It’s an old, somewhat tired political joke that Pennsylvania is “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” But with respect to gay marriage, the state is a little muddled. On the one hand, it lags behind neighbors Delaware, Maryland, New York and New Jersey, all of which have passed some form of marriage equality. On the other, a recent opinion poll found — for the first time ever — that more than 50 percent of Pennsylvanians support same-sex marriage. Is gay marriage imminent? Or are we Alabama?
Today’s Supreme Court rulings allowed gay marriages to resume in California and invalidated a part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to couples in same-sex marriages, but they did nothing to alter the landscape in Pennsylvania, which has its own law limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. While much of the blame for the current situation rests with the legislature, the state’s gay rights infrastructure is so underdeveloped that our governor could be Liberace and it would still be unrealistic to expect marriage equality anytime soon.
The first roadblock: Harrisburg. Republicans control state government, and even if unpopular governor Tom Corbett is unseated in 2014, heavily gerrymandered districts will make it virtually impossible for Democrats to take back either the House or the Senate. “I don’t see a lot of movement under the current landscape,” says the state’s only openly gay Republican representative, Mike Fleck (who’s gained five challengers since coming out in December).
It’s not so much that gay marriage proponents are pessimistic about their chances; they’re not even thinking about their chances. And there lies a second obstacle. The members of the state’s political class most invested in marriage equality are actually focused on an entirely different issue—a pair of basic nondiscrimination bills that are currently making their way through the state Senate and House.
“In Pennsylvania, there are no LGBT protections,” says Ted Martin, executive director of the (only) statewide gay rights lobby, Equality Pennsylvania. “To be frank, going from that to marriage anytime soon is going from a tricycle to a space shuttle.” In other words, except in most of the state’s big cities, you can still get fired from your job or evicted from your home—simply for being gay. And no state that has legalized same-sex marriage has done so without first passing such a nondiscrimination bill. “You can’t really have one without the other,” Martin says.
The strategy seems intuitive, but it hasn’t pleased everyone. Democratic State Representative Mark Cohen, who represents Northeast Philadelphia, bemoans the single-minded focus on the nondiscrimination bills. “Right now there is [nobody] organizing for marriage equality, or for civil unions,” Cohen says, making the case that with stronger activist pressure, even the current Republican-tilted legislature could be convinced to pass marriage equality.
There may be something to what he’s saying. In part because gay marriage opponents like the Catholic Church are more formidable lobbyists than the skeleton crew at Equality Pennsylvania, state pols have little reason to stick their necks out.
Still, when I relay Cohen’s position to openly gay Philadelphia Rep Brian Sims, he bristles. “When it comes to state legislation, we’re not there to speechify and pontificate. And these [nondiscrimination bills] are the types of bills that are passable.”
Indeed, Sims, Martin and other activists see marriage equality coming not through the legislature, but through the courts. And therein lies the third obstacle. Even if the courts eventually decide it’s unconstitutional to block gay people from marrying, it could take the better part of a decade for a case to get heard. Sims estimates that gay marriage won’t come to Pennsylvania for another seven years.
The good news? Ultra-right-wing representative Daryl Metcalfe’s perennial anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment only has 27 co-sponsors this year, down from 35 last time around. Even in Alabama, that’s progress.
A version of this story originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.