by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN Staff Writer
Cincinnati is a place that doesn't come up in conversation often. It sits on the perimeter of the Midwest, quietly going about its business and occasionally gets called to the spotlight, like when one of its major sports teams - such as this season's 9-2 Bengals - is a serious contender for a football championship, or when a TV sitcom about a radio station with witty disc jockeys is set there. Cincy, as the locals call it, can't compare in size to New York or Chicago, and without the typical vacation draws - beaches, poshy resorts, national landmarks - it doesn't woo tourists as other urban destinations do. But, it's changing - for the better. A huge redevelopment plan is tranforming the downtown area and old neighborhoods - from Over The Rhine (OTR) to Northside - into affordable, diverse, and attractive places for residents to eat, sleep, and play. It's a hopeful future that will ultimately make Cincinnati a more appealing city to visit and to live in, and a safe, tolerant place for those within the LGBT community to call home.
Enter Chris Seelbach, the first openly Gay person to serve on the Cincinnati City Council, elected city-wide for a second term two years ago. The 36 year-old, who completed his undergraduate studies at one of Cincy's major colleges, Xavier University, and earned a law degree from the University of Dayton, is part of the change happening in 'The City of Seven Hills.' A resident of the OTR district with his partner Craig Schultz, he's involved in many aspects of the planning and re-shaping that is happening now, but Seelbach is also a direct link between the LGBT community and city government.
I met Chris Seelbach in person, over lunch at a casual restaurant called Senate, when I visited in August, and then re-connected with him a few weeks ago by phone. This is what the Cincinnati City Councilmember shared with Seattle Gay News.
Albert Rodriguez: When were you elected to your position?
Chris Seelbach: I was first elected in 2011, so I was sworn in December 1, 2011.
Rodriguez: Is it a 2-year or 4-year post?
Seelbach: When I was first elected in 2011, it was for a 2-year term. But the voters changed our system in 2012 and council terms are now 4 years, so when I was re-elected in 2013 I was re-elected to a 4-year term.
Rodriguez: Was this the first city government position you ran for?
Seelbach: Yes, I had worked for the former Vice Mayor David Crowley for several years in his office, but this was my first run for public office.
Rodriguez: Is there a history of running for office in high school or college? Were you involved with politics while in school?
Seelbach: It's interesting; my grandfather was a city councilmember in his hometown, in Kentucky. So, definitely politics was talked about growing up and when I was in college I ran for our student senate, so I was on our student senate, but that was the only position I held.
Rodriguez: How long have you lived in Cincinnati all together?
Seelbach: I've lived here for 17 years, a little over 17 years.
Rodriguez: Before that?
Seelbach: Before that I was in Louisville, Kentucky. That's where I was born and raised.
Rodriguez: When did you come out? What was that experience like for you?
Seelbach: I came out when I was 18. The day after I graduated high school, my parents brought me downstairs after I woke up and basically said, 'We just want you to tell us you're not gay' and I'd never told anyone, so that's when I came out and told them the truth. Unfortunately, they sent me then - that summer between high school and college - to a form of reparative therapy, but once I moved to Cincinnati to go to college we didn't really talk for almost 11 years. It was not a very good coming out. But, about 6 years ago we rekindled our relationship and we have a really strong relationship now, they're 100% supportive of me and my partner, but it took a long time, over a decade.
Rodriguez: As the only openly Gay council member, does that put pressure on you to introduce bills or city ordinances that effect the LGBT community?
Seelbach: Yeah, anytime there's one of a different type of person there is extra pressure that you are supposed to represent the entire community. I feel extra pressure, but it's a part of what I wanted to do on the council anyway. I care about LGBT issues, so I've been happy to take those on. We've passed almost every LGBT policy through that we probably could have, but we actually just realized there's more we can do, so in two weeks we're going to be passing - this will be the first city in Ohio to do this - a ban on reparative therapy for people under 18 years old. That's something we're going to do in Cincinnati that no longer can kids be sent to reparative therapy to try and change who they are.
Rodriguez: Reparative therapy, is that specific to LGBT teens, or all teens battling problems like addictions?
Seelbach: It would be just for LGBT people. It will no longer be legal for licensed health care providers to try to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people under 18.
Rodriguez: Ohio was a state that didn't legalize same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court ruling, so that combined with this reparative therapy bill - do you think the people of Cincinnati are ready for this?
Seelbach: I do. Surprisingly, what I thought would be the most controversial of the things that I've done, we became the third city in the country, and the first in the Midwest, to extend inclusive-transgender health care for all city employees, which basically means that if you're a city employee and your doctor deems it medically necessary to have a gender reassignment surgery then your health care provider will pay for that. I thought it would be wildly controversial, but you know, it wasn't. Most major companies already do it and it wasn't going to cost us any more, and we got very, very minimal negative feedback. So I expect the reparative therapy ban to be very similar; I don't think people will be much in arms about it.
Rodriguez: Your term runs through 2017. Have you given any thought beyond that, whether you want to stay on the city council, or is this a stepping stone to something else?
Seelbach: I haven't made any definite decisions, but there will be other people who will run for mayor in 2017 that I would consider working with or running with as Vice Mayor. But then I'm also considering in 2018 - there's statewide elections for the state of Ohio - so I'm considering a possibility of running state-wide. The Democratic party often makes sure that the state-wide ticket - usually Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Auditor, and Treasurer - has a diverse slate of people running as Democrats that include women and people of color and come from different parts of the state and people with different views as Democrats, and we always count on the votes and money of the LGBT people, but we've never had an openly LGBT person run state-wide, so that's something I'm also considering for 2018.
