Top Stories

137

For many reasons, 2008 will stand out in history. Though the true impact remains to be seen, the most significant event this year was the election of Barack Obama as president. For the first time in its history, the United States of America elected an African American to lead the country.

But the country has also faced numerous troubles, from investment fiascos to the housing bust to the recession and local budget woes. So too were there highs and lows for Philadelphia’s sexual-minority community. With the election of Obama came the passage of Proposition 8 in California, overturning gay marriage in that state. The LGBT and allied communities responded with rancor, staging protests across the country. Contributing to the opposition was a local man, John Templeton Jr., who donated over $1 million to support Prop. 8, the second-largest individual donor.

Earlier this month, a New Jersey commission delivered a report recommending full marriage rights for same-sex couples, finding that the state’s civil-union law does not provide equal rights. Several bills failed to pass in Harrisburg, including a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and a nondiscrimination bill that would have provided protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In July, the state Supreme Court struck sexual orientation, gender identity and disability from the hate-crimes law, asserting the amendment process was unconstitutional. At the end of August, the city ended its contract with Critical Path, which provided Internet access, e-mail and Web hosting for nonprofit organizations, many of whom serve people with HIV/AIDS.

This year, the community also saw several out leaders depart their positions, including Prison Commissioner Leon King 2nd and Equality Advocates Pennsylvania executive director Stacey Sobel. This year also saw presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama speak directly to this paper on issues of importance to the LGBT community. In two ongoing stories, the city took the Boy Scouts to court over noncompliance with the Fair Practices Ordinance and the Police Advisory Commission subpoenaed the District Attorney for records related to transwoman Nizah Morris’ 2002 death.

Nearly a year ago, the community celebrated as “Freeheld,” the story of Laurel Hester’s fight to leave her pension to her partner, won an Oscar.

California voters approve Proposition 8

Voters in California approved Proposition 8, which sought to amend the state’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage, in the Nov. 4 election. Prop. 8 passed by a margin of 52.3-47.7 percent.

Prop. 8 added the sentence, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” to the state constitution, effectively striking down the state Supreme Court’s May ruling that found the state’s previous ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

The passage of the initiative energized LGBT activists around the country and even the world. For days after the election, daily protests were held throughout California and, on Nov. 6, more than 1,000 protesters converged on a Mormon church in Los Angeles, with LGBT and ally individuals denouncing the church’s nearly $20-million funding of the Yes on 8 campaign. Similar protests at Mormon churches sprang up throughout the country in the ensuing days, including one in New York City Nov. 12 that drew a crowd of nearly 7,000.

Join the Impact, an online community organized just days after the election, called for coordinated global protests against Prop. 8 on Nov. 15. Between 5,000-6,000 people demonstrated outside Philadelphia’s City Hall that day. Police diverted traffic around the area as demonstrators staged an impromptu march around City Hall.

Philadelphia’s demonstration drew one of the largest crowds in the country.

Brandi Fitzgerald, one of the lead organizers of the local protest, has since launched a Pennsylvania chapter of Marriage Equality USA to keep the local dialogue on same-sex marriage open.

Other local organizers included the Rev. Jeffrey Jordan, John Speer, Jamie Owen, Hannah Zellman, Nicholas Deroose, Tiffany Thompson and Sam Van.

There are several lawsuits pending in California that argue the initiative was passed unconstitutionally; until the court rules, the marriages of 18,000 same-sex couples are in limbo.

Local man tops Prop. 8 donor list

A local man who serves on the board of directors of the Philadelphia-area Boy Scouts chapter donated $900,000 to back the ballot-initiative effort to ban same-sex marriage in California.

John Templeton Jr., chairman and president of the John Templeton Foundation in West Conshohocken, made the contribution on Aug. 19. He gave $450,000 to the National Organization for Marriage California-Yes on 8 and the same amount to Protect Marriage-Yes on 8, the umbrella organization to which all Yes on 8 donations were sent. He donated an additional $200,000 in October.

Templeton had tied with a California man for the largest contribution from a single individual to the campaign. The Knights of Columbus topped the donor list.

The Templeton Foundation provides funding for organizations that are committed to “advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries.” A foundation spokesperson asserted that Templeton’s donation was made independently and is not necessarily representative of the views of the foundation.

