Keystone Equality was formed in November 2022 to empower LGBTQ Pennsylvanians to have a strong political voice in PA. Through voter mobilization, electoral advocacy, and political organizing, Keystone Equality will center LGBTQ Pennsylvanians in the fight for equality, equity, and inclusion on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity across our state.
Pennsylvania has a long history of LGBTQ community organizing and has been home to many statewide LGBTQ organizations over the years. We would not be here today without the tireless and often thankless work of countless LGBTQ Pennsylvanians. We owe a major debt of gratitude to those who fought before Stonewall through today.
In the late 1950s a local chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis formed in Philadelphia, the first national lesbian organization. In 1962 the Janus Society was launched in Philadelphia, and produced one of the first gay community publications in the United States, called The Drum. In 1965, one of the first LGBTQ sit-ins took place at Dewey’s Diner in Philadelphia, which ended in the restaurant once again welcoming LGBTQ patrons.
On Independence Day from 1965 through 1969, the Annual Reminders took place in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. These demonstrations are regarded as one of the first public demonstrations in the United States calling for gay and lesbian equality. While it was an historic event, the organizing efforts focused on the presentation of cis gay men and women and was not inclusive of transgender people.
In the early 1970s LGBTQ organizations begin to form outside of Philadelphia, starting with Le-Hi-Ho in 1969 in the Lehigh Valley and PERSAD in 1972 in Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania Rural Gay Caucus formed in 1975.
In the 1970s activists through the Gay Raiders requested meetings with Governor Milton Shapp. Those advocacy efforts eventually led to him issuing Executive Order 1975-5, the first employment nondiscrimination policy of any state in the nation, which covered state employment. Additionally, Governor Shapp issued a proclamation for Gay Pride Week in 1976 but it was censured by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The advocates were successful in urging Governor Shapp to create the Governor’s Council on Sexual Minorities, regarded as the first formal governmental body in the world to advance LGBTQ inclusion. Later in the 1970s, student groups like Homophiles at Penn State University formed. The Gay Community Center of Philadelphia also opened in the late 1970s. The first piece of legislation introduced in the state legislature to advance equality on the basis of sexual orientation was a nondiscrimination bill in 1976.
The first local nondiscrimination ordinances were adopted in Pennsylvania in the early 1980s. First in 1982, Philadelphia passed an ordinance banning discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation. Harrisburg followed the next year, but added gender identity as well — the first legal protections for transgender Pennsylvanians in state history. In 1979, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, Inc. of Pittsburgh began as a help line associated with PERSAD — and today is the Pittsburgh Equality Center.
Through the 1980s LGBTQ communities in Pennsylvania are devastated by HIV/AIDS. Advocacy efforts are galvanized throughout the commonwealth to support those who are positive and living with AIDS. ACT UP becomes a strong force for organizing and activism. LGBTQ communities begin developing outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Through the 1990s and 2000s, a proliferation of LGBTQ community organizations took place. LGBTQ student organization began to develop in high schools and colleges across the state. Nondiscrimination ordinances began to be adopted in larger cities like Allentown, Scranton, and Pittsburgh. Philadelphia added gender identity and expression to its nondiscrimination ordinance in 2002. In the later 2000s, several cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh adopted domestic partner benefits for municipal employees. In 2002, the Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference was created by local trans leaders and made part of the Mazzoni Center, which today is the largest trans health conference in the world.
In the late 2000s the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs was created. The Pittsburgh Mayor’s LGBTQIA Advisory Council was also launched. In 2002, the Pennsylvania General Assembly adopted an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes law, which was signed into law. It has been regarded as the first LGBTQ rights law in the nation that was passed by a Republican House, Republican Senate, and signed into law by a Republican Governor. That law was unfortunately overturned by state courts in 2008 due to a technicality.
In the 2010s, LGBTQ community centers open in Harrisburg and Allentown. Trans-specific organizations and queer and trans people of color organizations take hold. While in 2010 there were less than a dozen annual Pride events each year, there are now close to 50 communities in 2022 that observe Pride. Those events are not just taking place now in our largest cities, but increasingly our suburban, small town, and rural communities including Bucks-Mont Pride in Abington, Franklin County Pride in Chambersburg, and Lycoming County Pride in Hughesville. By 2022, 70 local LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances have been enacted (over 50 since 2010) which is more than any other state in the nation without an inclusive statewide law. Those communities again are not only in our largest cities, but many small towns and rural communities including Huntingdon, Bloomsburg, Shippensburg, and Gettysburg.
As of 2022, over 100 bills have been introduced in the Pennsylvania General Assembly to advance LGBTQ equality, equity, and inclusion since 1976. Comprehensive LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections was only voted out of a legislative committee, in 2009.
The Statewide Pennsylvania Rights Coalition (SPARC) was formed in the late 1990s to coordinate statewide LGBTQ advocacy work. It was a key champion in helping secure the adoption of the hate crimes law in 2002. SPARC dissolved in the early 2000s. Also in the late 1990s, an LGBTQ legal clinic was launched in Philadelphia called the Center for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Later this organization became Equality Advocates, and in 2009 became Equality Pennsylvania. That organization effectively dissolved in 2018. In 2011, a Facebook page called Marriage Equality for Pennsylvania inspired the creation of an organization of community members, initially from Western PA. Following the court rulings ensuring marriage equality, the organization became the Pennsylvania Equality Project and continues on today.
In 2011, the Pennsylvania Youth Congress was created to mobilize young Pennsylvanians for freedom and justice for LGBTQ people in our commonwealth. The Pennsylvania Youth Congress has championed many of the major wins in statewide LGBTQ advocacy over the past decade, including successfully pressing the Governor to create the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, advocating for ‘x’ gender marker designations on state driver’s licenses, and a landmark win in the Boyertown case for trans student rights, represented by the ACLU of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Youth Congress has also been at the forefront of helping stop harmful anti-LGBTQ legislation in Harrisburg and developed the largest campaign for statewide nondiscrimination protections ever organized, Pennsylvania Values.
Pennsylvania remains the fifth most populous state in the nation, with distinct and diverse communities separated by mountain ranges and rivers. In the past, LGBTQ communities operated in isolation within their regions. Over the past ten years, groups like the Pennsylvania Youth Congress have been organizing to make sure community leaders know each other across the commonwealth.
In recognition of the need to have a statewide LGBTQ organization open to all that focused on political mobilization — through voter participation and electoral advocacy — in late 2022 LGBTQ leaders across the state came together to form Keystone Equality.
This summary of Pennsylvania LGBTQ advocacy history was adapted from the Pennsylvania Youth Congress.