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New director Pennsylvania's first LGBTQ Commission

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Pennsylvania now has an LGBTQ Commission recently brought into existence by Gov. Tom Wolf. Todd Snovel is the appointed executive director. He serves on the commission in a state surrounded by other states with basic civil rights protections for queer people. With no statewide civil rights protections, the Keystone State’s history of progress on queer rights is an eye-crossing labyrinth of slow change.

In August 2018, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has been interpreting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as being banned under the category of sex as defined in the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. This interpretation represents a change in how a law is administered based on an LGBTQ-favorable interpretation of the current regulations. It is an advance but not a legislative solution. If discrimination is found, the HRC will ‘advise’ but without the force of law.

The inclusive interpretation allows the HRC to amass cases in order perhaps in the future to prove that discrimination indeed exists and that a legislative solution is needed. Queers who have been discriminated against in employment, housing, education, and public accommodations can now file complaints with the HRC Commission (not the LGBTQ Commission), which will investigate each complaint and can advise those responsible to stop a discriminatory practice, implement training, or award economic damages. Following Michigan in May of 2018, Pennsylvania was the second state to put such steps in place.

The Central Voice: How do you view your role as chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs?

Snovel: As the executive director, I see my job as leading and managing the commission’s work according to the strategic direction envisioned by our commissioners as well as the agenda for equality set forth by Governor Tom Wolf. That work is both internally and externally-facing. Internally, I work with agency leaders to consider how policies, practices, and services are inclusive and affirming of LGBTQ folx across the spectrums of state government. Externally, I work with communities across the Commonwealth to listen, provide resources, and promote collaboration as we work together to promote equity.

CV: What is the length of commission appointments?

Snovel: Commissioners are appointed for two-year terms and are renewable.

CV: What are your goals? The commission’s goals?

Snovel: This is a really great question. Since we have only been established for three months, this is a high priority to ground and show direction to our work. We have surveyed all of the Commissioners to start generating these ideas. We talked through lots of possible goals at our first meeting on Nov. 2. These goals include major initiatives, such as working with state government agencies around policy and programs, as well as a series of Town Hall Meetings and projects that working groups within the commission can initialize. Governor Wolf has also set a priority of widening Pennsylvania’s non-discrimination policies, making the passing of the PA Fairness Act a direct priority for the commission and the administration.

CV: Why does Pennsylvania struggle with adopting an amendment to its Human Relations Act that would add basic civil rights protections for LGBT citizens?

Snovel: Another excellent question. We are eager to help legislators understand the importance of passing the PA Fairness Act. We also need all voices collectively advocating for this – from our business owners, to our school leaders, to community organizers. It can no longer be acceptable for Pennsylvania to be the only state in the Northeast lacking these incredibly important protections for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians. I am proud to work for a governor such as Wolf who advocates so directly for equitable laws and protections of all Pennsylvanians.

CV: Estimates are that about 20-25% of cisgendered, white gay men and lesbians voted for President Trump. Is economic and social privilege a layer of protection not available to less well-heeled LGBT individuals?  

Snovel: I think that, even within a historically-marginalized community, we can still hold privileges based on the intersection of our other identities. In your example, cisgendered folx, white folx, and LGBTQ folx in higher socio-economic situations all hold privileges that other members of our community may not. We need to constantly reflecting on how we are thinking about the most vulnerable of our communities when advocating. We also need to realize that not every person who identifies as LGBTQ aligns with one specific political party or ideology.

 CV: Martin Duberman, who brought us his seminal book Stonewall about the trans women who actually lead the resistance that night in 1969, recently published Has the gay movement failed? He asserts that the movement’s fixation on hetero-normative victories – marriage and military service – have vailed the economic issues that thwart less privileged LGBT community members from prospering. Thoughts?

Snovel: Duberman is not alone here. I’ve read several articles that believes that the focus on marriage equality, while an important historic moment, may have also turned focus away from other needs within the community. I believe we can both celebrate what marriage equality has meant to many as well as continue to advocate for additional needs that still exist for many folx.

CV: What’s the function, purpose, or rationale for having a representative from The Victory Fund on the commission? Sean Meloy is the Fund’s Political Director. Does that run the risk of mixing electoral politics with a public service entity?

Snovel: Our commissioners come with a varied collection of backgrounds, identities, and experience. Commissioner Meloy, alongside his fellow commissioners, brings to the table a vast amount of experience working on LGBTQ equity and community-building efforts.  

 CV: Would you like to write a column for The Central Voice? An occasional story? Add your voice to Voice?

Snovel: Sure – I’d be happy to consider this.

CV: Add anything you think is important.

Snovel: I’d love to encourage people to connect with us. They can always contact me (tsnovel@pa.gov), follow the Commission and the Office of Governor Tom Wolf on our social media platforms, or consider serving on one of our working groups.