Tag Archives: Pittsburgh

Women’s Law Project and ACLU fight for domestic partner benefits for Pittsburgh teacher

By Susan Frietsche, WLP Senior Staff Attorney

The Women’s Law Project has teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh attorney Fred Goldsmith to challenge the refusal of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) to provide domestic partner benefits to employees with same-sex partners.

The plaintiff in the case is a math teacher named Bradley Ankney, who filed a civil action today in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas seeking the same health insurance and other benefits for his partner that the AIU routinely provides to its employees’ opposite-sex spouses.

Ankney has worked for the AIU for twelve years.  He teaches math at the AIU’s Regional Educational Support Center in McKees Rocks, an alternative school for students in grades 7-12 who have been temporarily excluded from their school or in transition from another school or placement.  His students are clients of the Allegheny County Juvenile Court and Children and Youth Services.

In 2009, the Allegheny County Council passed a Human Relations Act that explicitly bans employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In Pennsylvania, same-sex couples are still forbidden to marry, so conditioning employment benefits on marriage discriminates against gay and lesbian employees in violation of the County ordinance. It also violates the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Amendment, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex, because it treats employees differently based on the sex of their partners.

Ankney’s statement to the press says it all: “My partner and I are average taxpaying American citizens who happen to be gay and in a long-term respectful relationship with each other,” said Ankney. “Normally we are private individuals who do not like sharing private details of our personal lives with others, but we feel it is important to speak out regarding the AIU’s discriminatory policies.”

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit should follow the lead of the many other school districts in Allegheny County that provide benefits to employees with same-sex domestic partners, including Upper St Clair, Keystone Oaks, Allegheny Valley, West Mifflin and Fox Chapel.

Ankney is represented by Sara Rose of the ACLU-PA, Susan Frietsche and Tara Pfeifer of the Women’s Law Project, and Fred Goldsmith of the law firm Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC.  You can see a copy of the complaint or visit our web site for more information.

Comments Off

Filed under Allegheny County, Allegheny County Council, Domestic Partnership, LGBTQ

Rainbow Alliance Victory Against Gender Discrimination

Tara R. Pfeifer, WLP Staff Attorney

The Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations recently issued a ‘probable cause’ finding against the University of Pittsburgh in connection with a gender discrimination complaint filed by Rainbow Alliance, University of Pittsburgh’s LGBTQA-student group.

Rainbow Alliance, represented by Women’s Law Project, filed its complaint against the University over a year ago, after the University repeatedly publicly announced that its gender-specific bathroom and locker room facilities were to be used only by those whose birth certificate showed a matching gender/sex designation. Rainbow Alliance alleged that requiring transgender students to use facilities that do not match their gender identity or expression endangers them and violates the City of Pittsburgh’s non-discrimination laws.

While the probable cause finding – which means that the Compliance Review Section of the Commission determined that the evidence supports Rainbow Alliance’s allegations of gender discrimination in the Complaint – is a critical victory for Rainbow Alliance, it is a preliminary finding that is part of a lengthier process before the Commission.  Indeed, the University has an opportunity to request reconsideration of that ruling.  Moreover, the Commission will attempt to mediate the dispute and will hold a hearing on the issues raised in the Complaint before any final orders or rulings are issued.

In the meantime, the University’s legal counsel has assured Rainbow Alliance that the University will allow students, staff, and visitors to use whatever restroom is appropriate for them, and no birth certificate or other documentation will be necessary.  Issues that remain to be addressed in the case include access to and use of locker rooms, residence halls, off-campus lodging for school activities and amending student records.

Congratulations to the Rainbow Alliance for their fearless advocacy on behalf of the transgender community!

(Also see earlier blog: Rainbow Alliance Scores Early Victory in Battle Over University of Pittsburgh’s Gendered Facilities Policy)

Comments Off

Filed under Gender Discrimination, LGBT, Pittsburgh, Sexual orientation

Sex-Segregated Public Education Reinforces Harmful Gender and Racial Stereotypes

By Claire Throckmorton, WLP Legal Intern

In 2010, the Pittsburgh Public School Board voted to separate one of its lowest performing schools, Westinghouse High School, into two single-sex academies. The decision to gender-segregate Westinghouse High School was largely influenced by false notions that boys and girls are so innately different that they must be taught separately using distinct teaching methods. Luckily this sex-segregated experiment ended in November 2011 through the joint efforts of the Women’s Law Project, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.

