Equality Pennsylvania executive director Ted Martin and board president Adrian Shanker were among the invited guests for a June 8 event organized by Equality Federation — a coalition of statewide LGBT-rights groups — and Obama LGBT liaison Gautam Raghavan.
The participants, who represented about 30 LGBT agencies, met with officials from a number of federal departments, including Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Education, State, Justice and the president’s executive staff.
Martin said each of the federal representatives provided a valuable overview of the LGBT-specific measures and policy changes put in place in the last few years — such as the rule banning LGBT discrimination in federal housing programs and the mandate that federally funded hospitals permit patients to name their visitors.
“I still get calls from people saying that they’re having trouble visiting their spouse in the hospital and this helped clarify just what the rule says,” Martin said. “This is a very important rule and something that people need during a scary time like that, so it was helpful having that pointed out again so that I can make sure we’re passing this information along to people in Pennsylvania.”
The administration also reviewed the LGBT-specific provisions in such areas as health-care reform.
“The Affordable Care Act is so important for LGBT families and individuals,” Shanker said. “Once it’s fully implemented, being transgender will no longer allow you to be denied health insurance for a pre-existing condition. Our community faces a lot of health-care barriers like this and many of them are addressed in the Affordable Care Act.”
While the tone of the event was positive, the LGBT leaders didn’t give the federal administration a free pass, Martin noted.
“There were times when it was a bit heated, when they were questioned about times when the president didn’t move fast enough or if he hasn’t provided enough leadership. But the meeting was give and take, which is what made it work so well,” he said. “It’s a credit to the Obama administration and to the tenacity of Equality Federation that we’ve made it clear that we can help in this work and that we want to be a part of bringing about these changes. It was terrific to be sitting there as openly gay people, trans folks and allies and making our points and having them really heard.”
The briefings also included a look ahead to the LGBT work yet to be accomplished.
Shanker said the officials emphasized the administration’s commitment to making the Violence Against Women Act LGBT-inclusive and to advancing LGBT inclusion in such areas as customs and border control, so that LGBT couples can declare themselves as such, instead of as individuals, as currently required.
“One of the biggest takeaways is that there’s so much work that still needs to be done,” Shanker said. “We’ve certainly come a long way and this has been the most supportive White House ever, but we still have a lot of policies that need to be changed and laws that need to be passed.”
Shanker noted that while the current Congressional makeup presents a challenge to advancing LGBT-rights measures, LGBTs and allies still need to mobilize behind such work.
“We need to work harder as a community to educate our Congressional delegation from Pennsylvania that our rights are not controversial and shouldn’t be partisan,” he said. “Even with a split Congress, we should be able to address things like workplace discrimination and repealing DOMA. Our Congressional delegation needs to be educated about the importance of prioritizing these issues.”
With Pennsylvania’s state legislature also lagging on many LGBT issues, Martin said, Friday’s event was valuable in that it allowed LGBT leaders from a host of states to share experiences and ideas for advancing state-level LGBT issues.
“Equality PA has been a member of Equality Federation for a number of years, and these are people that we’re not competing with for fundraising or anything; we’re all just there to help one another,” he said. “We talked with a group in Missouri and were able to share information on best practices of passing local nondiscrimination ordinances because that’s something they’re also working on. It was a perfect opportunity for us to sit down with our colleagues for support. The state groups are really doing the grassroots hard work so it’s good to know that there are other people working on the same issues that you are.”
Jen Colletta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.