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How Pennsylvania Heartland Went For Gay Rights

The hate-crimes law extends even to the transgendered. Observers are stunned.

[HARRISBURG, PA] - A remarkable thing has happened in Pennsylvania.

The state legislature passed an amendment to the hate-crimes law that made Pennsylvania only the fifth state in the union to protect not only gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, but also those who are transgendered.

In a state renowned for its heartland conservatism, many people were stunned that the controversial bill, signed early this month by Gov. Schweiker, could triumph.

The successful lobbying campaign, which spanned nine years, showcases the power of political savvy, grassroots organizing and perseverance. It puts the lie to the notion that culturally liberal issues will not fly outside Philadelphia.

And it shows how things get done in Harrisburg, while making it clear that a heavily bankrolled lobbying effort isn't always necessary.

"The secret to the success of this legislative effort was teamwork and extraordinary commitment by a number of people of their time, their energy, their passion and their dedication to equality and justice," said Stephen A. Glassman, one of the activists who led the drive for the legislation. "All that said, we were stunned at the victory."

What made the bill extraordinary was its inclusion of the transgendered. Transgender refers to people whose sense of their sexual identity differs from their gender. The category can include cross-dressers and people who have sex-change operations.

To date, 28 states have passed legislation to include gays and lesbians, but Pennsylvania is only the fifth to expand that protection to the transgendered. To accomplish their goal, the activists met with each lawmaker and persuaded the politicians that each had people in their districts who would be affected by the law.

Sometimes it took months just to get a meeting. Glassman met with one leading senator's rabbi to gain aid in arranging a meeting. Another pivotal lawmaker was so incensed at a homophobic letter sent to him attacking the measure that he began pushing for the legislation.

"Just by educating legislators about the need for this bill, the legislators have a greater understanding of the problems faced by gay people, also the contributions made by gay people to our state," said Stacey L. Sobel, a lawyer and former Washington lobbyist who drafted the law.

Important Milestones Along the Way

On June 26, 1990, the state House of Representatives voted down an amendment that would have added gays and lesbians to the list of people protected by the state's five-year-old Ethnic Intimidation Act. The measure never even made it to the Senate floor.

State Rep. Lita I. Cohen (R., Montgomery) took up the cause and reintroduced the bill in 1993.

Steve Black, 36, who later became political director of the Pennsylvania Gay and Lesbian Alliance for Political Action, lobbied to get Cohen's bill to the floor of the House, but the initial defeat had made the subject untouchable.

In 1996, Glassman cofounded the Statewide Pennsylvania Rights Coalition (SPARC), a network of individuals and organizations committed to civil rights for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgendered (LGBTs).

Glassman, 52, of New Oxford, had spent nine years on the board of the Human Rights Campaign, a national group that lobbies Congress for the rights of the LGBTs.

Mara Keisling
Later, two more important people joined the movement's ad hoc steering committee: Mara Keisling, 43, of Harrisburg, who heads the Pennsylvania Gender Rights Coalition, and Sobel, 37, executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, based in Philadelphia. Sobel drafted the wording of the legislation.

"I came up with the language and sent it to as many people as I could to make sure that our language would withstand a constitutional challenge," Sobel said.

While the activists spent months laying the groundwork for their next big legislative push, social consciousness was slowly being raised.

In 1997, the "Ellen" character in Ellen DeGeneres' sitcom came out on network television.

In 1998, the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, drove home the reality of gay hate-bashing. The Clinton years of "don't ask, don't tell" discussions also highlighted the issue of homosexuality.

In 2001 in Middleburg, Snyder County, Michael Auker, a man perceived as gay, was beaten and kicked into a coma and dumped at home. The case brought attention to the state's lack of inclusion of gays in its hate-crime law.

"The difference between 2002 and 1990 is the attitude of the public has changed toward gay and lesbian people," Black said.

The activists worked hard to take advantage of that change.

Early on, Glassman said, they realized they could count on the support of the 20 Democrats in the Senate. But they would need the help of Republicans to get the legislation passed.

In the Senate, Allen Kukovich (D., Westmoreland) took the lead and strategized the bill's trajectory. Then Joe Conti (R., Bucks) and Charles W. Dent (R., Lehigh) joined the effort.

But the activists knew they would need the help of someone in the Senate leadership.

Glassman struggled futilely to meet with longtime Senate President Pro Tempore Robert C. Jubelirer (R., Blair). Frustrated, Glassman contacted the senator's rabbi, Burt Schuman, who leads the reform congregation Temple Beth Israel in Altoona.

Rabbi Schuman, a man Jubelirer admired, pledged his help.

"I think the mention of my presence is what got him the meeting," Rabbi Schuman said.