So what is driving some schools to opt for single-sex educational models?  Proponents of single-sex education argue that separating the sexes will enhance students’ academic achievement by eliminating the “distraction” from the other sex and utilizing teaching methods which address boys and girls’ “innately different” learning styles. In 2006, changes to the U.S. Department of Education’s regulations, motivated by the No Child Left Behind Act, eroded legal impediments to single-sex public education. Since these changes, an estimated 500 to 1,000 public schools across the country offered single-sex education in 2012, compared with only 12 in 2002. These single-sex public schools are arising as an effort to combat low state testing scores in school districts with predominantly low-income students of color.

In light of the dramatic increase of sex-segregated public schools in the United States, Associate Professor Sara Goodkind at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, and fellow university researchers, interviewed students, teachers, and parents at Westinghouse High School to analyze whether sex-segregating the high school had the desired effect.  Their findings were published in a recent article entitled, Providing new opportunities or reinforcing old stereotypes? Perceptions and experiences of single-sex public education.*  Instead of reducing “distractions” among the sexes, Goodkind found that segregating boys and girls served to heighten sexual harassment of girls in between classes and reinforce notions of gender essentialism. According to Goodkind, the assumption that sex-segregation will reduce the students’ distractions from schoolwork is not only problematically heteronormative, but also minimizes the students’ true distractions in the classroom. As one teacher noted, “I mean, our kids get shot…Our kids get raped. Our kids are homeless. Our kids are victims of abuse.” Sex-segregation serves only to ignore the true issues students at Westinghouse, and those similarly situated, are facing.

Sex-segregation also serves to reinforce racialized stereotypes of hypersexuality and gender. Students explained that Westinghouse was a “Black school,” therefore the administration thought that the girls were loud, crazy, and “try to be all up on the boys.” One teacher noticed gender stereotypes being reinforced when the school decided to take only the girls to see The Scarlet Letter. The teacher noted, “That’s a little gender-biased there, you know, they felt as though they should warn the girls not be sluts?”

There is no solid empirical proof that single-sex education has any academic benefits. Furthermore, it actually reinforces inaccurate gender stereotypes and further marginalizes queer, transgender, and intersex students. As Goodkind notes, “Separating students by sex as a solution to low academic achievement diverts attention from systematic problems of poverty and racism and leaves structural inequality intact.”

Comments Off

Filed under Education, Gender Discrimination, Pittsburgh, Sex Discrimination, sex segregated public schools, Single-Sex Schools

WLP Celebrates the 10 Year Anniversary of Second-Parent Adoption in Pennsylvania

From WLP Staff

Join the Women’s Law Project on Saturday, August 18th from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh (Shadyside), 605 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA  for a potluck picnic celebration featuring food, fun and a chance to share what family means to you. Come enjoy a moon bounce, games (with fantastic prizes!), delicious burgers/veggie burgers, Rita’s Italian Ice and family photos. Register for Event!

August 20, 2012 marks the ten-year anniversary of the recognition of second-parent adoption in Pennsylvania, the result of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in In re R.B.F., 803 A.2d 1195 (Pa. 2002).  The Women’s Law Project (WLP) has particular cause to celebrate because of the pivotal role it played in helping same-sex parents each gain the right, through adoption, to have legally secure relationships with the children they nurture and love.

Before second-parent adoption was legalized across Pennsylvania, same-sex couples faced many obstacles in creating and protecting their families.  Women who had given birth to children in heterosexual marriages prior to entering same-sex relationships often had to fight to gain even partial custody of their children.  In fact, the courts were reluctant to recognize one, let alone two, gay or lesbian parents as legally fit.  Regardless of how same-sex couples became parents, they faced a major challenge:  only one partner in a same-sex couple could legally be “the” parent to a particular child.  While it might look as though the child had two mommies or two daddies, technically, only one partner was the official and legal parent.  This forced partners who were co-parents to choose between them who would play this role and have all the rights and obligations attendant on it.  This is a wrenching and divisive experience for even the most stable couples.