Templeton founded public-policy organization Let Freedom Ring Inc. and also was a founding member of Freedom’s Watch, a political-advocacy group. He has served on the Boy Scout’s local Cradle of Liberty Council for more than 10 years and is currently the chairman of the council’s health and safety committee. The Cradle of Liberty Council is currently in a legal dispute with the city of Philadelphia, which claims the group has violated its nondiscrimination policy, and ordered the chapter to pay fair-market-value rent for the city building it occupies, stop discriminating or vacate the property.

Mayor ousts out prison commissioner

On Jan. 9, shortly after Mayor Nutter took office, his administration notified out prison commissioner Leon King 2nd that he was going to be replaced.

King, who was appointed to the position by former Mayor John Street in 2002, was the first openly gay prison commissioner in a major city.

King, who said he had not expected to be one of the city officials ousted by the new administration, said, “It was a pleasure working for the city, and I’m very proud of what I did with the prisons.”

Under his direction, the Philadelphia prison system, the fifth-largest in the country, partnered with local HIV/AIDS-service organizations to raise awareness about the disease among inmates. In an innovate move that drew both praise and criticism from officials in other prison systems, King authorized condoms to be placed on the commissary list in Philadelphia prisons to facilitate inmates’ access to them and decrease the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Nutter replaced King with former Riverside Correctional Facility Warden Louis Giorla.

In April, King was named the director of legislation in City Councilman-at-Large Frank Rizzo’s (R) office.

Director resigns from legal LGBT group

Local LGBT leader Stacey Sobel abruptly announced she was stepping down from her position as executive director of Equality Advocates Pennsylvania Aug. 7. Her resignation was effective the following day.

Sobel said she made the move to allow for more time with her family.

Sobel took the helm of the LGBT legal organization in 2001 from founding executive director Andrew Park, who started the organization as the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights in 1996.

Sobel spearheaded numerous organizational developments, overseeing the group’s move to a new office, formalizing the organization’s programs and reaching out to new funding sources.

Under Sobel’s leadership, Equality Advocates’ income more than tripled, as did the staff size.

On the legislative front, Sobel wrote and helped push through an amendment to the state’s hate-crimes law that would extend protections to the LGBT community, helped defeat constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage in the state in both 2006 and 2008 and worked to elevate the visibility of the LGBT community among state legislators.

“Stacey has been an extraordinary leader with vision, dedication and talent, and has brought a heightened sense of awareness of the value and contributions of LGBT people in the state of Pennsylvania,” said Steve Glassman, chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

NJ commission backs marriage

The New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission released its final report Dec. 10, which urged the state legislature and the governor to approve legislation to legalize same-sex marriage.

The 13 members of the commission, which was formed to evaluate the effectiveness of the state’s 2006 Civil Union Act, unanimously agreed that the state’s civil-union law was not adequately providing same-sex couples the same rights afforded to heterosexual couples through marriage. The commission held 18 public hearings, in which marriage-equality supporters and opponents gave 26 hours of oral testimony on the issue. The commission also reviewed hundreds of pages of written testimony and looked at civil-union and marriage laws in other states before coming to its decision.

Since the February 2007 enactment of the law, about 500 people have contacted the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, alleging that employers, hospitals or other agencies had not honored the provisions of their civil unions. The commission found that the state’s refusal to extend marriage to same-sex couples created an implicit second-class citizenship for those couples and their families, which it asserted could have damaging psychological and economic consequences for them.

The commission recommended that a marriage-equality law should “be enacted expeditiously because any delay in marriage equality could harm all the people of New Jersey.”

A spokesperson for New Jersey Gov. John Corzine told PGN that the governor needed to review the report more thoroughly before deciding if he would take any action to push through a marriage-equality bill. Corzine had previously said he would sign a marriage-equality bill if and when it reached his desk.

Clinton, Obama speak on LGBT issues Former Democratic presidential-nominee hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton spoke with PGN in April, detailing her plan to address LGBT issues if elected.

