Moira Kaleida: Fairness West Virginia’s Mission to Takeover LGBTQ Advocacy in Pennsylvania is Not Okay

Fairness West Virginia via Facebook.

At a time when so much is on the line for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians, we again have a battle coming to our commonwealth that we did not ask for.

There are West Virginians attempting a hostile takeover of LGBTQ advocacy in Pennsylvania. It is something that needs to be called out to be known by people for what it truly is in order to allow real LGBTQ Pennsylvanians to evaluate for ourselves what is really going on behind the curtain.

Screen shot from the Fairness Pennsylvania website listing their headquarters in Charleston, WV.

LGBTQ Pennsylvanians deserve to live in a state with full, equal protections under the law. For generations LGBTQ Pennsylvanians have been tirelessly working in Harrisburg and across the commonwealth advancing our civil rights. Over the past 42 years we’ve secured explicit nondiscrimination protections covering 36% of the state’s population and successfully defended against ruthless anti-LGBTQ attacks in the General Assembly. While we are not where we need to be — not by a long shot — LGBTQ Pennsylvanians will not stop fighting until we get there.

Since we still have work to do, outside organizations often see us as a lucrative opportunity to raise cash and prestige. If they can claim to be doing work in an important state like Pennsylvania, they can grow their bank accounts with national donors. These organizations come as vultures for resources but in the end leave LGBTQ Pennsylvanians worse off and with a mess that we are forced to clean up. Every single time.

In the past, national LGBTQ organizations have swooped in with brief stints trying to organize in PA, but leave once it becomes clear how massive our state is and how tough it is to make change in Harrisburg. The most noted example of this is in 2015, when a group was forged with outside national organizations called Pennsylvania Competes to work on nondiscrimination legislation. The top-down campaign raised and spent untold sums of money and sadly failed. Not only did it leave advocacy in a worse position, but it caused devastation by burning relationships with the state Senators we needed support from. The tragedy of Pennsylvania Competes and outside organizations dictating failed political strategies in our state was profiled by Buzzfeed. It took years for advocates to repair the political damage in the legislature, and the confidence of national donors in Pennsylvania work is still shot nearly a decade later.

That is why we have been shocked to see the audacity of Fairness West Virginia’s leadership proposing to enter our state to create a generalized group that is a pure satellite program of their organization. In what world is West Virginia a bastion of LGBTQ liberation and funding that they are just called by divine destiny to come to Pennsylvania to govern us?

I am one of the many trying to hold the line that LGBTQ Pennsylvanians are strong, and we deserve to be in charge of the advocacy in our own state. Groups like the Pennsylvania Youth Congress created the Pennsylvania Coalition — a network of over 50 local LGBTQ community organizations across the commonwealth that have bound themselves to a statement that backs Pennsylvania-based LGBTQ leadership first, and if outside groups want to come into our state, invites them to work with us but not work around us. In 2022, Keystone Equality formed as a statewide political LGBTQ organization aimed to issue endorsements for candidates and eventually grow into more advocacy work across the state. The Pennsylvania Equality Project is another collective that has been doing community organizing work for a decade bringing people together.

Statewide LGBTQ organizations in Pennsylvania have come and gone, including the Pennsylvania Rural Gay Caucus in the 1970s, Statewide Pennsylvania Rights Coalition (SPARC) in the 2000s, and Equality Advocates Pennsylvania in the 2010s. For over five years now we have not had a generalized statewide LGBTQ organization, but the work has continued with expert strategists and organizers with our regional LGBTQ community centers and groups. The truth is that many states, including most in the northeast US, do not have a mainstream statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization. Many of those groups were sustained by a political class that abandoned supporting those organizations after marriage equality. They were not rooted in their communities and eventually the fires keeping them going were extinguished. A statewide organization should be entirely based in the state it serves and be run by trusted and respected local leaders. It must be responsive in real time to the needs of our communities and never tokenize or throw vulnerable people under the bus; otherwise it cannot be representative of LGBTQ Pennsylvanians and will ultimately falter.

In late 2022, the leader of Fairness West Virginia conceived of and proposed the idea of a Fairness Pennsylvania — a program of his organization that would operate as the generalized statewide LGBTQ advocacy group in our state. For the next year he traveled to meet with Pennsylvanians to build a board. He met with numerous leaders and most all declined to get involved. In the end, as of today, we know of eight individuals who are now involved in the Fairness Pennsylvania program — a wholly owned and operated venture from West Virginia. It even states on their website that checks are to be sent to Charleston. From the very first meetings with Fairness West Virginia’s leader, he made the decision to operate this group as a program based in their state. There was never any discussion on what would actually be best for Pennsylvania, with Pennsylvanians. Fairness West Virginia has approached Pennsylvania with a predetermined mission, not a conversation.

Myself and others honor the underlying motives of trying to help Pennsylvania by those who said yes to Fairness West Virginia’s takeover. However, it’s clear who said yes — according to their website not a single one is a current leader in an LGBTQ community organization and at least half are connected to politics as Democratic fundraisers.

