After seven years as executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, the statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization, I stepped down on June 30. Those years were more than just a wild ride; they were transformational — for me, my family and friends, for Pennsylvania, and for the country.
Yet, like many, I was blindsided when President Trump tweeted about his new ban on transgender individuals serving in the military. I wasn't the only one. Even the Joint Chiefs of Staff had no idea it was coming. The president's surprise attack on honorable Americans is a disservice to those who are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect our country.
It's also a reminder that as far as we've come — and we have come far — we still have a long way to go.
During my time at Equality Pennsylvania, I learned a lot, often from a ringside seat. But that's why, even with these recent actions at the federal level, I remain hopeful.
I learned that attitudes can change. When I started, state elected officials often claimed there were no "gay people" in their districts. In 2010, they were toying with a constitutional amendment to restrict same-sex marriage. By 2017, after we had introduced them to thousands of LGBTQ couples and their families, and the courts had given us marriage rights, such attacks were seen as ridiculous, harmful, and downright mean-spirited.
I learned that having a thick skin and comfortable shoes are just as important as having all the answers. I spoke to many groups in my time and never once had a question thrown at me in malice. There were quite a few goofy questions, but I considered those good and knew they were often based in a person's struggle to understand. That taught me the importance of listening and talking with respect. We may not always agree, but it is the only way democracy will survive and the singular way to get anything done.
I learned that politicians espousing about the "slow and deliberative nature of legislating" is as much a dodge against doing hard work and making tough decisions as it is an interpretation of history.
Recent polls show 78 percent of respondents think you shouldn't be allowed to fire someone because they are gay or transgender. Yet, the legislature has struggled unsuccessfully for 14 years to pass legislation doing just that. While they pondered, Equality Pennsylvania got 20 communities to pass local ordinances prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination; brought more Republicans, faith and business leaders, and governors forward publicly as allies; and helped to shift the tide toward acceptance. I learned legislators can be moved, but it takes time.
I learned (and this was reinforced just last week by the president) that politicians — sometimes in the highest of places — think it's all right to attack and belittle the lives and service of transgender people. That's not only wrong and a lie, but just outright shameful.
I learned there's no such thing as a "Pennsylvanian." I could walk into a room full of people from Pennsylvania and yell "Hey Pennsylvanian" and no one would turn around. I could yell "Hey Pittsburgher" or "Hey Yorker" or "Hey Philadelphian" and some people would turn around. But the last person who considered himself a true "Pennsylvanian" was probably Benjamin Franklin.
We are a regionally obsessed state and are hard-wired to think just that way. It produces outlooks that can be provincial and sometimes silly, but they power our thinking. The only way to make progress is to understand we're all in it together, so I call for a Pennsylvania version of "E Pluribus Unum".
This former altar boy was reminded in recent years that faith is incredibly important to many people, but when it is "weaponized" it is deeply hurtful and poisonous to good governing. The things said about LGBTQ people I heard in the name of faith were horrifying and could bring tears to my eyes. Sadly often those words worked and the cover they provided to elected officials (who grabbed them quickly) was deeply disappointing. There is a separation of church and state and I get its importance now more than ever.
When I took the job in 2010, some closest to me thought I needed to have my head examined. Legalized same-sex marriage was crazy talk. Ridiculously antique words like homosexual were common and transgender almost never mentioned. The world has changed dramatically — for the better — and it will continue to change. The president's recent tweet is an insulting setback. Be we can't — we won't — let it undo the progress we've made.