Equality Ohio

Equality Ohio Statewide Civic Engagement Director Gwen Stembridge takes a selfie with Gambier's village council (meeting via Zoom) on Monday night. The council unanimously passed an ordinance on Monday affording anti-discrimination protections to members of its LGBTQ+ community.

GAMBIER – The Village of Gambier made history Monday night by becoming Knox County’s first municipality to adopt comprehensive, LGBTQ-inclusive anti-discrimination legislation.

The village council voted unanimously to pass an ordinance “against discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and public services.” It will essentially serve as a localized version of the Ohio Fairness Act, which adds sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to the laws that make discrimination illegal in Ohio.

The state bill has received widespread support from individuals and business leaders, but has not yet passed through the House or Senate.

“I have been following the progress of the Ohio Fairness Act and knew that municipalities, frustrated by the lack of statewide or national protections, were implementing local ordinances,” Gambier Mayor Leeman Kessler explained in an email. “It seemed fitting that Gambier link arms with these communities and make it clear that all are welcome here.”

Leeman Kessler

Gambier Mayor Leeman Kessler speaks at the 17th annual MLK Celebration Breakfast on Monday, Jan. 20 at Mount Vernon Nazarene University's Foster Hall.

According to Equality Ohio, an advocacy group working to further LGBTQ+ equality, Gambier is the 29th municipality in Ohio to adopt such legislation. It is the smallest municipality, based on population, to adopt the legislation thus far (see the full list of municipalities here).

Kessler said Gambier is proud to join villages, cities and counties across the state that have taken similar action.

“Our hope to create an environment that recognizes and affirms people from all walks of life,” Kessler said.

Gambier’s new legislation will take effect immediately. Its purpose, Kessler said, “is to make sure that someone’s not at risk of not having their lease renewed, or being denied housing, because of their sexual orientation or identification.” These protections are extended to employment opportunities as well.

“It puts these protections in place explicitly,” Kessler continued, “so folks aren’t left in a legal gray area.”

Individuals may report a violation of the law within 180 days of the alleged discrimination occurring. The village’s Police and Personnel Committee will then review the complaint and consider all pertinent evidence. The committee will be required to take action within 90 days of receiving the case. Those found in violation of the order will be ordered to pay a $500 fine.

Kessler called the legislation “long overdue,” as discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, military status, national origin, disability, age, or ancestry is already prohibited in Ohio. He said adding LGBTQ+ protections has “been on the radar” for a while now locally, but “it took actually sitting down and doing it to get it done.”

Beyond the legal protections afforded by the ordinance, Kessler hopes Gambier’s new law will send a message to the community.

“It explicitly lets businesses and people who are renting in the village know that this is what our village values,” Kessler said. “This is a town that’s affirming, a town that’s inclusive, and we’ll work with all members of the community, no matter how they identify or who they love.”

Kessler said increasing community inclusivity has been at the top of his priority list since taking office in 2019. The issue came to the forefront earlier this year, he recalled, when a community member approached him with concerns.

Timothy Bussey, the assistant director of Kenyon College’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, told Kessler that despite working for the college, he chose to live in Newark because it was the closest city with LGBTQ-inclusive anti-discrimination legislation. Bussey identifies as queer, and he told Knox Pages he did not feel safe living in a municipality where he could be denied housing based on his sexual orientation.

“It was a huge concern for me and my family,” Bussey said, “making sure we lived in a community where we couldn’t have a landlord or property owner say, ‘We don’t want to renew your lease because you have a pride flag,’ or because I do work with the LGBTQ+ community.”

After accepting the job at Kenyon in 2018, Bussey said he had little choice but to live in Newark or Columbus. Many Kenyon employees – both current and prospective – have faced this reality, Bussey told Kessler. Though Bussey said he “hates driving,” he is willing to make the 80-minute round-trip commute five days a week because he needs to have secure housing.

“That was a reality that I had to accept,” he said.

Some might not be willing to make that sacrifice.

“For a lot of people, that’s not ideal...” Bussey said. “If you’re driving that far five days a week, it’s just a lot of time. It’s something people shouldn’t have to worry about.”

After hearing these concerns, Kessler felt motivated to tackle the issue head-on.

“It was something that was already on my mind, so I thought, we should start looking into this and pursuing it,” the mayor recalled.

Kessler worked with his village administrator and solicitor to begin crafting legislation that would solve this problem. Bussey put Kessler in touch with Equality Ohio, which assisted the village in the process.

The end result came Monday night, when Gambier’s village council unanimously passed the ordinance during an online meeting. Equality Ohio announced that Gambier was the first Ohio municipality to pass such legislation while social distancing (the council met on a Zoom call).

“People throughout every village, city and suburb in Ohio are struggling. Basic nondiscrimination protections, including protections for workers, are critical,” Equality Ohio Statewide Civic Engagement Director Gwen Stembridge said in a congratulatory email to village leaders, obtained by Knox Pages.

“Gambier just sent a strong message to Columbus: that until Ohio legislators step-up to pass the [Ohio Fairness Act], local communities in Ohio will be picking up the slack and doing it themselves.”

Bussey said he was “thrilled” to see Gambier pass this legislation Monday night.

“I was very excited that the council unanimously voted to pass this ordinance, and I’m thrilled that a locality in Knox County has affirmed the need for a LGBTQ+ inclusive non-discrimination ordinance...” Bussey said in an email.

"With this ordinance now in place, I’m glad that others won’t have to make that same decision of choosing convenience or lower commute times over their own rights and well-being."

Bussey believes Gambier will benefit socially and economically from passing the ordinance.

“Since Gambier is now one of 29 other places in Ohio that offer LGBTQ+ non-discrimination protections, I think this will certainly help with attracting more employees to the village for work," he said. "In the rest of Knox County, someone can be fired for being LGBTQ+, and frankly speaking, the protections that such an ordinance provides to workers is quite important."

Gambier is the first municipality in Knox County to pass a localized version of the Ohio Fairness Act. Kessler said he hopes other local municipalities will consider adopting similar legislation.

“I would love to see it…” Kessler said. “Part of what we’re doing is trying to open up that conversation a bit more.”

Noting that Mount Vernon had recently issued a statement proclaiming support for its LGBTQ+ community, Kessler said anti-discrimination legislation seems like a natural next step. He feels other local governments aren’t far behind.

“I don’t think it would be out-of-character if other municipalities in Knox County pick up ordinances like this…” he said. “It’s not as far-fetched as some people might think.”

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.