The Pennsylvania Youth Congress hosted a press conference on Monday to launch Pennsylvania Values, a community-based initiative that calls for the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass nondiscrimination legislation for LGBTQ+ people. Currently, no laws exist in Pennsylvania protecting people in the LGBTQ community from facing discrimination in employment, housing and public services.
Jason Landau Goodman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, facilitated the conference and introduced speakers from across the Commonwealth.
“We’ve always valued equal opportunity here in Pennsylvania,” Landau Goodman said in his opening remarks. “Our state constitution literally begins by enshrining the declaration that all men are born equally free, but that is not the reality for many of us. LGBT Pennsylvanians can be fired from their jobs, denied housing, or refused service at restaurants or doctor’s offices. It’s absolutely time to change that.”
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Browne introduced the first nondiscrimination bill this session, SB224. It would amend the 1955 Human Relations Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity among race, color, religion, ancestry, age or national origin as bases of nondiscrimination in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodation.
The conference speakers, which included politicians, LGBTQ students, parents, civic leaders and people of faith, all stressed the gravity of passing the legislation to amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
Chair of the Senate Labor and Industry Committee, Sen. Camera Bartolotta mainly discussed the need for LGBTQ protections as related to employment discrimination.
“I take very seriously the need to have the best workforce possible to grow our economy and create opportunity,” she said. “I believe that every individual should be free to seek unfettered personal economic enrichment. Leaving talented individuals on the sideline because of one’s sexual orientation and gender identity is sure to fail Pennsylvania.”
She later said in her speech, “This is Pennsylvania, we’ve been here longer than anybody else. It’s time that we changed some of those antiquated, ancient rules and thought processes and brought Pennsylvania into 2020. It is about damn time.”
State Rep. Wendi Thomas of Bucks County emphasized, in part, that in 1975, Pennsylvania was the first state to issue an executive order instituting protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment practices. The order expanded to include gender identity in 2003, she noted.
“That executive order in state employment has been reissued by every governor, Republican and Democrat, since,” she said. “We were leading the way; now we’re behind.”
Bishop Jeremiah Park of the Susquehanna United Methodist Conference spoke about the United Methodist Church’s call for nondiscrimination legislation to be passed in Pennsylvania. He shared more or less the same statement made by himself and two other bishops of the United Methodist Church in 2015, asking state lawmakers to pass the Pennsylvania Nondiscrimination Act.
“Religious freedom means we have the right to our own personal beliefs about the moral issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity,” Park said. “It has never been the case that religious freedom has meant that we can mistreat another person’s liberty to live as equals in our community.”
He also pointed out that Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast that does not have a law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.
Young LGBTQ people also shared their experiences facing discrimination in various facets of Pennsylvania’s communities, including Michael Bugbee, a student at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Bugbee’s landlord at the time asked him to vacate his apartment because of his sexual orientation.
“I couldn’t believe that in 2019, LGBTQ people could be denied a place to live just because of who we are,” Bugbee said.
Maggie Nealon, president of St. Joseph's University's LGBT student organization, alongside delegations of young LGBT Catholics from across the state, discussed her experiences as a Catholic member of Pennsylvania's LGBTQ community.
“When I started to recognize my sexual orientation, I soon had to realize with much sorrow that many in my home church believe these two parts of my life could not coexist,” she said. “I’m still reconciling with that realization to this very day — where the faith I grew up with could be used as an excuse to not hire someone like me or to deny me housing.”
Melissa DeStefano shared the bigotry that her young transgender son faced in his church, at school, and in the courtroom, when seeking a legal name change.
“I believe laws need to be in place to protect LGBTQ people so they don’t have to defend who they know themselves to be in a court of law,” she said. “It’s critical that the justices affirm once and for all that federal law protects LGBTQ people from employment discrimination to help ensure that people like my son aren’t blocked in the workforce.”
Ben Eaton, membership director of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce closed out the conference by discussing the fact that while cities like Wilkes-Barre and Scranton added protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity to local ordinances in 2016, surrounding towns fail to provide similar protections.
“When the business pledge for chambers of commerce to support nondiscrimination protections for LGBT employees came across our desk in Wilkes-Barre, it was a no-brainer for us to sign it,” Eaton said.
“As LGBT protections are being invaded on the national stage through a trio of Supreme Court cases, it is now more important than ever for Pennsylvania to stand with a growing number of states that provide LGBT protections in employment and public accommodations.”