In a show of unanimous support, members of City Council passed legislation Feb. 14 that would change language in the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter to be more gender neutral.
Voters will ultimately decide the issue as a ballot question in the May 21 primary election.
The current charter mostly relies on male-specific titles, such as “councilman,” “councilmen” and “Councilmanic,” when referencing members of City Council. This measure would take away any gender-specific references and replace them with the more-inclusive forms of “councilmember,” “councilmembers” and “Council.”
“It’s really antiquated that we are using gender designations for people of our local legislative bodies,” said Councilmember Derek Green, who proposed the legislation. “This bill would take the perspective that, regardless of your gender expression, we will not define you in a specific way in our city government, and that we’re open to all people of all gender representations being members of this Council body.”
Green said he came up with the idea after a National League of Cities conference, which was attended by city-level legislators from across the country. There, he said, it struck him that members of council were always referred to in a more gender-neutral way.
“I came back and was reflecting on that, and noticed that some office placards at City Hall say ‘councilmember,’ while others say ‘councilman.’ Our business cards do the same,” he said.
In doing more research, he was surprised to find that the most updated versions of the city charter and code also refer to people on City Council as “councilmen,’ with the exception of a small number of “councilmember” references.
“It doesn’t even say ‘councilwomen’ — it says councilmen,” he said. “We’ve had women who were members of City Council for a long time.”
Six women currently serve on the 17-member Council.
“It’s not fair for someone who — regardless of how they express themselves from a gender perspective — reads our city code to find language that refers to members of City Council as men. That’s not a good perspective as a city that’s moving forward. As a society, we are moving forward on this issue and I think this helps in a small way to continue that progress.”
The Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs helped to generate initial support for the bill by enlisting two of its policy interns, both of whom identify as non-binary, to testify before City Council.
One of those people was Jasper Katz, a law student at Temple University, who says the move is not just a win for women but for transgender and non-binary folks as well.
“When you have language like ‘councilman,’ what that’s implying is that only men are welcome here,” they said. “Changing the language to ‘councilmember’ is a simple change. We’re not fundamentally altering the structure of our government, but what it does is send a huge signal to everyone in Philadelphia that they not only can participate in their government but they are wanted and needed.”
If the bill passes in May, it will go into effect for the next council session in January, when new members and those re-elected are sworn in. Green says the language overhaul will apply not only to the city charter and code but everything that’s designated for members of City Council, including business cards, websites, correspondence and letterhead.
If all goes as planned, the measure would further establish Philadelphia as a bastion of progressivism in the state of Pennsylvania, which still lags behind in offering even the most basic non-discrimination protections for its LGBTQ citizens. But Green says he sees a glimmer of hope on the state level and hopes Philadelphia can continue to push the Commonwealth in the right direction on the issue of LGBTQ rights.
“I hope the voters of Philadelphia will be supportive of this legislation,” he said. “We’re making progress but we have much more to do, especially at the state level. Every step that we can do here in Philadelphia, I think makes progress around the Commonwealth, as well.”