Updated Sept. 7
HARRISBURG — Malcolm Kenyatta’s campaign to represent the 181st District hasn’t always been easy.
On the morning of the May 2018 primary election, he woke up to a personal attack. Late the night before, someone had posted homophobic fliers all over his district. They included a photo of Kenyatta and his ex-husband, crossed out in red. The words “MALCOM KENYATTA” and “NORTH PHILLY SAY NO!!!!!” had been printed beneath.
Kenyatta went on to beat out four contenders to earn the official Democratic Party nod. Still, the anti-LGBTQ sentiment shook him up.
“What that did for me, quite frankly, was reinforce the fact that I need to be in these rooms,” Kenyatta told Billy Penn. “I need to be running for office.”
At least nine openly LGBTQ General Assembly contenders will be on the ballot this November. That’s a record, according to advocacy group Equality PA.
When the legislature’s next session commences, there will be at least one openly gay member — Philly Democrat Brian Sims is facing an independent challenger who is also gay — but likely two.
Kenyatta’s got good odds. He’ll face off against Milton Street, the Democrat-cum-Republican brother of former Philly Mayor John Street. Voter registration in the district favors Kenyatta — plus he’s got the endorsement of retiring Rep. Curtis Thomas (who also happens to be his cousin).
Should Kenyatta emerge victorious, he’ll be the first openly gay person of color in the Pennsylvania legislature.
Kenyatta, with pride, calls himself the “poor, black, gay kid from North Philly” — and he wants to bring that perspective to Harrisburg. LGBTQ viewpoints in the state capitol are long overdue, he said, and necessary to ensure public policy doesn’t harm the community.
“The commonwealth is made up of people who look a lot more like me than the 60-plus straight guys who occupy seats in the legislature,” Kenyatta said. “Brian Sims has been up there fighting the good fight, but he can’t do it by himself.”
Across the commonwealth
Of the nine General Assembly candidates who are openly LGBTQ, three are from Philly or its suburbs. The remaining hopefuls hail from across the commonwealth, including rural Western Pa., York County, near Allentown and just outside of Reading.
Six live in majority Republican districts. In the state’s history, just one elected member of the GOP has ever come out publicly — and learned the hard way just how much that costs.
Mike Fleck announced he was gay in 2012 after winning reelection to represent his rural center-state district for a fourth term. It was big news: Fleck was not only the first openly gay sitting member of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly, but one of the first out Republicans in a state legislature anywhere.
But coming out had a steep political price. While he was unopposed by members of his party during previous runs, several challengers emerged in the lead-up to 2014.
“If [Fleck] had just gone about his business and people thought he was a homosexual or heterosexual or whatever, there wouldn’t be a problem,” state Sen. John Eichelberger Jr. told the Altoona Mirror at the time.
Fleck lost the primary, then the general election as a Democrat, to Republican Rich Irvin, who still holds that office. Fleck didn’t mince words about his defeat: “It came down to me being gay,” he told the Washington Blade. “There’s no way to sugarcoat that.”
Fleck loved his job as a state legislator, but he wouldn’t change what he did. He was “overwhelmed” by the response after he came out, he told Billy Penn, “not just from Republicans but from rural people.”
In areas like the one Fleck represented, there’s a low level of visibility in the LGBTQ community. You wouldn’t know a person is gay, he said, until you met their partner.
Lisa Boeving-Learned lives in one of those places. She’s a former police sergeant and Army veteran running in District 8, which includes parts of Butler and Mercer counties. She moved back to Pennsylvania after she and her wife retired from the force in 2014.
“We intended to be like most other police officers and retire to the woods and not deal with people’s problems anymore,” she joked.
Still, in such a red area, they felt compelled to join the Democrat Women of Mercer County and phone-bank for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“Then the election happened and I just thought, oh my gosh, I cannot sit on the sidelines and do nothing,” she said. Donald Trump won 71 percent of votes in her district — and tipped the state red by less than one percent.
“It just became clear to me that not only was our country, our world, our state in peril, but I felt it viscerally as an LGBT person.”
So when no one stepped forward to challenge Republican Tedd Nesbit, Boeving-Learned took the leap. Not before some serious consideration, however.
“I didn’t want to endanger my family,” she said, adding that in an area as rural as hers, that was a real concern. But Boeving-Learned had never lived in fear and wasn’t about to start now.
“I think some of the rural areas have actually gone backwards in the past couple of years,” former state Rep. Fleck said, not just on LGBTQ issues but also on immigration and through displays of the Confederate flag.
Boeving-Learned has seen that, too. But although she’s dealt with a fair share of people who won’t vote for her because she’s married to a woman, she’s also been heartened by the support she’s gotten specifically after standing up for the LGBTQ community. That happened after she attended a Lakeview School District school board meeting to support an inclusive bathroom policy. There was backlash, yes, but — very quietly — there were also positive messages from locals.
“There are good people around. They may be afraid to say anything,” she said. “If they feel empowered, that’s good.”
A generally hostile Assembly
John Dawe, interim executive director of Equality PA, recently returned from a gathering of leaders who run LGBTQ advocacy groups across the country. “We’re kind of the joke of the Northeast,” he said.
That’s because Pennsylvania is the only state in the region that does not provide non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people — though not for lack of trying.
