An ordinance protecting minorities and others from discrimination seems poised to become law in Allegheny County. Because "gender identity" would be covered, the law would make the county more progressive than either the federal government or the state.
Under the county bill, a newly formed 16-member Human Relations Commission would have the ability to receive complaints, hold hearings, order a stop to discrimination and enforce existing anti-discrimination rules. The proposed law covers potential discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on "race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry or place of birth, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, age" or use of animals to aid those with disabilities.
The county's effort is similar to measures already in effect in Pittsburgh -- but those protections don't apply beyond city limits.
"When we receive calls from people who do not live in Pittsburgh [or] who do not work in Pittsburgh, unfortunately, we are not able to help them," said Charles F. Morrison, director of the city's Commission on Human Relations. "That pains me greatly."
A Nov. 25 Government Reform Committee meeting about the bill focused on language covering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
Local and state gay activists and officials told Allegheny County Council members that inclusion of gender identity or expression, not just sexual orientation, was particularly important. Much discrimination, they pointed out, takes place because of the perception of a person's status. For similar reasons, said Stephen Glassman, head of the Commonwealth's Human Relations Commission, the state Human Relations Act covers color as well as race.
The county law will not render the city's protections moot, Glassman assured the committee. Nor would a change in state law make the county's ordinance useless, he said. (State law previously did protect LGBT people, but the state Supreme Court removed that protection on a technicality last year.)
"There is always greater responsiveness and sensitivity at a local level," Glassman explained. And passing another county law, adding to those in Philadelphia and Erie, can pressure the state to act.
"Discrimination against any minority highlights the vulnerability of every minority," Glassman added. And LGBT individuals experience the "highest per-capita [number of] attacks across the nation," he said.
The city itself, meanwhile, is moving a step beyond a human-rights commission. This month, it is forming a 10-member advisory committee to offer Mayor Luke Ravenstahl local perspective on issues important to the LGBT community.
Gary Van Horn, whose Delta Foundation organized last summer's annual LGBT PrideFest, says getting input from the city's many LGBT organizations will help the community "be unified as one voice. ... It's a lot easier for the mayor than having every group approach him."
Whether the committee represents the community to everyone's satisfaction remains to be seen. Ravenstahl will ultimately appoint its members, and Van Horn expects the first meeting to be in January. He believes sensitivity training for city workers will be "big on the list." So will other social and health issues affecting the community.
In the meantime, some anti-discrimination rules already exist -- a fact for which people like Dana Elmendorf, of Monroeville, are grateful. As a lesbian working on the mental-health unit of a local hospital, Elmendorf told county council members on Nov. 25, she encountered numerous anti-gay slurs and jokes. "There were many days that I felt very uncomfortable and sometimes intimidated."
When a visiting salesperson ended his presentation with an anti-gay joke that drew much laughter, "I was literally just frozen to the floor, uncertain what to do next," she reported. Then she recalled that the hospital itself had a non-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation, which allowed her to talk to her supervisor and coworkers -- even the salesman.
"Because of that policy," Elmendorf concluded in pushing the county to enact its own law, "I was able to move out of my fear ... without fear of retaliation."