The Legislature dashed hopes for LGBTQ equality in Pa. — again | Frank Pizzoli

Members of the Pennsylvania House applaud newly elected Speaker Bryan Cutler on June 22, 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Hope for LGBTQ equality was dashed again on Jan. 26 when the state House voted against including anti-discrimination legislation in a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would limit the governor’s executive power during an emergency.

“The vote was somewhat complicated in that it was an amendment to other legislation, House Bill 55, limiting a governor’s ability to declare a state of emergency for longer than 21 days unless approved by the General Assembly,” the measure’s sponsor, state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, told the Capital-Star.

Frankel is a longtime champion of advancing queer civil rights via the Pennsylvania LGBTQ Equality Caucus, a 70-member, bipartisan and bicameral caucus made up of members of the General Assembly who advocate for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer residents. For the current 2021-2022 legislative session, State Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, was elected as chairwoman.

“This measure was opposed by Republicans, many of whom still think basic civil rights for LGBTQ individuals is a controversial thing in their home district,” Frankel continued.

In a joint statement with state Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, Frankel said that when the chamber’s Republican majoritu was offered “a chance to make a historic vote to extend civil rights to all Pennsylvanians regardless of race, color, creed, disability, identity or sexual orientation [they] failed to meet the moment, instead prioritizing political gains over the well-being of their fellow citizens. Today [Jan. 26] we had the opportunity to protect all Pennsylvanians from discrimination, something that has for almost a decade been blocked even from debate in a committee.”

The jonint statement also said that “Every single Democrat voted for this amendment, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that without the interference of GOP leaders, we have the votes to finally provide statewide discrimination protections for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians. The only remaining question is: ‘When will the majority party allow that vote?’”

Reacting to the vote, Rep. Jessica Benham, D-Allegheny, told  the Capital-Star that, “contrary to claims made on the floor by Republican members that they would support non-discrimination as a separate piece of legislation, their caucus has spent years refusing to allow the Fairness Act to come out of committee to a floor vote.

“I can’t speculate on their motivation, but based on their actions or lack thereof, I am left to wonder if they actually support equal rights for people like me,” she said.

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Benham, who is bisexual and autistic, is the director of development and the co-founder of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, the only LGBTQ+ autistic-led advocacy group in the Pittsburgh area.

Adrian Shanker, the executive director of the Allentown-based Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, closely followed the vote.

“LGBTQ people have asked repeatedly, for years, that the Legislature vote to provide legal protections for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians,” the told the Capital-Star. “Once again, the legislature has missed yet another opportunity to do so. Fairness isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a Pennsylvania value, and all Pennsylvanians deserve access to housing, healthcare, credit, and public spaces without discrimination.”

Harry Young, executive director of the Keystone Business Alliance, which advances LGBTQ businesses, put it this way:” … Discrimination is bad for business and bad for our diverse communities. It is time to make comprehensive nondiscrimination legislation the law of the land in Pennsylvania.

“Fairness and equality should be a nonpartisan issue, and our elected officials need to act in the best interest of and protection for all Pennsylvanians,” Young continued. “Pennsylvania’s lack of a statewide LGBTQ+ inclusive nondiscrimination law puts us at a disadvantage when compared to our neighbors in the Northeast, each of which has enacted this type of legislation.”

Although Pennsylvania does not have legislated protections in place, according to the Movement Advancement Project it is one of six states that “explicitly interprets existing prohibition on sex discrimination to include sexual orientation and/or gender identity.”

That means the state’s nondiscrimination law does not explicitly enumerate sexual orientation or gender identity, but the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has explicitly stated it interprets the state’s existing protections against sex discrimination to include protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Opinion contributor Frank Pizzoli, of Harrisburg, is the former editor and publisher of the Central Voice. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.