Currently, there’s no state law protecting LGBTQ individuals from discrimination. Grassroots efforts aim to change that.
For years, Pennsylvanians have decried the Keystone State’s unwelcomed distinction of being the only state in the Northeast that lacks a law protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. In many jurisdictions, for instance, LGBTQ residents who believe they have been turned down for a job, refused service at a restaurant, or denied an application for an apartment solely because of their LGBTQ identity have little legal recourse.
Pennsylvania, however, also holds another title: It’s the state with the highest number of municipalities that have adopted their own LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances—a movement that recently got another shot in the arm.
In December, Huntingdon Borough—situated in Central Pennsylvania, between Altoona and Harrisburg and home to about 7,000 people—became the first rural community in the state to prohibit discrimination against residents based on sexual orientation and gender identity, along with other classes not currently covered by the state Human Relations Act. The ordinance, which is expected to go into effect in March, also created a Human Relations Commission to mediate complaints.
The borough became the 58th in the state to ban LGBTQ discrimination, a wave that has gained considerable steam in the last 10 years. Efforts to enact a statewide LGBTQ-inclusive law, first proposed 45 years ago, continue to stall. Nationwide, 21 states plus Washington, D.C., explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“In 2020, many folks are surprised this isn’t already covered by law,” said Jason Landau Goodman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress (PYC), a statewide youth-led organization advocating for LGBTQ equality. “When they do find out that this affects their neighbors, their family members, their friends, people they know, they can see this isn’t some large national issue or even a state issue; this is about their own community—and they have the ability to take action today.”
That was a message Anthony Bullett realized some time ago. The gay Huntingdon native moved back to his hometown about 10 years ago to care for his ailing mother. After attending the 2009 Equality March in Washington, D.C., and other LGBTQ-rights events in the capital, he said he was feeling “energized” and eager to continue the push for equality back home.
Bullett drafted a proposed ordinance to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in Huntingdon Borough. At the time, there were 35 local LGBTQ-inclusive ordinances in the state. Bullett created binders on each, delivering them to council, the solicitor and the local newspaper. He started going to council meetings to call for action on the idea and wrote letters to the paper.
“Crickets,” Bullett said.
The effort didn’t gain significant steam until the last few years, when several allies were elected to council and connections started being made: Bullett reached out to PYC, the state Human Relations Commission, and other state and local LGBTQ and ally leaders, and the ordinance was redrafted. A new councilmember put Bullett in touch with a counselor at the nearby Juniata College, who has a gay son, and together they launched Diversity Huntingdon-Everyone is Welcome Here! to advocate for the measure. Within a month, the group had dozens of members—ranging from teens to 80-year-olds—and “from there, it was off to the races,” Bullett said. The coalition was able to secure more than 100 letters of support from throughout the community.
The measure was put up for a public hearing in November and adopted in a 4-3 vote the following month.
Bullett said he was surprised by how little fanfare he saw; the only opposition he’s personally experienced was through a few comments on Facebook.
“At the hearing in November, everybody there was from Diversity Huntingdon. So I thought, ‘The opposition will definitely come out for the vote.’ And they didn’t. The vote was rather anticlimactic,” he said with a laugh.
Despite that, Bullett said he felt “relief” that LGBTQ people would finally be protected in the borough—and, more personally, a sense of satisfaction: In the 1960s, his late father was a member of Huntingdon Equality League, which united white and Black residents to work to eradicate discrimination.
“I felt like we sort of took the ball from where they stopped and helped put it over the goal line,” he said.
The success in Huntingdon is already spurring movement in other parts of the state.
Landau Goodman said PYC is working with residents in nearly a dozen small towns in Pennsylvania to advance similar measures, many of whom have been buoyed by Huntingdon’s success.
“They’re thinking, ‘If Huntingdon can do it, why can’t we?’” he said. “This [Huntingdon ordinance] sends a strong signal that our communities throughout the state are very concerned with basic protections for their LGBTQ residents, employees and visitors—and they deserve protections everywhere, regardless of whether they live in a large city or a small town.”
That message will be echoed by a new advocacy campaign, Pennsylvania Values, centered on advancing LGBTQ rights at the state level, particularly the Fairness Act, which would ban LGBTQ discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations in Pennsylvania. The initiative was unveiled in a press conference earlier this month in Harrisburg, with faith and business leaders in attendance, as well as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, including Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-46), who supports the legislation and pledged to advance it in the Labor & Industry Committee, which she chairs, this session.
Gov. Tom Wolf also recently called for action on the measure in his budget address.
“We have a lot of promise in the Senate now and we’re certainly optimistic about conversations ahead in the House,” Landau Goodman said. “We have the votes—we’ve had them for a very long time—but it’s about making sure this is among the top legislative priorities for 2020. It’s more than people saying they want this; now, it’s about coming to the table and actually putting it on the dockets.”