On the issue of same-sex marriage, Clinton said the decision should be left up to individual states, and she reiterated her support for domestic-partner benefits for all LGBT Americans. She also had expressed an interest in repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but said she was unsure if an executive order or signing order would be appropriate. Clinton pledged to expand support for LGBT youth and push for more equitable immigration laws for same-sex couples.

Sen. Barack Obama declined an interview before the April primary but did speak with PGN in September. Obama said he would work to repeal the military’s ban on openly gay servicemembers but that he would first ensure a full understanding of the issue among top military officials. Obama also called the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bans same-sex marriage at the federal level, “an unnecessary encroachment” on states’ rights, and advocated for legislation to overturn DOMA. Obama said he would be committed to improving conditions for LGBT individuals in countries that condone violence against the community, and that he would support an amendment to the federal hate-crimes law that would extend protections to the LGBT population.

NJ documentary wins top prize

A documentary film about a dying New Jersey woman’s struggle to have her pension benefits awarded to her domestic partner won a top honor at the Feb. 24 Academy Awards ceremony.

The Academy named “Freeheld” the Best Documentary Short, and film producer Vanessa Roth and director Cynthia Wade accepted the award, which brought international attention to the issue of same-sex-relationship recognition in New Jersey.

“Freeheld” tells the story of Laurel Hester, a detective in the New Jersey Prosecutor’s Office who spent 25 years with the department, yet, months before her passing, the Ocean County Freeholders denied her petition to transfer her pension benefits to her partner, Stacie Andree. “Freeheld” chronicles Hester’s ongoing battle with the Freeholders, which she eventually won shortly before she lost her battle with lung cancer.

“Freeheld” has also been recognized by numerous LGBT and mainstream film festivals and won the short-filmmaking special jury prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

Scouts continue battle with City

The Cradle of Liberty Council, the local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America, filed a federal lawsuit against the city May 23, arguing that the city’s efforts to remove the organization from its city-owned residence were unconstitutional.

The Scouts have been operating rent-free out of the building at 22nd and Winter streets for nearly 80 years, but in 2007 City Council authorized the removal of the chapter because its ban on openly gay members violates the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance.

Mayor Nutter told chapter leaders earlier this year that they could either pay fair-market rent of $200,000 a year for the building or begin permitting openly gay members; Nutter pledged that if the group declined both options, it would face eviction by June 1.

The council’s suit, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, alleges that the city’s ultimatum infringed upon the group’s First Amendment rights. City attorneys filed eviction papers June 2.

Common Pleas Judge Mark I. Bernstein announced earlier this month that the non-jury trial would begin Dec. 7, 2009.

PAC pursues Morris files

The Police Advisory Committee subpoenaed District Attorney Lynne Abraham’s office in the summer, seeking all documents related to the 2002 death of transgender woman Nizah Morris.

Police gave Morris a courtesy ride on Dec. 22 of that year, but she was found a short time later at 16th and Walnut streets with a fatal head wound. No charges were ever filed in the case, and police say their records of the incident were lost.

The PAC’s Aug. 29 subpoena included requests for interview memoranda, cell-phone records, warrants and other reports the office obtained during its investigation of the incident.

This marks the first time the 15-year-old PAC issued a subpoena for the D.A.’s office.

The D.A. issued a letter to the PAC shortly after the subpoena indicating that it wouldn’t cooperate, citing investigative exemptions and privacy rights.

In October, the D.A.’s office offered to show the PAC some of the records if it would withdraw its subpoena, which the PAC refused. The two parties later reached an agreement in which PAC members will be permitted to inspect the Morris records at the D.A.’s office.

PAC executive director William Johnson said that if the inspection does not yield enough information, the PAC will proceed with court action against the D.A.’s office to obtain the records.

Earlier this month, the D.A.’s office requested that PAC members who will attend the inspection sign a confidentiality agreement.

The inspection is pending.

PA leg. defeats antigay marriage amendment

A coalition of LGBT allies in the state House and Senate worked together to defeat a bill that would have amended the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage or other unions.

The legislation, dubbed the Marriage Protection Amendment, passed the Senate Appropriations Committee May 5, but the full Senate voted to table the bill, which was introduced in February by Sen. Michael Brubaker (R-36th Dist.) the following day.

