Neither Pennsylvania nor federal law specifically prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Within Pennsylvania there have been steps at the local level and through executive authority to push for protections and equality. Harrisburg is the first municipality in PA and among the first in the nation, March 9, 1983, to pass an antidiscrimination ordinance that includes both categories of sexual orientation and gender identity. However, progress for protections never reached beyond individual municipalities until two decades after Harrisburg passed its ordinance.
On July 28, 2003, Governor Edward Rendell, through an executive order, extended antidiscrimination protections to cover gender identity for state employees. The extension altered the order issued by Governor Milton Shapp in 1975. The action taken by Governor Rendell can be connected with the growing movement within Pennsylvania and nation around transgender identities. The organizing, community building, and advocacy started by Renaissance and individuals in the 1980s was producing results by the early 2000s.
Not only were legal protections slowly expanding in the state and at the local level, but also the visibility and recognition of transgender individuals. A first in the nation occurred when Alberta Hamm, a 60-year-old and a transgender woman, was elected president of Harrisburg Area Community College’s Student Government Association. She was the first transgender individual in the nation to attain the presidency of a college or university student government body. Serving as president from Spring 2002 to Spring 2004, she sought to reorganize the student government, improve the budget, and handle campus diversity issues.
Even with these successes of the early 2000s, obstacles were still present for those wishing to receive equal rights and the ability to facilitate gender transition, if applicable.
Equal Employment Opportunity – July 28, 2003 – PA Office of Administration
Alberta Hamm, LGBT-096. Courtesy of DCA.
Alberta Hamm Campaign Brochure, LGBT-096. Courtesy of DCA.
As visibility and empowerment grew in Pennsylvania, it was realized that an entity needed to exist in Washington D.C. to push for gender identity and expression protections and rights at the federal level. Mara Kiesling, a Central PA native and member of Renaissance, stepped up and founded the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2003. The Center became a lobbying group in the nation’s capital urging lawmakers to create laws for the transgender peoples. As the organization developed it became the leading transgender focused advocates at the federal level. The International Bill of Gender Rights now had a speaker in the halls of federal power.
As the years passed, the achievements of the early 2000s were not sustained in the PA state legislature or in D.C. However, the lack of progress legally did not alter the hopes and aspirations of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals in Pennsylvania. In 2007, under the leadership of Jeanine Ruhsam, TransCentral PA was established. It grew out of Renaissance and created an independent entity for the Central PA region that was separate from the more eastern centered Renaissance. TransCentral PA is a non-profit organization that focuses on advocacy, education, and support. The organization holds events, monthly meetings, outreach programs, and provides resources for the transgender community of Central PA. One of their major events is the Keystone Conference.
The Keystone Conference has become one of the leading conferences focusing on transgender, gender identity, and expression in the United States. It was started by TransCentral PA as a local community event, but it has grown over the years with over 700 people attending in 2019. It primarily focuses on providing education on gender identity and expression topics and providing resources for those within the community. The conference is a prime example of the hard work and dedication of the community within Central PA. Their ability to establish national connections and to continue its growth show its success and appeal.
Central Pennsylvania Pride Festival & Parade, TransCentral Website, Undated
Keystone Conference Brochure, TransCentral PA Digital Library, 2013
Mara Kiesling, Photograph, National Center for Transgender Equality Blog, March 26, 2021
Jeanine Ruhsam describes the creation of Keystone,
its growth, purpose, and impacts. (Audio Only)
Mara Kiesling talks about the formation of the
National Center for Transgender Equality. (Audio Only)
TransCentral PA - May/June 2021 Newsletter - TransCentral PA Digital Library
11 Photographs from one of the Keystone Conferences - Undated - People Unnamed - TransCentral PA
Candlelight vigil for Transgender Day of Remembrance Photograph - Undated - TransCentral PA
Several members with former PA Governor Ed Rendell - Photograph - Undated - TransCentral PA
Gretchen Little talks about the development of TransCentral PA, the influence it had on them, and the importance of the Keystone Conference.
