In most parts of Pennsylvania, residents can be fired or evicted because they identify as LGBTQ. About two-thirds of the state’s population don’t have LGBTQ civil-rights protections and have no legal recourse if they are discriminated against merely because of their sexual or gender identity. This lack of protections is particularly evident in Western Pennsylvania, where only Erie and Allegheny counties have non-discrimination laws.
In Butler, Pa., just a 20-minute drive north of the Allegheny County border, a small group of LGBTQ advocates has been trying for years to change that. Sabrina Schnur of the Butler branch of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), came out as trans in 2006. She owns a home just outside the Butler city border, and has workplace protections as a unionized employee at a steel mill in Butler County. But she can be refused public accommodation and service from businesses in the city of Butler.
“Right now, they can get up and come up to me and people like me and say, ‘Eww, ick, I don’t like you. You have to get out,’” says Schnur.
Schnur says LGBTQ residents deserve protections and since 2012 she has been trying to get Butler officials to provide them through an LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance. The law would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s civil-rights protections, which currently cover things like race, religion, gender and national origin. This would prohibit landlords, businesses and public accommodations from discriminating against LGBTQ people in Butler.
Curiously, this decision could come down to who wins in this year’s local elections, since candidates for mayor and city council are split on their support for the ordinance. Current Mayor Tom Donaldson, who lost the Republican primary, has launched a write-in campaign filled with anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. This has propelled the ordinance from a side issue into a dominant subject of the election. And in a town that President Donald Trump carried, full-throated LGBTQ support has been hard to come by.
Schnur first asked Butler officals to consider an LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance in 2012. The mayor at the time and city council waffled on the decision. Back then, Schnur says, the mayor and council were pretty agreeable to the idea of the ordinance, but the vote was tabled year after year. When Donaldson, an outspoken critic of LGBTQ rights, was elected in 2013, progress was halted altogether.
Then in June 2016, a mass shooting occurred at PULSE nightclub — an LGBTQ bar, in Orlando — and Schnur, PFLAG and the Butler LGBTQ Interfaith Network began campaigning for the ordinance again. The bill would add LGBTQ protections to the city’s civil-rights law, and would create a Human Relations Commission (HRC), which would act as the first mediator when civil-rights violations are alleged. The HRC would consist of a board of city-council appointees who would determine whether cases were legitimate and must proceed to civil court, or could be dismissed for lack of evidence or reason.
More than 40 other Pennsylvania municipalities have passed the same ordinance Butler is considering, including Allegheny County, Harrisburg and many small towns in Eastern Pennsylvania. But no small Western Pennsylvania community has passed protections, and despite the relative uniformity of the bill, Schnur says misinformation surrounding the ordinance has hampered its progress.
“I actually heard a councilperson was told by a resident that they were going to have to have gay quotas for employers,” says Schnur. (Nothing in the ordinance requires employers to hire a certain amount of LGBTQ employees.)
In May, Donaldson lost the Republican primary to challenger Ben Smith. After the primary, Donaldson posted on Facebook that Butler is facing a “moral crisis” because the town is considering an ordinance that would “potentially allow men to shower with women.”
“This is nothing to do with LGBT rights, which is a separate issue,” wrote Donaldson on his Facebook page. “This is about privacy and goes against human decency to allow this.”
Local nonprofit Grace Youth and Family Foundation also posted falsehoods that the ordinance would force religious organizations to hire LGBTQ individuals (religious organizations are exempt from the ordinance). Butler’s Intersection Community Church hosted an event on Oct. 17 to inform their parishioners that “religious freedom is under attack.”
Schnur says that ever since Trump was elected in November, anti-LGBTQ statements like these are becoming a bit more common in Butler. But, Schnur says Donaldson’s and other religious organizations’ claims just aren’t accurate. She says all the ordinance would do is provide LGBTQ people in Butler the same rights that Christians, black people and immigrants have. “All we want is the same rights. They are not special rights,” says Schnur. “Give us our rights and we will all go home. … The constitution says we are all supposed to be created equal.”
The upcoming general election could be that chance. Butler’s mayoral race is between Democrat Jamie Lee Goehring, an accountant who is supportive of the ordinance, and Republican Ben Smith, a brewery owner who is opposed. Schnur says for the ordinance to pass, Butler must elect Goehring and reelect incumbent Democratic city councilor Kathy Kline, who would join Republican councilor Michael Walter, who has voiced support for the ordinance, for the three votes necessary to enact the bill. (In Butler, the mayor votes with the four-seat council on bills, so three votes are necessary for a majority.)
