Late afternoon Friday, I was at one of my favorite Highland Park establishments, Tazza D’Oro, having a conversation about HB 300. This bill, currently in the PA House would provide protections against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations across all of Pennsylvania. The issue of Gay Marriage was also a part of our discussion, and a guy sitting several tables over from us, began to listen to our conversation. After a few minutes, he moved closer to our table and interrupted to introduce himself. While he grew up here and still has family here, he currently resides in California. He wanted to know where Pennsylvania was at in terms of gay marriage. I quipped that Alabama would probably see gay marriage before Pennsylvania, but then we began a more detailed discussion. (Although my quip may not be so out of line.)
Sean, the guy from California asked why we were talking about discrimination protections. He said, “doesn’t everyone everywhere already have those protections?” OK, maybe that shouldn’t be a direct quote, but that was the gist of his comment. And as I explained that no, over 72% of Pennsylvanians can be fired, or refused housing or turned away from a restaurant, simply because they are perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. He looked at me in disbelief. Really! Disbelief.
Ted Hoover, who is working on Persad’s Community Safe Zone project, tells a story of two identical twins, who get in a car in Allegheny County, where each have the same rights, at least in terms of employment non-discrimination. One of the twins is lesbian, and the other is straight. As they drive, they cross the county border, and immediately, one of the twins has even fewer rights than her straight sibling. But many, many, people, from elsewhere as well as who live here, assume that everyone has basic protections in employment, housing and public accommodations.
And PA HB 300 is just sitting there, waiting for the PA House leadership to feel comfortable that they have enough votes to move it forward. And many of these hold-out votes, are conservative Democrats from across Western Pennsylvania. So, some progress continues across the state. I wr0te recently about Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County, where a college student asked their Township leadership to adopt protections, and progress continues in some other areas across the state. But at the same time, in Lancaster County, the commissioners have introduced legislation that would effectively remove all discrimination protections there. That’s right. If Lancaster County is successful, women, minorities, and the religious, will be just like gays and lesbians who can be fired, refused entry, or denied housing. Even where protections are more secure, individuals find challenges. During the week before Pride, there was a guy here in the Pittsburgh area, who was told he would be fired if he showed up (off hours, simply to pick up his paycheck) looking like he looked. His clothing was deemed to be not masculine enough. In that case, the employer backed off, but for this guy it was still a troubling and frightening experience. And this really isn’t a gay issue alone. For example, a straight woman may be declined employment because her interviewer interprets her as being not feminine enough because she is wearing a pants suit to the interview, rather than a skirt.
I honestly don’t know how to address the fact that so many people, like Sean are under the false impression that discrimination is a non-issue. They may hold this misconception because they live or come from a place where everyone is protected, but too often they say something like, “come on, we aren’t still living in the Dark Ages.” But Sean’s reaction wasn’t unusual. Many people think that basic protections are enjoyed by all. There is this generalized sense that- of course- we must be past all of that. But, as a State and for the entire country as a whole, we are not past all of that. Any attempt to pass ENDA (the Federal Employment Non Discrimination Act) has failed year after year. ENDA only provides protections in employment. So, only a sparse patchwork of states, counties, cities and municipalities across the country offer these protections. In less than 30% of Pennsylvania, people are protected.
So, my solution- the best that I can do is just keep talking about it. At coffee houses, here on the blog, and everywhere I go. Care to join me? Add your voice to the dialogue, and help break the misconceptions that of course- we must be past all of that, so that we can pass legislation to actually move us past all of that! And lastly commit to talking to your PA House Representative, and ask that they help get PA HB 300 passed. Ask them to become a co-sponsor; or ask them to pressure the House Leadership to move this bill forward; or ask them to become a vote for passage, if they are currently not sure about the bill. Educate your representative about why this bill is so important. Be part of the solution, and work for the passage of PA HB 300.
Photo by Asturnut, used under Creative Commons License.