As a religious leader in western Pennsylvania, I am hoping that Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey can lead the way in finding common ground to ensure fairness and equality for all Americans. For decades, Congress has shirked its responsibility to protect the LGBTQ community — but with both parties now offering proposals to add nondiscrimination protections to the law, 2021 could finally be the year to change that. I’m looking to Sens. Toomey and Casey to join together to help hammer out the details of this crucial legislation.
For the past six years I‘ve served as associate rabbi at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill. We are a Reform Jewish congregation with a long tradition of being a spiritual and religious home for LGBTQ people and their families.
Our Pride Tribe — a group for LGBTQ-identified congregants — offers a safe community in which to find support, share challenges and celebrate blessings. Thanks to their leadership, Temple Sinai holds an annual Pride Shabbat service and has also hosted several Pride Seders, using the framework and rituals of Passover to celebrate Pride Month. Since the Pride Tribe’s inception, Temple Sinai has been more intentional about celebrating the blessings that LGBTQ-identified folks bring to our community while also letting that identity be just one part of who they are.
Even in a congregation with longstanding values and practices that are inclusive, coming out is not always a seamless experience for our LGBTQ folks. Some of our transgender congregants, in particular, have voiced concerns about how they would be received by the wider congregation. I’m often reminded of a conversation with a gay friend, in high school, who confided in me his anxieties about coming out to his family. He just wanted to know that he belonged and was loved and respected, regardless of being gay. My goal is to ensure that each of my congregants, regardless of gender, gender expression or sexual orientation, feels loved, respected and that they belong.
The apprehension that some LGBTQ people have about being visible even in an inclusive community is understandable given what I hear about difficulties they’ve faced on the job or in other aspects of everyday life — even in a city as diverse as Pittsburgh. I’ve also learned that discrimination has profoundly damaging consequences for LGBTQ Americans nationwide. One in three, according to a 2020 survey, experienced discrimination — in public spaces, on the job, in schools and in their own neighborhoods — just in the previous year.
That number rises to 60% among transgender people, who experience exceptionally high levels of unemployment, poverty and homelessness. They are also stalked by violence, with a record 44 hate-motivated murders nationwide last year.
Black and Latino LGBTQ folks face greater poverty rates than communities of color generally. Less than half the states protect LGBTQ youth from bullying in school and even fewer offer nondiscrimination protections. Elders often find themselves having to re-closet themselves, with nearly half of same-sex couples reporting discrimination in seeking senior housing.
LGBTQ Pennsylvanians still enjoy no statewide nondiscrimination protections, and there is no law protecting youth from school bullying or harassment, either.
But there is now hope that Congress might finally act. For the first time, both Democrats and Republicans have put forward measures that add LGBTQ protections to our nation’s civil rights laws. The major disagreement between the two parties involves balancing the urgent need to protect LGBTQ people with the religious freedoms we cherish.
The Jewish community has always appreciated the religious freedom at the core of American life. But, integral to our tradition is the rock-solid belief that religion can never be used as an excuse to negate people’s identities, to vilify them or to make them unequal under civil law.
Finding a path to balance competing values is what legislators do when committed to solving problems. Sens. Toomey and Casey can look to the 21 states — including our neighbors Maryland, New Jersey and New York — with laws that prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination without compromising religious freedoms.
Washington can follow suit, with senators reaching across the aisle to end the divisive pattern that pits religious liberties against the rights of LGBTQ Americans. Every major civil rights advance, from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the Americans With Disabilities Act, has found the appropriate balance.
Sens. Toomey and Casey: A half million LGBTQ Pennsylvanians, their families and their friends are counting on you. PJC
Rabbi Keren Gorban is associate rabbi at Temple Sinai.