What’s holding up Pennsylvania’s LGBT Fairness Act? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

What’s holding up Pennsylvania’s LGBT Fairness Act?

“It has dawned on the opponents that it will pass, and they are acting on that.”

Allegheny County Democratic Rep. Dan Frankel
Allegheny County Democratic Rep. Dan Frankel

Moira Myers is a transgender woman living in Beaver County and working in Butler County. From a love of the Steelers and Pirates to Lenten fish fries, these two counties to the north share many similarities to Allegheny County. 

But there’s one big difference. In Allegheny County, Myers can’t be fired for being a trans woman.

“Working in Butler County means I don’t have the protection,” writes Myers in an email to City Paper. “Luckily I have a stable place of residence, [but] living in Beaver County means it’s legal to deny me a job because my gender presentation and ID don’t match.”

Allegheny County passed LGBT nondiscrimination laws in 2009, but the vast majority of Pennsylvania offers no such protections. Various forms of nondiscrimination legislation have stalled for more than a decade in the commonwealth. 

Last summer, the state House and Senate introduced their own versions of legislation known as the Pennsylvania Fairness Act. The bills included co-sponsorship from 17 Republican legislators and would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  

Gov. Tom Wolf says he supports the bill, and he recently signed an executive order that provides LGBT protections to all state employees. The Pennsylvania Human Rights Campaign reports that recent surveys show more than 75 percent of Pennsylvanians support the bill. However, both bills have sat idle. 

When HB 1510 was introduced in August 2015, state House Speaker Mike Turzai placed the bill in Butler County Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe’s state-government committee. Metcalfe has long been an inflexible opponent of LGBT rights. In fact, several iterations of past nondiscrimination bills have died in his committee.

“It is clear to many people that if it gets to the floor, it will pass,” says Allegheny County Democratic Rep. Dan Frankel. “It has dawned on the opponents that it will pass, and they are acting on that.”

Metcalfe did not return calls for comment.

Frankel is somewhat optimistic about this bill’s future but says, “We need to find a way around Rep. Metcalfe.”

Frankel hopes the Senate bill fares better. The bill, SB 974, was placed in Dauphin County Republican Sen. Mike Folmer’s state-government committee. (Folmer was instrumental in getting bipartisan support for the state’s newly passed medical-marijuana bill.)

Folmer says “no one should be fired because they are gay,” but says he is concerned that people’s religious liberties could be violated and wants to hold a public hearing before considering the bill.

The Fairness Act and medical-marijuana bill both had bipartisan support and overwhelming public support, and both stalled because Turzai directed them to house committees that he knew wouldn’t move them. When asked about such similarities, Folmer says the Fairness Act does not have the same sense of urgency. 

“I don’t see the urgency here, at least not the same compared to medical-marijuana bill,” says Folmer. “No one is dying.”

Ted Martin, director of Equality Pennsylvania, a statewide LGBT-advocacy group, disagrees. He says that the state has been trying to pass some version of the Fairness Act for 13 years, seven years longer than the medical-marijuana bill. And he adds that thousands of Pennsylvanians might disagree that there is no urgency to get the Fairness Act passed.

“I understand where [Sen. Folmer] is coming from, but he should also pay attention to the thousands of people who have spoken to legislators,” says Martin. “I don’t know what more urgency the senator would like.”  

Local LGBT activist and blogger Sue Kerr has been documenting the stories of LGBT individuals from across the state. She says she has received more than 150 responses and that “almost every person lists statewide non-discrimination among their top priorities.”

Frankel emphasizes the bill’s importance not only as a human-rights issue, but also an economic one. He says all Fortune 500 companies in the state have LGBT nondiscrimination protections and adds that Pennsylvania is missing an opportunity to stand out compared to other states. “That is what attracts investments and interest from young people.”

Martin agrees and says the law could also boost economic development in the state: “At a time when other state legislators are making wrong-spirited decisions that hurt citizens like in North Carolina, why wouldn’t we want to do this?”

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