While states across the country debate legalizing same-sex marriage, in Pennsylvania activists and lawmakers are battling over a much more basic change to state law.
Pennsylvania is the only state in the northeast that does not ban discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Some lawmakers want to change that and a bipartisan group in Harrisburg say they’ll introduce legislation that would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and public accomodations because of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. For some Pennsylvanians living in fear of being fired or evicted, the solution is to stay quiet.
That includes Robin, who doesn’t want her real name used. She works at a tech company in the Philadelphia suburbs. She says she likes the job and the people she works with, but when colleagues exchange stories of how they spent the weekend, “I just try not to talk about personal details of my life.”
She said, “I mean, I try to justify it as, ‘This is my work’ and ‘This is my personal life,’ and I’m good with keeping that straight line of keeping things separate.”
The twenty-something says she tries to keep her sexual orientation a secret at work because she knows she could be fired for being gay.
“It really just takes one manager to decide that they don’t like gay people,” she said.
Robin lives in Philadelphia — where local law protects her from discrimination based on sexual orientation. That’s not the case where she works.
It’s a difficult situation; she wasn’t able to tell her manager about the gay slurs she endured while she was on a work trip in the deep South, because she says she didn’t want to come out of the closet.
Threat of firing beyond theoretical
Advocates for the LGBT community say being fired or evicted for being gay isn’t just possible — it happens.
Anna, who also doesn’t want to use her real name, says she knows what Robin’s going through. She lives in the Lancaster County area and recently retired after working as a teacher for more than 30 years.
“In my job it had been a struggle because of hiding, hiding who I was,” Anna said.
She says when parents felt their kids weren’t getting enough playing time on a team she coached, they threatened to out her as retribution.
“I wouldn’t have been able to practice my profession, which I love, and it would have basically destroyed me,” she said. “It just isn’t fair.”
Without legal protection, Anna says she was afraid to tell students she was gay, meaning she couldn’t reach out to kids struggling with their own sexual identities.
“Then they would have known how hard it was for me growing up,” she said. “I could have said: ‘This is how I would have handled it,’ ‘This is where I would have gone,’ ‘This is how I would have removed myself in a nonthreatening way that I wouldn’t get ridiculed.'”
Unfortunately, Anna says, she couldn’t share her personal experiences with her students.
Discrimination based on sexual orientation is not prohibited by federal law, but U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced recently that he’ll co-sponsor the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to address that lack.
Without a federal or state law, there’s a confusing patchwork of laws that vary town by town in Pennsylvania. The advocacy organization Equality Pennsylvania says those laws still leave about 65 percent of Pennsylvanians vulnerable to legal discrimination because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
The group has been pushing for years for a statewide law, but it has hit strong opposition.
Catholic Church continues opposition to ‘gay lifestyle’
The director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference’s social concerns department says his group has opposed the legislation in the past and plans to lobby against it again.
“Quite simply, the Catholic Church does not approve of the so-called ‘gay lifestyle’ as an acceptable way of living,” said Francis Viglietta.
Viglietta says he worries that amending state law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation could lead to difficult situations where the law would force them to provide services that go against the doctrines that guide them.
“I’ll give you an example,” he said. “If a gay couple were to approach one of our Catholic social service agencies or adoption agencies saying [they] wish to adopt a child … that would not be acceptable to the Catholic Church, simply because we do not think that would be the best atmosphere for raising the child.”
Viglietta says while the group opposes the legislation, the Catholic Church does not support discrimination.
“Our Catholic agencies, our hospitals, social service agencies do not discriminate about providing assistance to someone based upon their sexual orientation,” he said.
But, he added, there’s a difference “between the pastoral mission of the church — loving everyone and not discriminating against anyone — and putting into public policy a law which, in effect, would limit our ability to serve the people of this commonwealth in ways that are consistent with Catholic teaching.”
It’s unclear if this bill will fare any better now that there are two openly gay members of the Pennsylvania Legislature: State Rep. Mike Fleck, a Republican, and State Rep. Brian Simms, a Democrat.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican, who chairs the House State Government Committee, is one staunch opponent who could block it.
Looking forward to change — and talking freely
Robin, the Philadelphia resident who hides her sexual preference from colleagues at her suburban job, says she considered moving to Boston, where she would be protected and where she could get married. She says she has asked herself a lot of questions, including: “Should I stay in Pennsylvania? Do I want to continue paying taxes to a state that hasn’t, doesn’t feel the need, to protect me?”
“And, in the end,” she said, “I’ve decided to stay and hopefully see a change occur.”
She says she wonders if “most people think that this country has evolved past the point of discrimination in the workplace and it really hasn’t.”
Robin says she looks forward to a time when she can chat at the office about her weekend like her colleagues without having to hold back.