- Brian Kaldorf
- Hundreds packed into the meeting room of the Allegheny County Council to speak for and against a county-wide anti-discrimination bill.
On a well-below-freezing night, hundreds of people lined up to make their way through a painfully slow security check at the county courthouse. They filled every seat in the fourth floor's Gold Room, and scores more stood in the hallway waiting for a chance to get in.
Typically, seats at county council hearings are at no such premium. But this was no typical hearing.
The topic at hand was a proposed county ordinance, Bill 4201-08, which seeks to establish a county-wide human-relations commission that would bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as such less-controversial bases as race or disability. While such discrimination is already illegal in the city of Pittsburgh, and 13 other municipalities statewide, federal anti-discrimination laws don't apply to LGBT citizens at all.
The bill was introduced in July by freshman councilor Amanda Green. Eighty-five people pre-registered to speak, and 65 actually did, 48 in favor of the ordinance and 17 against it. Those against the ordinance -- clergy, physicians, parents and small-business owners -- overwhelmingly cited religious objections. People speaking for the ordinance included gays, lesbians, transmen and transwomen, high school students, psychiatrists, elected officials and clergy.
The hearing opened with state Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill) expressing his support, followed by Pittsburgh city council president Doug Shields endorsing it. The city's first openly gay councilor, Bruce Kraus, also backed the measure. Invoking Harvey Milk, a crusading gay San Francisco councilor who was gunned down by another politician, Kraus mused, "Thirty years have passed and yet the struggle continues."
Kraus wasn't the only one to summon historical figures. Jeanne Clark recalled the desegregation of Little Rock High School, telling councilors "You can show your political courage. You can be Kennedy, or you can be this generation's George Wallace. History will note which side you're on."
Audience members occasionally cackled derisively or hissed as opposing viewpoints were expressed. Richard Gelfand, of the Sewickley Lighthouse Baptist Church, drew loud laughs from the crowd when he said gays and lesbians can change their orientation at will. He called the ordinance "one more chink in the armor of the moral fabric of our society.
"It takes away the rights of another segment of our society to live according to their conscience -- a clean conscience before God," Gelfand added.
Many of those opposed to the ordinance made similar points -- that an ordinance that prohibited them from refusing to hire or rent to someone because of their sexual orientation or gender presentation would limit their expression of their own religious beliefs.
Jim Ludwig, proprietor of Blumengarten Florist, said he never considers sexual orientation when deciding whom to hire, but said he was leery of being forced to rent a room in his house to a gay tenant, or having his child be forced to attend Boy or Girl Scouts with a gay scoutmaster.
"It does not give homosexuals rights, but takes them away from the rest of us to associate with who we want to associate with," said Dave Cranston, of the West Hills Baptist Church.
As written, however, the legislation contains protections for religious organizations. Religious institutions are excluded from rules regarding employment, and the bill allows religious organizations to show preference to their own members when selling or leasing property. The bill also addresses the fears of the "defense of marriage" crowd: It states that employers are under no obligation to give "non-married persons" the same benefits as married couples receive.
Some Christians, meanwhile, question the priorities of their fellow believers.
"It grieves me to my core that fellow Christians are speaking to oppose this legislation," said Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian minister who was recently tried by a church court for performing a marriage ceremony for two lesbians. "No religious institution will be required to do something contrary to their faith." Her own church, she says, "discriminate[s] against our own LGBT members by refusing to ordain them. Under this ordinance we can continue to do so in Allegheny County. Religious arguments are bogus."
"The arguments on the other side have not changed at all. It's point-for-point what they were saying 20 years ago," says John Michael Curlovich, who spoke at the hearing in favor of the ordinance. "It would be nice to see the county be progressive."
That may take awhile. Green's bill initially had 10 other cosponsors. But three have dropped off. And those three -- Matt Drozd, Michael Finnerty and James Ellenbogen --have not responded to CP's requests for comment on why they withdrew their support.
The issue has also been muddied by the Jan. 3 death of Cleophus Pettway at Club Pittsburgh, a Strip District business whose owners bill it as a fitness club, but which some have termed a "bathhouse," or meeting place for casual sex. Club Pittsburgh is owned by Peter Karlovich and Steve Herforth, prominent gay philanthropists who have been active political donors. Among the recipients of their largesse are local politicians like Shields (to whom they've contributed at least $500) and Kraus ($6,000). They've also contributed at least $2,000 to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, contributions that came to light when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the city, after complaints about the club, did not follow up with on-site inspections.
Karlovich and Herforth are also members of the Delta Foundation, which recently took over and expanded the city's yearly Pride festival. Delta's president, Gary Van Horn, owns Images, a gay bar Downtown. He's also the unofficial liaison to the new LGBT advisory board the mayor's office is convening.
Some in the LBGT community worry that headlines surrounding Club Pittsburgh have made it harder to win support for the county's bill.
"It's hard to know for sure" if that's why support is eroding, says Curlovich. "It does something to reinforce the idea that gay people are all about promiscuous sex." But, he adds, "People have sex. There are straight sex clubs."