Pass the Equality Act of Schuylkill County so Everyone is Treated Fairly Under the Law

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In 2015, the PA Dept. of Health and Human Services reported that LGBTQ people in Schuylkill County are more at risk to suicide than any other group of individuals in our area. Now, more than four years later, Schuylkill County has done nothing specific to stop or slow the rate of LGBTQ suicide. According to our recent survey, currently in Schuylkill County, 43% of LGBTQ residents seriously considered suicide and 71% of Schuylkill County LGBTQ citizens have thought about moving away to a more LGBTQ-friendly city or county. Last year alone, the national average reported by The Trevor Project, stated that 39% of LGBTQ youth (children under 18 years old) seriously considered suicide. Worse yet was 42% of LGBTQ youth who underwent conversion therapy actually attempted suicide. So, the time for us to act is long past due.

Back on October 4, 2019, you may have seen hate crimes against our community becoming the headlines of regional news after hate-filled people chose to burn and slash a rainbow flag outside of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Pine Grove, PA. The police have yet to investigate these hate crimes. But these hate crimes came as no surprise to the town of Pine Grove since after interviewing many residents, many of them claimed ‘it’s Schuylkill County – what did we expect’ (to paraphrase some of their much more vulgar phrasing). Many more county residents took to the comment section online and made their homophobic and transphobic ideologies well-known.

While you might assume and hope that these hate crimes in Pine Grove are isolated incidents, that hate truly doesn’t live here in our county; we’d be lying to ourselves and overlooking the facts that hate crimes and discrimination towards our LGBTQ residents happen every day.

In our recent survey, one LGBTQ person from Schuylkill County told us “To call these experiences discrimination doesn’t even feel right. This is terror. This is horror. These are bruises on my body, this is a broken nose, this is blood all over my face when I come home and my girlfriends worry about going to social public spaces. This is me being afraid for my life. My partners life.”

I personally know that discrimination doesn’t just lead to violence in our county though. Back in 2013, I was the General Manager for a company here in Schuylkill County, a company that still operates under the same leadership. My boss at the time hated the fact that one of our biggest suppliers was a company owned by a gay man. He also regularly gathered his employees and told us all that if any of us ever came out as gay or trans, we would be fired immediately. That pressure forced me to push off coming out publicly until much later and his homophobic abuse pushed me to quit a few months after being hired. But sadly, it’s not just my experience. 50% of LGBTQ responses from Schuylkill County told us they experienced discrimination in their workplace.

What’s worse is that discrimination isn’t isolated to just the workplace. As many know, Schuylkill County is full of medical facilities which helps us provide services to an older demographic; however, I personally know three people in our county who are continually denied the most basic healthcare and have regular problems finding a primary care doctor for basic medical coverage solely because they are gay or transgender. And while three people may not sound like too many, please keep in mind that those three are just three people who happen to be my friends and are willing to talk publicly about it so they are far from the only ones who face discrimination when entering a Schuylkill County medical facility. According to our recent survey, 21% our community’s residents face discrimination in medical facilities. LGBTQ people in our county are forced to keep their sexual orientation or gender identity secret from their doctors if they need immediate help but if you ask any qualified doctor, keeping secrets from them doesn’t allow them to do their job properly.

But it’s not just in medical facilities that LGBTQ people are routinely denied service in Schuylkill County. 56% of Schuylkill County respondents to our recent survey told us they were denied service by a business solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And there are no federal, state, or local laws to protect elderly LGBTQ people in our county either. Elderly are some of those who are most at risk since they make up a higher percentage of our county’s population and nursing homes and assisted care facilities can and have denied housing solely because someone is gay or transgender.

And while you might assume adults have it far worse, over 36% of our respondents from Schuylkill County reported that they face anti-LGBTQ discrimination in their school by either classmates or teachers. One child even asked us to imagine “being called names such as ‘faggot’ on a daily (basis) due to students who don’t believe in LGBT+”. Another told us about his experience in grade school being lectured by his pastor about homosexuality being a “sin” in the eyes of their church and crediting that lecture as to why he didn’t come out until much later in life.

We also asked the LGBTQ community in Schuylkill County how homophobic and transphobic they feel our county is. All of our respondents agreed that this area is much more transphobic than homophobic in comparison; however, on a scale of 1 to 5 with five being the most homo and transphobic, none of them voted less than 3 on either scale.

But with all of this information and knowing that LGBTQ people are the most at risk for suicide in our area, what can we do to solve it and why hasn’t that solution already been put in place?

The answer is simple. In fact, we call it the easiest decision our county could ever make. It’s called the Equality Act of Schuylkill County (EASC) and we are calling on our County Commissioners to propose and unanimously pass it immediately.

Before we explain what the EASC includes; let’s first examine other counties, cities, and towns that have already passed similar legislation. That list includes 57 municipalities in Pennsylvania including Allegheny County (2009), Erie County (2002), Allentown (2002), Harrisburg (1983), Lancaster (2001), Reading (2009), Scranton (2003), Wilkes-Barre (2016), and more. We are surrounded by towns that have passed this legislation because their council members knew it was the easiest decision they could make. A decision to treat all citizens fairly and equally under the law. In fact, over one-third (33%) of Pennsylvania residents now live in an area covered by these Equality Acts. While some people often criticize Pennsylvania for being behind the times, our state has the greatest number of local LGBTQ-inclusive ordinances than any other state in the nation. But Schuylkill County is currently behind the times of the state and still continues to overlook the safety of 10% of its residents who are members of the LGBTQ+.

