Transgender people and their supporters, gathering Nov. 13 at the University of Pittsburgh, concluded that next year would be crucial for securing equal rights and protections from Harrisburg.
"We must see the words 'sexual orientation' and 'gender expression and identity' in our statute[s] in order to make sure everyone has equal protection under the law," said Stephen Glassman, chairman of the state Human Relations Commission. The HRC investigates statewide cases of alleged discrimination based on race, religion and other status categories -- but it has no jurisdiction over claims of discrimination against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. A House bill adding those protections died in committee last year.
Glassman expects to see new legislature introduced in Harrisburg early next year. One measure would protect LGBT people against discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation. A second bill would add LGBT people to those protected under the state's hate-crimes law. Once included under the state's Ethnic Crimes and Intimidations Act, protections for gays were stripped from the law two years ago after a Lansdowne, Pa., group, Repent America, won a lawsuit that hinged on how the bill had been originally passed, not on its substance.
Bobby Peck of Wilkinsburg, a 43-year-old female-to-male transgender who attended the meeting, trains medical personnel across the country about issues in trans lives. "Many people are very uncomfortable with people who are gender variant," he said. "Right now, it is an illness to be a transgender," at least according to the latest diagnostic manual published by the American Psychiatric Association, "just like it used to be [an illness] to be a homosexual. Of course, transgender people have a hope that that [designation] will be removed."
Je'amour Matthews, 48, of North Braddock, transitioned from male to female more than 30 years ago. The discrimination is certainly real, she said: "I've been denied housing, lost jobs. I was told to my face, 'You should be thankful we hired you.'"
"What I find is interesting," said Miranda Bey, 36, of McMurray, who is also a trans female, "is that a great deal of trans women never experienced discrimination when they lived lives [as] white males. During and after gender transition, the true face of our world and community comes out," despite a general increase in acceptance.
Last year's attempt at a new anti-discrimination bill garnered 78 co-sponsors in the House, but never made it out of committee. It faced opposition from the state branch of Focus on the Family, the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which called the bill "a radical amendment to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act" that would "threaten religious liberty and individual conscience, and the right of business operators, landlords and even churches from making [sic] appropriate moral choices."
Currently, 20 states have protections for sexual orientation in their laws, while 13 states and Washington, D.C., include protections for gender identity and expression. The HRC's Glassman fears Pennsylvania will miss out on its chance to pass such a measure once Ed Rendell leaves the governor's post in 2010.
Among the 30 states lacking statewide protections for LGBT people, Pennsylvania has the greatest number of individual municipalities with anti-discrimination laws: 14, up from six in 2002. Trans protections in Pittsburgh were added in 1996 to a law that already protected gay people. In Philadelphia, protections for transgender residents were added in 2000. Other local governments are weighing similar measures. In Allegheny County, 11 out of 15 county councilors support anti-discrimination legislation that protects both gender identity and sexual orientation. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 25.
For the two state anti-discrimination bills to be proposed next year, Democratic state Rep. Dan Frankel of Squirrel Hill urged those attending the meeting to seek personal contact with their legislators. Even if a legislator would actively support such changes, Frankel says, voters can try to convince them to let the bills come up for a vote.
"Everyone in this room has a personal story that is powerful and meaningful and represents something that could be a teachable moment for a legislator," added the HRC's Glassman. "They need to see human beings who are transgender." Trans Working Group: Emilia@transburgh.com or 412-383-2233.