When the rabbi and Glassman walked into Jubelirer's office, they brought along Jack and Karen Kressley, a couple from DuBois, Pa.

Jack Kressley, a retired Navy chief petty officer who spent 26 years working on submarines, told the senator the story of their youngest son, now 33.

Confused about his sexuality, fearful about his future, the teenager had tried to kill himself at age 16, Kressley told those who had gathered in Jubelirer's office. In the crisis, they realized their son was gay. They reached out for knowledge and support and eventually became leaders in Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

"It was Jack who made the strongest impression on Sen. Jubelirer," Rabbi Schuman said. "We were in tears at the meeting."

When the group left the meeting, the Senate's president pro tempore was on board.

"He said to the gay community, 'I'm with you, but you have to go out and do the legwork, and you have to get the votes,' " said Drew Compton, an attorney for Jubelirer.

Jubelirer's endorsement opened doors.

"When he says, 'I support this,' it sends a signal," Compton said. "He said, 'I know there are some of you on the other side, and I respect that, but just so it's clear, I'm going to vote for it.' "

In June 2001, the Senate bill passed, 32-15.

"We were as shocked as ever in our careers that we won that bill," Glassman said. But we were realistic enough to understand that it was one thing to win in the Senate [with 50 members], and another to win in the House [203 members]. It's just that much more work, but with the same number of volunteers."

Final Push in the House

Glassman, Sobel, Black, Keisling and their legions were in for another 17 months of grueling meetings, phone calls and mailings. There was no guarantee the House would follow the Senate's lead.

"There is a lot of distrust between the Senate and the House," Glassman said. "That's a big problem for anybody who is trying to get advocacy legislation. Our suspicion was that the Senate might have passed this thinking it would be killed in the House."

The 2002 House session opened in the second week of January. The activists wanted to push the bill through before the June recess, but it didn't happen. During the campaign, Black's organization sent out 12,000 postcards to the lawmakers.

When the September session opened, the activists redoubled their efforts.

The final week of November brought the end of the legislative session as hundreds of bills awaited final consideration.

Early that week, Glassman made a frantic phone call to Philadelphia, asking for help.

Malcolm Lazin, founder of PrideFest America (now called the Equality Forum) and a liberal Republican, agreed to ring up his political ally Sam Katz.

Katz, who drew big support from the gay and lesbian community in Philadelphia in his 1999 mayoral race, agreed to drop a word to a few friends, and called up House Majority Leader John Perzel (R., Phila.), the power broker and kingmaker of the House.

"Ultimately in Harrisburg, the leadership drives outcomes," Katz said recently. "I have a lot of friends in Harrisburg. To the extent that they were able to take advantage of that, good."

Late on the eve of the session's last day, the logjam broke for the hate-crimes bill. Perzel, a man with a reputation in Harrisburg for keeping his promises, told the bill's supporters he would bring it to the floor.

Perzel put the bill on the calendar of Nov. 26. Still, moderate Republicans felt they needed an ally from a conservative district to secure victory.

Lita Cohen, staring down the last chance to see the hate-crimes legislation amended, turned to Rep. Steven R. Nickol (R., York) and asked him to defend the bill in the floor debate.

Nickol, who since 1990 has represented a largely rural and overwhelmingly Republican district, initially had been lukewarm about the bill. But a nasty constituent's letter, triggered by the passage of the Senate version in June 2001, turned him into a supporter.

The letter writer attacked "the gay agenda," and claimed that gays were "out to destroy the nation," Nickol said.

"It motivated me to check into the objections people had," Nickol said.

In the waning hours of the session, a two-hour, emotional and sometimes nasty debate took place on the House floor.

Rep. Daryl D. Metcalfe (R., Butler) was among the opponents.

"We are at a critical point in the direction in this state's history," Metcalfe said. "If you cast a yes vote for this... we will be putting into law sexual orientation, meaning homosexuality, bisexuality, taking those perverse lifestyles and justifying them in the law."

Nickol stood firm, then cast his final argument.

"Hate groups may have the constitutional right to rally. They may even be free to give their hate-spewn speeches in public... but the moment hate groups or individuals reach out and commit crimes against the innocent for religious reasons, racial reasons or because of a person's sexual identity... they are not just committing a crime against an individual but against each and every one of us who wish to live in a civilized society," Nickol said.

Minutes later, the hate-crimes bill sailed through. The vote was 118-79.

Cohen called her husband from the House floor in tears.

"He said, 'Why are you crying? You should be dancing,' " Cohen recalled. "I told him about the ugliness and hate I heard spewing forth from members. In one sense I was happy... but at the same time I was upset."

Weeks later, the victory is still resonating.

"After this bill passed, I was talking to people about what this year has been like for gay and lesbian people," Sobel said last week. "We've seen some monumental things happen."

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