Educated, financially secure couples knew enough and had the resources to pursue legal “work-arounds” such as powers of attorney, advance directives, and other artificial surrogates for full parental rights.  In the absence of these cumbersome and costly measures, the non-legal parent could be excluded from making important decisions about the child’s life—such as approving medical care for the child—or even from just picking the child up from daycare or school.  Furthermore, if the partners separated, the non-legal parent could easily be denied visitation with the child and could not be made to pay child support.  If the non-legal parent were to die, the children would not be entitled to receive social security survivor benefits.  If the deceased parent had had the wherewithal to make a will, the children (and the surviving partner, without benefit of marriage) would be still required to pay much higher Pennsylvania inheritance taxes reserved for legal strangers; without a will, the partner and children would receive nothing.

Creating a family when the law did not consider same-sex parents with children as a natural or normal family was so complex a prospect that it required a handbook, a need filled in 1992 by Dabney Miller, longtime Associate Director of the Women’s Law Project, social worker, and adoptive parent, who, assisted by local adoption counselor Abby Ruder, wrote exactly that—a handbook on the rights of lesbian and gay parents in Pennsylvania to help couples negotiate the legal hurdles they faced.  This handbook became an invaluable resource for both parents and advocates, and led to the formation of a working group of lawyers, parents, advocates, and social workers who focused exclusively on making second-parent adoption a reality in Pennsylvania.

Miller recalls that, as the working group at the WLP began to ramp up, “a judge in York County granted a second-parent adoption, pretty quietly, no fanfare but not privately, not secretively.”  Encouraged by this development, members of the WLP’s working group began applying for second-parent adoptions in Philadelphia County and succeeded.  But not all counties in the state were open to this option.  When two families whose petitions for second-parent adoption were denied in other counties decided to appeal, the WLP and working group members stepped in again.  The WLP and the Support Center for Child Advocates provided support in the form of amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs, garnering support from children’s and women’s rights groups, attorneys and bar associations, religious organizations, day care and social service providers, and adoption agencies.  This creative collaboration paid off in August 2002 when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion in In re R.B.F., 803 A.2d 1195 (Pa. 2002), holding that second-parent adoption is indeed permissible under the Pennsylvania Adoption Act, thus making it available in all counties in the state.

Despite this dramatic success, much remains to be done.  Lesbian and gay couples must be educated about the importance of securing second-parent adoption, and they must be able to afford an attorney to guide them through the process.  Though second-parent adoption is now legal across the commonwealth, there is no uniform process for handling these cases county to county.  Furthermore, second-parent adoption is not legal in every U.S. state, and adoptions recognized here many times will not be recognized elsewhere.  See videos and keep abreast of developments on this subject through the WLP website at www.womenslawproject.org.

Comments Off

Filed under LGBT, Parenthood, Parenting, Pittsburgh, Sexual orientation

Ms. Magazine Reports on the Women’s Law Project and Charlotte Murphy

Molly Duerig, WLP Intern

It’s been forty years since the passage of Title IX, a crucial piece of legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in federally-funded educational programs.  Although we’ve come a long way, cases continue to pop up that prove we still have a good deal of work to do before we obtain gender equity.

Last month, Ms. Magazine featured a story about eleven-year-old Charlotte Murphy of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Charlotte was distraught last year when her public elementary school disbanded the girls’ basketball team for a season due to lack of funding.  Then she learned that the boys’ basketball team would continue to operate as normal that season.

Charlotte was upset about the school’s decision.  However, unlike most people, she chose to speak up and call attention to the school district’s mistake.  She wrote a letter to the Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, Dr. Linda Lane, explaining that her school violated Title IX and asking for a meeting to discuss the situation.  Senior Staff Attorney Susan Frietsche of the WLP Pittsburgh office prepared Charlotte for the meeting.  Charlotte’s tenacity and her collaboration with the WLP resulted in a new policy that permits elementary schools in the Pittsburgh Public School District to sponsor a boys’ basketball team only if they also sponsor one for girls. The policy also requires equal treatment for both teams.

