Just five years ago, central Pennsylvania voters rejected an incumbent after he came out as gay.
Former Rep. Mike Fleck, a Republican from Huntingdon County, lost a tight primary in 2014, two years after he first publicly acknowledged his sexual orientation.
Since then, state lawmakers who remain have tried time and time again to ban discrimination against Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ residents.
Between a large class of younger, fresh faced lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, a changing of the guard on a key committee, and growing acceptance of LGBTQ individuals compared to just a few years ago, activists are hoping that they can leave culture wars of the previous decades behind, and pass a sweeping reform of state law.
“This is the best opportunity we’ve had to have a meaningful discussion on this issue in nearly ten years,” said Jason Landau Goodman, head of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, an LGBTQ advocacy group.
Goodman founded the group in 2011 while still an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. Originally driven by volunteerism, the two-person staff of the Youth Congress is finally getting paid this year.
Goodman and the other full-time employee work out of an office festooned with rainbow flags across the street from the Capitol. They’re at the center of a new push to ban discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in the commonwealth, who can under current law be fired from their job or denied housing because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
And while Fleck’s memory still looms — a framed picture of him hangs in Goodman’s office — the state political scene in 2019, just like wider popular culture, seems to be more open to LGBTQ individuals.
In 2017, Erie school board member Tyler Titus became the first openly trans politician to win an election in Pennsylvania. In 2018, Rep. Brian Sims, who has been the only openly gay House member since Fleck’s defeat, was was joined by another out member: Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta. Both are Philadelphia Democrats.
Kenyatta expressed outrage that individuals can still be “kicked out” of their homes or fired because they’re LGBTQ.
“People want to know they can keep their freakin’ job, stay at home, and engage like a normal human being,” Kenyatta said.
And despite Fleck’s story, Goodman is hopeful that Republicans lawmakers will join the cause.
He pointed to former state Sen. Scott Wagner’s win in the Republican gubernatorial primary last year, even after his opponent, Paul Mango, hit Wagner for advancing LGBTQ non-discrimination legislation through a Senate committee.
Mango ran ads claiming Wagner would support a bill that allowed transgender people to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity, which Wagner later said he would not do.
“That should be a signal to Republican lawmakers that this issue will not hurt you if you run statewide,” Goodman said.
Wagner did run into controversy during his general election campaign when he equivocated after being asked about same-sex marriage at a town hall.
While Pennsylvania hasn’t advanced in its quest for LGBTQ rights, states that have tried to take a step back have felt the consequences.
After Indiana made religious faith a legal defense for discrimination, and North Carolina passed a bill forcing people to use the bathroom that matches their birth certificate-assigned sex, both faced opposition and boycotts from state and national businesses. The opposition forced both states to repeal their efforts.
Goodman is hoping a broad coalition, including business interests as well as traditional civil rights allies, could finally push through protections.
On board with this year’s new push, rebranded as “PA Values,” are chocolate maker Hershey, the Philadelphia Bar Association, and the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce.
Kenyatta agreed, saying that passing the protections would assure that Pennsylvania was “competitive morally, as well as economically.”
But opponents, who portray the legislation as an attempt to force pious believers into disobeying their religious convictions, remain. The Pennsylvania Family Institute, a socially conservative advocacy group, did not reply to a request for comment, but it did organize opposition to pro-LGBTQ laws during the last concerted push in summer 2016.
Three bills — two in the Senate, one in the House — would ban LGBT discrimination.
According to Goodman, while there are slight language differences, all would work.
For a bill to reach Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk, it must pass through the House State Government Committee. Its former chair, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, blocked the legislation.
But his successor, Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, has said that he’s willing to work on an LGBTQ protection law.
Looking at the Republican-controlled committee, Metcalfe told the Capital-Star he doesn’t think his colleagues’ opinions had changed much since his time as chair.
The arch-conservative, who has a history of making homophobic comments, also chuckled at the idea that his opposition alone was holding back a a non-discrimination law.
“I have confidence in the moral fabric of the state and the majority of the members of the Legislature,” Metcalfe said.