After years of advocacy, Philadelphia’s proposed gay-rights ordinance made it to the full City Council for a vote Aug. 5, 1982.
The energy in chambers was palpable the day the vote was scheduled.
“It was really charged,” said Scott Wilds, a member of Philadelphia Lesbian & Gay Task Force, the leading proponent of the bill. “The room was filled with supporters but there was also a large group that had been bussed from a conservative Baptist church in the Northeast. It was quite a scene.”
As lawmakers readied Bill 1358 for a final vote, Councilwoman Joan Krajewski attempted to stall by introducing a measure to recommit it to committee.
Krajewski argued that opponents were unaware of a hearing held in late July, and brandished a letter from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia calling for further study of the legislative topic. The Archdiocese also argued that its officials deserved time before Council to clarify its position on the measure, after pro-gay testimony was submitted by Catholic clergy not affiliated with the Archdiocese.
Future mayor and then-Councilmember John Street railed against Krajewski’s motion.
“What we have here is a situation where people neglected their responsibility to come in and state their views and at the last minute they’re trying to use a scam,” Street said.
Wilds said that advocates were concerned that Krajewski’s tactic would be effective.
“We didn’t know that we had the votes to stop it and we were afraid that, if a delay happened and it stretched over the summer, that it would just get stuck,” he said.
However, Krajewski’s measure ultimately failed: She was seconded by Councilmembers Harry Jannotti, Beatrice Chernock, Brian O’Neill, Joan Specter and Anna Verna but nine other members opposed.
Once that hurdle was cleared, advocates knew they were headed for victory.
Ultimately, the vote was 13-2, with Krajewski and Jannotti in opposition. Councilmembers in favor included lead sponsor Lucien Blackwell, John Anderson, Chernock, Augusta Clark, David Cohen, president Joseph Coleman, Ann Land, O’Neill, Specter, Street, James Tayoun, Verna and John White.
“There were a lot of people in that room who’d put some serious energy into this, so it was like a carnival atmosphere,” said PLGTF co-founder David Fair. “For months we couldn’t come on too strong because we didn’t want to push any buttons, but this was the first time we could really be celebratory about this.”
At the time Bill 1358 was approved, about 50 cities nationwide had moved to outlaw discrimination against gays and lesbians, and Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp had, through executive order, banned sexual orientation-discrimination in state employment.
Philadelphia was the first municipality in the state to do so.
The fact that Philadelphia City Council joined these other entities to declare its support for its gay and lesbian citizens was, in itself, significant.
“When this was first proposed in 1974, people were being arrested all the time and there were constantly raids of gay bars, and that was something that was even still going on in 1982. So the fact that we could get this done, and with such a clear majority, was very affirming,” Fair said. “It was really the first time that I had this very public affirmation as a gay person. It was the beginning of the process of believing that maybe it was possible to have LGBT people perceived of as just another group of people in the community, rather than outcasts who needed to be fought against.”
Mayor Bill Green had until Sept. 9 to take action on the bill but, instead of adding his signature or vetoing it, he elected to quietly let it slip into law.
“I would like to hope Bill Green now regrets the fact that he didn’t sign it,” Wilds said.
The law’s impact
With the enactment of Bill 1358, the Fair Practices Ordinance, which already prohibited discrimination based on factors such as race, religion and age, was updated to include sexual orientation, defined in the law as “male or female homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality, by preference, practice or as perceived by others.”
Potential violations of the law are handled by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which investigates complaints, provides mediation services and can dole out penalties such as fines for individuals or organizations found to be in violation of the law.
Over the years the law has seen other updates, such as the 2002 incorporation of gender identity and last year’s overhaul that strengthened the possible penalties and eased the city’s life-partner registration process.
PCHR executive director Rue Landau said sexual orientation-related cases have comprised about 8 percent of the agency’s caseload in each of the last five years, with an average of 19 cases per year. Most of the complaints center on employment discrimination.
“The law acts as a deterrent for discriminatory behavior,” Landau said. “It sends a strong message that the City of Philadelphia cares about and intends to protect the LGBT community and that anyone who violates the law will be penalized.”
“Since the Fair Practices Ordinance covers discriminatory behavior in employment, housing and public accommodations, adding sexual orientation into the law has made Philadelphia a safer place for the LGBT community — us — to work, live and enjoy,” she said.
Mark Seaman, director of development and communications at Philadelphia FIGHT, filed a complaint with PCHR in January 2010 after he and his then-partner were ejected from a taxi for sharing a kiss.
The investigation is ongoing after the cab company argued that PCHR did not have jurisdiction over the issue, which the commission most recently rejected.
Seaman said he was surprised by the length of time that has elapsed without a resolution, but added that he is heartened that he had legal recourse.
“I think I just expected the law to be in place in a city like Philadelphia,” he said. “I’m grateful that this incident took place in Philadelphia rather than somewhere else where a law like this doesn’t exist. It felt comforting to know this company and this person aren’t going to get away with what happened.”
Seaman, who noted that the law is older than he is, said the work of the activists who secured passage of Bill 1358 is appreciated.
“I am so grateful to those who made this law happen,” he said. “They spared generations from the pain and harm of uncorrected discrimination.”
More than two-dozen other Pennsylvania municipalities now prohibit LGBT discrimination.
Former PLGTF co-chair Dr. Larry Gross said the law’s strength lies in its ability to foster acceptance and awareness of the LGBT community.
“It doesn’t have a great deal of teeth but it’s very important symbolically. The officials who represent this city said that they believe in equality and that they are opposed to discrimination,” Gross said. “The commission process can be slow and cumbersome and there isn’t too much enforcement built in, but having a law like this gives people a sense of progress and recognition. That’s exactly why opponents were against it.”
In addition to the legal support that is now available to gays and lesbians, the passage of Bill 1358 had a resounding impact on the growth of the city’s LGBT political power.
Fair suggested that other successful pro-LGBT initiatives — such as the creation of the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office, funding for LGBT causes and the creation of a domestic-partner program — can all be traced back to the victory of the gay-rights ordinance.
“We matured politically as a community during that time,” Fair said. “We learned to care about electoral politics, and we gained credibility that we’ve been able to use to get other bills passed. It all goes back to the fact that we organized effectively, created a strategy and succeeded. That gave us confidence to accomplish other things for the community as time went on.”