Speaker of the House Rep. Dennis O’Brien (R-169th Dist.) contacted Republican senators during the debate and informed them that, if they passed the legislation and it came to the House, he would refer it directly to the State Government Committee; Rep. Babette Josephs (D-182nd Dist.), chair of the committee, pledged to kill the legislation.

Before the Senate tabled the bill, several senators from the Philadelphia area introduced amendments to heighten dissension among the bill’s supporters.

Sens. Anthony Williams (D-Eighth Dist.), Christine Tartaglione (D-Second Dist.), Vincent Hughes (D-Seventh Dist.), Michael Stack (D-Fifth Dist.) and Shirley Kitchen (D-Third Dist.) introduced amendments to regulate gun control. Sen. Vincent Fumo (D-First Dist.) proposed an amendment to the bill that would have outlawed divorce in Pennsylvania.

“[Proponents of the bill] argued all along that they were not trying to discriminate against gays, but that they merely want to protect the institution of marriage and preserve marriages,” said Fumo’s press secretary, Gary Tuma. “Sen. Fumo’s amendment was a chance for them to put up or shut up.”

A spokesperson for Brubaker told PGN last week that he was unsure if the senator planned to reintroduce the measure this session, but that he was leaning toward not pursuing it again.

Court overturns hate-crimes law

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court voted unanimously July 23 to uphold a lower court’s ruling that removed protections for LGBT individuals from the state’s hate-crimes law.

The court ruled that the amendment that had added sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, ancestry and mental and physical disability as protected classes under the Ethnic Intimidation Act was approved unconstitutionally.

The state legislature passed the amendment as an addition to a 2002 agricultural bill, which antigay activists argued altered the original purpose of the legislation, which violates the state constitution’s legislative rules.

“We are extremely disappointed that some of the most vulnerable people in Pennsylvania are now unprotected by our state’s hate-crimes law,” said Stacey Sobel, former executive director of Equality Advocates of Pennsylvania.

Michael Marcavage, head of local antigay group Repent America, who filed a lawsuit to repeal the 2002 legislation, praised the state Supreme Court ruling.

“The methods used by the Pennsylvania legislature in passing the hate-crimes bill were extremely devious and yet another chilling example as to how far politicians are willing to go to silence Christian speech that they would violate our state constitution to do it,” he said.

Steve Glassman, chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said last week that he expects a bill to surface in the state legislature this coming session that would reinstate LGBT and other protections to the hate-crimes law.

Non-discrimination bill fails in PA House

A bill that would have made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing or public accommodations died in a House committee in September.

State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-182nd Dist.), chair of the House State Government Committee, chose not to pursue a committee vote on HB 1400 on Sept. 22. Josephs said she did not believe the bill had enough support to see a victory in the committee and that she did not want to risk its defeat by voting.

The bill, which was introduced by state Rep. Dan Frankel (D-23rd Dist.) in June 2007, was the subject of a series of public committee hearings held throughout the state in the fall of 2007.

In order to make it out of committee and back to the full House for a vote, HB 1400 needed 15 affirmative votes. Josephs said there were 14 definitive “yes” votes, but that she and other Democratic committee members did not feel secure enough that a Republican member, who’d previously pledged her support, would follow through with a vote.

Currently, 14 counties in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, have nondiscrimination laws that include the LGBT community, but about 75 percent of the state’s residents live outside these areas.

A representative for Frankel told PGN last week that the legislator planned to reintroduce a nondiscrimination bill in the upcoming session.

City axes HIV ’Net group’s funding

The City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services ended its contract with HIV/AIDS service provider Critical Path on Aug. 31.

The DHS contract had provided Critical Path a $115,000 grant each year since 2002, which comprised more than half of the group’s funding.

Critical Path provided free dial-up Internet service to individuals with HIV/AIDS across the Philadelphia area and offered numerous services for HIV/AIDS service organizations, such as Web site hosting, Internet access and e-mail accounts.

A spokesperson for Mayor Nutter said the DHS contract was intended for Critical Path to provide Internet access at the Family Support Centers in the Philadelphia Public School System, which are no longer functioning.

As a result of the funding cut, Critical Path suspended its free dial-up Internet service but was able to retain its other services.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected]