Civil Unions Bill Introduced With 42 Co-Sponsors

On Valentine's Day, February 14, 2011, I introduced a bill legalizing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in Pennsylvania with 42 co-sponsors, up from 32 last year. These forty-two co-sponsors represent 21% of the House. Several of the co-sponsors of the civil unions bill joined me and Senator Daylin Leach--sponsor of a marriage equality bill--at a press conference in the Rotunda: Reps. Pam Delissio and Michael O'Brien of Philadelphia, Eugene DePasquale of York, and Dan Frankel of Pittsburgh. Senator Larry Farnese of Philadelphia, a co-sponsor of Senator Leach's bill, also spoke at the press conference.

I believe that civil unions legislation in Pennsylvania has a reasonable chance to be passed into law by the end of 2012--if there is a significant grass roots effort behind it. I am pleased that Mark Stier, the leader of Penn Action, has promised that Penn Action will be putting it on its list of things its supporters should talk to legislators about. I am hopeful that other broad-based groups will do likewise. This is a human rights issue no less than it is a gay and lesbian rights issue.

The support for civil unions in the House is far deeper than its list of co-sponsors. It exists in both Democratic and Republican members. According to a 2009 Franklin and Marshall College Poll, 58% of Pennsylvanians (including 73% of Southeastern suburban residents and 61% of Philadelphians) back civil unions. According to a 2009 Muhlenberg College Poll, 61% of Pennsylvanians back civil unions. I eagerly await further polls: there is no reason to believe that current support is not as higher or higher among the general public than it was then.

For gay and lesbian couples, marriage equality does much more than civil unions. Civil unions are not second class marriages; they are not marriages period. They give the rights of marriage, but they do not give the status of marriage, and the status of marriage is of substantial importance. I am for civil unions at this time because they are possible to achieve in Pennsylvania in the forseeable future and marriage equality is not. Sen. Daylin Leach, frustrated at the resistance from his fellow Senators, joked at a panel discussion we both participated in at the Progressive Summit last month that Pennsylvania will pass marriage equality "just weeks after Mississippi does." That is talking about generations or centuries, not years.

Civil unions are somewhat analagous to the laws which give unmarried mothers the right to child support, which give live-in partners the right to escape domestic violence in women's shelters, and which give ex-partners the right to prevent stalking. In all these cases, marital rights are extended to non-marital partners, but no marriage is created.

I do not believe in historical determinism. I study demographic and opinion trends intensely, but I do not believe that they determine what happens. All they do is offer windows of hope. My view is that we should seize the open space in the windows of hope which make civil unions possible in Pennsylvania, and help our gay and lesbian friends, relatives, and co-workers move substantially closer to equality than they are now.

The quintessential word about Pennsylvania politics is moderation. Moderate policies are inherently more popular in Pennsylvania--and the Pennsylvania legislature--than either liberal policies or conservative policies. Pennsylvania has rejected conservatism in gay and lesbian rights by rejecting a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, one of only 21 states to do so. Pennsylvania has rejected liberalism in gay and lesbian rights by not passing an anti-discrimination law to protect them, as 21 states have already done. 5 states--California, Colorado, Hawaii,Oregon and Wisconsin--embraced both sides, banning gay marriage constitutionally and banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Support for civil unions--giving equality of rights but not equality of status--is well within Pennsylvania's tradition of moderation. Winning civil unions while keeping away the constitutional ban on marriage equality is the best we can get in this legislative session. It is considerably better than nothing, and we should go for it.

Civil unions is an inherently moderate, middle of the road position that commands majority support in Pennsylvania.

What's more important?

This is a welcome development – but I think a few qualifiers need to be considered when looking at relationship legislation.

The first is that marriage equality does not equal gay marriage. There are many people who might be covered by such legislation who may not identify as either gay or lesbian. Most notably transgender, transsexual & intersex citizens. Transsexual people may have difficulty getting married around the country regardless of the sex of their partner.

Different jurisdictions would consider my (as a woman with a transsexual history) marrying a woman as either a same sex marriage or as an opposite sex marriage – sometimes even different counties within states wouls allow me to marry a man in one county while another would allow me to marry a woman. And – many of the state doma’s that try to define marriage as between one man and one woman don’t take into account that intersex people may not fit either category according to some clerks view. This would seem to be an equal protection violation for these types of legislation. And – of course – many civil union bills allow straight couples to enter into such legal relationships. So – it’s not just about gay & lesbian couples.

I would also suggest that this type of legislation is simply not as important as a comprehensive Civil Rights Bill statewide. I believe HB 300 is still under consideration? As reported here:

“But what struck me most was an example Thomas Walters gave on his blog, which he credits to Ted Martin of Equality Pennsylvania. The scenario goes:

You and your boyfriend get married on a Saturday afternoon, but are denied accommodations at a hotel on Saturday night, when you want to have your honeymoon. On Tuesday, you go to find a bigger apartment, but are told they do not rent to homosexuals, and when the current landlord finds out, she evicts you. On Wednesday, your employer finds out and fires you. By Thursday, you are married, but living in a cardboard box, homeless and without a job.

Regardless of the marriage issue, basic equality is denied to most Americans. It is also the one issue that most Americans of all stripes — even Republicans — support. Of course, marriage equality is important and no one is saying otherwise. But so are our endangered LGBT youth, our seniors and the transgender members of our community. And what about the couples among us with children who need government services? All good issues. The reality is this community is fighting for equality and equality means a level field with all other taxpayers

Read more: PGN-The Philadelphia Gay News. Phila gay news. philly news - Discrimination dust up “

And Stephen Glassman, the Chair of the PA Human Relations Commission has also often noted the greater importance to people’s lives and well being of a full civil rights bill over a marriage or even a lesser civil union bill.

