Metro Weekly

Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission seeks public comment on LGBTQ protections

LGBTQ advocates want to see sexual orientation and gender identity covered by prohibitions on sex discrimination

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf – Photo: Office of the Governor.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has finished seeking public input on proposed guidance that sets forth legal protections for people who are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Currently, Pennsylvania law does not provide protections for LGBTQ people under either the state’s Human Relations Act or the Pennsylvania Fair Educational Opportunities Act. The Republican-controlled legislature has resisted several attempts to prohibit discrimination against the LGBTQ community in employment, housing, education, or public accommodations.

With the legislature unwilling to act, the Human Relations Commission has looked at how provisions prohibiting sex discrimination can be interpreted to encompass discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. As it is required to do before adopting new regulations, the commission has just closed a period for public comment on their recommendations with respect to sex discrimination and LGBTQ protections.

One of those organizations that submitted comments to the commission is Lambda Legal, a national LGBTQ legal organization. In its response to the guidance, Lambda Legal urges the commission to adopt rules and regulations explicitly prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination, include all of the rationales for why sexual orientation and gender identity should be covered under prohibitions on sex discrimination, and expand the definition of “sex” to include actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or the failure to comply to traditional sex stereotypes.

“The Commission’s proposed guidance clarifying how discrimination against LGBTQ people is prohibited under Pennsylvania law is a welcome and long-overdue step to combat the high rates of discrimination, harassment and stigma faced by LGBTQ Pennsylvanians,” Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, staff attorney for Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “However, the proposed guidance can be further improved by spelling out the multiple ways in which sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination are forms of sex discrimination.”

Of course, LGBTQ allies are not the only ones realizing how groundbreaking the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity protections would be. Social conservatives have urged their ranks to comment on the guidance, raising the specter of transgender women sharing bathrooms with children and cisgender women as a scare tactic.

Writing for The Signal, a publication of the conservative Heritage Foundation, Michael Geer, the president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, has compared the commission’s proposed guidance to former President Barack Obama’s executive actions and guidance provided by federal agencies under the Obama administration that extended rights or protections to LGBTQ people. 

Geer particularly aims his vitriol at Gov. Tom Wolf, who last year installed a new chairman on the Human Relations Commission to “further his agenda.” Geer also accuses the commission of usurping the power that should be left in the hands of Republican legislators in Harrisburg.

“Now in the face of a legislative stalemate, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission is making an end run around the Legislature to impose a freedom-robbing policy through a bureaucratic agency that was founded to guard our civil liberties,” he writes.

Randall Wenger, the chief counsel of the conservative Independence Law Center, previously urged social conservatives to flood the commission’s inbox with emails opposing the proposed guidance, which he calls “devastating to personal privacy and religious liberty.”

The period for public comment closed on May 26, but it is unknown how much impact Wenger and other social conservatives may have had in trying to sway the commission’s members to reject the proposed guidance.

“Pennsylvania has long had a commitment to eliminating discrimination and assuring its people equal access and opportunity to all within its borders,” says Lambda Legal’s Gonzalez-Pagan. “We urge the Commission to adopt rules and regulations, in accordance with our recommendations, that guarantee LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming Pennsylvanians an equal opportunity to enjoy a full and productive life within the commonwealth.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com