Being a straightforward politician sometimes sounds like an oxymoron. But every once in a while, throwing political correctness out the window is the best damn thing a politician can do. On Tuesday, a Pennsylvania press conference against LGBT hate crimes got a dose of some much needed realism when state Senator Jim Ferlo said, "I'm gay. Get over it. I love it." In my mind, he then dropped the mic and walked, no swaggered, off stage.
While Ferlo noted that he had "never denied" being gay, he had also "never made an official declaration." And frankly, considering that his sexual orientation is his sexual orientation, and not at all relevant to political or governmental abilities, there seems to be little reason for Ferlo to have needed to make such an announcement. After all, straight candidates never take to podiums to declare their heterosexuality.
But following a violent episode earlier this month in which two gay men were "savagely beaten" in Philadelphia, Ferlo sponsored a new bill that would "further [provide] for the offense of ethnic intimidation." The legislation would specifically ensure that existing hate crime regulations would extend their protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents of the state. Sadly, in its current state, Pennsylvania law has no such measures that punish sexuality-based violence.
In an act of solidarity, Ferlo took the opportunity to reveal his own sexual orientation after three terms of silence on the subject. While announcing sexuality in and of itself isn't exactly a groundbreaking development, the matter-of-factness with which Ferlo addressed the subject is as inspiring as it is sensible.
I've been a practicing homosexual and I am gay since at least the age of 24 or 25. I didn't need a psychiatrist or psychologist. I just decided this was something normal for me, comfortable.
While Ferlo may have found normalcy in his orientation, the senator also recognized that for others in Pennsylvania, in the United States, and in the world at large, this "comfort" can be a luxury, as evidenced by the recent gay hate crimes in his home state. Apart from the September incident, other hate crimes have also occurred in recent years. Last New Years' Day, police reports show that Pennsylvania resident Adam Stehle was "thrown to the ground and kicked repeatedly in the ribs while his attackers spat homophobic slurs" after he was seen holding hands with his partner. While no one, as Ferlo said, "wear[s] a billboard on [their] foreheads" identifying their homosexuality, sometimes, even the smallest displays of affection itself can be a danger.
Following Ferlo's speech, state Representative Brian Sims joked to a receptive audience, "Let's keep this going!" Sims, another supporter of the bill, is also gay, and has been instrumental in the conception of the hate crimes bill. Following the attack, Sims, who represents the district where the attack took place, told the Philadelphia Daily News,
The gay guy in me and the Philly guy in me are pissed, but I'm a legislator, and my job is to change policy. If we can do anything to draw enough attention to this to give the hate-crime bill some buoyancy, we need to do it.
But support for such a bill was not one-sided nor based on sexual orientation. As Sims noted, "This is not an LGBT thing, this not a hate-crime advocates thing. This affects everyone." His Democratic colleague, state Senator Larry Farnese, said in a press conference, "It upsets me that it takes something like this, a horrific assault, to cast light on the fact that Pennsylvania is woefully behind in protecting its people." He added, "We should not have to hold press conferences on equality in 2014."
Of course, we also should not have to hold press conferences on sexual orientation in 2014 either, but baby steps are being made in the right direction. Ferlo's announcement makes him the first openly gay member of the state Senate, and only the third lawmaker in the state, after Sims and Representative Mike Fleck. And not only did Ferlo make the announcement at a public press conference, but he also did it in the middle of the Capitol Rotunda.
The presence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender lawmakers is gradually growing increasingly pronounced in the American political landscape. Mark Takano, a US Representative from California, first ran for office in the early 1990's. At that time, the New York Times reports, his homosexuality was explicitly used against him, with opponents running campaigns that called him a "homosexual liberal" and posting pink fliers that read, "A Congressman for Riverside ... Or San Francisco?"
Two decades later, Takano now sits in Washington, DC alongside five other openly gay or bisexual members of the House. There is one openly lesbian member of the Senate, Tammy Baldwin, who is also Wisconsin's first female senator.
And while the underrepresentation of homosexual Americans in Congress is still a very salient issue, homosexuality itself is not. Ferlo said it best. They're gay. Get over it.