By Kevin Tustin
“More remains to be done on LGBT issues,” according to University of Pennsylvania law professor Tobias Wolff at a NLGJA panel discussion on Dec. 9.
Wolff was one of four panelists in the “What’s Next in LGBT Politics?” discussion, which looked at the future of LGBT politics following the re-election of President Barack Obama in November.
Hosted by the Philadelphia chapter of the NLGJA, the panel included journalists and legal experts to provide social and legal insight on LGBT topics such as gay marriage, transgender rights and the election of LGBT politicians. It was hosted at the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia with over 20 people in attendance.
Chapter treasurer Eric Walter served as moderator for the panel which included the following; Phil Elliott, Associated Press reporter covering the Republican presidential field, Natalie Hope McDonald, Editor of G Philly, David Rosenblum, Legal Director for the Mazzoni Center, and Wolff, former LGBT advisor to Barack Obama.
With three more states approving gay marriage last month, and the recent announcement that the Supreme Court will look at Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), gay marriage is becoming the next big hurdle the LGBT community will have to jump.
“I am not surprised that they took this case,” Rosenblum said. “There are different things going around the country that are saying ‘this is unconstitutional for this reason’… All of the DOMA cases are just about federal government recognizing what is a valid state marriage.”
Signed into law in 1996, DOMA declared marriage at the federal level to be a union of one man and one woman, with no recognition of same-sex marriages for all federal purposes. The latter part was found unconstitutional in eight federal courts, and is the basis for the SCOTUS case United States v. Windsor.
“It’s good that they took that case, and, my prediction, is we will get that piece overturned. And it will essentially become a state’s rights issue.” Rosenblum added.
DOMA will be coupled with a Proposition 8 issue from California, which asks the high court if the government can take away a right that was already granted.
Overall, the court’s decision may be less than desirable.
“There is good reason to be concerned about placing before this Supreme Court, which is in many ways the most conservative Supreme Court that we’ve had in about 50 years,” Wolff said. “If they decide the case on the merits, I honestly don’t know what they’re going to do.”
“(SCOTUS said) Yes we want to talk about the things you want to talk about, but we are the Supreme Court and we make up the rules,” Rosenblum said. “I don’t think the court is there yet. I’m very nervous.”
The conservative lean of the Supreme Court could prove badly, especially with five male conservative judges.
“It’s incredibly generational,” Elliott said about gay marriage views among Republicans. “You talk to any Republican under the age of 40 and they could give a s*** about the issue. It’s not something that they see as a winning issue.”
Elliott added that complacency toward LGBT-related issues are pushing the Republican Party toward irrelevance.
“They’re just gonna end up being old fogies if they’re not careful and try to expand,” he said.
Currently, only nine states and Washington D.C. have legalized same-sex marriage; Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington, Maryland and Maine. The last three made it legal in November.
Wolff believes Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey and New Mexico will be the next group of states to approve gay marriage.
In addition to gay marriage, discrimination and transgender issues were also hot topics for the panel.
“In Philadelphia, the trans activists have been doing incredible work,” McDonald said. “With some of the work that trans activists have done with the SEPTA identification cards, SEPTA wouldn’t even be talking about this if it wasn’t for some grassroots efforts.”
The public transportation system for the Philadelphia area, stickers marked M and F are placed on SEPTA transpasses to note users’ gender. This is a system used to prevent the sharing of passes between people. A lawsuit against SEPTA was brought up after a transsexual passenger with an ‘M’ marked pass was asked to pay the full fare.
According to Rosenblum, who helped file the case, SEPTA said the Philadelphia ordinance that protects sexual orientation and gender identity doesn’t apply to them.
The case also piggybacks on the state’s voter ID card which does not list have a transgender option in the gender field. Pressure from the transgender community made changes to the ID.
“There is now a free, 10-year voter ID issued by the state that has no gender question on it,” Rosenblum said. “We are making little, secret victories.”
On the national level, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has been weakened over the years to be more politically viable, according to Wolff. However, a decision by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has proven beneficial for the LGBT community.
“The EEOC ruled that gender identity discrimination, gender expression discrimination, and anti-trans discrimination constitutes sex discrimination. This is an authoritative ruling which it remains to be seen what the federal courts are going to do about it, but I think it’s going to stick,” Wolff said.
Victories of all sizes have furthered the LGBT cause in Obama’s first term with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a clarified Family and Medical Leave Act to ensure family leave for LGBT employees, and allowing transgender Americans to receive true gender passports. A Republican-dominated Congress in Obama’s second term could slow down the progress he has made thus far.
“If there’s a path ahead in Congress, the administration is going to be very strongly behind it,” Wolff said. “That’s a big ‘if’ given if the Republicans still control the house.
“On the administrative and executive side… more remains to be done. There is an interim step that they could take on employment, issuing an executive order with respect to employment discrimination to government contractors… and anti-trans discrimination in the military.”
“What’s next in LGBT politics?” panel was the first for the Philadelphia Chapter this year. The panel was organized by the chapter’s board members; president Gary Kramer, vice president Gary D. Bramnick, secretary Kevin Tustin and treasurer Walter.