By Randy Ludlow

Twenty-five days before leaving office, Gov. John Kasich suddenly barred discrimination in state employment based on gender identity -- a change of heart from when he took office nearly eight years ago.

Kasich, Ohio's two-term CEO, signed the surprise executive order implementing the policy language Wednesday afternoon.

"The governor continues to be opposed to discrimination in state employment, and this order reflects how he believes that policy should be implemented," said Kasich press secretary Jon Keeling.

After he entered office in 2011, Kasich revised the state employment anti-discrimination policy to remove gender identity, which had been added in 2007 by former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland.

"Equality Ohio has been sending the governor letters with stories from LGBTQ Ohioans about their experiences with discrimination throughout the year and finding opportunities to grow his familiarity with transgender people and their lives," said Alana Jochum, executive director of the group. "He heard this call, and we are grateful for Gov. Kasich's leadership in extending nondiscrimination protections for transgender state employees."

Aaron Baer, president of Citizens for Community Values, said Kasich's move was unnecessary.

"Unless his administration was rampantly firing individuals with gender dysphoria, the only purpose of his latest executive action is to score political points on the way out the door. There is no evidence that this kind of discrimination is happening in state government today," Baer said. "I think most Ohioans would prefer he keeps his priorities focused on what's best for Ohio ... instead of looking to endear himself to the coasts for his next political run."

Incoming Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, Ohio's attorney general who will take over the governor's office Jan. 14, now faces a decision whether to keep Kasich's new language.

"The governor-elect is reviewing all executive orders ahead of the transition and will make decisions on them on or around Inauguration Day," DeWine transition spokesman Joshua Eck said.

In 2016, DeWine added Ohio as a plaintiff with other states in a federal lawsuit challenging then-President Barack Obama's order instructing that transgender students be allowed to use school bathrooms, showers and locker rooms matching their gender identity under the threat of losing federal funding. After taking office last year, Republican President Donald Trump revoked the Democrat's order, which never took effect amid the legal challenge.

Rep. Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, an openly gay lawmaker who has long pushed for LGBTQ employment protections, questioned why it took Kasich eight years to come around on the issue, saying she tried unsuccessfully multiple times over the years to schedule a sit-down with the governor to discuss discrimination.

"I feel like he's making these moves to convince people that he's somehow a moderate Republican. For eight years, that is not the governor I've seen," said the Lakewood Democrat, who was elected to the Senate last month.

Some legislative Republicans, Antonio said, are going to need to be educated on gender identity. She said the biggest misunderstanding surrounding gender identity is that a person has a choice and just switches back and forth.

"For every person I've ever talked to that's ever gone through the agony ... it's never about a choice," she said.

Dispatch reporter Jim Siegel contributed to this story.

(c)2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)