Short Honeymoon: With the ban on same-sex marriage removed, nondiscrimination is the next battle for "full equality" | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Short Honeymoon: With the ban on same-sex marriage removed, nondiscrimination is the next battle for "full equality"

"If you go across the border, you can be fired for putting a marriage photo on your desk."

Revelers took to the streets of Shadyside May 20 for a rally to celebrate a federal judge's decision striking down Pennsylvania's Defense of Marriage act.
Revelers took to the streets of Shadyside May 20 for a rally to celebrate a federal judge's decision striking down Pennsylvania's Defense of Marriage act.

As soon as Dek Ingraham heard that a federal judge overturned Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage, he sped to the City-County Building to apply for a marriage license.

He was tired of waiting.

He'd been in a 10-year relationship with his partner — a relationship the state has refused to acknowledge. But as it turned out, they'd have to wait a little longer: The county's Marriage License Bureau was closed for Election Day.

"We rushed down here before we could do the research," says Ingraham's partner, J.R. Shaw.

They were among the first couples — most in long-term committed relationships — to apply in person for marriage licenses on May 21, the day after federal Judge John E. Jones III struck down Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage. And on May 22, Gov. Tom Corbett announced he would not seek an appeal of the decision, quelling fears that their marriages could wind up in legal limbo.

"I've wanted this for a long time," Matt Thom said, just after applying for a marriage license. "It's just been hurtful being treated as a second-class citizen."

As more couples filtered through and shared their stories with reporters, a common theme emerged: None cared particularly about being legal pioneers; being first was about shedding the constant reminders that their relationships were somehow different.

"I think what's happened in the past few days is historic, it's glorious, remarkable," says Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, an LGBT-advocacy group. "Pennsylvania went from being one of the most backward states to a marriage-equality state in less than 48 hours."

But while Pennsylvania has joined 18 other states that afford same-sex couples the same legal rights as straight couples, Martin calls the victory "uneven."

That's because, of the states in which same-sex couples can wed, Pennsylvania is the only one where it's still legal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

"It's really quite a paradox," says state Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill). "While the judge has affirmed the rights of same-sex couples to marry, we still live in a state where it's still legal to fire someone [because they're] in the LGBT community."

Forty-three municipalities across the state — including Allegheny County, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — have their own local ordinances barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But with no statewide protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, some 70 percent of Pennsylvanians are living in places where such discrimination in housing, public accommodations and employment is perfectly legal.

Local blogger and LGBT activist Sue Kerr says she's already gotten inquiries from couples who "are weighing the pros and cons and asking about non-discrimination."

Equality PA's Martin says he thinks about it this way: "If you go across the border to Beaver [or] Washington County, you can be fired for putting a marriage photo on your desk."

No one knows how common such scenarios are. "It's difficult to quantify, because it's not illegal at the state level, so we don't collect the data," says Shannon Powers, communications director for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. "And folks have stopped calling us because they know we don't protect them on that basis."

For people like Brian Prowel, though, discrimination isn't a statistical abstraction. He's a gay man who was fired from Wise Business Forms, Inc. in 2004 after complaining about several incidents of harassment, including one in which co-workers left "a pink, light-up, feather tiara with a package of lubricant jelly" on his workspace, court records show. He also claimed that co-workers at the Butler County company, where he worked for 13 years, referred to him as "rosebud" and "princess." He said he once overheard a co-worker say, "I hate him. They should shoot all the fags."

But Prowel's lawyer, Timothy P. O'Brien, says that because Butler County does not have protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, "We had to assert the reason [Prowel] was treated adversely in the workplace was because he didn't fit the gender stereotypes of a male in the community in which he works."

A federal district court held that Prowel didn't have a case: It ruled that the discrimination claim had to do with his sexual orientation, which isn't protected. But Prowel appealed, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to district court, saying he could argue the case on the basis of "gender stereotyping." The case was settled before it reached a trial, O'Brien says; terms of that agreement were not released.

The case may have ended in Prowel's favor, but O'Brien acknowledges it's not much of a victory for LGBT people who happen to conform to gender stereotypes: O'Brien's case only got legal traction because he successfully argued the discrimination was based on, essentially, not being "manly" enough.

Though O'Brien is optimistic that the marriage-equality ruling will increase momentum for an anti-discrimination law, he says cases like Prowel's are "still a concern."

Those concerns, he says, will likely require legislative action — something Frankel has been trying to drum up for more than 10 years.

Frankel's been a key proponent of House Bill 300, which along with a companion bill in the Senate, would "prohibit discrimination based on an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity or expression," according to a memo attached to its 2013 introduction. Versions of the legislation have been introduced in every legislative session for the past decade.

Frankel "was out on this issue before anyone was looking at it," Martin says.

In the Senate, where 26 votes are needed for passage, the measure currently has 25 co-sponsors; there are 96 co-sponsors of the bill in the House, where 102 votes are needed. Two Senate co-sponsors, and 14 backers in the House, are Republicans.

"We probably have the votes in both the state House and state Senate," says Andy Hoover, legislative director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The bills have the public's support as well: 72 percent of Pennsylvania voters are in favor of the law, according to a 2013 Susquehanna Polling and Research poll.

But the House and Senate bills are idling in each chamber's State Government Committee — a situation Frankel calls an "embarrassment."

"The bill was referred by [the Republican Speaker of the House], in spite of my objections, to a committee chaired by [state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe] who is an extreme opponent of any kind of rights for the LGBT community," Frankel says. "And that bill is languishing in the committee."

Though Metcalfe did not return requests for comment, last year he explained why he wouldn't bring the bill up for a vote.

"I think it's ultimately language that will discriminate against the rights of individuals who have religious objections to that type of lifestyle and that type of behavior," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Hoover says the objections he hears usually involve religious institutions, which don't want to be forced to hire gay employees on the grounds that it would violate their religious freedom.

"Everybody agrees there needs to be some protection for religious institutions," Hoover says. "The question is, where is the line drawn?"

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans, did not immediately return a call seeking comment on whether House leadership might support the non-discrimination bill this year. State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, who chairs the Senate's State Government Committee, also did not return a call for comment.

Martin says Corbett is playing an increasingly helpful role in building political momentum, by not appealing Jones' opinion and by pledging to sign a non-discrimination bill if it reaches his desk.

"We've been pushing it very hard in the last year," Martin says. "That's absolutely where our campaign is going forward ... to make sure we have full equality."

And even though the civil-rights battle for LGBT people may not be over, none of that marred the celebration that packed Ellsworth Avenue the night Jones' decision was handed down.

Dawn Plummer, a plaintiff in the lawsuit that overturned the state's same-sex marriage ban, addressed a crowd that numbered hundreds of supporters. Her partner stood by her side; their two small sons ambled around the stage.

"Today," Plummer said, "we're reminded that when you stand up for what you know in your heart is right, you can win."

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