About Faith Elmes

Faith is the Southwestern PA Coordinating Committee member and former Assistant Convener of the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition. She is a rising Senior at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania where she has served as the President of the IUP Pride Alliance. She is from Landisburg in Perry County. Faith may be reached by email at southwesternpa@pennsec.org.

Youth Leaders Move into Site of Future Bayard Rustin House

This afternoon, Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition staff signed a lease to move into the first floor of the property that will eventually become the Bayard Rustin House: Pennsylvania’s Youth Action Center. The house is located on Walnut Street directly across the street from the State Capitol.

PSEC launched the Time to Rise Campaign on May 29th with an initial goal to raise $30,000 by June 30th. During the month of June, youth leaders reached out to family and friends for financial support. Staff also scheduled an information session for the Pennsylvania LGBT Equality Caucus and the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus for June 26th to brief legislators on the groundbreaking project. Unfortunately, the session was postponed due to last minute scheduling of caucus meetings during the hectic budget season.

PSEC Executive Director Jason Landau Goodman commented on the continuing fundraising efforts, “we are fully optimistic that our relationships with community stakeholders will allow us to secure the goal to open the center.”

This headquarters for the Pennsylvania LGBTQ advocacy community will provide a centralized home for young activists to design and advance policies that promote a more affirming commonwealth. Specifically, The Bayard Rustin House will increase our capacity to win on issues regarding non-discrimination, hate crimes, transgender rights, homeless youth, and foster care by allowing young advocates direct access to lawmakers and community stakeholders.

The date of the official opening for the Bayard Rustin House has yet to be determined, however, PSEC Coordinating Committee Convener, Turner Stulting, speculates that there will be a formal launching event to coincide with the new legislative session in January 2015.

In the mean time, the house will be used as a central location for Time to Rise fundraising campaign work and internal leadership planning. Fundraising is projected to extend the length of the 2014 year as leaders work to secure enough funds to buy the three-story property.

From the Time to Rise campaign website: The Bayard Rustin House will be specifically used as the central location to plan regional and state campaigns, hold statewide leadership meetings, facilitate advanced advocacy trainings, host community programs, and be the overall bustling headquarters of the Pennsylvania LGBTQ youth justice movement.

Pennsylvania Can Move Forward on LGBT Non-Discrimination in 2014

Since 1976, there have been 24 LGBT non-discrimination bills introduced in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Only once, in 2009, did any of them leave a legislative committee. All of these bills have failed to pass. Today, 17 states protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, and public accommodations. The adoption of basic protections for LGBT Pennsylvanians is long overdue. In 2014, Pennsylvania will finally become a battleground where the adoption of this critical legislation is possible.

The Pennsylvania State Senate now has 25 co-sponsors on SB 300, the chamber’s leading LGBT non-discrimination bill. It was introduced by Sen. Patrick Browne (R-16) and Sen. Lawrence Farnese (D-1) in August 2013. With half its members on board and evidence of at least a dozen more Senators who would vote in favor of the bill, the next step is to get SB 300 out of the Senate State Government Committee for a floor vote. The power to make this bill a priority for the Senate rests with its Majority Leader, Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R-9). In this election year, where half the State Senate seats will be up for grabs, the Delaware County Republican will either want to appeal to moderate voters and run SB 300, or polarize the issue to put it on ice until the next legislative session in 2015.

The State House is in a similar position with HB 300, which was introduced by Rep. Chris Ross (R-158) and Rep. Dan Frankel (D-23) also last August. With Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-12) as the Chair of the House State Government Committee, political commentators have duly noted the futility of trying to get this legislation to a floor vote. In the General Assembly, committee chairpersons essentially wield unlimited control over releasing any bills that have been sent to them to the floor of their chamber. While the House and Senate Leadership can pressure committee chairs, Rep. Metcalfe has been very clear that he will never move HB 300.

One possible scenario is a compromise between the chambers to get the bill out of the Senate to appease moderates as a sign of progress, but halt any movement in the House to keep ultra-conservatives at bay.

