LOVE & EQUALITY IN PENNSYLVANIA

 

LOVE & EQUALITY IN PENNSYLVANIA

 

The fact that it’s 2014 and we are still talking about the political issue of love and equality in the world, be it in Sochi, South Scranton or Plains, shows us that we, as a mass of intelligent people, still have much work to do.
Electric city and diamond city are not here to lecture or to show you the way to your own rainbow-hued path of enlightenment. We are here to continue the love and equality conversation. What better time to shine a light on these important issues than Valentine’s Day (a day tucked snuggly into the economically slow month of February where we take pause and celebrate love)?
If you read words like “same-sex marriage,” “homosexuality” or “equality” and think “that doesn’t affect me,” you’re quite mistaken. Many people dealing with these issues that you claim have no effect on your life are the same people you come in contact with on a daily basis — they are painters, actors, musicians, teachers, lawyers, athletes, baristas, cops, accountants, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and parents. At the last minute, a same-sex couple backed out of an interview for our publication citing their concern that they would receive some type of backlash for sharing their story — a story about a love shared between two people that you should be reading right now. Ten years from now we’re going to look back on 2014 with some embarrassment. What took us so long?
One thing is certain; change is on the horizon. Maybe only time will tell, but as we wait to see what happens in our country, in our state and in our neighborhoods, it won’t hurt to open your eyes (and maybe even your hearts).
— tom graham

 

Let’s Hear from Senator John Blake

When it comes to the issues of same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, State Sen. John Blake can see the wave of change happening on the local, state or national levels. Sen. Blake represents Pennsylvania’s 22nd Senatorial District (which includes all of Lackawanna County  and parts of Luzerne and Monroe Counties).
Sen. Blake took the time to answer some questions earlier this week about love and equality in Pennsylvania, the expansion of civil rights and the gaining momentum he bears witness to on a constant basis.

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State Sen. John Blake

In regard to equality and gay marriage, you’ve said “I believe our nation and our state are best served when we are committed to the expansion of civil rights.” Can you talk more about your stance on gay marriage and equality in Pennsylvania?
I think that the courts are telling us what’s happening here. I’ve evolved on this just as many people have. I’ve actually started down this road dealing with discrimination issues and equal pay laws and they have been important on the equality front. With the respect to gay marriage, its a tough lift in the general assembly for me. I’ve said this publicly before, when there are legitimate churches out there recognizing these unions, I’m not sure where the government is in denying them. It’s a function of being dictated to by the courts as opposed to being originated in legislature. I’m watching what’s going on. I take a look at the issues that are of concern to my district and I certainly listen to my constituents back home. I’m from somewhat of a divided constituency. Some people are very comfortable with it and some are uncomfortable with it. I’m mindful of that. At the end of the day there are issues here that relate to what people are entitled to in terms of these relationships; inheritance, taxation and other issues that are Constitutional in nature. I think its something as a legislator I have to be mindful of.

With the government planning to expand the recognition of same-sex marriage in federal legal matters, including the 34 states where same-sex marriage isn’t legal, can you see a change in attitude as well as a change in the law on the horizon?
Yes. There is an interesting dichotomy between the conservative position of the intrusion of government and this issue. Its a polarizing issue, but I think there is a change in attitude. I think Pennsylvania has come along way from where it may have been a couple years ago. But I don’t want to discount some of the angst over this in some communities, even within my district. There has been a changing attitude, but I’m not sure that everybody’s there yet.

If these issues of equality are resolved and it seems as if it’s only a matter of time that something is going to happen, do you feel that our state will be looked at as being a little left behind when it comes to supporting equality?
I hope not. We have differences within each party that make it difficult to obtain consensus on tough issues. You’ve got interest groups who weigh in on these issues and cause legislators some pause. But the momentum is where it’s going. The courts are speaking. For me, it’s a function of civil rights and a constitutional issue. When the courts make those decisions, usually legislators follow to some extent. We’re not going to be that far behind. The momentum is there. There’s a sense of reckoning across the entire electorate and I expect that elected officials are going to reflect that. Are we a lagger? Maybe we are at this point in comparison to other states, but I think that’s because we’re deliberative and we are a very large and diverse state. It doesn’t surprise me that it takes a little longer to get to consensus on these issues.
— tom graham

 

Pennsylvania Code
Title 23 – DOMESTIC RELATIONS
Chapter 17 – Miscellaneous Provisions Relating to Marriage
Section 1704 – Marriage between persons of the same sex

It is hereby declared to be the strong and longstanding public policy of this Commonwealth that marriage shall be between one man and one woman. A marriage between persons of the same sex which was entered into in another state or foreign jurisdiction, even if valid where entered into, shall be void in this Commonwealth.

After Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, Pennsylvania enacted a statute defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not recognize same-sex marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships. Since Oct. 21, 2013, Pennsylvania has been the only state in the Northeast region where same-sex couples cannot legally marry, prompting many same-sex couples to visit other states to tie the knot, even though the commonwealth also barred the recognition of same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions.

 

 

The Story of Brenda and Vanessa

The issue of gay marriage has been occupying the minds of many recently, from states’ battles for and against, to LGBT protesters being arrested in Sochi at the Olympics, to Super Bowl commercials. Here in Pennsylvania, people are still fighting the good fight to win the human rights battle for same-sex marriage rights. Brenda Fernandes and Vanessa White ran their wedding announcement in the Times-Tribune this past August. White, 51 is a mental health counselor who handles everything from suicide prevention to LBGT issues. Fernandes, 33, is a self-labeled “housekeeper, landscaper, yoga instructor, musician, and artist.” Here is their inspirational love story.

So let’s start at the beginning. How and when did you meet?
Fernandes: I joined OK Cupid about a year and half ago. It’s not something that I really wanted to do, but I figured I’d try it out once again, and I saw there weren’t a lot of people I was interested in. But I came upon Vanessa’s profile and there was a photo of her and in her eyes and in her smile she looked like she was genuinely a happy person, and I don’t see that very often. I was immediately like, “Who is that woman?” And I wrote her an email and I didn’t know if she was going to write me back, but I thought, “What the hell? What do I have to lose?” She wrote me back with a “Thank you” and then I asked her if she wanted to get a cup of coffee and she said, “Yes.” Our first date was at Northern Light espresso bar. It was really a very simple thing. We were talking and having a cup of coffee and sitting there for about three hours and it seemed really amazing to me, just talking and talking to her. The most intriguing thing about her was when she talked, she sometimes closed her eyes. She carried herself in a very deep way. She’s just a very beautiful person.
White: I was the same way about OK Cupid in that I did not want to be on it. I had been single for two years and had pretty strict guidelines about age and not dating people from Scranton because I had dated so many people here. When she asked me out, I didn’t think she meant a date. I thought she meant coffee. By the end, I knew it was a date and that there was something really special between us. Afterwards, I went home and was cooking dinner, trying to think, “It’s no big deal,” but I was so excited about meeting someone so open and real and trying to figure it out. I had a lot of concerns about being too old for her. I was consumed about the age thing in the very beginning, but it didn’t last long. It turned out not to matter at all, as canned as that sounds. It just didn’t matter. Our second date was a picnic in Lackawanna State Park and lasted about eight hours until it was dark (laughs). We just talked and cried, got rained on. It was beautiful and life-changing.

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Brenda Fernandes and Vanessa White

What was it like coming out to your families? Would you mind sharing that story?
White: I’ll start with that one. The first person I came out to was my younger brother. I came out when I was a senior in college, in 1983. I had been sorting through it all through college, but not before (I didn’t have a clue) and it hit me hard in college. I knew there was something different about me. I would go home to New Hampshire to visit my parents with people I was with at the time but would never say it. It was unspoken. When I did tell them it was a strange circumstance: I was drunk, and it was awkward and uncomfortable. It took me a lot of years after that to have any conversation about it at all. It was more about my discomfort, not theirs. I was scared. I know now they want me to be happy no matter what. At the time I thought they were unaccepting, but the circumstances were just all wrong and they didn’t know how to handle it.
Fernandes: Well, first of all I didn’t plan on it. At the time, I thought “If that’s what I am, I will not tell anyone.” I was scared. But one day my father was listening to NPR in the kitchen and he called an announcer a “faggot” as I was washing the dishes and inside of me, my blood boiled. But first of all, I never talked back to my father or my mother — you just don’t do that. But I stood there and looked at him and said, “Dad, why do you have to say something like that about someone?” I spoke my mind basically and went back into my room, and he came in and said, “Do you have something to tell me?” and my little lip was quivering, I said, “Yeah, I’m gay.” What happened after that was even more intense. It got very physical. At one point, I thought I was going to die. I thought, “Ok, this is the end of my life. I’ll never see tomorrow.” He said a lot of things. He said the unmentionables. It was a moment in my life that I couldn’t prepare for, ever. I was at the point in my life where I thought it [my sexuality] was pretty normal. I thought it was like being a left-handed girl — very natural. My parents come from a different life, a different way of thinking and I didn’t get it. And then there was holy water and holy bread and my parents were trying to figure out if they could send me somewhere to get therapy to un-gay me. My mother had said, “Is there a pill you can take?” For years after I had to learn how to rebuild my relationship with my parents and today there’s a lot of light in that relationship between us. I’m their daughter and they love me no matter what. It was a really difficult time, but I am thankful today for every step along the way. I am a strong woman and I love and care for myself and I know that people love and care for me, and I’m doing the best that I can do.

