As the list of states legalizing gay marriage continues to grow—it’s currently legal for same-sex couples to marry in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York (which passed its legislation on June 24), D.C. and Vermont—Pennsylvania is stuck in a gay-rights legislative battle.
In one corner, House Bill 1434, introduced May 2 by Butler County Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, would amend the state constitution to define marriage as an act between one man and one woman. “The institution of traditional marriage has never been under greater attack,” warned Metcalfe in a news release announcing his legislation. The bill currently sits in committee, though a proposal outlawing gay marriage already failed once.
On the other side of the ropes sits Senate Bill 461, a gay-marriage bill sponsored back in February by state Sen. Daylin Leach, (D-17). “The current state of the law is a state of inequality,” says Leach, whose aim is to bring Pennsylvania in line with the other more progressive states. “It’s time to begin that conversation here.”
Leach predicts that New York’s legalizing of same-sex marriage will have a major impact on how things progress in other states from this point forward. “I think New York will be that tipping point,” he says. “They [other states] will see the one thing that happens when same sex marriage is legalized, which is nothing. There will be no adverse impact on straight couples. The only thing that will happen is that gay people will be happier and more financially secure and better able to raise their families.”
As for Pennsylvania, Leach says it’s a case of “wait and see.” He notes that Pennsylvania can’t hold out forever. “We’re effectively going to be surrounded by states that recognize same-sex couples. It becomes harder and harder for us to be this outlier in the Northeast.”
In the meantime, there’s another bill in the state House awaiting committee action: HB 708, introduced by Philly Rep. Mark Cohen, (D-202), which would allow for civil unions.
Ted Martin, executive director of the gay advocacy group Equality Pennsylvania, married his partner of more than 10 years in California in 2008 and says the fact that his nuptials aren’t recognized in Pennsylvania is troubling. “There’s no legitimate basis, there’s no founding basis—other than the genders are different—to deny people that basic right,” Martin says. “All we’re asking for is to be recognized by the state.”
Of those states that have legalized either gay marriage or civil unions, Martin says, “The world has not ended. They have their ceremony and they just go on living.” In a recent press release responding to Metcalfe’s attempt to solidify heterosexual marriage as the only legal form of matrimony in Pennsylvania, Martin cites stats indicating that Pennsylvanians probably wouldn’t be that opposed to gay marriage. “An overwhelming 63 percent think gay couples should have all the legal rights that married heterosexual couples do,” Martin writes.
Indeed, an April 2011 poll by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling found that 33 percent of Pennsylvania voters believe gay couples should be allowed to enter into civil unions, while another 30 percent support full marriage equality. “I think in general, across the country … people are beginning to realize that allowing same-sex couples to marry does not end the world,” says Martin.
Chris Gatesman and Peter Holtz, a gay couple from Mechanicsburg, Pa., who have been together for 28 years, are disenchanted beyond belief about Pennsylvania’s lack of progression on same-sex marriage. They recently attended their 31-year-old daughter’s wedding, (she is Gatesman’s biological offspring), but can’t have a wedding of their own despite having been together for nearly three decades. “For so many Americans, it’s not really an option,” Gatesman says of gay marriage.
Still, he holds out hope that things will change. “My general feeling is pretty optimistic,” he says, adding that when he and his partner first got together, “it wasn’t even anywhere on our radar to think that we could get married. It was very different back then. Now, I’m amazed where we are and the conversations that are happening in our country.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Adrian Shanker and Brandon Pariser. They’re young, 24 to be exact, and have only been together two years. But the two Lehigh Valley men are equally impassioned about the prospect of someday being allowed to marry. “It is a civil-rights issue,” Shanker says. “We already have the ability to love who we want to love. That’s not up for discussion.”
The two support any movement toward equality, although they would prefer to see a marriage bill as opposed to civil unions. “We’ve already seen separate but equal in this country,” Shanker said. “We’ve seen how it doesn’t work.”
Last May, when Tara Robertson began taking pictures of her friends in Philly’s LGBT community, the 24-year-old University of the Arts photography major didn’t expect that what was intended to be her senior-year fine-arts project would evolve into a potent campaign for gay equality in Pennsylvania.
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