Reggie Shuford at press conference announcing ACLU’s marriage equality lawsuit. Photo via ACLU
Last May, federal Judge John Jones struck down Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act. The decision cleared the way for anyone to become legally married regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and it capped off years of work by the LGBTQ community and its supporters.
While many organizations contributed to the effort, the Pennsylvania Chapter of the ACLU was directly responsible for getting DOMA into the courtroom. It was their lawsuit that brought the issue before Judge Jones.
But now that Pennsylvania has marriage equality, what’s next for the ACLU and LGBTQ issues? Generocity.org sat down with Pennsylvania ACLU Executive Director Reggie Shuford to discuss the future of their work in the state, from pushing for anti-discrimination laws to dealing with the complicated nature of hate crimes.
Editor’s Note: answers have been edited for clarity and length
As a part of a national organization, how do local ACLU chapters tailor their work to a specific state and its unique challenges?
There happens to be a tremendous amount of overlap and a lot of collaboration between state ACLUs and the national ACLU, which is a great thing. But state ACLUs, like the ACLU Pennsylvania, have a lot of autonomy. In fact, we are independently incorporated. For the most part, we can determine the issues that we want to work on. So long as our policies and practices don’t conflict with the national organization, they can certainly be complementary. We can highlight the issues of local importance that we want to work on, even if they differ from priorities at the national level or even at another state ACLU.
How does this strategy work in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia?
Philadelphia is a big city, so a lot of what happens and a lot of our attention is concentrated here. But we also have an office in Harrisburg, where we have a full-time lobbyist, as well as an office in Pittsburgh. We definitely have statewide reach and are as interested in protecting civil liberties in other parts of the state as we are in the metropolitan areas. To some degree, we may even have more concern about the violations of people’s rights in those smaller communities, because they tend to be a little lower in profile. We don’t always know what’s happening there; there are probably fewer advocates in those smaller places to assist people whose rights have been violated.
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How does the ACLU stay on top of what’s going on in these smaller communities?
First of all, we are broadly accessible in terms of people sort of knowing ACLU as a brand — they can call us or write us or go online and lodge a complaint that way. People know we’re here for the most part. We also have chapters, groups of ACLU members, around the state. We have 10 chapters in Pennsylvania, including in the metropolitan areas.
Now that Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act has been struck down, what policies or legal changes is ACLU working on?
Marriage equality was our primary LGBT initiative for the past couple of years. Our lawsuit managed to achieve that, so it is no longer a priority because it’s not necessary to be one. I’d say our primary LGBT priority now is the passage of statewide anti-discrimination legislation.
I’ll give you an anecdote: a same-sex couple could get married on Sunday, but because there is no law protecting them from discrimination, they could be fired the next day at work. Say they put a picture of their new partner on their desk, someone could then walk in and fire them for being gay. Likewise, members of the LGBT community can be denied housing on the basis of their sexual orientation, or they could be denied services at a restaurant or a flower shop, or whatever, because of the absence of statewide laws that would protect members of the LGBT community from these types of discrimination. This includes discrimination in employment, housing, and in public accommodation. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that has marriage equality that does not likewise have anti-discrimination laws.
So usually states with marriage equality laws also have anti-discrimination laws?
They do sort of go together. In fact, I would say that — certainly before the past year or so when the ‘marriage equality juggernaut’ took off — anti-discrimination efforts were the easier lift and would often precede marriage equality in terms of laws being passed.
“A same-sex couple could get married on Sunday, but because there is no law protecting them from discrimination, they could be fired the next day at work.”
How is ACLU shifting its strategy to address this issue? In addition, how is it sort of rebuilding enthusiasm and commitment to LGBT issues following the legalization of gay marriage in Pennsylvania?
In some respects, the freedom to marry arguably impacts fewer people. Not everyone wants to get married, first of all, but we all need somewhere to work. We all need somewhere to live. We all want to eat out at restaurants. We all want to buy flowers for the person that we love. I think more people, just numerically, are impacted.
