Advocates are using a city-by-city strategy to change that.
At Kutztown University, a lot of students live near campus.
But not Shannon Peitzer.
She’s a senior. And every morning she spends at least half an hour driving to school from her apartment.
“If I were to live in Kutztown,” Peitzer said, “I would be concerned that a landlord would look at me and say ‘I don’t want to deal with you anymore, you’re trans, I don’t want that in my house — get out.'”
Peitzer is a transgender woman. And in Kutztown, it would be legal for a landlord to refuse to rent her an apartment or to kick her out for that reason.
“And where does that leave me?” she asks. “That leaves me on the streets.”
Federal and Pennsylvania laws prohibit landlords, employers and others from discriminating based on race, religion, sex and other characteristics — but not gender identity or sexual orientation.
There are local laws that ban discrimination, too. But of the more than 2,500 municipalities in the state, only 34 include gender identity and sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination ordinances. Peitzer lives in one of those cities: Allentown.
Kutztown has no anti-discrimination law at all.
That means for some LGBT students who live near Kutztown University’s campus, simple questions from a landlord like “what’d you do this weekend?” can feel loaded.
“I say I went on a date, and then I have to think, ‘do I want to change the gender’?” said James Carraghan, a graduate student who is gay. “Do I want to just say ‘I went out with this person and they,’ you know, use a gender-neutral pronoun? It causes a lot of anxiety.”
Carraghan, Peitzer and other students are part of Allies Equality Network, a LGBTQ advocacy group on campus that is trying to get Kutztown’s borough council to pass an anti-discrimination law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
The students are getting guidance from Equality Pennsylvania, a statewide advocacy group.
Ted Martin, executive director, says the students are asking for nothing more than fairness. “This is the promise of America, that everyone gets a fair shot, that everyone has an equal playing field,” Martin said. “That’s all this is.”
This year, the polling firm Susquehanna Polling and Research asked Pennsylvania residents whether they’d support a law that bans discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Seventy-four percent of the respondents said they did. There are opponents in some places, though, who argue these laws could violate a landlord or business owner’s religious freedom.
A local-first strategy
From Martin’s perspective, local laws don’t go far enough, because they leave the state with a sort of legal patchwork. For example, he said, “you can be protected quite well in Philadelphia all day, [and then] you can go outside the border into Montgomery County, Bucks County or Berks and find yourself really out in the cold.”
But the local laws are a way to light a fire under state legislators, Martin says. He got that idea from the lawmakers themselves. “They would often say to me years ago, ‘well you know, I can’t vote for something here in Harrisburg,'” Martin said. “‘You have to show me there is grassroots support. You have to show me that the community’s behind these kinds of things.'”
This local-first strategy was used in another campaign you may have heard of: the push to extend marriage to same-sex couples.
The people advocating for marriage for same-sex couples lobbied for laws state by state. The idea was that once a “critical mass” of states had legalized it, the Supreme Court would be more likely to rule in favor, too. In June 2015, it did.
The advocacy group Freedom to Marry compares the win to the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which granted the right to marry to interracial couples in 1967.
Thirty-four states legalized marriage for interracial couples before that ruling. The tipping point was about the same for marriage for same-sex couples: 37 states had legalized it before this year’s ruling.
In Pennsylvania, the local-first approach has helped change the mind of at least one state legislator: Representative Michael K. Hanna (D-Clinton/Centre). This legislative session, he’s sponsoring the Pa. Fairness Act, a bill that would update the state’s anti-discrimination law to include gender identity and sexual orientation.
That’s a new development for Hanna. “I guess I kind of grew up in a time and place where anything other than heterosexual orientation was pretty much closeted and not talked about,” he said.
Hanna had a change of heart, in part because his two sons are always talking to him about LGBT issues. “They told me I was a Neanderthal for thinking [LGBT discrimination] wasn’t a problem in today’s world,” Hanna said.
But the local laws also played a role, he says; they made him and other legislators pay attention. “A lot of people’s eyes were opened to what we either chose to ignore or just didn’t see,” he said.
There’s a companion bill in the Senate. Combined, the bills have more than one hundred cosponsors, Republicans and Democrats.
Meanwhile, Kutztown University students are still hoping for a local law. But the borough council has tabled that proposal, citing concerns about cost and saying it would be difficult to find someone to staff a commission on discrimination. Instead — here’s the great irony — the borough is waiting to see whether the state passes its law.
Advocates say local ordinances often have stronger protections, and it would be better to have both laws.
For now, they have neither.