Gay marriage support gains in state
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On June 8, 2011, Alice Greene and Dinah Denmark of Point Breeze dressed up to go to the City-County Building, Downtown.
After eight years in a committed relationship, they planned to register as domestic partners. The move would offer them no new rights -- partners of state employees gain medical benefits but private employers are not obligated to recognize domestic partnerships -- but the day was meant to be a gesture toward their wish for political equality and, they hoped, a brief chance to lose themselves in romantic impulse.
Instead, the first city officers Ms. Greene and Ms. Denmark encountered looked at them like they had two heads. It took them four trips to different offices to find someone who knew how to grant a domestic partnership.
"We ended up going to this Russia-like bureaucratic cave of an office, signing a form, having it authorized, and watching it get walked way back in the office and put in a filing cabinet," Ms. Greene recalled. Every step of the process seemed hostile to their goal of winning some small recognition for their relationship.
"This is not the kind of honor that our love deserves," Ms. Greene remembers thinking.
In May, Ms. Greene and Ms. Denmark attached a photo of themselves on the steps of the City-County Building to a Change.org petition asking Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to support same-sex marriage. The petition gathered 756 signatures, and on June 5, Mr. Ravenstahl announced his support for the right of gays and lesbians to marry.
The two women recounted their story June 14 after a talk at City Theatre by Evan Wolfson, a former resident of Squirrel Hill and founder and president of the New York-based advocacy group Freedom to Marry.
"There's been enormous momentum in the direction of support for freedom to marry in the last months," Mr. Wolfson, 55, said. And yet, he continued in front of a crowd of about 125, "Pennsylvania is not treating its families the way every state has an obligation to."
Pennsylvania law does not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation in private employment or housing. It also lacks provisions for hate crimes based on sexual orientation and doesn't have gay-specific anti-bullying measures like those West Virginia passed in 2011.
"Every state around Pennsylvania with the exception of Ohio has better and stronger LGBT protections," said Ted Martin, executive director of Equality PA. "The thought of going from where we are currently to marriage in Harrisburg is like going from a tricycle to the space shuttle."
State Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, said that Pennsylvanians still worry that same-sex marriage will put more traditional views at risk in schools and churches. He proposed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in 2009 similar to one introduced in 2011 by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County.
"It's what people want," Mr. Eichelberger said.
Yet two recent polls have found that support for same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania is rising near or above 50 percent. For the first time since Muhlenberg College started polling on gay marriage, most Pennsylvanians indicated in December 2011 that they believe same-sex marriage should be legal. Susquehanna Polling and Research found earlier in 2011 that Pennsylvanians support legislation banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by a 2-to-1 ratio.
State Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia, credited President Obama's May announcement in support of gay marriage for spurring dialogue among lawmakers and voters who had once opposed it. Mr. Barack Obama described how he changed his mind on marriage as he grew to know gay friends, soldiers and staff members in committed relationships.
"When Pennsylvanians call themselves conservative, I don't believe they mean nastiness, discrimination, hate," Ms. Josephs said. "They mean let's be fair, let's take things a little slowly and think about them. And that's what happened when the president opened the conversation in the way that he did."
Many see equal marriage rights as essential to keeping Pennsylvania economically competitive. Lisa Kustra, an Equality PA board member and CEO of Plan4Demand, a supply chain planning consulting firm, said that Pennsylvania can't have economic prosperity while it tolerates well-known injustice.
"I recruit every day and people choosing where to live are focused on human rights," she said. "We have to be more tolerant."
Mr. Martin said he receives calls from headhunters whose gay clients are looking to relocate but need to know that Pennsylvania offers adequate protections.
Jim Sheppard, 25-year-old special assistant to Mr. Ravenstahl who has been in a gay relationship for five years, said that Mr. Ravenstahl has long been supportive of his family. According to Mr. Sheppard, as the national dialogue shifted, Mr. Ravenstahl decided to go public.
Five days after Mr. Ravenstahl's announcement, Mr. Sheppard took a moment at the Pittsburgh Pride festival to read a poster board at a Steel City Stonewall Democrats booth thanking Mr. Ravenstahl for his support. His favorite note read, "Thank you Luke. I'm visiting from California to decide if I should move to Pittsburgh, and this is the clincher."
First Published June 20, 2012 12:00 am