Thank you for being so honest and forthcoming about that. I know it must be a painful story but I feel like there are a lot of people who need to read that. People who are scared to come out need to read that but so do parents in our area.
Fernandes: Every human being, whether you’re religious, or you’re old-fashioned or you’re politically involved or whatever, we all come together in this world to teach each other. That’s what we’re here for. If everyone was the same there would be nothing to learn. Personally for me, my best teachers are my parents. I’m very thankful for them. They’re like my saviors because they’re teaching me so much about love and forgiveness and opening up and shining, no matter what.

EC13EQUALITY_ANDREA_2_WEBDo you feel like this area is LGBT-positive? Have you come up against any opposition to your sexuality?
White:  For me, it’s about being open, not waiting for the environment to change but changing the environment. I’ve been out since college, but never walked down a street in Scranton, like I do with Brenda, on a First Friday holding hands or leaning over to kiss her in public, not because the environment wasn’t safe or open but because I wasn’t ready. I think overall, Scranton, for a small city is really working toward opening itself. I totally believe that. It’s embracing. When we decided to put our announcement in the paper, we talked about our reason for wanting that. We knew it wouldn’t be small. It was the Sunday edition, and a lot of people would see it, people accepting and not. It was going to be big — yet we believed it should be in the paper because we’re a couple getting married and wanted to declare our love in that way. It was a message of hope for people coming after us who want to have their announcement in paper like everyone else. The feedback we received was overwhelmingly beautiful and positive.

When did you decide to get married? How did the proposal happen?
Fernandes: The wedding’s going to be July 31, 2015. The reason for the date is that it’s going to be the next blue moon. There are a lot of little blue moons in between but that’s a big one. We’re really into the moon. (they both laugh)
White: Really, a few days after the second date is when we knew we were meant to be together for our lives and it was under a blue moon. It’s really significant.
Fernandes: I was the first person to ask, but I didn’t plan it. I kept the ring in my pocket just because, hoping that maybe a right time would come along. We were visiting friends up in Montrose, going for a walk in the morning time, and as we were walking, I thought, “You should ask her now. It’s a beautiful summer day,” but then I started to get really nervous. (laughs) My heart started to pound really fast, and I thought I was going to roll down the hill or whatever, (laughs) then we stopped naturally at this plateau in the woods when the sun was coming down, shining on the ferns. It was just this beautiful spot and I looked at her, gave her a hug and a kiss and I just placed the ring in her hand when we parted from the hug.
White: Right before she asked me, as we were walking through looking at this beautiful spot in the woods, appreciating nature and the world around us, I thought, “Damn, this would be a great time to ask Brenda to marry me,” (laughs) so when she asked me I mean I couldn’t believe it. When it happened I was completely surprised.

Since you can’t be married in Pa., at least not yet, where will you hold your wedding? How do you envision your wedding?
Fernandes: If we can get married here, we’ll just have a ceremony, some kind of cool, spiritual, outdoor thing, something beautiful, and then a big-ass party at our house, in our backyard, and just have everyone come together to celebrate. Nothing really big and snazzy and a waste of money, just something that would be naturally fun to do, something very easy and relaxing.
White: If it’s not legal here by then, we talked about Maryland or Delaware or New Jersey because that’s close, but we also like the ocean. We have a lot of options but it would be really great to do it here.

What are you looking forward to about being married?
White: I don’t know what changes when the ceremony happens but there’s something really powerful about someone saying they want to spend their life with me. It’s a really great feeling and I know there’s all kinds of legal arrangements we could make to make sure we’d be protected, to be able to speak on each other’s behalf, but it feels like a real acknowledgment, and not just the public part, but a personal acknowledgement that I am committing myself to her in one of the deepest ways there is. I want to make it official. I love her. I trust in what we have to be able to do. I’ve always wanted to have that ceremony. I used to want something extravagant in my 20s, but now it’s really simple. I want to have that ceremony and say my vows with Brenda, with the air blowing around us, under the sun, in the beauty of nature, to say, “I’m here with you forever,” that’s really exciting to me.
— andrea mcguigan

 

It’s About Equality

If House Bill 300 / Senate Bill 300 known as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act reaches Gov. Corbett’s desk he will sign it. At least that’s what he told Equality PA last year, the organization’s communications and media support specialist Levana Leayendecker told electric city and diamond city.
“It’s great to know that we have that support. For now, it’s up to us to persuade all the legislators to vote for it and it will be historic,” she said. “Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast that doesn’t have a nondiscrimination bill and although we have 33 municipalities that have passed nondiscrimination laws… the majority of the population of the state doesn’t receive these basic protections under the law. So we think it’s just time to update the law and make sure that everyone is treated fairly.”
Equality PA (equalitypa.org) is the state’s largest LGBT equality advocacy organization with approximately 60,000 members across the state. Its primary goal in 2014 is to see this law passed in Pa., making it illegal to discriminate against people for being lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgendered at work, housing, or in public accommodations.
We spoke to Equality PA’s Maureen Gray, the Regional Organizer for Northeastern Pennsylvania who is based in Scranton, to learn more about what needs to be done and how we can help.

