Phillips Armstrong, the Lehigh County executive, signed new protective administration to improve LGBTQ+ rights in the Lehigh County on Feb. 14.
Armstrong won the executive race for Lehigh County in November 2017 and, as county executive, he oversees all business, political and social activity in the region.
He said the new administration will maintain the national outlaw on discrimination based on gender, race, nationality and political affiliation but explicitly extends the right to LGBTQ+ communities by protecting them in the workplace.
Armstrong’s goal in signing the administration was to protect all identities.
“I want all people — all businesses, all religions, all cultures — I want everybody to know that they are welcome, they are safe and they will be treated equally in the Lehigh County,” he said.
Amy Zanelli, the Lehigh Valley commissioner, said such administration was crucial for her participant advocacy during Armstrong’s campaign.
“I had met with (Armstrong), and we made an agreement early on to extend LGBTQ+ protective rights,” Zanelli said. “The signing of this administration was the fastest way to do it and reach all platforms and incentives.”
Zanelli is the first openly gay commissioner to run and take office in the Lehigh County. Throughout her campaign, she faced many challenges within her own community.
“I simply wasn’t ‘gay’ enough for them because I didn’t fit the stereotype,” Zanelli said.
This stereotyping served as a catalyst. It led Zanelli to approach Armstrong and push for the new provision.
Armstrong and Zanelli said they are determined to see Pennsylvania’s discrimination laws change. The state has only adopted the national anti-discrimination law, which does not extend rights to LGTBQ+ citizens.
They plan to conduct press conferences, put pressure on other counties and continue to work tenaciously to see the state law change to become more inclusive.
“If Northampton County can adopt similar administration that we just did, which is likely to happen soon, we can flip enough legislative seats to change Pennsylvania’s anti-discrimination law,” Zanelli said.
Explicit protective LGBTQ+ laws have been proposed to the state government in the past. However, each bill was directed to the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania, where they were never fully addressed.
“We want to be the first domino to fall,” Zanelli said. “People forget that Allentown is the third largest city in the nation’s largest swing state. People really pay attention to Lehigh Valley politics. Washington pays attention to our communities and our politics.”
Zanelli said Bethlehem is home to thousands of students who have the power to affect administration, reflecting the wants and needs of young adults. With that, Lehigh students participation in local elections are critical.
Lehigh entities pushing for LGBTQ+ rights have undergone changes to promote greater awareness.
Tanairy Ortiz, ’19, a staff member in the Center for Gender Equity, leads group discussions about gender in a global context, exploring the intersection between feminism, globalization and LGBTQ+ rights.
Ortiz said the Center for Gender Equity has evolved over the past few years, in ways both big and small. For example, the center used to be called the Women’s Center but was renamed last year as the Center for Gender Equity.
“We felt like we have now reached the point where we need not only to address women’s issues but gender as a whole, especially regarding members of the transgender community,” Ortiz said.
Zach Vinik, ’20, said the Pride Center has grown in student participation.
“There’s just generally more interest in (the LGBTQ+ community) at Lehigh,” Vinik said. “SPEAK, which stands for Students Promoting Equality, Awareness and Knowledge, has also grown exponentially in terms of participation and the discussions that we have.”
Ortiz said the Pride Center is designed to help and raise awareness for the LGBTQ+ community in a broader context.
“We’ve raised awareness and tolerance,” Zanelli said. “Now it’s all about accepting all people as allies.”