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Rally, public hearing focus on bill

The Reverend Janet Edwards had the honor of first-speaker slot at the Join the Impact! Rally on Jan. 10. The Presbyterian pastor, sporting a rainbow scarf, announced her support of a bill designed to protect Allegheny County residents from gender identity and orientation-based discrimination.

Five days later, she stood up in a Pittsburgh courthouse in front of hundreds, declared her support for the bill again and criticized its detractors.

“It grieves me to my core that fellow Christians are speaking out against this legislation,” Edwards said.

A whirlwind January of debate about the basic legal rights of GLBT Allegheny County residents began on a sleety Saturday afternoon, under a canopy at the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus. It continued in a packed-beyond-capacity meeting room at the Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh.

The Join the Impact! Rally was coordinated to build support for the passage of Bill No. 4201-08, legislation that would make gender presentation, identity and sexual orientation- based discrimination illegal in Allegheny County.

Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents blogger and rally co-organizer Sue Kerr said that the bill would improve economic opportunities and quality-of-life for residents of Allegheny County.

“I think it’s going to have an immediate impact on our community,” Kerr said.

Kerr remarked that she and co-organizers Lance Friedman (Steel City Stonewall Democrats) and Adam Hixon (after8pgh.blogspot.com) were able to build an astonishing amount of support through grassroots online networks.

However, Kerr said, “It’s really the people that come and feel that transformative moment—that’s the magic of an event like this.”

Transformative moments ruled the day.

The rally, attended by 70-plus gay-rights supporters, kicked off with brisk jokes, courtesy of event emcee and Pittsburgh radio personality Gab Bonesso.

When the Rev. Janet Edwards came up to speak, she led the crowd in a song for their rights. City and county council representatives took turns explaining exactly how the lack of county-wide protection hurts the basic rights of GLBT people who live outside city limits, hobbles the regional economy and encourages the Pittsburgh population exodus.

Pittsburgh City Council District 8 Representative Bill Peduto declared that the county ordinance represented “not special rights for some, but equal rights for all.”

Though the City of Pittsburgh offers protection against orientation- or gender-identity based discrimination for its residents, those protections do not extend beyond city lines.

“Let’s talk ways we can expand [the Pittsburgh] economy by being more tolerant,” Peduto said.

County Council Representative Amanda Green, the bill’s key sponsor, said “Some people think I am making this stuff up when I tell them that people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender…have been denied housing, have been denied jobs, have been fired.”

Green described the bill as an “issue of visibility.”

Pittsburgh GLBT activist Kris Rust helped Representative Green propel county wide anti-discrimination protections to committee. In 2007, he discussed his visions of county-wide protections with his representative, County Council President Rich Fitzgerald of District 11. With Fitzgerald and Green on board, Rust proposed Allegheny County protections similar to those offered by the City of Pittsburgh.

“I thought, [this is] a clear, tangible step we could take toward making our county a more gay-friendly place … a place more conducive to live and work for our community,” Rust said in a telephone interview with Out.

“I think we have a good proposal on the table right now,” Rust continued, and he  affirmed that the bill was still in committee.

“Last summer, when Councilwoman Green proposed the ordinance, 12 of the council members thought it was a good idea and signed on as co-sponsors.”

With a hint of regret, Rust added, “Some people didn’t like the ordinance in December, and several people dropped off, so now we’re down to eight council members [supporting the bill].”

At the Join The Impact! Rally, officials attributed dwindling support to fear and bigotry.

“Why are we here in the rain to fight for something that is guaranteed to us in the Constitution of the United States of America?” City Council President Doug Shields asked pointedly, and criticized representatives who dropped support.

The eight remaining co-sponsors, including Representatives Green and Fitzgerald, must continue their support for the bill to pass.

“This [legislation] is not going to go away as long as I’m on County Council,” Green vowed at the Jan. 10 rally.

On Jan. 15, the date of the nondiscrimination ordinance public hearing, the Gold Room of the Allegheny County Courthouse was packed to capacity shortly after the 5 p.m. start time.

At 5:45 p.m., a crowd gathered outside the Gold Room doorway, eager to listen to dozens of bitterly divided public testimonials that sketched starkly competing visions of Allegheny County’s future.

Opposition testimonials were angry, fearful and misinformed.

Dave Cranston, a small-business owner from Moon Township, said he opposed the bill because it was part of a national agenda to “legitimize” homosexuality.

“It takes rights away from the rest of us, who want to associate with who we want to associate with,” Cranston added.

The Reverend Paul Voida, a Catholic pastor, listed his worries, including predictions a bout the extent of discrimination, costs to taxpayers and “activist judges who will expand the extent of the law.”

A majority of speakers testified in support of the bill. City Council District 3 Representative Bruce Kraus criticized county council representatives who withdrew their support.

“Support for this bill is faltering without a clear reason, other than misinformation—myth—spread by ill-informed and narrow-minded people… and some members of the council worry about the political repercussions of their support,” Kraus said.

Dr. David Feingold, faculty emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s microbiology and molecular genetics divisions, reminded the crowd of “homosexuals who served us through history,” including Tchaikovsky and Michaelangelo.

Feingold then warned about the effects of discrimination by telling the tale of Alan Turing, the “founder of computer science,” who lost his career and took his own life after he was outed by British police.

County Council President Rich Fitzgerald, who promises ongoing support of the bill despite opposition from fellow council members, admired the tenacity of the crowd. “There are 100 people in that hall trying to get in,” he exclaimed.

Forty-nine of the 65 speakers at the hearing favored the bill.

Allegheny County Council will re-visit the bill on Jan. 28 in a closed session.