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Pride may have been born in NYC, but Cincinnati played a big role in LGBTQ+ history

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Posted at 5:04 AM, Jun 30, 2021

CINCINNATI — Why do we celebrate Pride Month in June? Its roots trace back to a gay bar in New York City, but when it comes to LGBTQIA+ history, Cincinnati has played a leading role.

Fifty-four years ago this month, the New York Police Department executed a raid on the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street — like it had done countless times before. At the time, the New York State Liquor Authority was cracking down on gay and lesbian clubs like Stonewall, as seeking out or soliciting same-sex relations was still considered a crime in 1969 New York.

Pride and Police
FILE- In this Aug. 31,1970 file photo, an NYPD officer grabs a youth by the hair as another officer clubs a young man during a confrontation in Greenwich Village after a Gay Power march in New York. As Pride weekend approaches, the recent decision by organizers of New York City's event to ban LGBTQ police officers from marching in future parades while wearing their uniforms has put a spotlight on issues of identity and belonging, power and marginalization.For some, cops shouldn't have a visible presence at a march that commemorates the 1969 Stonewall uprising, sparked by a police raid on a gay bar. (AP Photo/File)

But this time, the bar and its clientele had had it and decided to fight back. The ensuing uprising became the spark that lit the Pride fire across the U.S.

It's widely considered the tipping point in the fight for what today are considered LGBTQIA+ rights. The first recognized Pride march took place in New York City on the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, according to the Library of Congress.

Ups and downs in Cincinnati pride

It only took four years for the movement to reach the Queen City when Cincinnati held its first Pride celebration on Fountain Square in 1973. In the years to follow, that celebration grew and moved around the city's neighborhoods, from Northside to Clifton and back again. Parades would pass by City Hall on Plum Street downtown.

Cincinnati Pride 1986
A Cincinnati Pride event on Fountain Square in June 1986.

That sense of pride came to a screeching halt, though, in the early 90s, when — as an apparent backlash against City Council's historically early approval of a human rights ordinance — voters amended the City Charter and passed Article XII, which mandated that the city shall make "no special class status...based upon sexual orientation, conduct or relationships."

WCPO file video from 1993 shows an unnamed opponent of the amendment saying, "The wording of the amendment specifically removes gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals from ever being able to petition the government on cases of discrimination."

Issue 3 proponents
Proponents of Cincinnati's Issue 3, which would be the predecessor to the discriminatory Article XII, packed City Hall to push for its passage in 1993.

"After it passed, the community was so demoralized," said Scott Knox, a local attorney active in the gay community for decades. "It sure felt a lot like your community doesn’t want you here."

It would be five years before the local LGBTQIA+ communities would organize another large Pride event.

"We were the only city in the country that had a regulation that said City Council was prohibited from passing any law that would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination," Knox said. "It said this one set of people had no access to the government."

All the way to the Supreme Court

Unbeknownst to him at the time, Knox would become instrumental in the grassroots 2004 repeal of Article XII. He described himself as just one of many "worker bees" in the effort.

Article 12 repeal effort
It took more than one decade, but a grassroots effort led voters to repeal Cincinnati's discriminatory Article XII in 2004.

"It was a sea change," he said. "We went door to door and asked people, ‘Do you think someone should be fired if they’re doing a good job just because they’re gay or lesbian?‘ and uniformly, they said, 'No.'"

Pride celebrations continued to gain momentum, all seeming to lead up to what became a pivotal moment in not just Cincinnati history but American history, as well — a moment during which, once again, Cincinnati took center stage.

Cincinnati lawyer leads same-sex marriage fight

CINCINNATI -- Jim Obergefell, 48, sits with a framed photo from his wedding day with John Arthur July 11, 2013.

In June 2015 — after years moving through federal circuit courts, 22 years after Article XII passed, and 46 years after the uprising at Stonewall Inn — a couple of University of Cincinnati alumni took their fight for marriage equality all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

"In that very first hearing in federal district court, the city attorney stood up and said, 'Your Honor, we agree with John and Jim. Their marriage deserves to be recognized,'" said Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the case that ultimately would legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.

Obergefell and his late partner, John Arthur's initial case combined with others from Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee before finally arriving in Washington, D.C. Both men graduated from UC and considered Cincinnati to be home turf.

"I have some very personal, very unique to me moments when Cincinnati really became this welcoming supportive place," Obergefell said.

Jim Obergefell
FILE - In this June 27, 2015, file photo, gay marriage plaintiff Jim Obergefell, center, waves during the Cincinnati Pride parade in Cincinnati. Obergefell asked his longtime partner John Arthur, dying from ALS, to marry him on June 26, 2013, leading to Obergefell's name appearing at the top of the U.S. Supreme Court's June 26, 2015, decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell is co-author of a book published June 14, 2016, titled “Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality.” (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Cincinnati's Pride parade stepped off the day after the Supreme Court ruling, with Obergefell riding up front, tears in his eyes for blocks.