Three LGBT activists staged a demonstration at the office of Pennsylvania Congressman Chris Carney (D-10th Dist. ) last week, calling on the legislator to support the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Audrey Smith, Tyson Daniels and Caryn Winters participated in a sit-in Sept. 9 in Carney’s Williamsport office, spending more than six hours sitting on the floor, singing, chanting pro-equality mantras and speaking with members of Carney’s staff.
When the office closed in the afternoon, Smith refused to leave and was eventually arrested.
Smith is a co-founder of Justice League Activate!, a central Pennsylvania LGBT organization that teamed with national direct-action group GetEqual for the protest.
GetEqual targeted Congressman Dan Miller (D-Calif.) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week with similar actions as part of its ENDA Summer campaign, which is focusing on lawmakers in more than a dozen states whose votes will be vital to the passage of the measure, which would prohibit discrimination in hiring and firing practices based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Currently, 17 municipalities in Pennsylvania protect individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity but there are no state-level protections.
Carney voted in favor of ENDA in 2007, although that bill, unlike the current measure, was not inclusive of gender identity, and GetEqual co-founder Robin McGehee said members of Carney’s staff have indicated the congressman is “leaning toward no” on the latest version.
A Carney spokesperson confirmed he voted for ENDA in 2007 but didn’t give further comment on his position.
“Rep. Carney specifically represents who we targeted in other states as well,” McGehee said. “He’s a person who has a ‘D’ behind his name but he’s not voting pro-equality in the way the [Democratic National Convention] tries to hail as its platform. Although he did vote for employment protections in 2007, he voted against hate crimes and against the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and our feeling was that he needed to be checked around that and given the message that he needs to do the right thing. He has LGBT constituents and he’s done the right thing for them before, and we need him to do it again.”
Smith, Daniels and Winters took that message to Carney’s office last week, although the congressman, a member of the Navy Reserves, was on active duty at Langley Air Force Base.
Carney’s secretary, however, was in the office and ironically is an open lesbian, Smith said.
She said the protestors had a lengthy discussion with the secretary about the need for a trans-inclusive ENDA, and that she pledged to pass along their concerns to her employer.
Smith said the secretary was very sympathetic and only called the police when she had to lock up the office at the end of the day.
Smith said the officer who responded threatened to Taser her if she didn’t leave the office, despite that she was sitting on the floor at the time and not behaving erratically. The officer eventually handcuffed her and detained her in a police car outside.
“I wanted to let Rep. Carney know how important this is, at least to just one person,” Smith said. “It’s important enough to defy even the law. He needs to understand that.”
The officer released Smith within a few minutes and gave her a citation and fine for $23.50.
While the action was focused on Carney, the protestors also wanted to use the demonstration to empower other LGBT activists from Pennsylvania to mobilize around ENDA.
“I hoped that if any LGBT person heard about the sit-in and arrest that maybe they would lose the fear that may have kept them from calling or visiting their senator or representative or kept them from attending an LGBT rally for equal rights,” Smith said. “Maybe it would encourage some LGBT person somewhere to come out and be more vocal.”
McGehee concurred that Pennsylvanians would be especially affected by ENDA and need to communicate that idea to their elected officials.
“People in places like Pennsylvania, that doesn’t have employment protections, need to fight for democracy and equality. Even for that alone, this [sit-in] was worth it in our opinion.”