When it comes to gay rights, all politics is local

    Mayor Michael Nutter will sign Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance Thursday.  The law expands protections for gays and lesbians, making it illegal to discriminate for the purposes of housing, public accommodations and employment.  The updated law is part of a broad movement that’s now at a crossroads in Pennsylvania.

    Stephen Glassman moved to Pennsylvania from Maryland two decades ago, and was troubled by what he found here.

    “I realized that this was a state without the kinds of protections that Maryland was already enacting, and which major cities had enacted all over the country, including the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh,” he said.

    Those would be protections against discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.  And while Philadelphia now has such protections in place at the local level, Pennsylvania doesn’t.

    Glassman now heads the state Human Relations Commission. It’s a position he uses as a bully pulpit to advocate for equal rights for the gay and lesbian community.  Those laws have stalled in the Legislature.  So, about 10 years ago, Glassman and the other Human Relations commissioners took a different approach.

    “We very quickly started to work with people around the state in order to share these protections with as many local jurisdictions as possible,” said Glassman.  “Our statute actually encourages us to do so.  Section 8.1 of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act is a portion of our statute which directly encourages the establishment of local human relations commissions, and mandates us to work with them in order to ensure protections throughout the state.”

     

    Movement is growing — slowly

     

    Thus began a movement that is slowly making headway across the state as towns now enact their own ordinances to outlaw discrimination against gays and lesbians.  There are now 18 townships and counties across Pennsylvania with commissions that hear claims of discrimination.

    It’s an issue Ted Martin believes is at least as important as trying to allow gay marriage.

    “If suddenly magically I was able to get married in Pennsylvania, if I was able to get hitched on Saturday, then denied a hotel room Saturday night for my honeymoon, and then when it became public on Tuesday, you know, I’m living in a refrigerator box and out of work by Thursday, but I’m married,” said Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania.

    In some ways, the movement is growing.  Earlier this year, Lower Merion passed an ordinance outlawing discrimination against sexual orientation.

    In other areas, the effort to expand gay rights is coming under fire.  In Hatboro, Mayor James Hawkes vetoed such an ordinance.  Lancaster County’s human rights commission voted to shut down for economic reasons, even though it had been around since the civil rights era. Commissioner Scott Martin–no relation to Ted–says it’s not a big deal since the county hadn’t enacted protections for gays and lesbians.

    “We’re finding tighter and tighter budget times,” he said. “We’ve been taking segments of county departments every year that we’ve been in office and evaluating if this is something we absolutely have to be involved in, or is it a duplication of anything.”

    The Lancaster County situation underscores what could be a growing concern for those pushing for local ordinances: In a tough budget year, how can towns and counties afford their own commissions?  The answer may lie about 70 miles away in Allentown.  Not only is Allentown’s commission all volunteer, it runs on the cheap, says Janet Ney, chairwoman of the Allentown Human Relations Commission.

    “We have a staff person assigned to us,” she said.  “He is an assistant to the mayor.  And a portion of his time is allocated toward the work of the commission.  So he is our staff person.  There is a woman from city council who comes to our meetings, and so whatever the cost is for her to come to a monthly meeting.  Beyond that, there are the usual kinds of costs, printing and that sort of thing, so the cost at the moment to the city is not a huge amount of money.”

    Ney says an annual fundraising dinner and a $5,000 federal grant are enough to keep the commission running.  Glassman says some commissions in smaller towns run at zero cost to local government, and he bristles at the economic argument.

     

    Overcoming economic argument

     

    “The fact is that these are excuses, in my opinion, from those who are in elected office who want to see other ways of dealing with these issues, but not at the local level,” said Glassman.  “They have succumbed, again, in my opinion, to pressure from, often, people who don’t even live in their districts, to simply not include lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people in these protections.”

    “The first time really I heard about them was back in 2002.  That’s when I first became involved with educating folks on the danger of the passage of those ordinances,” said Diane Gramley, president of the American Family Association of Pennsylvania and an outspoken opponent of gay rights.

    “At that stage, it was a brand new phenomenon across the country, and so pro-family groups were putting out warnings of what could happen if these ordinances were passed, and those warnings in many cases have come to pass,” she said.

    Beyond opposition from gay rights opponents such as Gramley, Glassman says the real fight is for change at the state level.  But with a conservative Legislature in Harrisburg, Glassman is doubtful things will change any time soon.  Still, he hopes political courage will eventually prevail on behalf of gays and lesbians.

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