The 36-year-old Goehring told Pittsburgh City Paper that, if elected, she would hold a public forum and educational event to inform the public on the ordinance. After that, she says, she would re-introduce the legislation, whose passage she would support.
“I am 110 percent for equality,” says Goehring. “But I have to reconcile the fact that as an elected official, I have to speak to people, so I want a public forum first. After that, in my opinion, [the ordinance] has to move forward. I would insist it needs to move forwards.”
However, at a mayoral debate hours after she spoke with CP on Oct. 17, Goehring appeared to backtrack and said she would wait to decide on the ordinance until after holding a public forum.
Even so, Goehring doesn’t believe the ordinance should be dominating the mayoral race. She says that economic development and making sure Butler avoids Act 47 bankruptcy should be top of the list. She says showing Butler is an inclusive place can be better for business.
“If we are going to show that we are a progressive community, we have to shore up our finances,” says Goehring. “And we have to be open. That doesn’t just mean in business; that means we have to be open socially.”
Xavier Persad, legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ-rights organization, says that when cities show they are inclusive, they tend to do better economically.
“Inclusive cities attract the best and brightest, and businesses follow,” says Persad. “Businesses want to exist where they know their employees can have protections holistically.”
And there is recent evidence to back up this claim. In 2016, when North Carolina passed a bill that restricted bathroom use to the gender people were assigned at birth, large businesses like PayPal and the National Basketball Association pulled out of plans that would have brought millions of dollars into the state. The bill was later repealed.
Persad authored a report ranking hundreds of U.S. cities for LGBTQ friendliness. He says that when the Human Rights Campaign first authored the report in 2012, there were only 137 cities ranked. Now there are 506. This growth of LGBTQ inclusiveness is across all regions, says Persad. “We are seeing historic process, despite location and political leaning,” says Persad.
Persad adds that Pennsylvania ranked above average for LGBTQ friendliness, but noted that it’s important for cities like Butler to offer LGBTQ people protections, because the state doesn’t offer them. “It is incredibly important to have local protections, particularly in the context that state and federal [governments] are trying to roll them back,” says Persad.
For years, the Pennsylvania General Assembly has been attempting to pass the Fairness Act, which would establish LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections statewide, but the efforts have been blocked by anti-LGBTQ legislators.
Smith, the Republican candidate for Butler mayor, says he would oppose passage of a LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance in the small, Western Pennsylvania town.
“I think it’s detrimental to our local businesses and our local economy,” says Smith.
Smith says he’s concerned that small businesses will be dragged into expensive legal battles due to the addition of the civil-rights protections. He said during the Oct. 17 debate that he’s been made aware of 12 cases throughout Pennsylvania that have led to some kind of lawsuit.
Schnur of PFLAG says the formation of the Human Relation Commission would actually stop many frivolous lawsuits from ever reaching the courts. She says the HRC would add an extra step of mediation, where civil-rights violations that lack evidence would be dismissed.
Since Allegheny County enacted its LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance, in 2009, Allegheny County’s HRC has received 29 LGBTQ-related complaints, according to records. Nineteen of those ended up being dismissed or withdrawn due to lack of evidence. Others were transferred to Pittsburgh’s HRC, and some were mediated within the HRC. Only one was recommended to proceed to court.
In an email to CP, Allegheny County HRC director Laura Zaspel wrote that she hasn’t heard of any businesses complaining that the county’s LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance is bad for business.
When told by CP that Allegheny County hasn’t experienced any business-related problems due to its LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance, Smith still supported his claim it would be bad for small business, and said he believes that the government’s role in regulating business should be small. “I am small-government guy, so when you add more government, you add more problems,” said Smith.
Smith also said he believes that all people should have civil-rights protections, but that the state or federal government should provide them.
Schnur says this kind of hypocrisy has been common during the campaign. She has spoken to residents who worry businesses are going to get sued by LGBTQ people, and then tell her a few minutes later that they believed LGBTQ people already have protections. She still believes the town needs the ordinance, but she is reaching the end of her rope.
“No, I am not confident,” she says of the chances of the bill getting passed. “I have been down this road so many times. I am getting too old for this, after six years of this, I am getting tired. I might have to let someone else take charge.”