There is, however, a rare political maneuver that supporters of SB 300 and HB 300 could employ to enact this law in 2014: the discharge resolution. This legislative rule is seldom successful because of partisan politics, as it undermines the power of the majority party’s leadership and can be seen as embarrassing legislators. Yet, it has been far more shameful that Pennsylvania has gone for nearly forty years without passing LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination legislation.

Using the discharge resolution rule, a legislator can gather a petition to bring any bill directly to a floor vote, effectively overriding a committee chair if they refuse to move a bill. To counter this maneuver, the majority party can switch the committee of the legislation before a vote on the discharge resolution, thus requiring a new petition to be filed.

In 2014, however, any legislator would look ridiculous trying to undercut a prominent civil rights bill by moving it to committees such as Agriculture & Rural Affairs or Transportation. A discharge resolution in the House would force the hand of the legislature’s leadership to make a public decision if they will support basic protections for LGBT Pennsylvanians.

We can confirm that in each chamber, a majority of legislators will vote in favor of SB 300 or HB 300 in a floor vote. The number of co-sponsors, who have been secured through committed advocacy from constituents and a variety of community organizations, including the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition, is a testament to that.

Since 1983, 32 municipalities in Pennsylvania have adopted local non-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBT people, covering 31% of the state’s population. Repeated public polling shows a clear majority of Pennsylvanians support the adoption of this legislation.

While we are optimistic for movement in the Senate this year, likely in the spring, action in the House and the ultimate enactment of this law remains unclear for 2014.

Over the past 38 years, thousands of Pennsylvanians have experienced the cruelty of anti-LGBT discrimination – including being terminated from their jobs and evicted from their homes. The citizens of Pennsylvania must not be further delayed from ensuring the dignity and equality of our friends, family, and neighbors. From the state where “All men are created equal” was first proclaimed to the nation, Pennsylvanians deserve better.

Why the Victory Fund Kept Mike Fleck in the Closet

This week marks the one year anniversary of PA State Representative Mike Fleck (R-81) coming out as openly gay. His courage, strength, and grace while coming out and being out have had a profound impact on countless Pennsylvanians, rural youth, and people around the world. However, Rep. Fleck was ready to come out much earlier than December 2012.

In the December 6th issue of the Philadelphia Gay News,
Rep. Fleck shares publicly for the first time that the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund instructed him to stay in the closet when he reached out to them. The Victory Fund is the premier national organization dedicated to electing out LGBT people to public office. As a young Pennsylvanian and President of a rural GSA, I find their treatment of Rep. Fleck highly problematic and indicative of a larger framework
that separates the LGBT political elite from local leaders who happen to be LGBT.

Coming out is a very personal process. Above all else, it is important that the person who is doing so maintain control of how events unfold. Rep. Fleck’s long journey of understanding who he is took several years. By the spring of 2012, he was ready to come out. His close political advisors, including former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, encouraged him to come out before the summer. However, a friend of Rep. Fleck’s suggested he reach out to the Victory Fund for their strategic counsel.


Rep. Brian Sims Speaks at a Victory Fund Event (Credit: Out Smart Houston)

The Victory Fund had a very strong incentive to keep him closeted until 2013, or to delay his coming out as much as possible. One of their campaign board members, Mr. Brian Sims, was running on the explicit platform of being the first openly gay state legislator in Pennsylvania. There is a clear conflict of interest on the Victory Fund’s behalf: If Rep. Fleck, a highly popular third term legislator, were to come out before 2013, he would be “taking away the title” from Mr. Sims. Not only would this hurt his personal ego, but also bruise the fundraising power of the Victory Fund on Mr. Sims’ behalf. Through his position, Mr. Sims has regularly stumped for the Victory Fund at private fundraisers, and once told Houston’s Out Smart, “I am an absolute junkie for the Victory Fund”.

If Mr. Sims secured the full title of “first openly gay legislator in PA,” the organization would have amplified media presence after “their guy” won. The Victory Fund could claim credit for prevailing in what they call on their website, a “Horizon State.” But, if Rep. Fleck came out before the election, they would lose recognition for supporting the first openly gay legislator in Pennsylvania.

To this day, Rep. Sims presents a media image as though he were the first openly gay legislator in the state, and is still regularly mischaracterized in the media as such (1-4).  Not coming out to gain some
historic title, Rep. Fleck is humble and has never publicly asserted a need to correct them.

