The first time I experienced homophobia was in college. A friend, one of the few openly gay students on campus, was verbally assaulted. This was around the same time Ellen DeGeneres first came out on TV, and while homosexuality was very much on the cultural radar (hello, Lilith Fair), it wasn’t the expertly organized community it is today.
The idea of same-sex marriage was just beginning to grow legs, and most gay people I knew were content living quiet lives, pinning a red AIDS ribbon to their lapels on special occasions and pretty much keeping the local gay bars (and Zima) in business.
Times have certainly changed, which is why the story of two gay men being violently assaulted in a city where it’s not unusual to see same-sex couples holding hands and where the local Gayborhood has it own rainbow street signs (the nation’s first and biggest gay-friendly tourism campaign launched here after all) makes headlines — and for good reason.
By most accounts, Philadelphia is a gay-friendly city. The LGBT community is on the forefront of business and politics (Brian Sims, the state’s first openly gay legislator, makes his home here). The city has even made up for what the state lacks in many laws, including benefits for same-sex partners of city employees, with one glaring exception: hate crime legislation. In Pennsylvania, there is no protection against hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which is why the recent assault stirs up a lot of critical questions.
While we don’t know all the details of the case, or why a group of people allegedly pummeled a same-sex couple on a busy Center City street, there’s a catch. Even if these culprits go to jail for their crime, and even if they may have been motivated by bias or used homophobic slurs during the assault, that will have no bearing on the case whatsoever. In the last several years, the state has passed on the chance to enact hate crime legislation despite the fact that most of our neighbors like New York and New Jersey have laws already in place.
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If you’re wondering why this is important, consider how you might feel if the same thing happened to a black couple, a Jewish couple or an Asian couple. Would you want the attackers to be brought to justice by the fullest extent of the law?
Being openly gay in 2014 doesn’t mean what it did 20 years ago. But in Pennsylvania, we’re trapped in a kind of legislative time warp where it’s as if Ellen just came out, I’m sipping a Zima and you can be beaten (or fired) for being gay… and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Natalie Hope McDonald is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. Once a month, she will provide her LGBT perspective on culture and politics in a column. She can be reached online at www.nataliehopemcdonald.com and on Twitter at @NatalieMcD.
Boyle touts bill’s extension to LGBT community
Democratic State Rep. Brendan Boyle, the prime sponsor of House Bill 177 — which would broaden the existing hate crime law to protect more citizens, including members of the LGBT community — further supported the bill.
“In the wake of the tragic beatings in Philadelphia, now is the best chance we have to make our legal protections more inclusive,” Boyle said in a statement. “We must ... expand our hate crimes law to ensure that all Pennsylvanians are afforded dignity, peace, and security regardless of race, sex, creed, or sexual orientation.”
The legislation — in the House Judiciary committee since January 2013, “expands the offense of ethnic intimidation to include malicious intention against the actual or perceived ancestry, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity of another individual or group of individuals,” according to a statement.
Rally for legislation
State Rep. Brian Sims and other local LGBT leaders will call for the passage of more inclusive hate crime legislation in Pennsylvania at a 2 p.m. rally in LOVE Park on Thursday.
PA Sen. Jim Ferlo comes out as gay
Democratic Sen. Jim Ferlo at a press conference on Tuesday against LGBT hate crimes announced he was gay by saying, "I'm gay. Get over it. I love it."
According to reports, Ferlo said he's been a "practicing homosexual" since his 20s.