The political climate right now is reminiscent of the Civil Rights activism in the ‘60s — all of society got involved. It wasn’t just a racial issue.
Exactly. I see myself as an ally for the LGBT community. I was lucky enough to be married and not be subject to any of those prejudices that the LGBT community is subject to. I never had a question of employment based upon my sexual identity. I never had housing denied because of my sexual identity and the fact that we have this today in 2014 in Pennsylvania is astonishing.
To me is it about civil rights because if we have prejudice anywhere, we have prejudice everywhere and the fact that we’re saying to these people simply because of your gender identity or sexual orientation you are not up to the same levels of civil rights as somebody who is straight, that’s wrong. And there are too many people who have suffered and who are suffering because of this draconian lack of legislation in our state

What can people do to help or if they are not sure and have questions?
(Equality PA) is working at the grass roots level. Coincidentally, on Tuesday (Feb. 18) evening we have a community kick-off meeting scheduled at 7 p.m. at the public library in downtown Scranton in the community room in the basement of the Children’s Library. Assuming, of course, that the snow doesn’t derail the whole thing. At that meeting I’m going to talk about what Equality PA is, I’m going to talk a little bit about why I’m involved, and the ways that the community can get involved. And we’re talking about things like making phone calls to the general public to educate them on the fact that this law does not exist in Pennsylvania right now … I think most people are shocked that this law hasn’t been passed years ago.
Then there is educating people on how to change our state law and the fact that there are currently two bills in the House and the Senate that would end this discriminatory language. And what they can do to get involved, which is calling their legislators. We will have phone banks to educate the public and call legislators. We will have canvassing events where we spread literature to educate the public. And we will also be looking for small business leaders to support this law.

One of the things John Dawe of the NEPA Rainbow Alliance said that really stuck with me is that you can leave the state for the weekend, go marry your partner, you come back to work on Monday and they say, ‘What did you do this weekend?’ And you tell them and then you get fired.
And the more subtle aspect of that is, “OK great, but we don’t offer benefits to same-sex partners.” And the guy sitting next to you in the cubicle with the traditional marriage gets coverage for his wife and kids. It is that blatant. Basic civil rights is what we’re talking about here. And if we allow it to be perpetrated upon this aspect of our population then we’ve failed as Americans.

EC13EQUALITY_GRAHAM_4_WEBWhat does volunteering with Equality PA entail?
We’re not asking people for huge amounts of time. This is a once-a-week commitment for a couple of hours. We’ll have plenty to do as we get rolling.

Things can happen and you can be part of changing history.
Exactly. This is a historical change in our state. That’s what we are pursuing. Be a participant in history for the good of our state.

And being part of the community is being a citizen.
You don’t have to be LGBT to participate in our group. You just have to care about equal civil rights.

I think we’ve passed the point where people should be afraid people might think they are gay for helping.
But I can tell you in Scranton, the people who I know who are LGBT are a little reluctant to come out and be in the forefront of this. Because they are concerned about retribution and retaliation. And so I’m not going to place anybody in a position like that. I won’t be identifying anybody in my group, but I will say we are all in this together. We’re all allies in this task.

Equality PA will hold a community kick-off meeting at the Albright Memorial Library, Scranton on Tuesday, Feb. 18 from 7 to 9 p.m. for people who want to help advocate for the passing of the HB300 and SB300 state nondiscrimination bill. All are invited to meet with organizers of this grass roots network and learn about the law which will ensure people are not fired, evicted or denied services for being transgender or of lesbian, gay, bisexual orientation. Equality PA also intends to continue efforts to build public support for marriage equality.
You can also contact Equality PA on line at equalitypa.org or find Maureen Gray on Facebook or at NEPA Equality and Twitter @EqualityNEPA. Or email mgray@equalitypa.org.
— alicia grega

Additional resources:
LGBT Community Center of NEPA, 1174 Highway 315, Wilkes-Barre.
The LGBT Center (founded by the NEPA Rainbow Alliance) will host a workshop on gay marriage issues on March 19, at 7 p.m. Visit gaynepa.com or facebook.com/nepacenter or call (570) 972-2523 for more information.