The Victory Fund played Rep. Fleck. He finally broke under the pressure and came out on his own terms on December 1, 2012 through the Hungtindon Daily News. Upon coming out, Rep. Fleck received nasty attacks from Mr. Sims’ supporters for ‘stealing his crown.’ On PoliticsPA, one Sims’ supporter wrote that “[Rep. Fleck is] swooping in and stealing all his thunder [which] reeks of opportunism and some cowardice…way to hedge your bets then take advantage.” All because he made a personal decision stop following the problematic advice of just ‘waiting’. At the time, Rep. Fleck most likely had no idea or did not care who Mr. Sims even was.

So why would an experienced national organization dedicated to electing LGBT people to public office tell a legislator to stay in the closet? Their reasoning with Rep. Fleck was likely regarding the nature of his conservative district and not wanting him to “risk” his seat. Rep. Fleck was re-elected twice with 100% of the vote and was already expected to sail to victory again without any formal challenger. The primary election already happened in April, so the only way to challenge Rep. Fleck would have been in the form of a write-in candidacy. In a rural district against a well-liked incumbent, the amount of resources needed to run a successful write-in campaign in only a few months would likely be cost-prohibitive. In asking for him to wait until after the election, it opened the door to some of his constituents thinking that he was ‘deceiving them’ until after election day. Did the Victory Fund plan on asking him to stay in the closet through 2013?

web_header_DCThe Victory Fund’s base of supporters is largely built from cocktail parties and black-tie events which speak to the non-profit industrial complex. To survive in difficult economic times, when many LGBT organizations have shuttered, the organization may be drawn toward tactics of self-preservation over maintaining the integrity of their mission.

Their matrix for endorsements and providing financial support is not based primarily on the importance of a race, but rather if they are guaranteed or near-guaranteed to win. It seems they want to keep their ratio of winners high, which can allow them to share a high rate of success with their donors. They tout on their website: “In fact, more than 350 openly LGBT candidates ran for office in 2010, but just 164 earned Victory’s endorsement. And 65% of those individuals went on to win their election.”  This strategy is successful, as the Movement Advancement Project found the Victory Fund, along with several other national LGBT organizations, increased their profits by 17% in 2012. They have little reason to support grassroots candidates who would not return the Victory Fund’s investment by drawing wealthy crowds to their cocktail fundraisers, as would someone from within their inner circle.


PA Rep. Candidate Fern Kaufman

Under these parameters, Harvey Milk would not get support from the Victory Fund even if he tried – at least not during his first attempts running for City Supervisor. However, those elections were necessary to get his name out there and eventually win. There are countless examples of important campaigns to elect LGBT people that fell outside the mainstream political community. In a special election earlier this year, Equality Pennsylvania declined to support out Republican Bryan Tate for an open seat in York County in order to endorse now-Rep. Kevin Schreiber, a Democrat. In 2008 and 2010, out lesbian Fern Kaufman ran for state representative against an incumbent Republican in Chester County. She became the earliest serious contender to take the title of first LGBT person in the Pennsylvania legislature – in 2008 she secured 48% of the vote. Advocates would like to think that since she was running in a Philadelphia suburb, the larger LGBT community and the Victory Fund would have been at her side. But they were not, and she slammed them in the Philadelphia Gay News after her loss in 2010:

“I actually had to fight with my own community for this. I don’t know if I can take on another uphill battle when my community was not there for me,” she said. “That’s a harsh statement to make, but they weren’t. It was sporadic, and I had to fight for them to pay attention but, by and large, they did not. It’s one thing to say, ‘We really support you,’ and slap me on the back and say, ‘Go, girl, you’re great.’ That’s great, but I need people who are actually willing to put rubber to the road because this isn’t something that can be done alone. I don’t know if I have that fight in me again to go back to the community and try to get them to actually show up.”

“Our community needs to take stock of what’s really important to them, and I hope, if nothing else, this election will open up a greater conversation about politics in our country and our community.”

