The Fairness Act is needed, but a shift in strategy is needed more

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta speaks to the media on the reintroduction of the Fairness Act in 2021 (Photo via Malcolm Kenyatta / Twitter).

This week, Governor Tom Wolf and a group of Pa. Democratic lawmakers and LGBTQ allies held a press conference to announce the re-introduction of the Fairness Act, which would ban LGBTQ discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation. Pennsylvania remains the only state in the region that does not have a statewide nondiscrimination law. While around 70 municipalities in the state have passed local nondiscrimination ordinances, almost 2,500 still have no protections for LGBTQ people. That means that LGBTQ people in most areas of the state can be kicked out of their house, fired from their job, or denied public services solely because of their sexuality orientation or gender identity.

We have to keep trying to pass a nondiscrimination law in Pennsylvania. In that respect, the reintroduction this week of the Fairness Act, also known as House Bill 300, is a good thing. But we also need to be realistic about what such shows of symbolism are capable of doing for us. Because for all the good that symbolism does — to show visibility, to educate — it often doesn’t lead to results in a one-sided legislature.

Since 1976, the Fairness Act and its predecessors have been introduced in Harrisburg many dozens of times. (For those interested, the Pennsylvania Youth Congress is an excellent resource for the history of this seemingly neverending story.) In most cases, if you research any of those past LGBTQ nondiscrimination bills on the General Assembly’s web site, the status is: Referred to [Committee]. If you’ve ever heard someone say a piece of legislation “died in committee” look no further than the years of attempts to get nondiscrimination legislation passed in Pennsylvania. Once something is referred to committee, it enters a void which, for the most part, only the committee chairperson can rescue it from. There is no law that says a bill in committee must have hearings or must go up for a vote. If he wants (and his record would indicate he most certainly will), State Rep. Seth Grove, the chair of the State Government Committee who now determines the fate of the Fairness Act, can take zero action on the bill. No hearings, no votes. Just as Rep. Daryl Metcalfe did when he chaired the committee, Grove can leave the bill flailing in the void of lost hope, the void of partisanship. That void is what Democrats in Harrisburg have had to contend with for most of the last few decades. A great many bills that could help people are left unvoted on and even undiscussed because the committee chairperson — and their leadership — don’t care.

The gridlock in Harrisburg is a large part of why local nondiscrimination protections are crucial in Pennsylvania. Rep. Grove, one of the major arbiters over what happens to the Fairness Act, actually introduced legislation in 2018 that sought to nullify local LGBTQ-inclusive ordinances, so it’s not likely that he’d want a statewide version to get approved or even have the potential to be approved.

So what can we do to get a statewide LGBTQ nondiscrimination law?

First: continue to push for local ordinances. This strategy makes sense because LGBTQ support is often built locally by people within their communities. The more local ordinances that get approved, especially in areas away from big cities, the more likely the next step is to happen.

Second: get more Republican support. Building bipartisan support is important, and this current iteration of the Fairness Act does have Republican support in Harrisburg. But it’s important to consider whether it has the support of Republicans in power, Republicans who can determine whether the bill gets debated and voted on. One hopes that if some Republicans get on board, they can try to influence the rest of their caucus. But without support from key Republican members, hopes of getting the Fairness Act passed would be futile.

Third: spread awareness on a larger scale. The message that we need LGBTQ nondiscrimination in Pennsylvania resonates for the simple reason that many residents don’t even know that an LGBTQ person can be fired or denied services for being LGBTQ. If people don’t know that a problem exists, they won’t offer their help or support.

Four: call out those who put up roadblocks. It’s a safe bet that most LGBTQ Pennsylvanians, and most Pennsylvanians in general, don’t know who Rep. Seth Grove is. That’s partly the fault of the media, including this newspaper. So in the future, we at PGN will make sure that our readers know who the key players are who stand in the way of statewide LGBTQ equality. But it’s also important for our allies in Harrisburg to start calling their colleagues out by name. Their constituents need to know who is preventing them from getting meaningful work done. Their constituents need to know who to call and who to write to voice their concerns.

Five: educate people on how government works. Most people hear the phrase “partisanship” or “partisan gridlock” and they get mad at the opposing party. It’s always the other party’s fault. But the truth is that most people don’t know what partisan gridlock truly means. Most people don’t know how bills become law. Most people don’t know that one person, or a handful of people in power, can block bills in perpetuity. While some people know that Mitch McConnell has famously blocked everything from gun control to LGBTQ rights to election fairness, a lot of people don’t know the difference between the Senate and the House, much less who the “Mitch McConnell of Pennsylvania” is. 

It’s not enough, in 2021, for politicians to carry the full weight of their constituents’ needs. Constituents themselves need to get involved now. And the first step towards doing that is education. Because without pressure from the people, those in power will continue on with the status quo. And in Pennsylvania, the status quo does not protect LGBTQ people; it leaves them vulnerable to losing their job or their house. It allows a hospital to deny them medical care. And it reminds them that they are not valued as much as a non-LGBTQ person.

This brings a final point: as long as the rules of the legislature are what they are, the power to bring bills to a vote rests in the hands of a select few people. All of those people are from the party that has a majority. So, even if every single one of Pennsylvania’s 2,562 municipalities passes a local nondiscrimination bill, a few lawmakers could still choose, despite overwhelming support from citizens across the commonwealth, not to have hearings on the bill and not to bring the bill up for a vote. In our charged political climate, there are people who cling so tightly to their beliefs that they will ignore even their own constituents. So, to be perfectly clear, the one thing that needs to happen to guarantee a statewide LGBTQ nondiscrimination law is: voters must elect a Democratic majority in the State House and State Senate. Only then will we truly be sure it will happen. Until then, the odds are, unfortunately, stacked insurmountably against us.