In recent years, public discussion and action around LGBTQ rights has centered around the issue of marriage equality, and real progress has been made as a result. States across the country have dropped their bans on gay marriage, and in others the debate is moving towards acceptance. A total of 37 states now allow for gay marriage.
But marriage equality is only part of the larger struggle for equal rights, and the question of what issue will rise to the top of the agenda next looms large.
Equal rights activist Amanda Wallner argues in a paper for the University of California Los Angeles that another issue with the same unifying pull of marriage equality is unlikely.
“Overall, there is no ‘next marriage equality’ pulling LGBT organizations in the same direction,” she wrote. “LGBT advocacy agendas vary greatly from state to state in the post-marriage equality world.”
In Pennsylvania, however, which ruled to end its ban on gay marriage last year, next steps are clear to advocates. The State Equality Index, a comprehensive state-by-state report by the Human Rights Coalition and the Equality Federation, found that Pennsylvania still lacks basic equal rights for LGBTQ people under the law.
Advocates are now pushing lawmakers to address these inequalities one piece of legislation at a time.
Married on Saturday, Fired on Monday
The most pressing issue, according to Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, is the lack of laws to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
“In most places across the commonwealth, a same-sex couple can get married on Saturday or Sunday, return to work on Monday — or the Monday following their honeymoon, hopefully — and be fired for placing a photograph of their spouse on their desk,” Shuford said.
ACLU-PA was key in bringing marriage equality to the state. The nonprofit filed the lawsuit that led to the state Supreme Court overturning Pennsylvania’s ban on gay marriage — a process that took more than a year and which weathered an attempt by the Corbett Administration to dismiss the case before it was even heard.
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But passing non-discrimination laws, Shuford said, will require its own approach, one that leans on lobbyists rather than lawyers.
“The effort to secure non-discrimination legislation has to be won in the legislature, as opposed to marriage equality, which was won in the courts,” Shuford said. “So, it’s an advocacy-based strategy that involves outreach to grassroots and community leaders, among others.”
However, advocates and lawmakers are not starting from scratch. Non-discrimination has been the most central LGBTQ issue in the state since long before the marriage equality debate flared up.
“The push for non-discrimination has literally been the primary push from the LGBT community in Pennsylvania, especially at the statewide level, for years,” said State Rep. Brian Sims, a outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ community whose district covers parts of Center City, including the Gayborhood.
Pennsylvania’s focus on non-discrimination marks one of the major differences between it other states that now allow gay marriage: Most of them passed non-discrimination laws first.
“The states that have very strong, very influential marriage equality organizations tended to be those states that already had non-discrimination,” Sims added. “But Pennsylvania, before this marriage equality ruling, didn’t have any statewide LGBT civil rights.”
The state had so few protections for the LGBTQ community, Sims explained, that getting those protections took precedent over marriage equality.
“We’ve been so focused on non-discrimination, so focused on anti-bullying, that it’s not that we were ignoring marriage equality but it was just a little bit farther down on the horizon,” Sims said.
As it turned out, marriage equality came first, in part due to the nature of the courts. Once the issue got to the Supreme Court, the ruling was able to knock down the ban on gay marriage with a single decision.
“Sexual orientation, gender identity or expression”
Matching bills are set to be introduced into the House and Senate next week that would amend the Human Relations Act of 1955, a law that currently protects against discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age or national origin.” The amendment would add “sexual orientation, gender identity or expression” to the law.
This amendment has been proposed before to little success. So what’s different now?
For one, there is top-down support. Governor Tom Wolf stated in his latest budget address that he supported non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people.
“The companies and countries that are thriving in today’s global economy are those that are committed to diversity, inclusion, and fairness,” Wolf said. “All Pennsylvania’s families deserve those same opportunities, no matter what their race, sexual orientation, where they started life, or who they are.”
The other change is that the fight for marriage equality has created a new political dynamic.
“The lack of full equality for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians, who remain subject to discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, is untenable given the momentum behind marriage. The climate is ripe for the passing of anti-discrimination legislation,” Shuford said.
“With the success of the marriage movement, there has been a shift in the political culture. Unlike just a few short years ago, there is now a political cost to opposing LGBTQ equality,” he added.
As a result, state Republican lawmakers, who have opposed the non-discrimination law in the past, seem to be softening on the issue.
“Young Republicans across the board are supportive of LGBT rights,” Sims said, adding that he thinks the party in general is on the verge of significant change on how they approach LGBTQ rights.
Sims added that while non-discrimination is currently the top priority, there are a number of other concerns, including passing anti-bullying laws specific to LGTBQ youth, banning conversion therapy (the practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation) and passing hate crime laws specific to LGBTQ people.
“There has never been a better time for LGBT civil rights in Pennsylvania,” Sims said. “I don’t believe in inevitability — that’s why we push so hard, but I’m telling you right now that the citizens of Pennsylvania are more supportive of my rights and the rights of LGBT community than they have ever been before.”
Photo via Flickr user opacity-30-
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