When state Sen. Jim Ferlo announced that he is gay in the middle of a press conference encouraging action on hate crimes legislation earlier this week, he became the first openly gay senator — and one of just three Pennsylvania state legislators to share that distinction.
"I paused and I just kind of spoke, as I often do, from my own personal emotional viewpoint," Ferlo told City Paper in a recent interview. "I think more and more it’s important that people make statements and be out front on some of these causes. I thought it would be helpful in a way. I wasn't looking to grandstand."
We'll have more from Ferlo in print and online next week, but we reached out to state Rep. Mike Fleck — one of just two openly-gay Republican state legislators in the country — to get a sense of his experience since coming out in December 2012.
"I’m excited for him," Fleck says, "I’m sure it was a relief; I know it was a relief for me. I’m a proud gay man — but Jim has always been there on the issues. It wasn't much of a secret — that’s where I was [before I came out]."
I asked Fleck if he ever felt like there was a tradeoff between being open about his sexuality and being taken seriously by his more conservative peers. For the most part (with a few exceptions), he said, being gay has had little bearing on his interactions with his colleagues.
"There’s a certain respect there between legislators. I’m sure there are few legislators who have a problem with it, but they’re not in my face."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the guy who seems to have the biggest problem with Fleck is ultra-conservative Daryl Metcalfe. "He’ll not want to sit near me," Fleck says — and when Fleck tried to introduce a resolution honoring the Boy Scouts (Fleck himself was an eagle scout) "Daryl said he would contest it if I ran it. It put the speaker in an awkward position."
And while experiences like those are outliers in Harrisburg, when he's back in the district, just south of Penn State, it's a different story. Unlike Brian Sims — a Philadelphia Democrat — and Jim Ferlo, Fleck says he is often the most visible gay person in his community.
"It’s a bigger deal in my area. There’s only one or two gay activists in my district," he added. "I had a really heated race in the primary — there was a lot of homophobia. My own opponent called me a fag years ago. I do get that occasionally; that makes me cringe when I hear that."
Fleck says he supports including LGBT people in the state's hate crime laws, something Ferlo has been pushing for since 2003. "There’s no excuse for that kind of hatred," he says, referring to a Sept. 11 incident in Philadelphia in which a gay couple was badly beaten, seemingly because of their sexual orientation.
Most of the time, though, Fleck says his experience being a gay leader of a rural Republican district is positive and he hopes he's setting an example for those who might be afraid to be open about their sexual orientation.
"Oftentimes, I’ll go into a large group [...] and I’ll think, 'I’m the only gay person here.' It makes me think I’m proud of what I’ve done — because I’m not the only gay person."