Changing Tides | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

While lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks in the city and county still have to hear epithets hurled at them in the halls of power -- from conservative citizens equating their orientations with pedophilia to state Sen. John Eichelberger "allow[ing] them to exist"-- local LGBT folks have gained a lot of ground in the past year.

Since last summer, the city has enacted a domestic partnership registry and planned to select an advisory council to the mayor. The county just last week passed a nondiscrimination ordinance. The measures all have strengths and weaknesses, but it's been a busy year nonetheless.

click to enlarge County Councilor Jim Burn exhorts his colleagues to pass the amended ordinance.
County Councilor Jim Burn exhorts his colleagues to pass the amended ordinance.

Mayoral spokesperson Joanna Doven says that the mayoral advisory commission on LGBT issues has been chosen, but the names aren't being made public yet. "We received around 20 applications and we'll choose eight people," she says. Selections have been made and will be finalized once everyone gets back in touch with the office, says Doven. That board, though, will have no agenda other than what it sets, and no budget.

When asked why only 23 couples have taken advantage of Pittsburgh's year-old domestic partnership registry, Councilor Bruce Kraus says he has an easy answer: "Only 23 applied!"

The process, he says, is relatively simple -- it's a declaration, a fee and some documentation that the couple shares financial responsibilities such as utilities or a mortgage. While getting two names on a utility bill is not necessarily easy, it's doable. Kraus says that while 23 may not seem like a huge number, he's quite encouraged to hear it after only a year.

"When it first was implemented, three months in there was no one," says Doven. "Then it was a trickle."

But why haven't more people signed up?

Kraus, the city's first openly gay city councilor, said that at last week's Allegheny County Council hearing, where he testified in favor of a countywide nondiscrimination ordinance that passed 8 to 6, the opposition to the ordinance was vocal -- and chilling.

"What I felt from the opposition was, 'We moved to the suburbs to get away from people like you,'" he said, paraphrasing the reactions of the opposing county councilors and citizens who registered to speak. "Like it or not, it's still the reality. It is possible people would be afraid to register because they're declaring, in public, that they are LGBT."

The list is maintained by the city personnel department, and is a matter of public record -- for instance, employers can use it to verify that their people qualify for benefits. "You can understand why some would be cautious," Kraus says.

Indeed, during public comment before the county measure was passed, one person testifying against it said that if it were passed, bestiality and necrophilia would become protected classes. Another called queer orientations and presentations "unfounded fads," while a third said such orientations were "basically wrong."

"To be here, fighting for human rights, is quite demoralizing," testified La'Tasha D. Mayes, speaking in support of the ordinance. More than 20 speakers spoke before county council.

"We are not here today asking you for our rights -- they are already ours, granted to us by a much higher authority," Kraus said at the meeting. "We are telling you to get out of our way as we claim them." He said he didn't know of a single company that refused to do business in the city because of a similar ordinance within city limits, and later said that nearly 50 employers in the city offer domestic-partnership benefits to their employees.

Almost a whole calendar year after it was introduced by freshman County Councilor Amanda Green, the county-wide nondiscrimination ordinance was approved by council on July 1, but only after plenty of meetings full of emotional testimony and 11th-hour political maneuvering.

While much of the opposition came from Christian-identifying speakers, Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian minister in favor of the ordinance, called it "a shame on the face of Christianity and I ask forgiveness for that."

It passed, but with a compromise amendment that some say weakens it. And Philadelphia's human-relations commission, from which the amendment was lifted verbatim, is re-examining the amendment's usefulness and fairness.

The change came to be referred to as the "Philadelphia amendment." It says that religious, fraternal, charitable and sectarian employers can be exempt from the provisions of the ordinance.

"Without the exemption, there would not be enough votes to pass [the ordinance]," Councilor Jim Burn, one of the amendment's cosponsors, said before the meeting. "I want to get this done, I don't want to see failure."

But Rue Landau, executive director for Philadelphia's Commission on Human Relations, says her commission is hoping to rid its ordinance, called the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance, of that very same religious exclusion. She says it allows too many cases to slip by.

click to enlarge Allegheny County Councilman Chuck McCullough gestures to Councilor Amanda Green while asking council to approve an amendment putting the ordinance to a referendum.
Allegheny County Councilman Chuck McCullough gestures to Councilor Amanda Green while asking council to approve an amendment putting the ordinance to a referendum.

That city's exclusion, written in 1951 and adopted verbatim by Allegheny County, states that the commission doesn't have jurisdiction to investigate claims of employment discrimination when the employer is a religious, charitable, sectarian or fraternal organization.

"We really hope we get it changed at some point," Landau says. "The broad wording that allows so many entities to be excluded from the Fair Practices ordinance has caused some injustices in the city of Philadelphia -- where someone might bring a very legitimate accusation, we might be barred from investigating it. In that sense, it's a bar to the essence of the Fair Practices ordinance, which was set up to be a remedy. ... [To further the goal of nondiscrimination for the county, you really want to have as few limits on the law as possible."

"It pains me that we have this broad exception, but I do also understand the spirit of compromise," Green said.

Green and other proponents of the bill were also challenged by council members who said it wasn't within council's purview, or that it wasn't clear if the legislation would withstand court challenges.

"This council has a history of creating feel-good legislation that gets knocked down without really registering if it's legal or not," said James Ellenbogen, who voted against it in the final count. He cited the county's contentious smoking ban, which was subject to legal challenges.

The July 1 vote was almost put off yet again by another amendment proposed by Councilor Chuck McCullough. McCullough ultimately voted against the bill, after proposing an amendment of his own.

"The amendment I'm proposing would make the bill effective under referendum," he said. "We have an opportunity to put this issue before the people. This is a sea change for Allegheny County. It's a human-relations commission for the suburbs. If we're going to do this, why not let the people in those communities decide for themselves?"

His introduction brought a loud, sustained cheer from a group of about a dozen or so Christian suburbanites who'd spoken out against the ordinance during the public comment period.

"To bring this at the eleventh hour is an affront to the committee process," said council President Rich Fitzgerald.

"This was introduced July 8, 2008. We've had plenty of time. We could have made this amendment how many times?" asked Councilor Joan Cleary. "We have been doing this a year. No one can say time is to blame."

The referendum failed, 5 to 9. The only person to vote against the referendum and the final bill was Michael Finnerty: "As a council person, you were elected to make some tough decisions. I've been thinking about this bill for over a year. I was an original sponsor. I took my name off. We have to make some difficult decisions. We should stand up and do it."

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