On Nov. 6, Philadelphia’s Brian Sims became the state’s first openly gay person elected to the state legislature; he naturally assumed that, come Jan. 1, he would become the state’s first openly gay legislator, too. But Republican state Rep. Mike Fleck, by coming out to the Huntingdon Daily News in an interview published Saturday, beat him to the punch.
“I’m excited to have a Republican colleague who I hope I can work with when it comes to LGBT civil rights,” says Sims.
Sims is the gay candidate people had been waiting for. He will represent Center City’s 182nd District, which includes the Gayborhood; his victory party was held at legendary gay bar Woody’s. Fleck is more unexpected. His 81st District lies at the center of the state’s conservative heartland, known derisively as Pennsyltucky; he graduated from Christian conservative Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and later worked as a district executive of the Boy Scouts, a participant in an ongoing legal dispute with the city of Philadelphia over the organization’s prohibition on openly gay members.
The announcement — which included Fleck’s acknowledgement that he had tried, and found lacking, a bogus “conversion therapy” program — adds momentum to a movement for gay rights that seems increasingly inevitable yet, in states like Pennsylvania, frustratingly elusive. Pennsylvania not only doesn’t recognize gay marriage, but provides no protection for gay and transgender people who have been discriminated against in housing or private employment.
Liberal cities like Philadelphia have their own anti-discrimination laws — and could soon have more, thanks to legislation, recently introduced by Councilman James Kenney, that would give additional rights to life partners. But “if Rep. Fleck, in his district, was renting a house, and his landlord now knows that he’s gay, he could kick him out and that’s perfectly legal,” notes Ted Martin, executive director of Equality PA. If Fleck held a private-sector job in Huntingdon, “He could be fired from that job by a boss who doesn’t want to hire a gay person.”
Polls show that half of Pennsylvanians now support gay marriage. But Fleck’s Central Pennsylvania colleagues will be difficult to sway. Republican state Sen. John Eichelberger, whose district encompasses Fleck’s House district, is one of the most anti-gay legislators in Pennsylvania, and was lead sponsor of a proposed state constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. He explained why in 2009, calling same-sex marriage “dysfunctional.”
“I don’t see my voting pattern changing,” Fleck told the Huntingdon Daily News. But he also sounded a Libertarian note: “The Republican Party is all about the government needing to stay out of people’s lives.”
There have been no major votes on gay rights since Fleck was elected in 2007, and advocates hope that Fleck and the rest of his Republican colleagues will support equal rights.
“I really hope people will give Rep. Fleck some breathing space, some room to adjust,” Martin says. “I also hope in the long term that people will begin to start having a larger conversation about how badly we treat our LGBT citizens in Pennsylvania.”
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