Conversely, many LGBT New Yorkers saw City Council President Christine Quinn’s recently failed bid for Mayor as a victory.  They believed she had become corrupt and sold out the queer community in numerous instances, including by supporting the Stop and Frisk program. The Washington Blade reported that:

Quinn_Ward Morrison-Metro Weekly

New York Mayoral Candidate Christine Quinn Speaks at a Victory Fund Event (Credit: Metro Weekly)

“The national LGBT groups Human Rights Campaign and Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund contributed thousands of dollars to her campaign and dispatched volunteers and field organizers to help in locations throughout the city.

Victory Fund President and CEO Chuck Wolfe issued a statement Tuesday night noting that eight of its 10 endorsed candidates in New York races, including City Council candidates, won their races in the New York primary.”

The Victory Fund, and other LGBT political elite organizations, have an incentive to perpetuate a culture that keeps them close to elected officials in power, who can raise them funds and keep their message relevant. Of the 21 board members listed on their website, 14 are older white cis-men. When LGBT political communities are led by individuals from privileged classes, they are likely to be also designing an agenda for their own needs.

So, what is the value in analyzing Rep. Fleck’s experience with the Victory Fund? In writing this, I asked myself: is it worthwhile to provide constructive criticism of a national LGBT organization so publicly? I believe it is critical for us to recognize this behavior when it occurs because there are serious implications for the integrity and purpose of the LGBT movement. In this system, LGBT dollars have and will continue to go to privileged gay leaders entering politics who come from the inner circles of organizations such as the Victory Fund or HRC. It seems the Victory Fund may have lost their sight of their mission when telling our state’s first openly gay state representative to sit down. It was never their place to make that call. We must challenge these institutions and hold LGBT political leaders accountable so we may promote a movement that fights for the justice of all people.


Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown Speaks to the Press After House Floor Debacle (Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer)

In the end, while both Rep. Fleck and Rep. Sims were elected, what has happened? It seems rather misguided to have quelled Rep. Fleck in coming out while over-promoting Rep. Sims given evidence of their effectiveness in the legislature. Rep. Sims has not made any earth-shattering progress on LGBT issues in the House. He staged a debacle with Rep. Daryl Metcalfe on the House floor over DOMA in June, and has held several inflated press conferences. It would have been common knowledge to all legislators that members of the majority party have the power to silence any legislator in the minority from speaking about a controversial issue during a unanimous consent forum. He was present in session on February 13, when several black legislators were silenced when they went to speak about Black History Month on the House floor. Likewise, marriage equality bills have been introduced six times before he and Rep. McCarter did so, without fanfare. In contrast, Rep. Fleck used his resources to gain the acceptance of a majority of his Republican colleagues – and foster strong relationships with major political players so our GOP majority state government can start to move forward on equality issues.

On the heels of the 35th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s assassination, I think it is important to remember that he once called out:

“It’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power… it’s about the “us’s” out there. I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement. I think that there’s a distinction between those who use the movement and those who are part of the movement.”

Harvey Milk, Fern Kaufman, and Rep. Fleck are among a select breed of out leaders who have refused to be bought or sold by the LGBT political elite. Perhaps this is why wealthy LGBT organizations have been making calculated decisions for decades such as the one to stall Rep. Fleck coming out.

PA Rep. Mike Fleck and PA House Majority Leader Mike Turzai

Rep. Mike Fleck and PA House Majority Leader Mike Turzai

If the LGBT political establishment keeps themselves limited to investing only in their golden boys of the Horizon States, there will never be a true win. Rep. Fleck was clear in his interview that he “didn’t want to be some big poster boy for gay rights,” but rather focus on being a successful legislator, and by virtue of being out, help the movement. The red states, as well as Pennsylvania, will not all of the sudden become LGBT safe havens. We must rally with all out legislators, including conservatives, who may be outside the established LGBT community.

When the larger LGBT community can break down the barriers between the grassroots and establishment communities, we will have secured the truest victory: the building of a world where everyone is provided respect, dignity, and equality.

