Politicians, policymakers and leaders talk LGBTQ+ civil rights in town hall

From left, Kevin Levy and Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta sit at a table and talk.
From left, Kevin Levy and Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta. (Photo: Courtesy of ADL Philadelphia)

Members of the PA For Good Coalition hosted an LGBTQ+ Town Hall on Aug. 21 at both William Way LGBT Community Center in Philly, and at the Planned Parenthood Keystone Rainbow Room in Doylestown, with the help of Zoom to connect multiple parties. PA For Good is a relatively new coalition of Philly-area LGBTQ+ organizations and entities that formed a partnership with Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Philadelphia to help combat attacks on LGBTQ+ communities.

The town hall centered on the status of LGBTQ+ civil rights legislation in Pennsylvania, specifically anti-discrimination and anti-hate crime legislation and policy. It featured a conversation between Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) Chair Joel Bolstein, Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia Regional Director Andrew Goretsky and Rainbow Room Founder and Director Marlene Pray. Kevin Levy, Chair of the Philadelphia LGBTQ+ Bar Association, moderated the discussion. 

At the crux of the conversation was the need for stronger laws and policies in Pennsylvania that include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as protected classes for victims of hate crimes. 

At the start of the discussion, Pa. state Rep. Dan Frankel spoke in a pre-recorded video about the package of anti-hate crime legislation he co-sponsored with Rep. Napoleon Nelson, who was present at the town hall. The slate of bills, which made it through the Judiciary Committee, would expand the definition of a hate crime to include someone targeted based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and disability status; ramp up training for police to properly investigate hate crimes; encourage more reporting of hate crimes in educational settings; and other amendments to the existing hate crimes law in Pennsylvania. 

Separate from that, as of Aug. 16, Bolstein shared that the PHRC adopted a new regulation for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act that redefines sex to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. 

“I’m very proud of our work,” Bolstein said. “If you identify as LGBTQ, you can bring a complaint to PHRC, who will investigate it. There are remedies available if you’ve been discriminated against, in all those categories. We want you to bring complaints to us so that we can create a body of law.”

He also expressed support for the Fairness Act, which would codify anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people in the state of Pennsylvania. Legislatively known as House Bill 300, the Fairness Act passed the Pa. House in May 2023 and is awaiting a vote in the Senate. Kenyatta is among the bill’s main sponsors. 

Levy asked Kenyatta to clarify why a piece of legislation like the Fairness Act is needed when sexual orientation and gender identity are protected under the Pennsylvania Civil Rights Act. 

“I think a part of what all of us in this room understand is that a legal opinion, a regulation –– [is] not sufficient in terms of protecting our rights,” Kenyatta responded. “I want to underscore that HB 300 just passed the Democratic votes, there were brave Republicans who stood up in the face of all types of awful vich vitriolic language, to do the right thing to support this common piece of legislation that would codify the incredible work that we’ve seen through the commission.”

Levy then asked Goretsky, the regional director of ADL Philadelphia, to give some background about additional proposed legislation that has to do with hate crimes education reporting.

“One of the things that ADL does is, we research, we educate, we advocate,” Goretsky said at the town hall. “Data is a large part of what we need to do in order to get these types of things passed. If something happens, let us know about it.”

He shared that when he and ADL representatives were in Harrisburg advocating for the passage of the anti-hate crimes bills, a state representative asked him why expanded hate crimes legislation was needed, that “assault is assault,” Goretsky paraphrased. In reply, Goretsky spoke about the mass shooting that took place at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, where eleven people were killed.

“I remembered very vividly the next day bringing my son to Hebrew school with a lump in my throat, dropping him off following that massacre,” Goretsky said at the event. “What I went through is absolutely nothing compared to the horrific nature of what happened in that synagogue, but it has an impact on the larger community. When someone is attacked because they’re LGBTQ, that has a larger impact on the community. If someone is attacked because of their race, it has an impact on the community. It’s one of those things where all of us need to be speaking up.” 

Levy pointed out that the proposed hate crimes legislation doesn’t create a new crime, but instead forms new sentencing guidelines for people convicted of committing hate-based intimidation. For example, the perpetrator would have to undergo community service or educational programs related to the nature of their crime. 

In light of these potential amendments to the hate crime law, Levy asked Kenyatta to talk about why legislators should take more of a restorative justice approach to hate crime sentencing.  

Kenyatta responded by referencing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s op-ed that addresses the epidemic of loneliness. He spoke of how isolation fuels groups that make virtual threats that lead to real-world acts of violence. He discussed research that shows that people who actually know trans individuals are more likely to have an open, compassionate mind toward that community. Conversely, people who have no connection to a trans person are more likely to hold harmful views toward the trans community, the research shows.  

As the conversation came to a close, Levy asked Rainbow Room’s Pray about her thoughts on what advocates, lawyers, legislators and community members can do to speak up for LGBTQ+ people and other minority communities.  

Pray discussed the fact that the Rainbow Room, which focuses on LGBTQ+ youth, has been in existence for 21 years, and the first protest against what it stands for occurred about a month ago, shortly after the Moms for Liberty conference in Philadelphia at the end of June. Pray also broached the topic of the Central Bucks School District board’s vote to ban Pride flags in the district. 

Pray suggested “paying attention to what young people are saying; bringing them into decision-making roles. If you work for an organization and there’s a board of directors, consider creating a youth advisory council for young people that actually give input, where you ask them for their experience, their thoughts. As the staff that run the Rainbow Room, [we] are constantly listening to the joy, the curiosity, the pain, and the strength of our community.”

The town hall was presented by the Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association, Independence Business Alliance, Congregation Rodeph Shalom’s LGBTQ+ program pRiSm, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, William Way and the Rainbow Room.

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