During a recent public forum hosted at Bucks County Community College’s Newtown campus, state Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-10th dist.) shared some striking facts regarding Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ+ population.
Currently, Pennsylvania is the only northeastern state in the U.S. that doesn’t have basic human rights protections for residents who identify as LGBTQ+. According to Santarsiero, this means an employer can fire an LGBTQ+ individual, or a landlord can deny housing, and it’s all legal.
“When it comes to civil rights and civil justice, we think about the federal government. We know about certain protections, especially when it comes to race discrimination, that exists at the federal level, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But when we think about LGBTQ rights, it’s very easy for us to kind of conflate all that and think, ‘Well, everyone’s protected,’” said Santarsiero. “But that’s not, in fact, the case.”
Santarsiero went on to explain how, for a number of years, there’s been an effort in Harrisburg to change this situation. But bills pertaining to LGBTQ+ rights struggle to be brought up for a vote, let alone placed on the governor’s desk.
“We are now making a renewed effort to get the bills passed. The bill we have in the Senate is Senate Bill 570,” said Santarsiero.
Preston Heldibridle, executive director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, a youth-led statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, provided more information on the bill. It would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act of 1955, which already includes 11 protected categories.
“It wouldn’t be a big change. It’s just making sure that LGBT Pennsylvanians have basic human rights and basic protections that everyone else enjoys,” said Heldibridle. “For young people when we enter the workforce, we often have to choose between our mental and emotional wellbeing and physical survival. No one should have to make that choice.”
Heldibridle shared that over 71 municipalities across Pennsylvania, including Middletown Township, Bristol Borough, Newtown Borough, Newtown Township and Yardley Borough, have implemented their own local non-discrimination protections. However, if an individual only resides in one of these municipalities and works in one that doesn’t have such protections, they can still legally face discrimination from their employer.
Also present at the forum was state Sen. Nikil Saval, who said Pennsylvania is lagging behind surrounding states because there’s a lack of awareness.
“It may not be clear to a lot of people that this legal discrimination against 4.1 percent of the Pennsylvania population which identifies as LGBTQ – 500,000 people, half a million people – is legal,” he said. “You can be fired from a job, you can be not served at a restaurant, and you can be denied housing because of who you are.”
Because of this lack of awareness, Saval said legislators in Harrisburg don’t feel much pressure to take action. However, he believes that if Senate Bill 570 moved out of committee and was brought to a vote, it would pass with bipartisan support.
“The pressure hasn’t risen to such a degree that anyone is publicly being forced to take a position one way or the other,” he said. “There isn’t the desire to move right now on the part of the majority [Republican] party because there isn’t that organized effort.”
The senators and Heldibridle urged forum attendees to reach out to top decision makers like state Sens. Jake Corman and Kim Ward, who serve as the president pro tempore and majority leader, respectively. Santarsiero said both of these legislators are influential in what gets brought forward for a vote.
“These stakes are pretty high. You think about what it means to be able to go about your life and do just basic things, like be able to rent an apartment, be able to hold a job and not have someone discriminate against you just because of who you are. We take that for granted often, but we shouldn’t,” said Santarsiero. “We have to continually fight to make sure that all of us … enjoy what we generally call the blessings of liberty in this country, and that’s not the case right now, not in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Heldibridle explained why, after decades of attempts to get legislation like this passed, this time will be different.
“There is more bipartisan support for non-discrimination protections than ever before. This is no longer about a population that people are unfamiliar with,” said Heldibridle. “These are our friends, our families, our teachers, our neighbors. We are more visible than ever, we are more outspoken than ever and we have more support than ever.”
The forum was part of a series presented by Bucks County Community College’s Office of Community and Government Relations. College President Dr. Felicia Ganther was pleased that nearly 80 guests joined via Zoom.
“I’m encouraged that here in Pennsylvania, there are legislators and community personnel and youth leaders and administrators and faculty who believe that this is a topic that needs to be discussed, and that equality and civil rights and fair and just treatment of all should be at the paramount of everything that we do,” said Ganther.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org