Pivotal Civil Rights Victory in Western Pennsylvania

With the passage of the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission ordinance, Allegheny County has taken a step forward with regard to statewide equality for the LGBTQ community.  I was privileged to be in attendance at last night's meeting and witness this little bit of history.  I want to share with you the reflections of various community leaders before posting my own thoughts.

“While it still stuns me that people actually were against this bill – that they wanted permission to discriminate and didn’t see any problem with that – I am grateful today for Councilwoman Greene and the council members who voted yes. They brought the county up to speed with what the city did 2 decades ago, and they fulfilled their responsibility to make Allegheny County a safe place to live and work. I wish Persad Founder, Randy Forrester, was alive today to see this, since he was so active in the earlier city ordinance. I hope that the religious exemption is not used to continue discrimination – especially in social service agencies that receive public dollars to help people. Most people outside of the LGBT community that I talked to didn’t realize that before this bill passed yesterday, that it was perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay – most of the Joe Publics of the world realized that this was just not fair.”  Betty Hill, Executive Director of Persad Center 

“I am very happy about this and now the battle becomes statewide.We have funded the Women's Law Project who have been working for statewide LGBT rights for years.”  August “Buzz” Pusateri, Board Member, Lambda Foundation of Pittsburgh

“The passing of the ordinance was was important for the transgender/transsexual communities in the region for two reasons.  One, the ordinance will help protect trans people within their daily life and two, it showed the support trans people have amongst the local organizations who were adamant in passing an ordinance that includes gender identity and expression.” Emilia Lombardi, Ph.D, Pittsburgh's Trans Working Group 

“The Women's Law Project is thrilled that Allegheny County had joined 14 other jurisdictions in Pennsylvania to extend basic protection from discrimination to LGBT people.  We are grateful to the members of Council who stood up for human rights, and especially thankful for the leadership and vision of Councilwoman Amanda Green.  Congratulations to the local LGBT community and their many allies, whose persistence and courage produced a great victory for LGBT people and for all women.” Sue Frietsche, Senior Staff Attorney, Women's Law Project

“I applaud the members of the Allegheny County Council who voted in favor of the non-discrimination ordinance. This ordinance will make the law more fair and just in Allegheny County and make us more competitive for attracting and retaining jobs. This vote — in Pennsylvania's second most populated county — will also help advance similar statewide legislation in Harrisburg. 

 

“Recent comments by state Senator John Eichelberger highlight why this ordinance is necessary. The senator said, in a public debate, that we 'allow [same-sex couples] to exist,' as if that were all our fellow citizens should expect.

 

“This kind of basic lack of respect for hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens also jeopardizes economic development for our state. I’m reminded of the Oklahoma state legislator who cost her state 1,000 jobs when she made anti-gay comments last year.

 

“I’m delighted that residents of Allegheny County will now be protected from discrimination but am still concerned that many Pennsylvanians lack this basic protection, even while most residents believe it should be the law. Look at the 71 percent support statewide – including 63 percent support in the central/'T' region — for House Bill 300, which would protect people who live or work in Pennsylvania from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.”  Pennsylvania State Representative Dan Frankel

 

“I have a 5 year old grand daughter and i want her to grow up being able to take it as a fact that everyone IS equal. to be able to not even give it a second thought. that it just is how it is, as it should be.” Sherry Pasquarello, resident, Allegheny County.

“For the past year, our community has worked with determination and persistence to bring this day about.  Throughout this process, we have formed important relationships, and the unique collaboration between LGBT organizations, allies, grassroots activists, and public officials will continue to serve as a model of effective partnership. ”  Steel City Stonewall Democrats 

I've got more to share … the public comments of Frankel and City Councilman Bruce Kraus and more statements.  But let's stop here and see what I have to think about everything.

I tweeted the meeting, providing my own commentary and observations along with factual information about the discussion.  I lost my signal a few times, but was able to restart and keep going.  The comments from the community were a mixed bag.  The hate directed toward LGBTQ persons was sad, but I was heartened to note the looks of pure disgust in the eyes of various members of Council as folks rattled on and on with the usual vitriole.  A group of ordinance opponents sat next to our little group of lesbians.  The classic moment was when a name tag fell off one man's chest onto the leg of a lesbian.  She handed it back and said “You lost your tag.”  I think he may have thanked her.  How can you thank a lesbian so politely one moment and liken her to a pedophile the next?  It really makes no sense.

The Council discussion was heated.  Clearly, this was a tough vote and the opponents gave plenty of airtime to a whole host of excuses to disguise their homophobia and transphobia.  That was really sickening … the cowardice and pandering to hate mongerers in the name of the most ridiculous rationalizations possible.  Protecting the County from law suits.  Putting civil rights issues before the voters as a referendum.  The Catholic Church didn't have enough time over the past year to review the ordinance.  Undermining the good work of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.  (Note to Matt Drozd:  the Girl Scouts don't discriminate).  None of them had the courage to just admit their bigotry.  It was one of the most pathetic examples of leadership I've ever witnessed.

We won 8-6 which is pretty close.  We won with amendments that legalize religious based bigotry.  We won even though I was almost thrown out of the chamber.   Well, that probably didn't impact anything except Ledcat shortening my leash. 

I enjoyed the post-meeting celebration.  It was nice to spend a few hours awash in a feeling of triumph over intolerance and hatred.  It was pretty cool to watch the various factions interact and listen to the various perspectives. 

The highlight of my evening was Billy Hileman's attendance.  Billy is an advocacy hero in our community and I thought it very fitting that his mantle has passed to Kris Rust, also a teacher and also very humble (and smart).  There's a synergy there that feels right.  Leadership, after all, is earned not purchased or grabbed. 

Last night was a lesson in what's possible.  It is possible to prod a dinosaur like the Democratic Party in this region toward progress.  It is possible for the lessons of our past (City ordinance battle) to inform the challenges of our future (HB 300).  It is possible for two people on opposite sides to have a polite exchange than could possibly break down ugly, misinformed stereotypes.

To paraphrase Betty Hill, it is possible to change something that just isn't fair.

And to that, may I add a heartful “Amen.”

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