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State gays' lack of job safeguards draws fire


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State gays' lack of job safeguards draws fire

Sides debate whether law to protect diversity would boost economy

Monday, May 16, 2005


Of The Patriot-News

In Maryland, New Jersey and New York, it's illegal to fire an employee simply for being gay or lesbian.

In Pennsylvania, it's not.

Only state employees are protected in the commonwealth. Harrisburg was one of the first cities of its size to pass an ordinance barring discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation, doing so in 1983.

More companies and local governments throughout the nation are including workplace protections for gays and lesbians. Some say that Pennsylvania needs to consider such steps in order to attract -- and keep -- talented workers.

"Cities have to be attractive to creative, innovative people, and not just gay and lesbian" workers, said Gary J. Gates, senior research fellow at the Williams Project on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law.

Cities and states can see clear ties between being seen as welcoming to gay residents and a thriving economy, Gates said.

"The notion is that diversity then is a key ingredient in innovation and can bring about better economic conditions for a region," Gates said.

"It's not the business climate. ... It's the people climate," said Richard Florida, the Hirst Professor at George Mason University's School of Public Policy.

Florida said a technical worker simply might feel as if he doesn't fit into a community that doesn't welcome gays.

The Rev. Howard Dana can relate to that. When he moved to the midstate in 2000, he chose to live in Harrisburg.

"In the city I could see there was revitalization all the time, and that included more and more gay life and more things that would allow me to live here as a gay professional," said Dana, pastor of the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg.

Offering better legal protections for gay and lesbian workers could help alleviate Pennsylvania's brain drain, said Stephen Glassman, who is gay and chairman of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

Pennsylvania suffered a net loss of 20,000 people with college degrees from 1999 to 2001, according to the Penn State University Data Center.

Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, contends that Pennsylvania's lack of gay and lesbian employment protection hasn't hurt the state.

"To the extent that people think Pennsylvania would be harmed by it, that would only be a result of economic pressure being put on companies by homosexual-rights groups with this as their agenda," he said.

Historically, anti-discrimination laws in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have focused on immutable characteristics such as sex or race, Geer said.

"We don't support legislation expanding the human relations code in Pennsylvania to include or to provide special protection or special class based on people's behavior," he said.

Gay-rights activists contend gay workers need the protection of laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"Even if someone is perceived as gay and they're not really gay, they can be fired," said Judy Chambers, co-chairperson of the Capital Region Stonewall Democrats, the Harrisburg branch of a national gay and lesbian group. "We want to get those protections in Pennsylvania so we don't have to worry about being fired because we're gay."

A 2003 statewide telephone survey of 750 Pennsylvania voters showed 68 percent favored passage of legislation that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Susquehanna Polling and Research conducted the survey.

Although Harrisburg's law protecting gay workers has been on the books for 22 years, "I don't know whether it's helped," said Michael Bowles, executive director of the city's Human Relations Commission. "We don't get a large number of cases. We may get two or three cases a year in that area."

Bowles noted that laws can't change attitudes.

He cited the fact that people danced in the hallways after the Central Dauphin School Board refused to hire a gay man, Robert W. Pellicone, to be superintendent. The CD board said Pellicone wasn't rejected because of sexual orientation, but Pellicone claimed otherwise.

For 13 years, Realtor Gary Muccio has helped gay couples find homes in Central Pennsylvania communities. He has never heard gay or lesbian clients say they were moving to Harrisburg because of its discrimination protections, he said.

"They realize the employment opportunities are very good here," said Muccio of ReMax Realty Associates in Camp Hill. "You can earn an excellent salary here, and housing costs are good."

Dan Miller, a certified public accountant, was fired from a Camp Hill firm in 1990 for being gay in a case that drew national attention. Miller later formed his own accounting firm.

"I think the best message Pennsylvania can send to anyone is: We believe in a fair and level playing field for everyone, and we want everyone to be able to reach their full potential," Miller said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. DIANA FISHLOCK: 255-8251 or dfishlock@patriot-news.com.

©2005 The Patriot-News

© 2005 PennLive.com All Rights Reserved.


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