An election could determine whether Butler becomes the first small Western Pennsylvania town to get LGBTQ protections | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

An election could determine whether Butler becomes the first small Western Pennsylvania town to get LGBTQ protections

“All we want is the same rights.”

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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 The bill was later repealed.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.”

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