That Time When Dan Onorato Didn’t Make Me Cry

Eleanor Roosevelt said: “A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Tell us about a time you felt your strength.

First of all, Eleanor Roosevelt probably didn’t say this. Many other people have said it, including Phyllis Schlafley and Hillary Clinton, but not necessarily Roosevelt. Is that relevant? Perhaps. I suspect Schlafley and Clinton aren’t going to define hot water or female strength in the same terms.

Moving along, when I have felt strength forged from hot water?

In March 2010, Pennsylvania was in the midst of a somewhat brutal primary for the Governor’s office. Steel City Stonewall Democrats held an endorsement meeting at a local restaurant and the endorsement was split between progressive Joe Hoeffel and moderate Dan Onorato who had not a single pro-LGBTQ tick on his resume. It was shocking that they tied. However, Onorato won the primary and Republican Tom Corbett is now our Governor.

I was in hot water because I had just published Onorato’s voting record a few days before the endorsement meeting. He had clearly voted against LGBTQ domestic partner benefits while on City Council and then in the following 11 years, failed to provide those benefits for his County employees. In fact, Onorato NEVER provided those benefits; his successor, Rich Fitzgerald, did.

Pittsburgh politics
Dan Onorato at 2009 Steel City Stonewall Democrats Endorsement

I had been blogging relentlessly about Onorato because I could not see how anyone thought he was an ally. More than one prominent LGBTQ person called me to talk me into supporting him and I refused to back down because his record was his record. I was called a hater, the actual voting records were refuted, I was misled about meetings set up to discuss this, I was even dubbed “Swiftboat Kerr” on Facebook. I was shunned and persona non gratis.

So I knew the meeting would be “intense” and it was. I was live tweeting and two other bloggers were there as well. When Onorato spoke, he started off strong but then devolved into quite literally screaming about “the bloggers” who called him a bigot. I could feel every eye on me, waiting to see my reaction. I know exactly who smirked and laughed (per my vision superpower and my friends in other parts of the room.)

It was the first time I realized just how alone I was. Yes, I had allies in the room (like Joe Hoeffel) and yes, my Ledcat was there. But there was this venomous feeling that I suspected was wrapped up in the fact that I was a nobody lesbian blogger challenging someone who could become the most powerful person in the state. And I was challenging him based on the facts.

After the event was over, someone sent me a text and asked me to go back into the space to look for something that they left behind. I knew the Onorato supporters were still there – celebrating – and I did not want to go back in to that room. But I did because it was important. It was another moment of eerie discomfort because they were quite literally gloating. Dozens of people approached me after the meeting and in the following day to ask me about it and offer their support – it was nice that they realized how uncomfortable that moment was.

It was so uncomfortable that I’ve never returned to that restaurant.  But I also did not back down on my stance. He won that primary, but he also proved me right.

As Onorato was screaming, I was alternating between thoughts of shock at his lack of composure and amazement that my little blog had gotten under his skin. It was an awful moment, but a powerful moment – all I did was publish his voting record. And he went on to prove his lack of qualification for the endorsement by stating that he did not know that PA had a statewide DOMA law (not an Amendment.) Another shocker. So much for being on the right side of history.

Was I strong? Well, I didn’t cry. I kept tweeting and I tried to be professional. I wrote what I believe was a fair summary of the event. And I walked back into that room to do a favor for someone. So, yes, I believe that I was stronger than I might have expected given the circumstances.

I stood up to someone who was peddling influence rather than demonstrating leadership for his LGBTQ constituents.  That wasn’t easy to do.

I don’t know that things have changed much since that endorsement meeting. While people are talking about marriage equality, we are not examining critical issues like domestic partner benefits and non-discrimination protections. I’m concerned that multiple unions with City employees do not offer domestic partner benefits that have been available since 1995. That’s very troubling. I’m concerned that the HRC believes the City has not a single valid transgender municipal support. There’s a lot of work to do here in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, some of it on issues that should have been resolved a decade ago. Some of it on issues people believed to be resolved.

But now we have leaders who can have rational conversations these topics. And are willing to examine the facts. Not punish residents who disagree by trying to humiliate them in public. Or freeze them out. Or allow them to be insulted and mocked by their staff. (ok, so not EVERY leader)

Dan Onorato didn’t make me cry, but he came close. What makes me cry is when a friend says “we have to get married in Maryland to get domestic partner benefits” and they work for a City union. That’s something that must be addressed.

Oh, so the strength part? Well, let’s get busy. City employees has been waiting 18 years to get domestic partner benefits? That’s a helluva long time to steep your tea bag.

(If the Onorato apologists come out of the woods this far down the road, my very original point will be definitely proven. Your guy won the battle and lost the war.)


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