The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation and the Equality Federation Institute released their sixth Annual State Equality Index (SEI), a comprehensive report detailing statewide laws and policies that affect LGBTQ people and their families. The report assesses how well states are protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. This year, 17 states and Washington, D.C., won the SEI's highest rating.
Pennsylvania was among the lowest-ranked states, meeting only six out of 38 criteria outlined in the Index. The SEI assessed statewide LGBTQ-related legislation and policies in the areas of parenting laws and policies, religious refusal and relationship recognition laws, nondiscrimination laws and policies, hate crime and criminal justice laws, youth-related laws and policies and health and safety laws and policies.
"As LGBTQ people continue to face an onslaught of attacks from the federal administration in Washington, the Human Rights Campaign's 2019 State Equality Index (SEI) documents how states were instrumental in advancing equality through pro-LGBTQ legislation, policies and proposals," said HRC President Alphonso David. "In the absence of federal nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community, states must put policies in place to ensure equality for their residents, workers and visitors. In 2020 and beyond, the Human Rights Campaign will continue to work with our partners to defeat anti-LGBTQ legislation in the states and secure new protections for our community, both at the state and federal level. Already, we see the promise of even more protections passing state legislatures in 2020, including action taken in Virginia advancing the Virginia Values Act."
Because there is no comprehensive federal civil rights law like the Equality Act, which was passed in the House in June 2019 but remains unreviewed in the Senate, to protect LGBTQ people at the federal level, the rights of an estimated 8 million LGBTQ people are at risk. According to the HRC report, in 30 states, LGBTQ people can be fired, evicted or denied services because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Pennsylvania is among them.
The top-rated states and Washington, D.C. have strong LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws covering employment, housing and public accommodations.
Naiymah Sanchez, transgender justice coordinator for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, explained to PGN why Pennsylvania continues to rank so low among the states for equality — and what a conundrum it is.
"Support for nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people exists at all levels of government in Pennsylvania," said Sanchez. "We have a governor who instituted nonbinary gender markers for drivers' licenses and has adamantly voiced his support on the issue, including in his latest budget address."
Sanchez added, "Every year, more municipalities pass local ordinances banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And there are supporters from both parties in the legislature."
Philadelphia has a nondiscrimination policy and has continued to broaden protections for LGBTQ people. In October 2019, Councilwoman Helen Gym introduced and passed legislation outlawing discrimination against gender-nonconforming youth. Gym said then, "City Council just took a big step toward making this city safe and affirming for all people. For far too long, trans and nonbinary people have lived with the uncertainty that their jobs and their lives are not protected. Every Philadelphian deserves the right to live their life with dignity."
But the SEI shows Pennsylvania overall on a par with states like Mississippi and Louisiana, while New Jersey and Delaware are among the best states for protections for LGBTQ people.
Sanchez said the state legislature is preventing change.
"Unfortunately, a few powerful legislators hold back progress on state law," Sanchez said. "And that lack of a clear statement, that this type of discrimination is unlawful, has the most impact on particular communities, including transgender people, people of color and those living in poverty."
Pennsylvania also has the lowest minimum wage of the tri-state area, which negatively impacts LGBTQ people who are impacted by employment discrimination. Unemployment rates are three times higher for transgender folks, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Pennsylvania's minimum wage is $7.25 an hour compared with $8.75 in Delaware and $10 in New Jersey.
Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Phila) told PGN, "We should be embarrassed by the disgracefully low ranking in the HRC State Equality Index. It's a slap in the face to LGBTQ individuals from across the commonwealth who want to live in a state that protects their rights and dignity."
A staunch proponent for a range of nondiscrimination reforms, he added, "It's high time we pass the PA Fairness Act and once and for all make Pennsylvania a place that works for all families."