GOP Lawmakers Failed Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ Communities Again in 2021

Gov. Tom Wolf and state Reps. Jessica Benham (at podium), Dan Frankel, Malcolm Kenyatta, and Brian Sims speak at a news conference to unveil the Pennsylvania Fairness Act in June. The bill, which would ban discrimination against LGBTQ communities, has been sitting in committee for months. (Courtesy of Pennsylvania House of Representatives)

By Patrick Berkery

December 29, 2021

Republicans could have stepped up this year to prevent LGBTQ discrimination and remove stigmatizing language in the PA criminal code. They chose not to.

Pennsylvania’s majority-GOP state Legislature had opportunities in 2021 to move on legislation that would advance equal rights for members of the LGBTQ community.

There was a bill before them that would protect Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ residents from discrimination. Another bill merely sought to remove a single word  — “homosexuality” — from the state’s criminal code, and with it some stigma around it. 

Neither bill advanced. And David E. Moore, founder and president of the Meadville-based Pennsylvania Equality Project, isn’t optimistic about the chances for either bill with the Republicans who control the state House beholden to certain hardline factions of their constituency.

“I don’t think Republicans are going to move forward on these pieces of legislation,” Moore said. “I think that has to do with the mentality within the Republican party. They don’t want to alienate their conservative backers, the religious and business leaders who oppose anything related to LGBTQ+ rights.”

Let’s recap what happened with both bills and see where things stand moving forward.  

House Bill 300 — The Pennsylvania Fairness Act

Some 22 states afford LGBTQ individuals protections from being denied housing, jobs, education, and access to public accommodations. That includes every state in the Northeast, with one notable exception: Pennsylvania.

It’s not for lack of trying. State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) has been working for more than a decade on legislation that would protect LGBTQ Pennsylvanians from descrimination. The majority-GOP state Legislature has refused to get on board time after time.

Frankel tried again in June, introducing the PA Fairness Act (HB 300) with prime sponsor state Rep. Jessica Benham (D-Allegheny), the first openly bisexual woman elected to the state Legislature. The bill would provide a long overdue update to state law, prohibiting discrimination against an individual based on their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. 

A memo accompanying HB 300 cited the US Supreme Court’s landmark 2020 decision in the case of Bostock vs. Clayton County, which found an employer cannot discriminate against an individual because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. As the memo states, Bostock vs. Clayton County was an historic victory for civil rights in the US, but it doesn’t prevent Pennsylvanians from being denied housing, employment, education, and public accommodations based on who they are or who they love.

“The Fairness Act is popular with voters and virtually guaranteed to pass the Pennsylvania House and Senate,” Frankel said when the bill was introduced. It even had two Republican co-sponsors: Todd Stephens (Montgomery) and Wendi Thomas (Bucks).

But six months later, the PA Fairness Act is still sitting in the House State Government Committee due to a lack of Republican support.

Benham said her Republican colleagues who control the legislature often talk about how they understand the importance of the bill. Ultimately, their actions speak much louder than their words.

“As a queer woman, I would say that many of them express understanding and support for why this matters to me,” Benham said. “But I have not seen these personal conversations turn into action. There have been promises made by members of the majority party around protecting LGBTQ people, but we have yet to see any movement. When they put their money where their mouth is, when we see actual movement on this, that’s the moment I’ll believe members of the majority party care about my rights.”

Benahm feels that House Republicans’ stance on anti-discrimination rights for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians is not necessarily indicative of how their constituents feel, even in the more traditionally conservative parts of the state. A poll conducted earlier this year by the Pittsburgh firm CivicScience showed that a majority of likely voters across the state support LGBTQ-inclusive policies. “When you look at polls across the state, regardless of political ideology or party affiliation, Pennsylvanians of all stripes believe that LGBTQ people deserve protections,” Benham said.

With the PA Fairness Act stalled in committee heading into an important election year, Benham believes Pennsylvanians have the power to prevent GOP lawmakers in Harrisburg from continuing to fail the LGBTQ community. 

“The majority party has had the opportunity to bring up the Fairness Act, not just this session but in many sessions previously, and they have not,” Benham said. “If LGBTQ Pennsylvanians and those who care about them want to see pogrees on LGBTQ rights, they could start voting for people who co-sponsor bills like the Fairness Act. People who don’t just talk about fairness but take action.” 

Senate Bill 609

Back in March, state Sen. Tim Kearney (D-Delaware) introduced Senate Bill 609, legislation aimed at removing specific “unnecessary, offensive” references to “homosexuality” from the state crimes code. As the language currently stands, homosexuality would be considered “obscene” and “deviate” under Pennsylvania’s criminal code.

Kearney introduced the bill after residents of Upper Darby, Delaware County, scrapped a township ordinance that had specific references to homosexuality. Township officials found that their ordinance mirrored language that appeared in the state crimes code.

“In 2021, there is no good or technical reason to distinguish homosexuality within our Public Indecency statute,” Kearney wrote in a memo that accompanied the bill.

Though the bill had support from his Democratic colleagues, Kearney said not a single Republican got on board. Nine months later, SB 609 remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“To me, it’s a no brainer,” Kearney said recently. “I don’t understand why we wouldn’t do something that just feels like housekeeping. Every other week, we seem to name a bridge or highway. We can do that, but we can’t clean up language in our own codes?” 

Curiously, given the lack of Republican support for Kearney’s bill — and a like-minded amendment proposed by state Rep. Mike Zabel (D-Delaware) in May — two Republican members of the state House have proposed similar legislation. Fairness Act co-sponsor Todd Stephens and Paul Schemel (Franklin) presented House Bill 2125 in November.

Kearney plans to bring up his bill again with state Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne), chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And while he knows his bill deals with language, not policy, Kearney feels the removal of one offensive reference in the state crimes code is a step toward keeping members of the LGBTQ community from being othered. 

“The reality of it is that it doesn’t really affect people specifically,” Kearney said. “But it reinforces how we think about them and how we qualify them. I think of this bill as being a priority not just for LGBTQ folks in my district, but also all over the commonwealth. We do very little at the state level to try to protect them.” 


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