For the past decade, Equality PA and allies in the General Assembly have been pushing bills that would extend workplace, housing and education protections to people statewide based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The bills never make it out of the House State Government Committee, which is controlled by the assembly’s most overt anti-gay legislator, Republican Daryl Metcalfe. Metcalfe’s open hostility to LGBTQ people is well-documented. He once called Sims a “lying homosexual” and blocked him from speaking on the House floor, citing “God’s law.”
His Democratic opponent this November, Daniel Smith Jr., is openly gay, a fact Metcalfe has been using in his fundraising letters. Recently, he criticized the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for not reporting that Smith’s biggest donor is a “Philadelphia homosexual.”
Metcalfe gets the lion’s share of the blame for blocking pro-LGBTQ legislation, but, as Fleck pointed out, “If leadership wanted to run it, they could put it in a different committee.”
Pittsburgh Democrat Dan Frankel, one of the co-sponsors of the non-discrimination legislation, has time and again implored House leaders to do just that with no luck.
“The only way we’re going to win for LGBT people in Pennsylvania — and Daryl Metcalfe has made this very clear — is by changing the leadership in state government, in the House,” Dawe said.
For its endorsement process this year, Equality PA reached out to each candidate who filed paperwork with the Pa. Department of State and specifically asked if they identify as LGBTQ.
So far, the group has endorsed nine out candidates for General Assembly. Six are men, and all but one are white.
That lack of diversity among candidates shouldn’t be surprising in a state with so few LGBTQ elected officials in the first place. The city council representing Philadelphia has never had an out LGBTQ member; Pittsburgh has had just one, current President Bruce Kraus. Pennsylvania voters have elected just one trans person to office: Tyler Titus, who won an Erie school board race in 2017.
Unable to unilaterally extend protections to LGBTQ people, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has done what it can to show support and solidarity. The governor recently announced the creation of a statewide LGBTQ Affairs Commission — the only one in the country, according to the administration.
Wolf also appointed Dr. Rachel Levine, a trans woman, to serve as the state’s physician general in 2015. Levine was unanimously confirmed by the Republican-controlled state Senate. The governor later nominated Levine to serve as Department of Health secretary, and she was officially elevated in 2018 by a vote of 49-1. Eichelberger, the senator who implied Fleck should have stayed in the closet to avoid trouble, voted no.
In addition to LGBTQ candidates, Equality PA endorsed dozens of others who swore to support expanded hate crime and discrimination legislation, as well as a statewide ban on conversion therapy. The group also launched the TurnOut PA campaign to register voters and get out the vote.
“We are actively working to make sure not just LGBTQ-identifying people but people who identify as champions of LGBTQ issues get out there and vote, and vote for the right candidates,” Dawe said.
LGBTQ candidates are ready. Are voters?
Democrat Kristin Seale is running to rep the 168th District, which includes parts of the Philly suburbs like Middletown and Media. She’s a 45-year-old openly queer woman campaigning in a district full of older people.
“I’ve definitely had some generational explaining to do, specifically around the word queer,” Seale said. “There’s an older generation that understands that to be a slur and doesn’t understand the reclamation of the word.”
Mike Wascovich, who is running for a House seat in conservative York County, also has to explain the basics about who he is.
“When I introduce myself, I get, ‘Oh, you’re the gay guy,’” said Wascovich, who’s married to the mayor of Hallam Borough. “We first have to talk about my sexuality. Then we get to talk about policy.”
Wascovich grew up in DuBois, a small city in Clearfield County, the youngest of eight children in a Catholic family. He first came out to one of his sisters in his 20s.
“I was very scared I was going to be thrown out of the house,” he said. That didn’t happen — his dad struggled, but came around — but Wascovich’s husband was essentially disowned.
Wascovich lives near the city of York and has served on borough council since 2016. He raised the idea of passing a local non-discrimination ordinance but said he was shot down by fellow members who didn’t see the need. Wascovich explained how he and his husband could be fired or kicked out of an apartment because they are gay, and “there’s no repercussion.” He didn’t win that battle, but he did secure LGBTQ protections in his workplace contract as part of a union bargaining process.
Unlike other out candidates, Seale said she hasn’t experienced any hostility in her district, although queer identities like hers have been attacked in the press and by lawmakers like Metcalfe.
“It creates a sense of urgency,” Seale said. “It makes it feel far more high stakes. … It’s important to me to center my queerness, to stand up for myself and my community.”
The out candidates’ chances of winning depend on more than their sexual orientation, but it’s a real barrier to winning over some voters — even members of their own party.
Mercer County’s Boeving-Learned recently spoke to a “party old-timer” who reminded her — as if she could forget — “you know, we’re kind of conservative here.” She told him, “If I’m willing to be honest with people about my life, as uncomfortable as it might be, you should be OK that I’ll be honest with you.”
Complete honesty has been her policy, and she’s seen it move the dial. At the last picnic she hosted, about 50 people showed up, including roughly two dozen new faces. She has also found support and admiration from a group of LGBTQ students at Grove City College — which the nonprofit Campus Pride called one of the “absolute worst campuses for LGBTQ youth.”
“At the end [of a meeting], one of the girls, she got choked up and she said to me, ‘You just don’t understand how huge this is for you to be here on our campus, being you and talking to us,’” Boeving-Learned said. “I didn’t really realize how much they’re living with.”
Boeving-Learned believes she can win but is also realistic about her chances. For her, the race has always been about more than personal victory.
“If nothing else, we’re going to leave a mark.”
Correction, Aug. 8: Kristin Seale’s age has been corrected, as has a town in her district.