The Wyoming Valley and other Pennsylvania communities are likely losing out on job and other economic opportunities because of the state’s marriage law and failure to protect people from job discrimination based on their sexual orientation, a business strategist says.
Bob Witeck, president of Washington, D.C.-based Witeck Communications, has been researching the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender community for corporations for the last 20 years.
Research indicates that the LGBT community comprises 4 to 7 percent of the U.S. population and had $790 billion in buying power in 2012 nationally, said Witeck, making it the third largest minority after blacks and Hispanics.
And according to research based on U.S. Census data, Luzerne County ranks 15th in the state among counties with more than 50 same-sex couples living in the same household. The county’s national rank is just below the median.
But Pennsylvania does not welcome that population with open arms, Witeck said.
He hopes a lawsuit seeking to overturn Pennsylvania’s marriage law, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman and prohibits recognition of marriages of same-sex couples performed in other states, “is going to change the perception of the state as welcoming.”
Witeck noted that 278 companies signed on to a legal brief suggesting that repealing the federal Defense of Marriage Act would be good for business.
Employers, he said, are hesitant to locate businesses in states and communities in which some of their employees would not feel welcome and can’t enjoy the financial privileges and protections that straight couples are guaranteed.
Pennsylvania’s lack of equal protections for gays also decreases the amount of available talent in the hiring pool, he said, because people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender tend to live in communities in which they are welcome and accepted.
John Dawe, executive director of the NEPA Rainbow Alliance, said that “if marriage equality does not pass in Pennsylvania, we will most definitely see a loss in talent as same-sex couples relocate to any other state in the Northeast that treats all people equally, which would be every state except Pennsylvania.”
“We will also see talented individuals and families not locate to Pennsylvania because of the discriminatory position compared to our neighboring states,” Dawe said. “We’ve already seen it happen.”
When Witeck was asked how big the gay population is in Luzerne County or Northeastern Pennsylvania, he said it’s hard to quantify. The U.S. Census Bureau compiles information on same-sex couples who live together, but it does not specifically ask the sexual orientation of individuals.
According to Census data compiled by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, households with same-sex partners increased by nearly 52 percent nationally — from 594,391 to 901,997 — between 2000 and 2010. In Luzerne County, same-sex partner households increased about 66 percent, from 487 to 808.
Witeck, who was retained by the Census Bureau to conduct LGBT outreach and “get the word out to gay couples to respond” in the 2010 Census, believes the numbers doesn’t necessarily indicate population growth, but rather is the result of better counting. And although methodology has improved, he believes those numbers are still an undercount.
Dawe agrees. He notes that the Census Bureau employs people to conduct Census questionnaires in their own communities, and many gay people might be reluctant to identify themselves as such for fear of discrimination.
The same Census data show Luzerne County’s rank of 15th in the state for the number of same-sex couples per 1,000 households. Lackawanna County ranks 22nd. Pike, Philadelphia and Dauphin counties comprise the top three, respectively.
Luzerne County ranks 628th nationally for the number of same-sex couple households per 1,000 households among 1,142 counties. Lackawanna comes in 702nd.
As for city rankings, Scranton topped Wilkes-Barre in same-sex couples per 1,000 households. With 80 same-sex couples, Wilkes-Barre ranks 22nd statewide while Scranton comes in 19th with 153.
While Luzerne County has a significant number of same-sex couples today who are open about their orientation on Census forms, it certainly wasn’t always that way.
When David Palmer was growing up in Shavertown 50-some years ago, being gay in Luzerne County was far from acceptable, he said.
“Back in those days, in the ’50s and ’60s, you didn’t dare come out or identify yourself that way, and I didn’t,” said the 65-year-old Palmer, who along with his partner, Edwin Hill, 10 other same-sex couples, a widow and a teenager are plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking marriage equality in Pennsylvania.
“I never met another person that identified themselves as gay until I was in my late 20s. So when I was (living) in the Luzerne County/Wilkes-Barre area, I never met anyone that identified themselves that way,” Palmer, who now lives in Northampton County, said in a recent phone interview.
“One of the things that is closely related to the issue (of) marriage equality is the idea of bullying in school, and I certainly got a lot of that. I sang in the chorus and I played in the band and I sang in the church choir and I did all those kinds of things, so I was a little different than the football/baseball-playing group,” Palmer said.
40 years later
Fast-forward 40-some years, and attitudes have begun to change in the Wyoming Valley and surrounding communities, according to Casey Evans, 26, of Lehman Township.
“I’m from the Back Mountain, and in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was tough being a teenager who was out in high school,” said Evans, who works at his family’s restaurant on Harveys Lake. “It was rough. It was very … I’m trying to come up with a word to describe it that wouldn’t be vulgar, that wouldn’t be very profane, because that’s really what it was, it was a profane experience. It was horrifying.”
“What LGBT youth had to go through in this area and areas across the country was absolutely horrifying because you were in a confined area that you had to be in every single day, and kids can be cruel.
“Today, I’m very happy to say that mindset — at least among the youth — has changed, and it seems to be changing among our adults as well,” Evans said.
A profound change
Since he came out when he was in eighth grade in 2002, Evans said being openly gay has become much easier. He’s not at all reluctant to talk about his fiancee, Jaron Nielsen, a Canadian who is living in Bloomsburg.
Evans also ran for a seat on Luzerne County Council in 2011. And area residents — for the most part — have been accepting and supportive.
The change in people’s attitudes towards gay people, he said, “has been dramatic. It’s been a complete reversal. Back in the early 2000s it never occurred to me, even when Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, that we would come this far in such a short amount of time.”
It’s also encouraging to him that the NEPA Rainbow Alliance offers support for the LGBT community as well as organized opportunities to socialize, even though there are three gay bars in Luzerne County — one each in Wilkes-Barre, Plains Township and Luzerne — and one in Lackawanna County — in Moosic.
Evans believes social events such as the Rainbow Alliance’s annual PrideFest in Kirby Park in Wilkes-Barre serve as an important support structure in the LGBT community, “especially for people who are just coming out or who are not out yet who might be looking for that courage to be public with that decision.”
He pointed out that more area businesses are supporting the LGBT community, noting that there were only about a dozen vendors at the area’s inaugural PrideFest in 2008, and now there are dozens. “I think that businesses are seeing the economic benefit of making sure that they are attracting the gay community, making sure that they are welcoming places instead of exclusive places,” Evans said.
“There’s also a moral benefit as well,” he said. “A lot of businesses are seeing that discrimination is just plain wrong. You see that in anti-discrimination policies and hiring practices even though Pennsylvania doesn’t require it. … The fact that they’re making that voluntary step is astounding, and all of this in just about 10 years.”