Preliminary Thoughts on the ACLU Forum

Tonight's event sponsored by the ACLU was very interesting and useful.  The formal topic was “Issues and Answers for the LGBT Commmunity on Law, Marriage, Money and Family Matters.”  The 4 panelists are experts in their various fields.  The interesting twist was having each panelist present on their area of law and then send them off to conduct mini-follow up/break out type panels.  This seemed to work much better than a giant question & answer session, plus it created lots of opportunities for socializing and networking. 

I must admit to momentary panic when I realized my Blackberry battery was wearing down (thanks to a toaster plug incident) which meant few tweets, but did actually force me to resort to the good ole pen and paper approach which I have used for the majority of my coverage of local events.

The first panelist was Larry Frankel, State Legislative Counsel for the ACLU.  He provided an overview of the “state of the gay legislative nation” on a federal level.  Larry wants us to know that Pennsylvania does not seem so bad when compared with the rest of the country.  Yes, six states have marriage equality while we don't have a non-discrimination law.  However, 29 states have anti-marriage equality amendments.  That's a useful perspective.

In terms of marriage, Larry emphasized that the battle is moving from the courthouse to the political realm.  The need is to fight for equality at the ballot box in order “to change the hearts and minds of America.”  He urged people who think lawsuits are the answer to obtaining rights to work more closely with the somewhat unified national strategy of the existing civil rights organizations. 

Larry's overall premis is that steps toward equality ultimately move us closer to marriage equality. He spoke very movingly about this being a time when so very many issues are on the forefront that it can be overwhelming. 

Next up was Maureen Cohon, an associate with Buchanan Ingersoll and a specialist in Family Issues, including adoption, healthcare, etc.  Maureen brought up an interesting document known as a Domestic Partner Agreement which essentially establishes a contractual relationship between partners.  More than powers of attorney or wills, this outlines the mutual obligations and commitments, even the potential issues of dissolving the relationship. We spoke briefly with one of her partners and she had some very valuable feedback for our particular situation.

Tony Infanti, faculty at the Pitt School of Law, talked about taxes.  What struck me the most was the suggestion that while tax issues are very real (inheritance, etc) they are also very symbolic reflections of what we as a society value.  He delved into some intricacies and I learned that Pennsylvania has a 15% inheritance tax that would impact Ledcat and myself regardless of our civil union/marriage from another state/relationship agreement.  I also learned that Maryland waives this tax for domestic partners.  What a simple, but powerful way to support LGBT families! 

Last up was Sue Frietsche who gave perhaps the best presentation I've heard on HB 300 and the Allegheny County legislation.  She was emphatic about the fact that lobbying works.  She had interesting examples and she pulled the whole thing off without sounding the least bit preachy.  Her reasoning as to the importance of lobbying?  First, there is confusion that needs to be address.  Some legislators just don't know that discrimination based on sexual orientation is legal throughout most of the state.  Second is the mistaken belief that discrimination does not happen.  Sue explained that our legislators need case by case evidence of what is happening to their constituents to trigger their interest and arouse their protective instinct. 

Now, I'm not going to delve too far back into a heated discussion.  I'll simply say that I agree with what Sue had to say.  I need to find new ways to prompt people to take action.  However, I still believe the advocacy folks need to wrestle with some of the issues people have brought to the table and build those personal relationships with people who are expressing that they feel outside of the loop. Denying that the loop exists isn't productive.  Broadening the loop is the key.  Communication.  Open dialogue.  Follow through.  Persuasion. 

This forum was a great start to Pride.  Larry Frankel is a genial, humorous facilitator and we are fortunate he took the time to come to Pittsburgh for this event.  The room had about 75 people, including many folks who you don't usually see about town.  Barb Feige from the Pgh ACLU was everywhere, running video, bringing beverages and generally a flurry of activity to keep things going smoothly.  It was well-organized, appreciated by attendees and drew an array of participants. 


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