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Allegheny County takes first step toward LGBT anti-discrimination law, finally

Anti-discrimination will soon become the law of the land in Allegheny County, if legislation proposed by councilor Amanda Green passes. And considering that ten other council members jumped on as co-sponsors when Green introduced the bill, passage seems likely.

District 13's Green, appointed to council in March to replace Brenda Frazier (who left to seek a seat in the state legislature), introduced an ordinance creating a Human Relations Commission on July 8. The bill is currently in committee, and may come up for a vote as soon as the end of August.

The ordinance would codify and enforce laws against discrimination in housing and employment. Protections are extended based on race, religion, disability, marital status, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Such protections are already on the books in the city of Pittsburgh. However, the state's human-relations laws do not cover sexual orientation or gender identity. That makes it legal, in parts of the state lacking these protections, to deny housing or jobs to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender citizens. A proposed amendment to the state constitution currently in committee, House Bill 1400, seeks to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the protected classes statewide.

Green's legislation would create a board consisting of 16 members, with each county councilor and the county executive appointing a board member to be approved by council. The board would make recommendations to County Council to battle discrimination in the county, and would itself investigate claims of discrimination.

"I don't see how you can not see a sense of urgency about it," says Green, who represents city neighborhoods including Downtown, East End communities and parts of the North Side. LGBT citizens, both in her district and others, told her they see discrimination in housing and jobs. After this year's much-expanded and highly publicized Pride festival, and the mayor's signing into law the domestic-partnership registry, Green says, "We were saying, 'Let's do all this stuff about LGBT [citizens]. Let's put our money where our mouth is.'"

The legislation as written, says Green, is based on existing language from Allentown, Pa. Signed into law in 2002, that legislation faced challenges saying it overstepped that city's Home Rule Charter, and ultimately withstood state Supreme Court scrutiny.

"You don't really have to reinvent the wheel," says Green, a labor attorney. "If you look at legislation that's been enacted in various parts of the country, you can see what's being enacted and what's working. You can tweak your legislation to cover any holes."

Green's proposed legislation has been met with cheers from members of the LGBT community.

"I think it's great because it shows the progress needed in Pittsburgh and the region, but it also shows that they're willing to take those steps," says Loni McCartney, of the city's Delta Foundation, the LGBT advocacy group that sponsored the Pride festival and was instrumental in urging City Council to adopt the domestic-partnership registry.

"The LGBT community in the country as a whole is moving forward quickly and Pittsburgh and the region needs to catch up a lot," she says. "Things have to move faster for us to catch up with the rest of the country. We're moving quickly." A board like Green proposes, McCartney says, goes a long way in the right direction.

"People have lost their homes or jobs for their sexual orientation. If we're a country of liberty and freedom, that should apply to everyone, not just somebody that's heterosexual," McCartney says. "People could just turn their backs and say, 'I'm gay, I expect it.' That's not good enough any more."

McCartney says that while county council has perhaps been a bit behind city council in adopting progressive agendas, the lag is likely not based in discriminatory attitudes: "Part of the county council was not aware of LGBT concerns -- this shows they do care, they do want to know, they just want someone to talk to them."

"We should always be for nondiscrimination at all levels," says council president Rich Fitzgerald, a cosponsor. "This takes it to the next step, having an actual commission that ensures nondiscrimination. It's time."

The four council members who didn't sign on as co-sponsors--Chuck McCullough, at-large; Jan Rea, district 2; Vince Gastgeb, district 5; and Charles Martoni, district 8--did not immediately return calls for comment left at their council offices.

Green says she wasn't thinking in terms of a possible city-county merger when she proposed the legislation. A merger, she says, "never crossed my mind. I'm looking at the way we are now and dealing with the way we are now. This will be in place for the county, period."

Perhaps being new to council, Green says, allowed her to introduce legislation that she calls long overdue.

"[My colleagues] have been here longer than I have, they have had more concerns brought to their attention than I have at this point," Green says. "I'm in more of a place where I can say, 'Hey, let's take care of this right now' -- they have a list of 100 things, I have four things right now. You've got to get things off the list as soon as possible."

"It's a credit to her, in reaching out and gaining support for her legislation," Fitzgerald says. "She's garnered a lot of support."

So what does it say about Green, that her first proposed piece of legislation is an anti-discrimination law?

"Hopefully it will establish that I'm a person who tries to see that everyone is treated equitably, to see that people are treated first as human beings," she says. "That's the primary goal of this legislation."

click to enlarge Allegheny County Councilor Amanda Green. - HEATHER MULL

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