Mark Segal

After 40 Years, PA Democrats Come Out Strong on Equality

Filed By Mark Segal | June 14, 2012 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: gay rights, LGBT equality, LGBT rights, marriage equality, PA Democrats, Pennsylvania

Bet you didn't know that Pennsylvania was in the vanguard of the push for LGBT equality. That was 37 years ago, when it was called lesbian and gay rights, and we were called gay activists. We've fallen behind, but the process of putting us in our rightful place started last weekend.

Before I get to that, let's do the history part. Everyone knows the first demonstrations in the nation for "Equality for Homosexuals" were held each July 4, outside Independence Hall from 1965-69. But that was the pioneer movement and everything changed after the Stonewall riots of 1969.

In 1975, Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp signed the very first executive order in the nation outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation in state government. That same June, he signed the first gay Pride resolution by a governor. Then -- it still brings a smile to my face -- the governor took our suggestion and created the Governor's Council on Sexual Minorities. This was the first official governmental body to look into the problems that gays and lesbians have and how the state can address them. In 1975, this was the first official government body of any type to look into LGBT issues, not in the nation, but in the world. Those successes only lasted through the next two governors and, as the 1980s arrived, they slipped away. Tom Ridge, who you might remember as the nation's first Homeland Security head honcho under President George W. Bush, did away with it all when he became governor.

But the climb to the top started up again last weekend at the Democrat State Committee convention (see story on page 1). The LGBT caucus decided to attempt to introduce a resolution. Sounds simple, but unfortunately all business that will be brought up at a convention has to be given to the party 30 days prior. If not, you have to suspend the rules in order to introduce it.

And it was a simple resolution. It urged the state party to support President Obama's marriage-equality position, vote for marriage equality on the Democratic National Convention platform and urge all Democrat state senators and representatives to support equality legislation in the capitol. Not simple, but beautifully written and conceived and everything but the kitchen sink in one equality resolution. The night before the vote, we had won the support of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, head of the Philadelphia delegation, the largest delegation; U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and former Gov. Ed Rendell, all of whom told party chair Jim Burns that they supported the resolution. But none of us anticipated what happened next.

In order to pass, the resolution had to run the hurdle of a two-thirds vote to suspend the rules. That happened and discussion was open to the floor. This was where the opposition would show itself. Four speakers quickly showed up at the microphones. The first up was Adams County Democratic chair Roger Lund, who told his personal story of having to leave the state he loves to marry the man he loves. Next, a woman from Centre County who mentioned that her lesbian sister would be proud. As so it went. After four speakers all in favor, any opposition melted away and it passed overwhelmingly by voice vote.

The moment it passed, applause erupted, then came a moment where someone had to say something to mark a historic change. Burns looked at me from the stage and I knew what he wanted, but as I made my way to the microphone, I didn't know what to say. What I said just came right out and from the heart. "I've been a member of this party and fighting for equality since Gov. Milton Shapp back in the 1970s. But today is the first day that I don't feel like a second-class citizen. Thank you."

My short speech was received with applause and some even took to their feet, but let's pause for a second. Even if we got marriage equality in Pennsylvania, there are still people who can lose their jobs due to the lack of a nondiscrimination law. It's time to pause and look at our priorities. As long as people are losing their jobs, we'll remain second-class citizens.


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