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Why can’t Pennsylvania pass laws to protect LGBTQ+ civil rights?

In June 2021, Rep. Dan Frankel, (D-Allegheny), introduced House Bill 300, known as the Fairness Act. With 75 cosponsors, the bill called for amending the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in order to prevent discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations.

Crickets since then. “I mean I’ve been introducing LGBT equality legislation since I walked in the door here,” Frankel said. That was 1999.

A legislative history compiled by Pennsylvania Youth Congress indicates over “100 pieces of legislation aimed to protect LGBT Pennsylvanians” have been introduced in the legislature since 1976. Unfortunately, the only bill to become law was a 2002 amendment including LGBTQ protections to the state’s Ethnic Intimidation Act.

The amendment addressed “hate crime violence” within the broader context of ethnic intimidation and was ultimately struck down in 2008 by Commonwealth Court due to a technicality.

As Frankel observed: “The court decided the amendment violated the ‘like-minded rule’ requiring that amendments are actually related to the main purpose of a law. But the political practice is that we enforce the rule when we want to and drop it when we don’t.”

Undaunted, Frankel has rightly persisted through consecutive two-year legislation sessions to introduce legislation that would discourage discrimination against Pennsylvanians based on who they are or who they love. For perspective, Pennsylvania is the only Northeast state without basic protections in place, according to the Movement Advancement Project.

Frankel’s rationale for presenting his last round of equality legislation is a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court landmark decision (Bostock v. Clayton County), which determined that an employer cannot discriminate against an individual because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“While this was a historic victory for civil rights, this decision does not prevent a Pennsylvanian identified as LGBT to be denied housing, education, and access to public accommodations simply because of who they are or who they love,” Frankel said in his sponsorship memo to colleagues.

With no legislative traction gained on the Fairness Act during the soon-to-expire two-year legislative session, Frankel says he’ll reintroduce the measure.

What protections that exist in the state are spotty with at least 70 of the state’s 2,560 municipalities having put LGBTQ civil rights protections in place at the municipal level, according to the state Attorney General Office’s website.

No protections create a toxic atmosphere. Keisha McToy, Vice President of Operations at Alder Health Services, says people “are in danger of losing jobs or not being hired, even if qualified, because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.”

This is a critical factor in whether Pennsylvania can attract the kind of talent it needs to attract major corporations.

“Basic economic development practices stress the importance of inclusion and diversity in the marketplace, according to Harry Young, Executive Director, Keystone Business Alliance, Central Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce. He reflects on Amazon’s interest in the state in 2016 when the company looked for potential locations in Pennsylvania and other East Coast states.

“How realistic is it that a major company like Amazon would consider locating in Pennsylvania given their LGBT inclusive human relations policies,” he asked. “With company protections in place, why would a company seriously consider Pennsylvania.”

Young makes a good point: Pennsylvania’s lack of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections puts us at a competitive disadvantage.

In its 4th annual LGBTQ+ Business Climate Index, Out Leadership, a global network for business leaders and companies, ranked Pennsylvania 23rd among the 50 states after measuring legal, political, emotional support, health, business, and other parameters for queer Americans. Amazon is among its 94 members.

Queer civil rights opponents who also tout allegiance to market forces may find this information helpful:

  • Qualified, talented, LGBTQ employees are leaving states sinking to the bottom of the Index, and moving to states on the ascent.
  • 24% of LGBTQ+ workers have already moved to a more inclusive city.
  • 36% would consider moving to a more inclusive city.
  • 31% would take a pay cut to live in an inclusive city.

Frankel’s conclusions are spot on: “Pennsylvania’s lack of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law is an embarrassment to this Commonwealth and a deterrent for workers and businesses who could help grow our economy.”

Businesses and lawmakers should take note.

Frank Pizzoli
Frank Pizzoli is the former editor and publisher of the Central Voice, the former Harrisburg LGBTQ newspaper.