Charlotte won her battle and is once again able to play basketball at her school.  This year, there were girls’ basketball teams at 14 elementary schools, up from 3 in previous years.  While Charlotte and her team didn’t win, she was grateful to be given the chance to play just like her male peers.  As Erin Buzuvis, Western New England University law professor and Title IX expert, explained,

If the last 40 years are any indication, Title IX’s success is due to the eternal vigilance of the law’s supporters, who continue to defend it through the political process and in the courts. This vigilance must continue in order for the law to address persistent sex discrimination, and to guard against unwarranted sex segregation.

On the 40th Anniversary of Title IX, WLP looks forward to future successes for gender equity.  We congratulate Charlotte Murphy for her spirited advocacy!

Visit our website to see a video of Charlotte discussing why she chose to speak up and why she thinks Title IX is so important.

1 Comment

Filed under Athletic Equity, Equality, Gender Discrimination, Pittsburgh, Title IX

“It’s the Economy, Stupid” – Occupy Pennsylvania and Legislative Priorities

Like most Americans, Pennsylvanians want jobs, fair taxation, and smarter spending… but all they’re getting are ill-advised spending cuts, bickering across party lines and moral grandstanding about women’s healthcare. 

A few weeks ago, the Occupy movement, a grassroots movement for corporate accountability that attracted so much attention on Wall Street, came to Pennsylvania. Local Occupiers set up camp in Philadelphia in the first week of October, and in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg on October 16th.

 These Occupations have sponsored a broad range of activities from civil disobedience in Philadelphia, to children’s story hours, community art projects and anti-police violence demonstrations in Pittsburgh, to a Halloween party and protest parade this past weekend in Harrisburg. Occupiers are notably politically and intellectually diverse, residing in a tent city where Marxists sleep next door to Ron Paul libertarians, who share donated food and resources with union leaders and die-hard Obama supporters.

In fact, they are so politically diverse that they’ve been widely mocked as disorganized and unable to reach consensus. Critics have publicly asked, “What are these Occupiers so angry about?” These charts speak to the varied interests of the demonstrations’ participants.

The Occupiers are a diverse group, and they don’t all want to end the Federal Reserve or elect the Green Party. But the demands and grievances they do share resonate with many Americans; according to a recent Associated Press poll, over one-third of Americans support the Occupy movement.

According to The Huffington Post:

The protesters cite the economic crisis as a key reason for their unhappiness. The unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent nationally. Many homeowners owe more than their homes are worth. Foreclosures are rampant. And many young people – the key demographic of the protesters – can’t find jobs or live on their own.

The most consistent key factor in all this anger – repeated twice in the above quotation – is unemployment. Jobs. People who had jobs lost them; people looking for jobs can’t find them; people who have jobs are dealing with cuts in their hours, pay, and benefits that make it harder to support themselves on those jobs. People in bad job situations can’t leave their jobs because they wouldn’t be able to find another source of income. All this job anxiety makes people’s lives uncertain, and that uncertainty is causing anger, frustration, and restlessness among American citizens.

You’d imagine that lawmaking officials in our state, wanting to get re-elected, would be scrambling to pass legislation that would create more job opportunities for the 8.2% of the Pennsylvania labor force that was reported out of work in September 2011.

This has not come to pass. In the past year, PA has slashed the budgets for public education (which gives people the work skills they need to get jobs), libraries (which enable people without home internet access to fill out online job applications), and public transportation (which gets people to and from their jobs). This is, of course, to say nothing of the people currently hired by schools, libraries, and bus and train companies who will be laid off as these cuts take effect. 

Pennsylvania’s current policies lay the groundwork for massive, long-term unemployment on a much larger scale than we’re seeing right now – and that’s just what the legislature is doing in its spare time!

In the first six months of 2011, Pennsylvania lawmakers spent a whopping one-third of their voting session days at the Capitol working to restrict access to safe, legal abortion at a time when and one in six children in the state lives in poverty.

Our lawmakers need to check their priorities soon, or Pennsylvania’s children – who are already suffering – will grow up with fewer job opportunities than their parents have right now. Although not everyone is rushing to Occupy the nearest city, most agree with the message that PA’s legislators could serve constituents better by making economic recovery a priority.