Rodriguez: For those not familiar with how city government works, describe your day-to-day duties. What does a city councilmember do?
Seelbach: We have committee meetings Mondays and Tuesdays, so everything from budget finance to public safety to development to human services. That's where the legislation really gets discussed and voted on, and on Wednesdays we have our full council meetings where we vote on any legislation that's come out of committee. That's the nuts and bolts of what I do, but most of it, most of what I do is meeting with dozens of people every week to talk about future legislation, to talk about ideas that I have and want to implement that I need support on, or people that have ideas for me. Then there's tons of committee business, so today I'm doing a tour of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a non-profit organization here in Cincinnati, and then tonight I'm speaking at a Sierra Club sustainability event, so it's a combination of the meetings, where we are voting on legislation, the meetings where we're actually working on and developing legislation, and then a lot of just attending events in the community and getting to know people.
Rodriguez: What would be a good reason for LGBT people to visit, or even consider moving, to Cincinnati?
Seelbach: First of all, there's a lot of great job opportunities here. We have the headquarters of Proctor & Gamble, Macy's, and Krogers, and all of those are incredibly LGBT-friendly companies. So the possibility of finding a job with a company that is a leader on LGBT issues is very good. Then, we're a city that was built in the late 1800s and we have these incredibly historic buildings that are on a great system, which makes for very walkable neighborhoods that we're renovating, we're bringing back to life. So, it's an historic, beautiful, walkable city that a lot of LGBT people would enjoy. Our city, policy-wise, earned 100 on the Human Rights Campaign Municipal Equality Index, so we've batted every single ball that we can to make our city LGBT-inclusive. Jim Obergefell, who got marriage equality for all of us from the Supreme Court, lives here just a few blocks away from me, and I think we do have that interesting, thriving restaurant-bar-entertainment scene that a lot of LGBT people would enjoy.
Rodriguez: How long do you think this upswing will last? Some cities go through major redevelopment and then become very attractive to outsiders, who swarm in and raise the home market value so that it's no longer affordable. Will Cincinnati get too big for its britches in 15 or 20 years?
Seelbach: I hope not. It's one of the things that I'm working on, as a city legislator, to make sure that our neighborhoods stay mixed income. We don't want Over The Rhine or downtown to be a place where only wealthy people can afford to live, so we're being very systematic in making sure we have affordable housing throughout our entire city. I think we've been showing that so far, at the height of Over The Rhine there were 50,000 people living in this neighborhood; now only 6,000 do, so there is room for growth where people can move here that are more wealthy, but we can also make sure that there is housing and amenities for people who do live below the median average. It's very possible, not unlikely, that we'll continue to be a place where all people can afford to live.
Rodriguez: If LGBT visitors come to Cincinnati, for leisure or business, what are a few things you'd recommend they see or do while they're in town?
Seelbach: I think an evening walking on Vine Street and checking out the bars, restaurants, and stores - they actually have a lot of cool men's clothing stores, and women's as well. I would spend some time on The Banks, which is the riverfront. We have an incredible park system down there called Smale Riverfront Park, which is in between both of our stadiums, the Bengals stadium and Cincinnati Reds stadium, so that's a must-see. And there's all kinds of restaurants there as well. Fountain Square is the center point of our city, where there are live concerts, or DJs, all in this public square every night. Washington Park is our kind of Central Park of Cincinnati, and there's everything from a dog park to a kid's park to a grand lawn, where there's nightly programming of movies or bands or yoga on Saturdays. Those are some of the things that come to mind. And, of course, Cincinnati is known for its chili all year-round, so Skyline Chili is scattered around the city. Though I'm a vegetarian, most people say you should try Skyline.
Rodriguez: I caved in and tried it, and it was really good!. What are the holidays like in Cincinnati - is there snow, does the city light up?
Seelbach: It's pretty amazing. We have a huge tree on Fountain Square that's lit, I think the weekend after Thanksgiving, and we're a German city, a lot of German immigrants settled here and we still embrace those roots, so we have this German Christmas market that is out on Fountain Square with food and people selling all kinds of Christmas gifts and things like that, so that's a lot of fun. Of course, our biggest holiday in Cincinnati is Opening Day, so we have the first professional baseball game every year with the Cincinnati Reds, which was the first baseball team ever in the country, so Opening Day is an incredible celebration, everyone takes off work, we have a huge parade through downtown and The Banks and Over The Rhine that leads to the baseball game. That's probably our biggest day specific to Cincinnati; even when I think about the holidays, there's no other holiday that people get more excited or organized about.
Rodriguez: And how will you spend the holidays?
Seelbach: We actually have our big Christmas party on December 12 with all of our friends, and then on Christmas Eve I go to Louisville and Craig stays here, and on Christmas Day we both come back and just spend it together here in Cincinnati. So, we spend it with family, either in Louisville or Cincinnati, and Christmas spent with friends two weeks before. New Year's, we don't have plans. We tend to like to not plan New Year's; it's maybe just having dinner at our house, then walking around Over The Rhine and popping into a bar, or something like that, but we don't usually like to do a big gala or something.
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