In April, Governor Tom Wolf signed two executive orders that expanded non-discrimination protections to all state workers and state contractors based on their sexual identity, gender identity and gender expression. While this marks a progressive step forward for employees of the state, transgender Pennsylvanians still face challenges when it comes to health care access, legal assistance and workplace discrimination. Representative Dan Frankel (D-23) has introduced legislation to combat these problems, and Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania Physician General is a major advocate.
“It is still, unfortunately, not uncommon for a healthcare provider or a clinic or hospital to deny care based upon someone’s gender identity or expression,” said Dr. Levine.
Dr. Levine explained that in addition to non-discrimination legislation of the House, the Wolf administration is exploring ways to ensure that Medicaid and Medicare cover the needs of transgender individuals.
But as it stands, without the proposed protections in place, it is still legal for transgender and gay individuals to be denied work, housing and healthcare.
The legislation aims to amend the Human Relations Act, building on the existing protections for people on the basis of race, age, gender, disability and religious affiliation. Rep. Frankel has been working on getting this amendment passed for over a decade.
“What’s interesting about it is that while we don’t have this protection statewide, lots of healthcare organizations and the corporate community, most of the Fortune 500 companies in Pennsylvania, provide these protections to their employees,” said Rep. Frankel.
Corporations and state legislators are starting to realize protections also are good for the economic health of the state, as both Indiana and North Carolina have lost money, business and conventions after passing legislation that allowed discrimination against LGBT individuals.
Recognizing those opposed to the legislation on the basis of religious freedom, the proposed legislation “allows churches and parochial schools to limit [LGBT] employment for those who teach religious classes or who are ministers, to be able to discriminate, but we don’t believe it should go any further than that,” according to Rep. Frankel.
Not everyone is convinced of the importance of this legislation. Republican Senator Mike Folmer says this legislation is not a “life or death matter” and doesn’t need to be rushed into law.
Dr. Levine and Rep. Frankel disagree.
As Dr. Levine pointed out, 41 percent of transgender individuals have attempted suicide, and trans folks, especially trans women of color, are statistically the most at danger for physical violence.
“We have way too many vulnerable, particularly youth, who take their own lives because of the harassment and the discrimination,” said Dr. Levine.
This legislation is a progressive step for the state, but Dr. Levine and Rep. Frankel feel other steps are indications the state government is headed in the right direction. The very existence of a trans woman as the state Physician General, for example, forced many to confront their discomfort regarding trans civil rights.
“I think they reconsidered when they unanimously confirmed me into office,” said Dr. Levine.
Rep. Frankel sees this instance of gender diversity in public office as opening up a dialogue that was not being had before. “[Dr. Levine’s] helping change this conversation.”
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