Equality PA, the ACLU, and HRC has been sponsoring a series of town hall sessions across the state to talk about the recent shifts in the PA legislature and what to expect in terms of LGBT Rights legislation. I attended two of these- the meeting in Erie on Wednesday Jan 27th, and the Pittsburgh meeting on Jan 28th, and I have a slew of thoughts racing around my head from these experiences.

The ACLU of PA has been, probably the most significant ally for LGBT Rights we have in the state, and Andy Hoover, who is their legislative person in Harrisburg is pretty amazing. Andy describes the ACLU as non-partisan, saying that both Democrats and Republicans annoy them. Their focus on constitutional rights allows them to operate and call out problems and unfairness where ever it is. This is a position I have a lot of admiration for, and over the course of time, as I have worked with Andy, as well as other ACLU staff, I’ve gained a deep appreciation for their focus and determination.

Equality PA is the state-wide LGBT organization focusing on State issues. A few years ago, their executive director stepped down, and then their policy director became too ill to work, and it wasn’t clear as to their future. But the organization was already changing to be a state-wide organization, and it seems they have used that down time to hire a new, dynamic executive director, and grow their board to realize their vision of being PA’s state-wide Equality organization. Ted Martin, their new executive director is doing a great job, and the future looks bright as this group, working with partners such as the ACLU, are ready to do some very hard work in Harrisburg.

The HRC involvement in the town hall meetings was less apparent, but still present. As LGBT organizations go, they have received a ton of flack for being out of touch with the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans persons across the country. I’ve been fairly vocal in my criticism, such as the ease with which they seem to pull Trans protections out of ENDA in an attempt to get something passed. But here, in these town halls, Allyson Hamm, who works for both Equality PA and the HRC offered useful and meaningful input.

Take Home Messages

Seems to me there were a few take home messages from these town halls:

  • Meeting with your legislators is critical if we are going to get Western PA legislators to support LGBT Rights legislation. Too many legislators don’t understand LGBT issues, or do not feel they are important to their constituents. We have to let them know we are out here and we care about these rights.
  • Organizations like the ACLU and Equality PA are ready to lobby and do the hard work in Harrisburg.
  • Organizations that oppose LGBT Rights are well funded , and the LGBT and allied communities need to be willing to financially support the work on our side to confront our opposition. for Example, the Catholic Conference spends probably over a million every year to battle anything LGBT. We, have to recognize the extent to which our opposition is working if we are going to have success, and be willing to fund the work needed to compete.

While I get accused of being a part of Gay Inc, I am actually fairly leery of big organizations making pitches for money. While I “get” all of these take home messages, I am personally most inclined to put my energy towards the issue advocacy. I’m personally not ready to believe we need to create a gay mega organization in PA (similar to the HRC in Washington). I’m not sure I believe that model has proven successful, and I’m not sure I buy into the idea that the Catholic Conference’s work is the real problem. I think the bigger issue is that most lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgenders are not visible to elected officials, and we don’t passionately advocate for our rights. Still, we need a state-wide LGBT organization with a sufficient staff and resources, and the responsibility to pay for that belongs to all of us.

Erie Meeting

While Erie is a real drive from Pittsburgh, I made the trip because Equality Partners of Western PA, a project I’m involved with, is doing an advocacy training in Erie in a few weeks, and I saw the meeting as a chance to help publicize that training. I’m always impressed when I go to Erie! The meetings are always filled with a wide variety of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folks of all ages, who seem eager and willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work for LGBT Rights. I’ve been to Erie four times in the last year and a half, and it is really promising how these folks are going about their work for Equality. I left the meeting really energized and encouraged, and I’m looking forward to being up there on February 8th for the advocacy training. The last training we did up there in July resulted in four legislator meetings, and from what I learned on Wednesday, many phone calls and letters as well! Really good work. These folks seem to understand and set about making it happen. Equality PA has two new board members from Erie, which was great to see.

Pittsburgh Meeting

I could probably write another 1000 words on the Pittsburgh meeting alone! Wow- what a night! In addition to the take home messages listed above, a number of other things became apparent. Three legislators were present for the town hall: Dan Frankel, Joe Preston, and Jim Ferlo. Their perception of what is happening in Harrisburg, and what is going to happen this year was a bit less positive than what Andy Hoover and Ted Martin were expressing, but fit well with the basic take home messages. I’ve met with all three and they are easy to talk to. Joe is my state rep, and Jimmy is my state senator. Both stressed the important of talking directly to your legislator.

But one of the biggest impressions I carried out this town hall, was that unlike Erie, Pittsburgh folks don’t seem as interested in rolling up their sleeves and getting to work. I had a discussion after the meeting with a woman I adore (and the work she does is so important for youth) who believes we need a 501c4 organization to be created so that it (the organization) can lobby legislators. I don’t agree. We have all the organizational structure we need, but what we haven’t done a good enough job at, is engaging folks in the legislative process. You, know, what Joe Preston said- go out and meet with your own legislator!

A Helpless or Helpful Mentality

Sometimes I think hear so much of what I would call, “the helpless” mentality expressed here in Pittsburgh. Another participant in the meeting expressed he didn’t know how we can organize in rural communities. He himself is involved in critical work at getting “community” established out in rural areas. There must first be community developed, and people must not feel isolated before we can expect them to get politically engaged. The work takes time, and we need to do the work, rather than think we are missing something that will make it all easy. Pittsburghers often seem so frustrated with what is perceived as a lack of progress. This is a different side of the “helpless” mentality. Really! So much has been happening here in the Pittsburgh area! Here is just one example:

I spoke this week with Liz Bradbury and Adrian shanker of the Pennsylvania Diversity Network, about Allentown PA’s adoption of Domestic Partnership benefits. Liz told me, “we have been working on this for 16 years.” Here, Allegheny County recently adopted a non-discrimination ordinance. No one had ever asked the county for such protections before- no one had ever raised it as an important issue for the county to consider, but once it was raised, action began, and in a little over a year, the county passed a non-discrimination ordinance and established a Human Relations Commission. That was a big win for our area! Now in about 18 months since that time, the County is working to implement Domestic Partnership benefits, first to non-union workers, while it is introduced as part of labor negotiations for all other county workers. There has been much criticism that this hasn’t been fast enough, but in reality and compared to some other places, it has been extremely fast! We haven’t been working on this for 16 years, yet, rather than celebrate the speed at which we are getting important policies implemented, we complain.

This too, is another example of the value of talking directly to your elected officials! It is one thing to talk about how everyone deserves equality, but it is not enough. What we need are women and men willing to step forward and talk to their elected officials and tell them why we need equality. Just like a constituent did in terms of Allegheny County.

I didn’t leave the Pittsburgh meeting feeling invigorated and excited. I left wondering how we can break the helpless mentaility and stay focused on the work we need to do. Jim Ferlo talked about consituents being more “in your face” with their elected officials, and Dan Frankel talked about a need for an intensity and a passion within the community. How are we going to find and fortify that passion and encourage people to step up and talk to their legislators? We have all the tools we need. Experienced folks in Harrisburg to do the lobbying there, and provide resources and information. A number of local organizations doing great work. We just need to let all of these pieces work together, and we need every gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans person to get engaged and involved. If you have idead as to hgoiw we do that, leave a comment!

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