Movement for hate crime law? LGBTQ and trans speakers give first ever testimony to PA Senate Republicans

Legislators who heard the speeches were moved, but action is far from certain.

Kendall Stephens testifies in front of the Pa. Senate Majority Policy Committee in October 2020

Kendall Stephens testifies in front of the Pa. Senate Majority Policy Committee in October 2020

Pa. Senate Policy Committee

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When Kendall Stephens spoke in front of the Pa. Senate Majority Policy Committee in Harrisburg on Thursday, it likely marked the first time a Black trans woman had testified in front of the Republican legislative group.

Also speaking was Jason Landau Goodman of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, making it likely the first LGBTQ advocacy organization to testify in front of the GOP committee, according to executive director Joshua Paul.

The occasion was a hearing on legislation that would for the first time make LGBTQ a protected class under Pennsylvania hate crime law.

Stephens’ and Goodman’s words made an impact, judging from the response of Pa. Senator David Argall, the committee’s chair, a Republican representing Berks and Schuylkill counties.

“If every member of the House and the Senate were able to listen to this testimony, there’s no doubt in my mind that something would happen,” Argall said at the hearing.

Whether the testimony was enough to change state law remains to be seen.

Pennsylvania currently offers few protections for queer or trans people. The ability to file a discrimination complaint was added in 2018, but if people are assaulted on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity, the assailant can’t be charged with a hate crime. In fact, the suspect can still claim the “gay panic” defense — which says the victim’s sexuality or gender identity was so provocative it motivated the attack.

The issue is pressing. Violence against trans people, especially Black trans women, has been on the rise both nationally and locally.

Over the last six months alone in Philadelphia, three Black trans women have been attacked. Two of them, Dominique Rem’mie Fells and Mia Green, did not survive. Kendall Stephens, who was beaten in her own home, managed to make it out alive. Her attacker has been arrested, but does not face hate crime charges.

Thursday’s Pa. Senate hearing finally took place after being postponed.

Legislators discussed Senate Bill 749, which was first introduced in 2018 by state Senator Tom Killion, a Republican from Delaware and Chester counties, it would add intellectual and physical disabilities as a protected class.

The committee looped into the conversation another relevant bill. Senate Bill 947, which South Philly state Sen. Larry Farnese has now reintroduced for three sessions in a row. This would directly add LGBTQ people to the hate crime statute. It’s one of three bills Farnese has introduced again and again over three sessions, to no avail.

Thursday’s testimony has the potential to change that. Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Western Pa. representative who chairs the Labor & Industry Committee where a Farnese LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill is currently languishing, said after hearing the speakers she’s committed to passing the legislation.

But the rest of the Republican-controlled state Senate will still need to be convinced of the urgency of the issue.

Sen. Lisa Baker, chair of the Judiciary Committee, wouldn’t commit to moving the two bills in her court forward this session.

“As a practical matter, there is very little time remaining before the election to take up even noncontroversial legislation,” Baker told Billy Penn in a written statement. “The prospects for bills still in any Senate committee are not good.”

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