Removing homosexuality from Pa. crimes code is a start, advocates say. But more needs to be done

Next up: Finally passing a statewide anti-discrimination law for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians

By: - July 16, 2022 6:39 am

State lawmakers removed depictions of homosexuality from the list of illegal sexual acts in Pennsylvania’s Crimes Codes. But some activists think this is only the first step to equality for members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

The state House and Senate unanimously approved the bill, sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, and it was swiftly signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf last week. 

Many activists and legislators applauded the bipartisan support for the bill, but they said they wanted to see further commitments by the Republican-led General Assembly to protect LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians, specifically passing statewide anti-discrimination laws. 

“This bill corrects a grave wrong under our law — especially at a time when many LGBTQ Pennsylvanians feel they face an uncertain future,” Preston Heldibridle, executive director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, said in a statement. 

The language in the state criminal code was from the state’s former anti-sodomy law. The 2003 Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision overruled any remaining state anti-sodomy laws, but the language criminalizing depictions of homosexuality remained in the Criminal Code, referring to them as “patently offensive.” 

Heldibridle credited the Legislature for taking this step but said that there is still plenty of work to be done. 

“Now that the General Assembly has agreed, unanimously in both chambers, that LGBTQ Pennsylvanians are not obscene, they must take the next step to ensure equal dignity under the law by passing LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protectionism,” Heldibridle said. 

Nondiscrimination laws are intended to protect groups of people from facing discrimination in varying aspects of life, one example being employment opportunities. Municipalities have the opportunity to enact local LGBTQ+ discrimination policies and create commissions to enforce those policies, according to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act of 1995.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission will accept complaints of LGBTQ+ discrimination on the basis of sex discrimination in current law, according to the office of Attorney General Josh Shapiro. As will the Civil Rights Enforcement Section of the Department of Justice.

About 70 of the commonwealth’s 2,562 municipalities have passed their own anti-discrimination? laws —  more than any other state in the country, according to the Pennsylvania Youth Congress — but the General Assembly still has not passed an explicit statewide LGBTQ+-inclusive anti-discrimination law. 

One long-sought bill, known as the Fairness Act, provides those protections. But it has yet to see a vote by the House State Government Committee, which currently has the legislation. 

Thomas Ude, the legal and public policy director at the Mazzoni Center, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that provides health and wellness services to the LGBTQ community, said that it’s going to take agreement from both sides of the aisle to pass an anti-discrimination law in Harrisburg. 

“It’s an important law that was passed, it updates those provisions,” Ude said. “I think it’d be great if there were more. There’s a lot of other areas where there’s work to be done.” 

Stephen Jiwanmall, communications director of the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, also said there is more to be desired from this simple change. 

“Criminalizing LGBTQ+ experiences and identities has no place in Pennsylvania or anywhere else,” Jiwanmall said. “We are grateful for Governor Wolf’s continued support of LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians, and we continue to urge state legislators to pass the Fairness Act, which would provide meaningful reform and protection for our communities. Facing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is the real crime.” 

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Democrat from Philadelphia and co-sponsor of the Fairness Act, is one of the few identifying members of the LGBTQ+ community in the state Legislature. He supported this bill as a welcomed piece of bipartisanship.

“It is my hope that this will be another step towards destigmatizing LGBTQ+ individuals and protecting the community from possible future court decisions,” Kenyatta said. 

He added that “Removing homosexuality from the Crimes Code was about a couple centuries overdue, but a big deal nevertheless. It is my hope that this will be another step towards destigmatizing LGBTQ+ individuals and protecting the community from possible future court decisions.” 

He referenced U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s recommendation that the court revisit the decision of Lawrence v. Texas in his concurrence to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in early June. 

“Should the court do that and had this language remained in the Crimes Code it would have presented a grave threat to LGBTQ Pennsylvanians,” Kenyatta said.

In a statement, Stephens, the bill’s sponsor, said its approval was “a long time coming—too long. No one in the LGBTQ community should be made a criminal because of who they love.”

“Love should never be illegal,” Stephens added.

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Jaxon White
Jaxon White

Jaxon White is a summer intern for the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association, and a student at Bucknell University, where is editor of the campus newspaper.