Sophie Kandler talks about the influence of websites, publications, and organizations on the development of her identity and coming to terms with it in the early 2000s. Also, the influence of Keystone in her life.
As the movement continued to advocate for the rights of transgender individuals and nonconforming gender expression, results started to be achieved once again in Pennsylvania and at the federal level, too, with the elections of President Barrack Obama and Governor Tom Wolf. In 2012, then Vice President Joe Biden, while campaigning for President Obama, made a remark that transgender rights were the “civil rights issue of our time.”
Two years after Obama’s reelection, U.S. Attorney General Erick Holder issued a memo that the Department of Justice now supported the interpretation of Title VII, a civil rights statute that outlines particular workplace discrimination, which allows workplace discrimination claims based on gender identity. This stance by the administration of President Obama gave a boost to the movement seeking to make this interpretation permanent with the legal system.
In 2016, Governor Tom Wolf issued two executive orders that expanded already existing protections for LGBTQ+ state employees, and for the first time required those entities under contract with the state to follow and implement such practices. As with the cases of the Shapp and Rendell orders, they are groundbreaking but do not cover all workers and individuals within Pennsylvania.
One year after Governor Tom Wolf advanced protections in Pennsylvania, the Trump administration’s Department of Justice issued a memo reversing the interpretation of Title VII that Obama’s Justice Department had supported. These conflicting interpretations finally came to head in the 2020 United States Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County. In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled “It is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating...based on sex…” The decision allows enforcement of the interpretation of the memo sent out by the Department of Justice back in 2014, which the Biden administration has readopted. However, the issue of religious freedom and employment discrimination was not addressed.
Two years prior to this ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which oversees the formulation of policies connected with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, issued nonbinding guidance similar to the decision of the Supreme Court, but going beyond employment and into the realm of housing and other matters of life. Pennsylvania courts have yet to affirm this guidance. The Civil Rights Enforcement Section of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office also will accept complaints based on the interpretation that discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are forms of sex discrimination.
With the legal system currently siding with the movement, it is important to recognize that without actual laws and proper enforcement the rulings have little impact on the daily lives of individuals. It is important to recognize the achievements of individuals and organizations from Pennsylvania that have contributed to the success achieved so far in the fight for equality.
One only has to look at Dr. Rachel Levine, who became the first transgender individual to be confirmed by the US Senate when she took up the role of Assistant Secretary of Health in 2021. Previously she was the PA Physician General and then PA Secretary of Health. She headed the COVID 19 response in her role as Secretary of Health for the State.
Renaissance Transgender Association and TransCentral PA still operate and successfully serve the communities of Central and Eastern Pennsylvania. They, like the terminology, have adapted and changed to fit and meet the needs of those whom they are serving. Originally focused on various forms of gender expression, they have grown to encompass gender identity and especially identities under the umbrella of transgender.
Looking ahead there are still countless challenges facing the LGBTQ+ communities of Pennsylvania and the nation. Changing one’s name, which one would think would be simple, can be a long and for some an expensive endeavor. In Pennsylvania, one has to petition the courts, publish the fact that your name has been legally changed in local newspapers and legal journals, and complete a large amount of paperwork. Obstacles like these can only be surmounted by following in the footsteps of those who pioneered the movement in the late 1980s and 1990s. The fight continues.
Fae Kronman received the Rising Star Award at the LGBT Center of Center of Central PA’s FAB 2021. Fae has distinguished themself as an outspoken advocate and strategist in the movement to improve healthcare for transgender, non binary, and gender nonconforming individuals.
Sophie Kandler talks about the impact on oneself because of one’s gender identity, both the positives and negatives.
Mara Keisling describes how the Transgender community has transformed since the 1990s. She mentions key changes and how the community looks in 2017. (Audio Only)
Dr. Rachel Levine talks about their own progress, the progress of the transgender community,
but that it still faces may issues.