Why would West Virginians do this? In the best light they pity Pennsylvania doesn’t have a ‘mainstream’ statewide LGBTQ organization and want to step in to save us from ourselves. It’s not hard for a state like West Virginia, with a population approximately of Philadelphia, to have one advocacy organization funded with some staff. However, they face significant opposition to LGBTQ inclusion in their state legislature. It doesn’t add up that Fairness West Virginia has surplus millions of dollars they don’t know what to do with and an abundance of advocacy wins that bestowed them wisdom they can only pass along to their neighbor in Pennsylvania if they are in total control. Pennsylvanians have been fighting for LGBTQ civil rights for over 50 years; West Virginians do not have to come here to reinvent our wheel for us.

The likely scenario is that their leadership has become restless and sees an opportunity of which to take advantage. What we’ve seen in the past is a venture like this will hire someone without the necessary executive experience to be successful and leave after a short stint, and then someone will have to step in to take things over, perhaps a current leader from Fairness West Virginia. That would bring their staff to Philadelphia or Pittsburgh to grow their career and then after a couple years they would leave the position. Following, Fairness West Virginia may realize they don’t have the long-term roots they need to sustain this and will start to lose board members as they cycle off. Two or three will be left trying to hold the organization together, and either put it in storage for a while or close it down. In the meantime, how many thousands of dollars were sent out of state to support the overhead? How much political capital was generated for the benefit of a few individuals from out of state, just to be squandered without any benefit for real LGBTQ Pennsylvanians who need support today?

We know that leaders have pleaded with Fairness West Virginia to change course and work with or behind LGBTQ Pennsylvanians, if they wanted to help our state that much. I personally know at least one LGBTQ advocate in Pennsylvania was told by Fairness West Virginia that under no circumstance would they agree to a plan of action that included anything but them being in complete control. In what scenario does that not mean they intend to make sure they receive every possible benefit of fundraising and political power to them instead of LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? That same advocate even urged consideration of them incubating a Pennsylvania LGBTQ organization with the intention of eventually letting it be independent. It was made clear that only on the terms of West Virginians would an LGBTQ organization in Pennsylvania develop.

Unless Fairness West Virginia changes direction, the very progress of LGBTQ equality in Pennsylvania may be stunted for years to come. That decision is on the shoulders of the Fairness West Virginia Board. It took nearly ten years to repair damage the last time an outside group tried to establish a base camp in PA. Unless LGBTQ Pennsylvanians abdicate our state to West Virginians, we will appear fractured to the general population, lawmakers and public officials, and donors and national organizations. Is it really worth it, Fairness West Virginia?

We need all hands on deck to advance LGBTQ civil rights in Pennsylvania. The more people and resources we have involved, the stronger we can be. The problem is when the mission of an effort is not to help our communities, but to assist individual people advancing their careers or political relevance. There already is infrastructure in our state. We have a campaign for LGBTQ nondiscrimination legislation, it’s called Pennsylvania Values and is backed by major Fortune 500 Companies, over 30 chambers of commerce, and nearly 50 colleges and universities. A program from West Virginia is duplicative and insulting to those of us who have been rolling up our sleeves for years to get to where we are today.

Fairness West Virginia is inserting itself where Pennsylvanians did not ask nor want.

If corporations, chambers of commerce, religious denominations, civic organizations, or other institutions in Pennsylvania want to truly support LGBTQ Pennsylvanians, and ultimately the actual work that delivers LGBTQ civil rights wins in Pennsylvania — they will steer clear of this program from West Virginia and look to support LGBTQ organizations by LGBTQ Pennsylvanians, for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians. It’s only when we come together to do the real work that we will be successful; we cannot let Pennsylvanians be duped.

I’ve wrestled writing this piece for months. Being a whistleblower on internal community organizing is not easy. I’d much rather be writing about the strength and joy of LGBTQ Pennsylvanians. I know that myself and other advocates who share these concerns I’ve laid out have no interest in personal attacks or any contrived agenda someone wants to allege we have. This is purely about drawing attention and accountability to forces of political and financial power. Sharing this information is not about turf issues, personal vendettas, or grudges — alleging that evades responsibility for Fairness West Virginia’s actions. All LGBTQ Pennsylvanians who want to make a difference should be at the table. The issue here is that what’s coming to our state is an unaccountable outside entity that would very likely cause real harm to our communities.

The time is now to take action, before the Fairness Pennsylvania program formally launches and hires a staff member. Please write to Fairness West Virginia to urge them to reconsider launching their program. Please repost the link to this op-ed on your social media to spread the word. Together we can put Pennsylvania in the strongest position to advance LGBTQ rights. It’s up to us to make it happen. The fight for the future of LGBTQ civil rights in Pennsylvania is right here and now — it’s just unfortunate that sometimes it involves fending off a collateral attack from our neighbor to profiteer from us.

Moira Kaleida is a longtime community advocate from Pittsburgh. She is a former Pittsburgh Public Schools Board Member and a current director of a national education justice coalition.