For trans people the push for marriage has often left us out of nondiscrimination legislation – one need only look to states where sexual orientation was covered in nondiscrimination bills – but gender identity and expression were not and later the push either to obtain relationship rights or fight back repeal attempts have left many trans people subject to continuing severe levels of discrimination with no legal recourse. One need only look to Delaware, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut and New York to see this effect. While many other states (including PA with its 19 transgender inclusive nondiscrimination bills) took different tacks on enfranchising all lgbt people – say – New Jersey, California, Iowa, Maine, & Minnesota. A major study has just been released on the discrimination faced by transgender citizens – I’ll post a link and some results below.

So – my hope is that we put all of our efforts behind the relationship bill – especially in a state that doesn’t protect any lgbt people in their nondiscrimination bills. It simply isn’t the highest priority. A woman my age is statistically very unlikely to ever marry – I’ll always need to work & have a place to live. As will lgb people. And you have to ask how not pushing those local nondiscrimination bills will effect the ability to pass a federal nondiscrimination bill two years from now when we try again.

But – we all know that the big money is behind the push for marriage right now. Lot’s of it from very rich people who don’t face other types of discrimination and who already live in states where sexual orientation is covered in nondiscrimination legislation – but gender identity & expression is not.. It seems questionable for them to try and force that agenda not just for trans people – but for glb people who live in states where they don’t enjoy the protections the big money gays do.


Including these key findings:
• Respondents were nearly four times more likely to live in extreme poverty, with household income of less than $10,000.
• Respondents were twice as likely to be unemployed compared to the population as a whole.
• Half of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment or other mistreatment in the workplace, and one in four were fired because of their gender identity or expression.
• While discrimination was pervasive for the entire sample, it was particularly pronounced for people of color. African-American transgender respondents fared far worse than all others in many areas studied.
• Housing discrimination was also common. 19% reported being refused a home or apartment and 11% reported being evicted because of their gender identity or expression.
• One in five respondents experienced homelessness because of their gender identity or expression.
• An astonishing 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide, compared to only 1.6% of the general population.
• Discrimination in health care and poor health outcomes were frequently experienced by respondents. 19% reported being refused care due to bias against transgender or gender-nonconforming people, with this figure even higher for respondents of color. Respondents also had over four times the national average of HIV infection.
• Harassment by law enforcement was reported by 22% of respondents and nearly half were uncomfortable seeking police assistance.
• Despite the hardships they often face, transgender and gender non-conforming persons persevere. Over 78% reported feeling more comfortable at work and their performance improving after transitioning, despite the same levels of harassment in the workplace.


"So – my hope is that we put all of our efforts behind the relationship bill"

Was of course - that we NOTput all of our efforts behind the relationship bill.

Vast Majority of GLBT Population Not Engaged

Assuming that 4% of the adult population of Pennsylvania is gay or lesbian, that would mean there are about 400,000 such people in Pennsylvania. Just as the vast majority of businesses are not involved in any Chamber of Commerce, the vast majority of workers are not involved in a labor union, the vast majority of blacks are not involved in a civil rights organization, etc., so the vast majority of gays and lesbians are not active in any effort to end discrimination in Pennsylvania.

Some people really, deeply care about about securing legal rights for committed GLBT couples. Some people really, deeply care about ending employment discrimination. Some people care care about both, and some people care about neither.

My feeling is that everybody should be active in whatever issues he or she cares about. Those who care about ending legal discrimination against the GLBT community should work for that. Those who care about getting rights for committed couples should work for that. Those who care about both should work both to the extent their schedules permit, and make choices about priorities in case of conflicts.

Rep.Dan Frankel, the prime sponsor of the anti-discrimination bill, has said he does not see how it can become law while the Republicans dominate the state house and the state senate and a Republican is governor. I tend to agree with that analysis. I am no latecomer to this cause: I developed the successful strategy to pass Philadelphia's anti-discrimination ordinance in 1982 at a time when only a handful or so of jurisdictions in this country had already passed one.

I believe that while passage of civil unions legislation is an uphill battle, it is a winnable battle in the near term future in a state that has not chosen to ban marriage for gays and lesbians or civil unions. It does not involve forcing anyone to do what they do not want to do. It is a useful bill which helps members of the GLBT community, but it does not give them equality of status. It is a cause that a lot of people who have not previously been active in struggles for gay rights might well choose to become active in.

Marc Stier and I are the first participants in the Young Philly politics community to get involved in this issue. I trust we will not be the last.

The unfortunate expeience on this particular issue

is that those working on this issue in other states did not benignly just advocate for that change - but actively stifled efforts for those other rights and communities while doing so.

This has lead to decades of active stifling of trans peoples rights - a comment from a staffer in an certain MA Congressman's office:

"we made an oral deal about 20 years ago in MA ... about marriage (first to keep trans people and trans rights invisible "

PA may be one of the states that thankfully is not following that practice..... now (though trans people weren't included in that 1982 bill - I was one of the leaders getting the Bill to rectify that omission passed in 2002 - your father made a very gracious comment to me after my testimony - BTW - in 1983 Harrisburg did pass an inclusive bill.) .....I think it's naive to discount the long history of this practice.

Priorities are always part of the legislative process - how we make those choices needs to be discussed.

Reconciliation of Dates

This blog entry was first posted on February 12, announcing the press conference. It was edited on February 14, to reflect the fact that the press conference had been held and one new co-sponsor had come aboard. The comments dated February 12 and February 13 were made in response to the original post.

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