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Out for Equality 

More than 120 people turned out in the freezing rain for a Jan. 10 rally in support of repealing a federal ban on same-sex marriage -- and passing a county bill that would provide protection from discrimination for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, alongside many other groups.

But it was the number of elected officials speaking out for LGBT rights that most impressed the activists in attendance.

"City and county representatives are here -- I actually wasn't expecting that at all," said Ellie Gordon of Squirrel Hill. "We don't hear a lot about how the government here is [supportive]."

"When they come to seemingly small rallies it makes a world of difference," added Tamar Toledano, of Oakland. "It brings your private struggle into the public sphere."

Addressing the rally were: County Councilor Amanda Green, who sponsored the bill to create a county Human Relations Commission; Council President Rich Fitzgerald; state Reps. Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill) and Chelsa Wagner (D-Beechview); City Controller Michael Lamb; City Councilors Bruce Kraus and Bill Peduto; and council President Doug Shields.

Shields, shouting into his microphone, even used famed San Francisco gay activist Harvey Milk's signature line: "I'm here to recruit you ... into a community activist program.

"Why are we here in the rain to fight for something that is guaranteed to us in the Constitution of the United States of America?" he continued. "Why are we here trying to get politicians to live up to their oath of office? Why are they afraid of an issue ... that reflects pretty much what the city of Pittsburgh enacted decades ago?"

Many governments have anti-discrimination laws that shield certain "protected classes" -- like racial minorities or religious groups -- from being discriminated against. But many of those laws do not cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression -- the perception of a person's gender.

Pittsburgh has long been an exception. The city has had a Human Relations Commission since 1954, when it was established by Mayor David Lawrence. The commission was codified in the city charter in 1976. "Sexual orientation" was first included as a protected class in 1990, and in 1997 gender identity and expression were added.

But the county has never had any such protections. The state added the sexual-orientation and gender-identification protections in this decade, but the state Supreme Court struck them down on a technicality. Federal law has never offered such protection.

Other officials echoed Shields' exasperation, including colleague Bill Peduto, who cited his experience meeting with corporations possibly relocating to Pittsburgh: "In all those meetings, over 15 years, never did anyone say, 'You know, we would come to Pittsburgh, but you're too tolerant of all those gays.'" In fact, he said, such protections are broadly supported by employers. "Let's talk pocketbook issues, and let's talk ways we can expand this economy by being more tolerant," Peduto added.

City Councilor Bruce Kraus, the city's first local openly gay elected official, noted that it had been 30 years since his role model, Harvey Milk, was assassinated.

"Thirty years later, we are still fighting for the same issues," Kraus said. "We just have a new set of Anita Bryants" -- the most visible organizer of anti-gay referenda around the country in the 1970s -- "who somehow think they are more righteous than we are or more deserving than we are. The best thing we can do ... is to be out.

"This is a defining moment," he concluded. "I don't want us to be here 30 years from now, fighting for the same rights."

Green's legislation will have a public hearing before county council on Jan. 15 at 5 p.m. Officials said they weren't sure when the measure might come up for a vote. It's also unclear where County Executive Dan Onorato stands on the legislation; his office did not return calls by press time.

The rally also opposed the federal law that defines marriage to exclude LGBT unions. There has been nationwide momentum on the issue since California's Proposition 8, which passed in November to take away same-sex marriage rights in that state.

"Marriage is important because it is the stamp of approval for relationships in our world," said Rev. Janet Edwards, the Oakland minister who a church tribunal acquitted late last year of violating church rules after performing a marriage ceremony for two lesbians. "Our relationships will only begin to be accepted when we receive that stamp of approval upon us."

The county's anti-discrimination ordinance, Edwards added, will allow LGBT citizens to "get one step closer to the marriage rite which is our civil right."

The author of the bill, County Councilor Amanda Green, received the greatest applause. "It's very important for county council members to know that I'm not making this stuff up," she said, noting that LGBT county residents have been denied housing, fired from employment and given "less than acceptable" public accommodations -- all three areas covered by the proposed law.

Her bill, which once had 12 co-sponsors, now has only seven. She said her colleagues who wavered may claim that "no one in their district is complaining to them, no one is talking about it. I wonder why no one is complaining about it" -- thanks to the lack of protections, she said.

"Let [councilors] know people are still looking at this," she exhorted the crowd. "We're not going to go to sleep on this. It's the people who don't [support the bill] that we need to educate and bring along with us."

click to enlarge Michele Feingold of Squirrel Hill shows her support for a proposed countywide anti-discrimination ordinance during a Jan. 10 rally at Schenley Plaza in Oakland.
  • Michele Feingold of Squirrel Hill shows her support for a proposed countywide anti-discrimination ordinance during a Jan. 10 rally at Schenley Plaza in Oakland.

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