While most LGBT advocates and supportive lawmakers in Pennsylvania are focused on securing basic nondiscrimination protections, one lawmaker is starting the push for further protections for transgender people in the state.
Rep. Mark Cohen, a Philadelphia Democrat, plans to introduce an extensive package of transgender rights bills this session, saying a conversation needs to be started around issues of transgender discrimination. Meanwhile, LGBT advocates are continuing to press for a state law that would establish basic protections against discrimination based on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity and expression” in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations.
“Right now our main focus is to pass a nondiscrimination bill through the legislature,” said Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania. “In Pennsylvania, we need to be talking about the most basic protections, really. That’s really most of our focus at the current moment.”
According to summaries of the four bills Cohen plans to introduce, the laws would grant transgender people access to transition-related healthcare through Medicaid, provide state employees access to transition-related care, and create a tax credit for private businesses that provide such care to employees.
The fourth piece of legislation in the package would create protections for transgender students in Pennsylvania public schools. The bill is modeled off a law passed last year in California, which would allow students to choose facilities and activities in accordance with their gender identity, regardless of the sex listed on student records.
Cohen concedes it will likely take a long time to build up enough support in the legislature for the the protections. He plans to introduce the package as he feels he’s brought on an adequate number of co-sponsors. Lawmakers return to the state capitol in Harrisburg May 5.
“I think you have to begin the discussion at some point and I decided to begin it now,” he told BuzzFeed. “Right now there are no protections for transgender people. This would, for the first time, create protections for transgender people under Pennsylvania law.”
Cohen said he doesn’t know when the nondiscrimination bill will pass, and said he does not see “imminent action” on either that bill or his own proposals. Martin, though, said advocates are close to securing enough support to pass the nondiscrimination legislation, House Bill and Senate Bill 300, having reached 96 co-sponsors in the House and 25 in the Senate and the support of Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican. The bills need 102 votes and 26 votes to pass in each chamber, respectively.
As for Cohen’s bills, Martin hasn’t read them in full, but said they’re “a step in the right direction.” The bills are based on an LGBT equality ordinance approved in Philadelphia last spring, according to transgender activist Jordan Gwendolyn Davis. Davis said the groundbreaking city-level policy inspired transgender activists to bring such measures to the state level under Cohen’s leadership.
“These are all bills that up until a few years ago mainstream lawmakers would have ran away from, and that goes to show the transgender community has come a long way and that we still have a long way to go,” Davis said. “This is the first time these types of bills are being introduced in Pennsylvania history.”
Davis, too, acknowledges the difficulty proponents might have in advancing the legislation, saying, “Unfortunately, Pennsylvania tends to be a very purple state. We have a right-wing state house that is blocking any LGBT bills from going forward.”
Should the state’s Republican Party come out in support of ending discrimination and adding protections for transgender people, Cohen said these bills would “sail through in 24 hours.” Instead, Cohen anticipates it will take a while to get there, saying, “This is a long, long process for transgender rights. I’m not predicting the next couple of months.”
But Davis — like Cohen — said supporters need to start a conversation around the issues now.
“We are intruding these because we feel these issues deserve attention,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to get them through when a sunnier day comes.”