Comments Off

Filed under Abortion Access, Democracy, Economic Justice, Employment, PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Reproductive Rights

In Remembrance: Illegal Abortion Kills

Tuesday, October 18th, Pittsburgh pro-choice advocates marched on the office of Senator Jane Orie, one of the PA Senate’s strongest supporters of the dangerous SB 732, which could put most of Pennsylvania’s abortion clinics out of existence by legislating compliance with unnecessary and expensive Ambulatory Surgical Facility (ASF) guidelines. Unlike the lively We’ve Had Enough rally in Harrisburg, the Pittsburgh protest was somber. Its aim was to remind Senator Orie how many women have perished from desperate measures taken when safe, sanely-regulated abortion was not accessible.

The National Organization for Women lists brief biographies for some of these women on their website.  Clara Bell Duval, a Pittsburgh native with five children, died in 1929 from self-abortion with a knitting needle. Geraldine Santoro, separated from her abusive husband and pregnant by another man, tried to perform the procedure in a hotel room with the father of her child, and bled to death. In 1977, soon after the passage of the Hyde Amendment which denied abortion coverage to women on Medicaid, Rosie Jiminez died from a botched illegal abortion, too poor to afford the procedure at a private clinic.

To this list we can now add Karnamaya Mongar, the 41-year-old Nepalese refugee with whose murder the infamous Dr. Kermit Gosnell is charged. Mongar allegedly died from an overdose of anesthesia at the hands of an unlicensed employee at Gosnell’s unsafe, unsanitary, and poorly monitored “Women’s Medical Society.”

Dr. Gosnell  allegedly sold prescription drugs during the day and performed illegal abortions at night, primarily for clients who were poor, immigrants, and women of color. For over 16 years the Health Department ignored complaints about the facility, including a hand-delivered complaint from a doctor at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The Health Department and other regulating agencies had cause to be concerned about Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, but they did not investigate repeated complaints from patients and other providers.

The problem with Dr. Gosnell’s clinic was not the lack of regulations, but the lack of enforcement of those regulations.  The Pennsylvania legislature, rather than improving inspection procedures and ensuring that consumer complaints are appropriately investigated and acted upon, is using Dr. Gosnell as an excuse to push for unnecessary and cumbersome regulations that could effectively close down most freestanding abortion clinics in Pennsylvania.

SB 732, Pennsylvania’s “answer” to Dr. Gosnell’s house of horrors, would require all health facilities that offer abortion care to comply with Ambulatory Surgical Facility regulations. These complicated and expensive regulations have the potential to shut down nearly every freestanding abortion clinic in the state of Pennsylvania at least temporarily, and only those with the resources to redesign their facilities in accordance with ASF regulations – such as quadrupling the size of their operating rooms for no added safety benefit, and installing unnecessary hospital-grade elevators capable of lifting the equivalent of a small car – would be able to reopen. Those surviving clinics would have to increase the cost of an abortion out of reach of many women.

Karnamaya Mongar didn’t die because the elevators in Gosnell’s clinic were too small. She died because the regulations already in place were ignored.  If the cost of a safe, legal abortion increases or the number of safe providers decreases as a result of SB 732, stories like Mongar’s will become a lot more common in our state. Making abortion harder to access for all women is, to paraphrase David Bowie, like fighting fire with gasoline. These regulations are a backdoor tactic to severely limit abortion care, a hypocritical and disingenuous response to the atrocities allegedly committed by Dr. Gosnell. 

The heartbreaking stories of Clara Duval, Geraldine Santoro, Rosie Jiminez and now Karnamaya Mongar send a message that ought to be loud and clear: when safe abortion care is made illegal, unaffordable, or too difficult to access, women who are desperate to end their pregnancies seek other options, as dangerous or unsavory as they might be because the alternative—remaining pregnant—is untenable.   Far too often, those women die. It is our responsibility to remember their lives as we continue to fight for fair, reasonable reproductive health care legislation. Learn more about SB 732 here.

Comments Off

Filed under Abortion, Abortion Access, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pregnancy, Reproductive Rights, Women's health