In all of those cases where they passed an Equality Act local ordinance, it has not just helped LGBTQ members know their government sticks up for their rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but it’s helped reduce the rate of discrimination and in coming years, we will hopefully see a steady decline of LGBTQ suicide, anti-LGBTQ violence, and anti-LGBTQ hate crimes in those areas. The evidence tells us that the EASC is not just desperately needed but more importantly, the evidence tells us that it will work.

So, what exactly does the ideal EASC include? To summarize it, the EASC just makes everyone equal under the law in Schuylkill County which is unbelievably not how things are currently operating in our county and undoubtedly is a part of the reason why LGBTQ suicide in our area is at such high rates. Modelled after H.R. 5, the ideal EASC would include:

1. End to legal discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion, pregnancy or childbirth, in all public accommodations, facilities, elderly care facilities, education, funding, employment, agencies, housing, credit opportunities, health care, juries, and everywhere else in our county.

2. A permanent ban on conversion therapy to both never allow a conversion camp to start in Schuylkill County and ban county residents from sending their children to conversion therapy elsewhere. This form of torture has been proven to never work and only leads to greater rates of suicide for children.

3.    End LGBTQ discrimination in all schools and allow LGBTQ youth to be in the proper sporting programs, locker rooms, etc.

4.    Call on the PA Dept. of Education to mandate proper access to their students to programs such as The Trevor Project and others. This will hopefully reduce the risk of LGBTQ youth suicide and help youth at their most desperate of times get the help they need to survive.

5. Call on each school in Schuylkill County and beyond to have a proper GSA group (Gay, Straight Alliance). This way students who identify as a member of the LGBTQ can find others to talk to and hopefully keep them from wanting to commit suicide. Given the proper department leaders, this can even lead to them getting the advice the students desperately need.

6. Call on the PA Dept. of Education to mandate schools to teach proper LGBTQ history, health, sexual education, and so on in every school in Schuylkill County and beyond. This has been proven to help LGBTQ kids know they are normal and keep them suicide. It has also been proven to help others realize their classmates are normal and should be treated equally; therefore, this eventually reduces fear, hatred, hate crimes, violence, and murder of LGBTQ people later in life.

While all of this might sound like we’re coming after religious freedoms here, please know that’s not the case. Everyone has the freedom in this beautiful country to have the religious beliefs they choose to have. But the EASC isn’t about whether or not being gay or transgender is right or wrong in the eyes of certain religions. The EASC is making us equal in the eyes of the law. It’s solely for the purpose of ensuring gay and transgender people aren’t pushed to suicide, hate crimes are eventually reduced, and so LGBTQ people don’t have to fear for their lives in this county. It’s so we don’t have to fear walking into a restaurant on a date and not being able to hold hands with our significant others just like heterosexual (straight) people are allowed to do at the next table over. It’s so we can learn the proper education we need as children to keep us healthy later in life. It’s so our children don’t have to fear going to school and being pushed to suicide by their classmates and their teachers which is sadly a statistic we have plenty of evidence to prove. It’s so we can get a job and build a career based on actual job qualifications without fear of being fired if our boss found out who we go home to.

It’s so we can walk into a hospital or a doctor’s office and not be turned away when we need basic care. And so, we can eventually retire into an elderly care facility and not be denied available rooms because of who might visit us or what clothing we might wear. We’re not coming after religious freedoms and we’re not playing offense. The EASC is a defensive measure because we are under constant attack. But all we’ve ever wanted was to be treated fairly. It’s called the EQUALITY Act of Schuylkill County for a reason.

For the record, there is nothing hidden in the EASC and this bill doesn’t ask for any money whatsoever. We are not asking for an agency to be started, no extra police, nothing like that at all. The EASC would be a Schuylkill County-wide ordinance making everyone equal in the eyes of the law. And for record, we fully know this will cause homophobic and transphobic people to spread hate towards us. But it’s THAT exact hate which proves our point even more and tells us the EASC is needed. And it’s that exact hate which is the exact reason we’re calling on our local leaders to stand up for our safety because that hate in our county has time and time again led to violence, hate crimes, discrimination, and suicide.

Your opinion might say being gay or transgender is a sin in your religion or wrong in your viewpoint but facts and science prove that being gay or transgender is in our innermost DNA. We can’t change that and it’s something we cannot choose. You may not like the facts and you may not see things the same as we do but that doesn’t change the fact that we are human too and right now, we aren’t always treated like humans. We rely on others to have the decency to NOT beat us to the ground and make us bleed. To treat us the same as everyone else. But our county has an opportunity to ensure the safety of our residents now and for years to come by passing the Equality Act of Schuylkill County.

Please sign our petition and tell our county commissioners they need to put safety first and treat us all equally under the law.

For questions or press inquiries, please contact: Matt Haslam, Southeast PA Regional Leader, Pennsylvania Equality Project, mhaslam@paequality.com