Some Allegheny County councilors are wavering in their support for a countywide anti-discrimination ordinance -- but local gay rights activists are hoping to rally for the cause.
Capitalizing on a 500-person Schenley Plaza protest held in November against California's anti-gay marriage referendum (Proposition 8), a recently convened group plans a Jan. 10 demonstration in the same Oakland spot. The gathering, which will be held 2-4 p.m., is intended to protest the federal Defense of Marriage Act while rallying on behalf of the county's proposed ordinance.
The November rally "was about marriage," says Dana Elmendorf, of Monroeville, one of those who gathered Dec. 28, to organize the upcoming event. "This one's about equality" -- not just in marriage right but in employment, housing and public accommodations as well. The proposed county ordinance will offer new legal protection in those last three areas, creating a county Human Relations Commission to enforce anti-discrimination rules.
"The general population thinks, 'Oh, gays have civil rights -- what's all the fuss?'" says Elmendorf, who is interim board chair of the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, a political advocacy group co-sponsoring the Jan. 10 rally. But in Allegheny County, "it's still legal to be refused a rental" just because you're gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Neither federal laws nor the state's Human Relations Act covers sexual orientation or gender expression -- the way someone presents him- or herself as. (Both those categories are effectively covered within Pittsburgh by city ordinance.)
The county legislation will be the subject of public comment and possibly a vote on Jan. 15.
The bill, which had 12 of 15 county councilors as co-sponsors in November, has since lost three of them. One of the defections is Scott Township Democrat Michael Finnerty, who now says state law "gives adequate protection and we don't have to start to single out another group or groups." Finnerty says his mind was changed by "a lot of the e-mails I have seen" from constituents, "especially from church groups." Those opposed to the measure outnumbered those in favor approximately 30 to 3, he says. "I got phone calls from businesspeople who don't want to have this gender expression [included], to be held to that. People could put in a job application, turn around and sue" over a spurious claim of gender-expression discrimination.
"People's human rights are always a high priority – don't get me wrong," says county Councilor Matt Drozd, who pulled his co-sponsorship of the legislation. But he added, "This is not a high priority now. This will take us more time and take away from the pressing issues this county faces. Roads that aren't repaired. Bridges that aren't repaired. People who are losing their homes. Let's talk about them." He labeled the move "controversial" and said it required further study.
The bill's prime sponsor, Amanda Green, could not be reached for comment by press time. Neither could South Hills Councilor James Ellenbogen, the third official who pulled his co-sponsorship of the bill.
Sue Kerr, who authors the blog Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, finds Finnerty's argument "misleading." Kerr attended the planning meeting for the Jan. 10 rally and urged that the rally include personal testimony about being discriminated against in Allegheny County for being LGBT.
"State law does not include our community," Kerr says. "In most of the state, including Councilman Finnerty's districts, a hardworking, tax-paying citizen can be fired because she is a lesbian. Period."
Adds Kerr, "I could list a dozen people off the top of my head" who are concealing their sexuality at work "for fear of some repercussions. ... We aren't asking for special protections, just that the law protect us from something that is already happening. How many other protected classes would be included in Human Relations Acts if the dominant culture got to put that to a popular vote?"
Says Lance Friedman, another Stonewall Dems board member organizing the Jan. 10 rally: "The protections for sexual orientation and gender identity have been in place in the City of Pittsburgh for multiple years. Yet none of these fear-mongers [against the ordinance] seem to be able to point out any examples" of frivolous lawsuits.
Friedman believes the rally will also bring attention to the state's 2009 judicial elections. The outcome of those races will affect redistricting and thus whether LGBT-friendly legislators have an easier time getting elected. By drawing a crowd to Oakland, Friedman says, "Hopefully we're going to be giving them something important to do when they get home."