Employment rights, civil liberties

On Nov. 4, we proved that Americans care about each other, children, our planet and democracy; voters did something I would never have imagined even two years ago by electing Barack Obama. But things were not golden everywhere: In California, Proposition 8, the ban on same-sex marriage, passed by 52 percent of the vote.

People are angry — as they should be. All families deserve to be valued. No family is second-class. No individual should be forced to remain single. No child ought to be raised outside of marriage just because some adults are small-minded, biased and unfair. But not everyone in the LGBTQ community (or the straight community, for that matter) wants to marry. Same-sex marriage puts the pressure on — sometimes where it is not wanted.

Being single, footloose, carefree and nontraditional has its fans (in both communities), but being discriminated against in the workplace sucks for everyone.

Those of us in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Erie County and 11 other communities in the commonwealth have recourse if we are denied a job, refused a promotion, evicted from our apartment or thrown out of public accommodation based on our sexual orientation, but the remaining 75 percent of the state’s more-than 12-million residents do not have such protection. That’s why the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission’s job should be expanded.

Your rights should not depend on whether your town or county has decided to protect them.

Several of my colleagues and I worked diligently last session to correct this deficiency. Two bills to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity were introduced: one in the House and one in the Senate. As chairwoman of the House State Government Committee, tasked with review of the legislation, I held public hearings across the state to gather testimony from any Pennsylvanian interested in participating. I am proud to have organized the first-ever official Pennsylvania General Assembly hearings on a lesbian-gay issue.

Last September, the committee was poised to report out the legislation, but the Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Family Institute ignited fears and the bill had to be withdrawn — not so different from California.

These legislators who succumbed to antigay hysteria disregarded the wishes of their constituencies. A Susquehanna Polling and Research poll reported 86 percent of Pennsylvanians believe there should be workplace equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; 84 percent supported laws prohibiting discrimination in housing; and 89 percent favored equal access to public accommodations. Those are enormous margins; they show that most Pennsylvanians already know that ensuring protection from these kinds of discrimination is the right thing to do.

It’s also the smart thing to do for our economy. Nationwide, 20 states — including our neighbors of Maryland, New Jersey and New York — already have laws that ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation. Twelve states, including New Jersey, have laws banning job discrimination based on gender identity. These states have a competitive advantage over Pennsylvania when it comes to attracting and retaining businesses and residents.

As the economy continues to decline and jobs are lost, we can and must do more to ensure equal-employment rights for all Pennsylvanians, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. But elected officials cannot do it without you. Get active in organizations that protect civil liberties. Write the gay and straight press. Talk gay rights up with your neighbors, friends and family. Involve your church, synagogue, mosque or temple. As the 2009-10 legislative session gets underway, let’s turn our anger over Prop. 8 into making Pennsylvania a better place for everyone.

Josephs is chair of the House State Government Committee, which reviews legislation on civil rights. As chair, she sets the committee agenda.