I think part of our responsibility is educating the public, because a lot of people don’t know. Everyone kind of knew, prior to our marriage case, that gay people couldn’t get married. But not everybody knows that LGBT people can be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. They think perhaps that very generally we have anti-discrimination laws on the books. You can’t discriminate against a black person, or a woman, or someone who is disabled. What we need to do is educate them that here in Pennsylvania, you can in fact discriminate against somebody on the basis of their sexual orientation. A lot of people don’t know that and I think they would be appalled to find out.
In terms of our internal strategy, the marriage fight was primarily waged in the courts. We employed a litigation strategy to bring about that change. We also, of course, spoke to the public about it. Public education and community organizing complemented the legal strategy. As for the anti-discrimination legislation, that’s probably going to be more legislative. Whereas we relied more on our lawyers organizationally for the marriage issue, we will be relying more on our lobbyists now.
“Pennsylvania is one of the few states that has marriage equality that does not likewise have anti-discrimination laws.”
What are some examples of how ACLU plans to educate the public about the state’s discrimination laws?
Town hall meetings; being invited to speak on what this is all about, what’s at stake, who this is impacting; educating people on what the current law of the land is, what their rights are or should be and activating them to pursue those rights by contacting their legislators, by voting, by engaging in the democratic process, by writing op-eds, by becoming involved in their communities and either standing up on behalf of themselves or their neighbors or their children.
Part of the success of the marriage debate was how very average LGBT couples are. They want the very same things as every other couple: protection of their families, respect for their relationships, the ability to have what most people see as the ultimate indication of a committed relationship, which is a marriage licence.
What are some other LGBT-related issues that ACLU is working on?
We’ve done a lot of work in public schools protecting LGBT students and their allies. It could be helping them form Gay/Straight Alliance groups in their schools, helping with anti-bullying, which is still a common thing, and helping students find their voices and expressing them.
We’ve had a couple of cases of students whose gender identity did not necessarily fit the sex that they were born with; a woman who may have been born female but whose true gender identity was male. So when it came time to running for homecoming court, he wanted to run for homecoming king as opposed to homecoming queen. We’ve had a couple of cases like that — just helping people honor their true identity and give expression to that, which the law should support.
What about the issue of hate crimes, in light of the recent beatings in Center City?
Our policy on hate crimes is that Pennsylvania law should be amended to include sexual orientation and gender identity, so long as it is also amended to include protections for free speech and association. So if someone is accused of committing a hate crime, the focus is on the conduct as opposed to the fact that five years ago they may have called someone a faggot on Facebook or if they are a member of a club that is intolerant of women or the disabled. It’s really not about who they associate with but about the particular conduct they engaged in.
So the element of hate has to be evident in the crime itself, not in whatever they may have said or done in the past?
Yes. If they are engaged in a conduct, and at the same time are yelling certain things [related to their prejudice]…then that’s okay. But you have to draw the line. You don’t want to be looking at Facebook posts three years removed from the conduct we are challenging. There has to be a very tight nexus between the conduct and speech. The law should penalize bad behavior but respect remote expression.
What has it been like to watch and be a part of some of the recent successes for the LGBT movement?
It’s been absolutely incredible and almost hard to wrap my mind around. It is amazingly rewarding to be a part of the efforts that have helped change history, both here in Pennsylvania and also nationally. It means a lot to me on a personal level and on behalf of the people we represent. It makes me proud to be a Pennsylvanian that we were able to wage and to win this fight.
Do you think most people understand the importance of the recent successes, such as the recent win for marriage equality in Pennsylvania?
I think many do, but just as with civil rights in the racial context, it takes a couple decades to fully appreciate it. The other thing is that younger people in particular don’t understand what all the fuss is about because they don’t understand why two people who love each other can’t get married to start with. I think there is a spectrum of appreciation for how historic the current moment is.
“Pennsylvania closer to passing LGBT hate crime law” — The Daily Pennsylvanian
“Philadelphia Unanimously Passes Hate Crime Law” — Advocate.com
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