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Pennsylvania Creates Nation’s First Statewide Commission on LGBTQ Rights

A new group will attempt to help bring Pennsylvania into the 21st century on LGBTQ rights.

Despite its reputation as a blue state that tends to vote Democratic in national elections, LGBTQ Pennsylvanians have extremely few protections at the statewide level. The Keystone State is one of 28 states lacking nondiscrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. That means queer and trans people can be fired or denied housing because of who they are.

Anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy remains legal. Pennsylvania had LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime laws on the books until 2008, when those protections were declared unconstitutional. Today hate crimes largely go unreported.

On Monday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf established the nation’s first statewide LGBTQ commission in order to address these disparities. After signing an executive order enacting the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, the first-term Democrat claimed its creation was “one step of many [Pennsylvania has] taken to ensure obstacles are removed for anyone who is facing an unfair disadvantage based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression.”

“It’s a step we took together with our stakeholder and advocacy groups and one that those involved asked for — a commission to help coordinate and drive statewide equality efforts,” Wolf said in a statement.

Appointees to the 40-person board will advise the governor on policy relating to LGBTQ people in housing, employment, health care, education, and cultural arts, while also working with government agencies to strengthen nondiscrimination codes currently in place. Commissioners will serve two year terms.

The inaugural commission is set to be headed by Todd C. Snovel, the assistant dean of engagement and inclusion at Lebanon Valley College.

Prominent names on the advisory body also include Amber Hikes, executive director of the Office of LGBTQ Affairs for the City of Philadelphia; Malcolm Kenyatta, a candidate for District 181 in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; Sean Meloy, political director of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, and Brian Sims, the state’s first openly gay lawmaker.

In a statement, Sims claimed the commission demonstrated that Wolf has “consistently supported equal rights for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians.”

“Today’s announcement confirms that,” he said on Monday.

Critics said some names, however, were missing from the LGBTQ commission. Monica Roberts, a longtime blogger for TransGriot, noted there were no trans women of color on the council. She claimed there’s just one transgender person in total: Tyler Titus of the Erie School board, who made history in November by becoming the first trans Pennsylvanian to win election.

“The bottom line is that black, Latinx and other trans persons of color live in Pennsylvania and deserve representation on this statewide LGBTQ commission,” Roberts concluded.  

“If you’re going to create this commission, Gov. Wolf, in order to craft policy that improves the lives of trans Pennsylvanians,” she added, “the voices of trans people of color must be at the table at the outset to help shape equitable policies and procedures that come out of it.”

But in a statement to INTO, Press Secretary J.J. Abbott confirmed there were five trans individuals in total, including a Latinx transgender member. Meanwhile, Ciora Thomas — an organizer with Sisters PGH in Pittsburgh — was added to the council following criticism about the commission’s lack of black trans representation.

“The commission heard feedback from advocates and acted to ensure that feedback translated to be even more inclusive,” Abbott claimed. “The recent addition of Ciora Thomas was made based on that feedback. Further, the commission will also have sub-committees in the future with additional members that will bring even more diversity to the commission’s work. We want to continue to ensure the commission represents the diversity within Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ community.”

Wolf added that the LGBTQ commission’s work is just beginning.

“When I became governor, we saw that change was needed and we made it happen,” the governor said on Monday. “Better yet, we are still making it happen and will do so until every Pennsylvanian can live, work, love, and thrive in our state with an assuredness of support and safety.”

“Today’s announcement is timely and important, but also not the end of our efforts to create a Pennsylvania that espouses inclusion and diversity in all that we do,” he added.

Note: This story was updated from a previous version.


Nico Lang

Nico Lang is a staff writer for INTO, covering news, politics, and global LGBTQ issues.