1. Philebrity: Q&A: Rep. Brian Sims, PA’s First Openly Gay Legislator, On The Day That DOMA Died (June 26, 2013)
2. We’re not done yet. What’s next in the fight for LGBT rights (September 16, 2013)
Rep. Sims opens his opinion piece for The Guardian with:
“As the first openly gay representative in Pennsylvania, I’m confident civil rights for all will win despite more legal challenges.”
3. Your Erie.com: State Rep Brian Sims Visits Erie (November 2, 2013)
4. Campus Pride Speakers Bureau Profile: Brian Sims
Post Photo Credit: The New York Times

What Patriotism Means to Me

Today my family and friends will gather to enjoy backyard games at picnics, carnivals rides, and evening fireworks. They will be sure to stress that we are not celebrating the ‘Fourth of July’, but Independence Day: the day in history when our nation’s forefathers declared the necessity for an independent nation, with freedoms for citizens which had yet to be seen. God Bless America!

I’ll be the first to admit, the Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays. I love to get caught up in the summer excitement. Amidst all the patriotic songs, however, I can’t help but notice the lurking heteronormativity in our celebrations: the uneasiness of the community about the public appearance of an interracial couple; the gawking eyes that find their way to those who have an androgynous gender expression. As a child these were things I had grown up with. Hearing others trying to guess the sex of the odd person in front of us in the funnel cake line seemed normal. As time has gone by, my college experience has opened my eyes to how harmful these sort of judgements can be. Yet, when I bring up my concerns with others from my home community, they often seem to find my concerns silly, or worse, an attack on their lifestyle.

Similarly, when I tell others about my experiences in lobbying lawmakers for LGBT rights, I’m at times met with accusations that my actions are unpatriotic in nature – that trying to change the current system is in someway ‘un-American’. Yet, the truth is, there is nothing more patriotic than taking an active role in working to move your country forward.

A democracy is only as fair and just as the people who participate in it. When we advocate in Harrisburg, we are demonstrating how much we love our nation and the desire to do everything in our power to make it even better. Through LGBT activism, we aspire to bring our nation closer to the ideals stated in the very pledge of allegiance: liberty and justice for all.

America has a rich history of activism. The concept is far from new to us, and began with our founders forming a nation in protest of the unfair policies of British rule. Our very country was founded by a group of activists.

In the 1960’s during the heart of the Civil Right’s Movement, advocates for racial and economic justice and their allies worked together, not just to end segregation but to affirm the principles we set down in our Constitution: “Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

When fighting against systematic oppression in the form of segregation, redistricting, and complex voter registration laws, these activists hoped to build a better America. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. that his dream of a nation that fulfills its promise of inalienable rights was “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream”. Despite the sometimes hard and violent struggle, he was not working against America as the opposition thought, but for it in the purest of ideals.

As a student with a disability, I find the more recent fight for disability rights in America to be more relatable and empowering. Prior to the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, people with disabilities were segregated in the public school system in a way that had nothing to do with mental ability. It was common practice to institutionalize those with disabilities without reason. The disabled population was excluded from public spaces because of a lack of accessible accommodations and deemed not useful in the workplace, leading to social isolation, and economic difficulties.

Similar to the protests and sit-ins used in the 60’s, Americans with disabilities and their allies gathered in town halls and bombarded legislators with letters encouraging them not to deregulate businesses that found providing accessible facilities a hardship.

The inclusions that the ADA granted did not just make discrimination in regard to ability illegal, but granted these citizens dignity. Problems like unemployment and lack of education that faced Americans with disabilities were no longer seen as inevitable consequences of the individual’s disability. Instead, it was recognized that societal barriers and prejudices led to lower economic class. When these barriers are removed and legislators actively work against injustice, those with disabilities have been able to find a productive place in our society.

The thousands of citizens who worked to make this legislation law, did so in the hope of creating a more inclusive environment for all our citizens. By challenging the status quo and engaging their government, advocates were able to make changes that affect nearly every American who is likely to face a temporary disability at some point in life. They did so to better themselves and help those they loved. If any anger could be found in their voices, it was out of frustration and knowing that America could do better. Likewise, the recent and often passionate calls for LGBT equality are rooted in a love for friends and family who are being treated like second class citizens.

I appreciate the privilege I have as an American citizen and know that I am blessed to wake up each morning in the country that I do. I choose to use that privilege to ensure that on our soil, humans are treated with dignity and all citizens have equal protection under the law. One of the most patriotic things a citizen can do is to be actively engaged in their community and fight to have the principles of the constitution met to their fullest extent.