After marriage equality in Pa., there’s still much to be accomplished

     State Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, is shown speaking at a September 2014 protest at John F. Kennedy Plaza in Philadelphia calling on Pennsylvania to add sexual orientation to its hate crime law. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)

    State Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, is shown speaking at a September 2014 protest at John F. Kennedy Plaza in Philadelphia calling on Pennsylvania to add sexual orientation to its hate crime law. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)

    Last year, Pennsylvania made significant progress toward LGBT equality when a federal court overturned the State’s ban against same-sex marriage allowing same-sex couples to legally marry in the commonwealth. Notwithstanding this critical step forward, Pennsylvania still has a long way to go to protect LGBT individuals within its borders.

    A ‘weak’ grade on LGBT non-discrimination

    The current situation in Pennsylvania is not only regrettable, but also disconcerting. As the Center for American Progress Action Fund notes, Pennsylvania is very “weak” at protecting LGBT individuals from discrimination. At present, Pennsylvania is the only Northeastern state where it is legal to discriminate against LGBT people in areas of employment, public accommodations, and housing. No state law protects LGBT Pennsylvanians from violence against them based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity. However, neighbors New Jersey The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination) and Delaware (employment, public accommodation, and housing) both offer extensive protections for their LGBT citizens.

    During the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s 2013-2014 legislative session, lawmakers introduced bills in the House (HB300) and Senate (SB300) that would have amended the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to prohibit such discrimination against LGBT people. Measures criminalizing violence against LGBT people on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity were also introduced in the House (HB117) and Senate (SB42).

    Unfortunately, none of the proposed legislation was passed before the session ended, and similar legislation has yet to be introduced this year. The failure of the hate crimes bills was particularly upsetting in light of the attack on a gay couple in Philadelphia last September, which sparked unprecedented support for these measures. As a result, 68 percent of  LGBT Pennsylvanians are in a very vulnerable position.

    A significant problem

    Discrimination against LGBT people is a very serious and pervasive issue in other states that lack legal protections. For example, 21 percent of LGBT Americans report being unfairly treated by their employer, negatively affecting their employment prospects, financial status and livelihood. And LGBT individuals are at increased risk for living in poverty.

    LGBT people also face considerable discrimination in public accommodations. In fact, 23 percent of LGBT individuals report receiving poor service in restaurants, hotels, and places of businesses. Widely publicized news stories demonstrate that business acceptance is a significant hurdle, with same-sex couples being denied wedding cakes, brides-to-be being refused photography services for weddings — even LGBT student groups being denied cupcakes for student events.

    The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported in 2011 that LGBT individuals and families do not have equal access to housing. Another report by the Center for American Progress observes that many instances of housing discrimination are more likely to occur and be ignored in places that lack legal protections against it.

    In addition to reinforcing stigma, all of aforementioned discrimination instigates violence against LGBT people. According to the Human Rights Campaign, “statistical information collected by the FBI consistently shows that lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and those perceived to be LGB, are attacked more than heterosexuals relative to their estimated population size in the United States.” Rates of violence against transgender individuals are reported to be even higher.  

    Additionally, the FBI’s report, which also measures hate crimes by jurisdiction, says that 110 hate crimes were reported in Pennsylvania last year. Given the report’s estimate that 20.8 percent of hate crimes in 2014 were the result of anti-LGBT bias, this indicates that at least 23 of those violent incidents in Pennsylvania were based on sexual orientation.  

    Efforts to pass anti-LGBT discrimination in Pennsylvania must continue

    In light of all of this, it is clear that statewide measures to protect LGBT people in Pennsylvania are critical. Significantly, a majority of Pennsylvanians and legislators support the idea. According to Equality Pennsylvania 34 municipalities, including Philadelphia, have already established prohibitions against discrimination within their respective city limits. Additionally, previously introduced pro-LGBT legislation has garnered unprecedented support. More than 100 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle signed onto the proposed bills, and according to recent polls, 72 percent of Pennsylvanians support these policies. Furthermore, nine Fortune 500 Companies and over 400 small businesses in Pennsylvania also have expressed their support of the measures.

    Yet the law stands still while LGBT citizens suffer. Though marriage equality spreads across the U.S., advocates and allies alike must not become complacent and should continue to apply pressure in Harrisburg to pass protections for LGBT people. Hopefully, we can use the current momentum in support of LGBT civil rights to live out the true meaning of the creed, composed and enacted in this birthplace of American freedom, that all people are created equal.

    Andrea C. Anastasi is a social justice advocate and practicing attorney in the Greater Philadelphia area.

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