Ryan Messer knew it was time to leave Cincinnati.

In 2002, he and some gay friends were enjoying a sunny day at a riverfront restaurant when a man with a couple kids at an adjoining table took the crayons his kids were using and wrote “Fags!” with an arrow pointing to Messer and his friends.

It crystalized what Messer had been feeling since coming to the city two years earlier. He soon moved to New York City on another assignment for his employer Johnson & Johnson.

“I left because I felt I wasn’t being treated as an equal,” says Messer. Two years later, he moved back to Cincinnati when J&J offered him another job. This time he stayed, getting involved in the Cincinnati Opera, the Over-the-Rhine Community Council and the Human Rights Campaign.

“This is my home now,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here if Article XII had not been repealed. The city just wasn’t accepting.”

The city charter Article XII, approved by voters in 1993, prohibited the city from offering protection to people “because of homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation.” The charter amendment tarred Cincinnati nationally as a place unfriendly to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community and led to an exodus of gays and lesbians, such as Messer.

But in 2004, a coalition of gay, religious and community activists, and some of the city’s largest employers, came together in an unusual coalition to win voter repeal of Article XII.

A decade later, the impact is still being felt.

In 2011, the city elected its first openly gay councilmember, Chris Seelbach, 34, who was part of the steering committee that pushed to overturn Article XII.

Starting as a small political protest on Fountain Square 40 years ago, the annual Cincinnati Pride Festival in May—with corporate sponsors such as Kroger, Procter & Gamble and Fifth Third Bank—has grown into a weeklong event drawing thousands downtown for its annual festival at Sawyer Point and parade with marching units from the Cincinnati Police and Hamilton County Sheriff’s departments.

This summer, the city enacted a domestic partner registry, making it easier for city businesses to extend benefits to same-sex couples.

As a result, this fall the city is expected to achieve a perfect score on the national Human Rights Campaign’s Municipality Equality Index, a rating of city policies, laws and attitudes toward the LGBT community.

“We’ve gone in 10 years from perhaps the most anti-gay city to one of the most LGBT friendly cities in the country. It’s a dramatic change,” says Seelbach.

A decade ago, the city, Seelbach says, “was seen as a place where every young person you talked to would say, ‘I can’t wait to get out of Cincinnati.’”

Not anymore, he says.

“Young people are for the first time in a long time saying, ‘There is fun, exciting stuff going on in Cincinnati.’”

It’s reflected in the resurgence of downtown, the revival in Over-the-Rhine and the creation of the Banks, he says.

“But I don’t think young people would consider staying here, even with all those things, if this was still seen as an anti-gay city.”

Of course, nationally, public opinion toward the LGBT community has shifted as well. A recent Gallup Poll, for example, found American attitudes on same-sex marriage have flip-flopped in the last decade. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said same-sex marriage should have the same legal rights as traditional marriage and 42 percent said it should not. In 2004, the percentages were exactly opposite.

But perhaps no place has changed faster than Cincinnati.

It took leadership from Cincinnati’s power structure, including companies such as Procter & Gamble, which helped fund and lead the Article XII repeal; the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati; and African-American church leaders who spoke out against Article XII, Seelbach says.

“The buy-in from community leaders across the board was pretty terrific,” he says.

It also took an unusual door-to-door campaign to win public support for repeal.

The volunteers were told to talk about the issue using the words “gay” and “lesbian” and not just in general terms of equality or fairness.

“Of course, people support that,” says Seelbach. “But they were told, ‘You have to say what this is about: Do you think gay people should be discriminated against because of who they love?’”

It was difficult, particularly for many straight volunteers who people assumed were gay.

“Through those really open conversations, that’s when the hearts and minds of people really started to change,” says Seelbach.

Attorney Scott Knox, who also was part of the repeal effort, says, “The way the other side won, initially, is how people generally win, which is to demonize the other side.”

But, he says, once people saw the issue in terms of their family and friends, it made a huge difference.

“I think people are basically good,” he says. “Once they see, ‘Oh, that’s my cousin. Why would I say it’s fine to fire my cousin because she goes home to a woman instead of a man?’ That’s what has changed.”

While he agrees Cincinnati has changed, Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values, doesn’t think the repeal of Article XII had much to do with it.

“It’s more about the big city problems than it is the homosexual agenda. That had little to do with it,” says Burress, who led the fight to adopt Article XII to the charter and the unsuccessful fight to retain it in 2004.

He sees the last 10 years as a period of decline and failed leadership for the city.

“In 1993, Cincinnati was rated one of the best places to live in North America by Places Rated Almanac and it has not come close to that since. “

He says Article XII wasn’t about limiting city council’s power but about keeping sexual preference from being treated as a civil right.

Rights for the LGBT community is not about sex, but about respecting diversity, says Mary Stagaman, executive director of Agenda 360, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber initiative to attract and retain talent to spur the region’s growth.

“Openness to the LGBT population is a leading indicator of a community’s ability to welcome any population that’s different from the native population,” she says.

“If we had not repealed XII, we would, I think, be in a really bad place right now.” It’s not just about fairness. There’s an economic imperative as well.

“For top companies, this issue of attraction and retention of highly skilled talent translates to the diversity and inclusion space because there’s plenty of evidence now that companies that have greater inclusion from the factory floor to the C-suite have better bottom lines,” says Stagaman.

“The new markets our top companies are developing across the globe require that their workforce be highly diverse and diversity of thought, which we sometimes leave off the list, is as important as anything.”

The business community has for years been ahead of government in recognizing the LGBT community, says Knox.

“Businesses uniformly now, at least the bigger ones, have domestic partner benefits. It’s a no-brainer because they want to keep good employees,” he says.

“You still run into prejudice. But when I do, it’s usually an individual supervisor who didn’t get the memo yet. Overwhelmingly, the smaller businesses are starting to catch up with the bigger businesses and it spreads.”

As far as the city has come, Stagaman says there’s still room for improvement.

“There’s acceptance, but it would be going too far to say we are yet as welcoming as we could be,” she says. “The point of true inclusion is when the majority, or non-gay population, steps up when someone is being singled out or otherwise harmed because of their beliefs or attitudes. We can always be better so let’s work together to get there.”