Gay Agenda

What are Pennsylvania's priorities?

By Daniel Denvir
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 28, 2009

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The sign remains the same: Though plenty has changed since this local march in the 1960's took place, the demand for equal rights endures.

Philadelphia, says Philadelphia Gay News publisher and longtime activist Mark Segal, is “one of the most gay-friendly cities in the country.” But the state of Pennsylvania is not so welcoming. “It seems to be on a track back to the 1970s.”

There’s a rich history of queer activism here. Some of the nation’s first gay rights marches were held in Philadelphia between 1965 to 1969. Pennsylvania politicians were out front on the issue too: On April 23, 1975, Gov. Milton Shapp signed an executive order expressing support for gay rights. Shapp also created the nation’s first state commission on “sexual minorities”—not a pleasant term retrospectively, but the move was historic for its time.

But now, outside of friendly enclaves like Philly, it’s still perfectly legal in Pennsylvania to fire someone or deny someone housing because they are gay or transgendered.

Gloria Casarez, Mayor Michael Nutter’s liaison to the LGBT community, is proud that the Philly community has won both legal protection against discrimination and the recognition of domestic partnerships. But she says city-dwellers have a responsibility to help all Pennsylvanians win equality.

“On the state level, we’re still playing catch-up. And not everyone ... lives in the city. If you live in King of Prussia and work in Philly, you’re not protected.”

Equality Advocate Pennsylvania’s legal clinic fields more than 600 calls a year from throughout the state, most of them reporting discrimination. Daniel Miller, Harrisburg’s first openly gay city council member, was fired from an accounting job when his boss found out that he was gay.

Pennsylvania isn’t alone. Most states don’t have LGBT rights laws, and there’s a serious debate within the queer community whether such laws should be the top priority when same-sex marriage is still in play.

But Richard Kim, an editor at The Nation and a frequent commentator on queer politics, doesn’t think a state-by-state fight to legalize same-sex marriage is the best strategy.

“I’ve long argued that gay marriage shouldn’t be the top priority. You can still be fired in this country for being gay,” he says. Kim and many other activists are wary of the very institution of marriage and critical of movement leaders who put marriage before nondiscrimination bills. Kim says that until the 1990s, most feminists and queers campaigned to delink marriage from all state-granted benefits.

Kim believes nondiscrimination legislation should take precedence now, calling the national Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) “low-hanging fruit.”

But ENDA has engendered controversies too. In 2007, openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) angered many when he introduced a version of the bill that would bar discrimination based on sexual orientation but not gender identity, leaving trans folks out. The Human Rights Campaign, the heavy-hitting national group that brought you the equal sign, caught a lot of flak for supporting the bill and reversed course. Congressional advocates and activists are now uniting behind an inclusive bill.

In Pennsylvania, most activists say that nondiscrimination legislation here—2009 House Bill 300—should be passed before work begins to legalize same-sex marriage in the state.

Segal says, “Marriage is not even on the table in Pennsylvania. People on the social level aren’t really involved. When Brandi [Fitzgerald] organized the march against Prop 8, that was the last major moment of involvement.”

Republican state legislators’ attempts to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage have failed repeatedly, most recently when Senate Bill 1250 was tabled in 2008. Although Equality Advocates expects the measure to be resurrected later this session, it is unlikely to pass.

House Bill 300 boasts more co-sponsors than ever, but faces tough odds in the Republican-controlled Senate. And weeks of intense lobbying by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and conservative groups like the Pennsylvania Family Institute have pushed a number of representatives to drop their name from the legislation.

Segal says the community has yet to mobilize around House Bill 300, though it will certainly be a focus of this year’s Equality Forum. And with Democratic congressional majorities and Obama in the White House, this may be the moment to get the national ENDA passed. But it all depends on where the movement’s energy goes.

Quoted in The Advocate, Amy Balliett, a 26-year-old organizer of the nationwide demonstrations that drew over a million said: “Anger mobilizes. But I am not an angry person, and I don’t want to promote anger. Trying to turn that anger into energy isn’t the easiest thing to do.”

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