Central PA's LGBT News Source

Op-Ed about House Bill 861

Proposed law will strip away LGBTQ+ rights


The PA State House recently held a hearing on House Bill 861, which if it were to become law, would preempt workplace-related ordinances in Pennsylvania enacted since January 1, 2015. That may sound innocuous, but this would have a very real impact - overturning fifteen hard-fought LGBTQ+ non-discrimination ordinances across the state.

With a state legislature that has repeatedly failed to pass a comprehensive non-discrimination law for LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians, these local ordinances are the only protections we have against discrimination in the Commonwealth. House Bill 861 would remove those existing protections in fifteen different municipalities.

I live in the city of Harrisburg, and am grateful that Harrisburg was the second municipality in the state to pass its nondiscrimination ordinance, with Philadelphia being the first, in 1983. I am proud to serve on the Harrisburg Human Relations Commission, which oversees and enforces our ordinance - and to know that as a resident I have protections and legal recourse if I experience discrimination as an out queer woman.

However, in most of Pennsylvania that is not the case. Without nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people at the state level, organizations and individuals have been taking on this fight at the local level, working to pass nondiscrimination ordinances in their city, town or borough.

In Central Pennsylvania, local leaders and activists have worked hard to secures these protections in Carlisle and in Camp Hill - as well as across the state in places like Wilkes-Barre, Ambler and Mt. Lebanon. These ordinances and many more would be overturned by House Bill 861.

We as LGBTQ+ people deserve to live free from discrimination, and if our state government fails to provide basic protections, then at the very least the protections that we have fought for in our municipalities should be respected and upheld.

If this bill is enacted, LGBTQ+ people in Camp Hill and Carlisle and the rest of these fifteen municipalities will no longer be protected from discrimination in the workplace. Specifically, this means that they can be fired from their jobs, not hired in the first place, paid less or treated poorly in the workplace - simply because of who they are.

While this is the reality statewide, passing this bill would strip away protections for LGBTQ+ people in these municipalities - which is unacceptable. We should be moving forward and garnering greater protections - not moving backwards.

In addition, this bill would set a dangerous precedent for the state legislature undermining local governments in Pennsylvania. When state legislators stop communities from passing their own laws or overturn existing laws, they silence the voice of the people, rob local democracies of their power, and hurt the communities’ health, safety and economic well-being.

House Bill 861 would strip local governments of their authority to make workplace reforms that help workers, consumers and the public. Communities would be forced to wait years for the state government to act when the health and safety of their own residents are at risk right now.

In addition to overturning nondiscrimination ordinances, this bill would overturn local laws on paid sick days, pay equity, sexual harassment, ban the box and more.

As the Executive Director of the LGBT Center of Central PA, I regularly hear first-hand the experiences of discrimination that LGBTQ+ people face - especially transgender people. When providing resources, one of the first things that I do is ask what municipality they are in. I’m always so glad when I can tell someone that they have protections in their municipality, and be able to refer them to the local body that enforces their nondiscrimination ordinance.

However, more often than not their municipality does not have a nondiscrimination ordinance - and while I can provide other resources and supports, I have to tell them that there are no nondiscrimination protections available to them. I feel so helpless in those moments, which I know is small compared to how they must feel. Bills like this one would make the work that we do at the LGBT Center harder, with fewer resources to refer people to.

There is also a psychological impact of legislation like this. Even if it doesn’t pass, the hearings and the actions around this communicate a message that we are not valued, and that we do not deserve the same basic human rights as any other person; that who we are is something we have to hide if we want to earn a living and support ourselves and our families.

LGBTQ+ people deserve to be protected from discrimination in Pennsylvania, and House Bill 861 would strip away those rights. As long as our state legislature refuses to enact state-wide protections, we deserve to retain our hard-fought rights in these fifteen municipalities. Moreover, we deserve to be valued as human beings wherever we live, work and play - and we must keep moving forward to gain more of those rights across Pennsylvania.

The writer is Executive Director of the LGBT Center of Central PA.