the Task Force lead organizer for the Cleveland Heights effort, who spent nearly three months working on the ground with the local team. "We were up against an anti-gay coalition that included a popular member of City Council. HFE members had face-to-face conversations with thousands of residents, they developed a base of fair-minded pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender voters, raised the money they needed, and they recruited and trained large numbers of volunteers - both gay and straight - to do the work. This is politics the old-fashioned way and that's why we won."

*San Francisco's domestic partner registry was also decided by popular vote, but was placed on the ballot by the board of supervisors - not by citizen petition as was the case in Cleveland Heights.


The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the political power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up. We do this by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.