About 600 activists, community leaders, politicos and everyday residents converged in Harrisburg late last month for the first-ever Pennsylvania Progressive Summit — nearly triple the number originally expected — and spent the weekend discussing everything from environmental concerns to healthcare reform to LGBT-rights issues.
In addition to the specific LGBT-focused panel discussions held throughout the Jan. 29-31 event, marriage equality hit the spotlight at a debate among the Democratic gubernatorial candidates, with the four hopefuls coming down on both sides of the fence.
Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel both came out in favor of marriage equality, with Hoeffel noting: “It’s very simple. People have a right to be happy.”
The other two candidates, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and Auditor General Jack Wagner, however, said they oppose same-sex marriage.
The weekend also featured a forum with Sen. Arlen Specter and his primary challenger, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, along with nearly 50 panel discussions.
One of the first panels of the weekend was titled “Equality Legislation at the Local, State and Federal Levels” and there was standing-room only for the discussion on current and future LGBT legislative efforts, which was led by Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission chair Stephen Glassman, state Rep. Dan Frankel (D-23rd Dist.) and Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union legislative director Andy Hoover.
Glassman said the panelists gave the 50-plus audience members an overview of current federal legislation, from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” as well as state initiatives such as the bill to include the LGBT community in Pennsylvania’s hate-crimes law and numerous county- and city-level LGBT efforts.
Glassman said he was impressed by the responsiveness of the audience, which included numerous state representatives.
“It was really amazing that we had such great attendance and they asked some really good questions,” he said. “A lot of people were asking about ways that they can go about doing things and what they should do to help, so it was really interactive.”
The “Marriage Equality” panel — which featured state Sen. Daylin Leach (D-17th Dist.), prime sponsor of the state’s marriage-equality bill, the Rev. David Zwifka, Rabbi Carl Choper, attorney Derek Cordier and married couple Dwayne Heckert and Ted Martin — similarly drew a crowd of nearly 50 people, who took part in a discussion about the complexities of the fight for marriage equality.
Martin and Heckert got married June 19, 2008, just three days after the California marriage-equality law went into effect, and several months before the passage of Proposition 8 threatened to invalidate their marriage, an issue the couple addressed during the panel.
“Getting married was an absolutely wonderful experience but election night was a terrible experience,” Martin said. “Watching Barack Obama getting elected was incredible, but then seeing the entire state of California reject your marriage was personally very hard for both of us.”
Michael Morrill, executive director of Keystone Progress, the lead sponsor of the summit, said the event allowed progressives from a slew of different communities to draw support from new outlets.
“One of the most exciting things was that we were able to bring people into LGBT issues who hadn’t been involved before,” Morrill said. “We were able to cross-fertilize activists from different issues so LGBT people who’d only been focusing on their issues, and maybe had concerns about something like the environment but hadn’t actually worked in that area, connected with environmental activists and were able to learn more and get involved. And then people who were focusing on economic issues learned more about LGBT issues and can support them now. We had a lot of the stereotypical union members who had never been exposed to these issues and who came out talking like they were veterans in the LGBT-rights movement. It was very rewarding to see.”