In Pennsylvania, it is a crime to display “obscene” material, or to sell obscene material to anyone under the age of 18. In many ways, this law is not unusual — most states have some sort of law on the books that prohibits “obscenity.” What makes the law different is how obscenity is defined. Specifically, it is illegal to display sexual conduct, which includes sex acts…and homosexuality. In other words, any type of act between two people of the same gender — even something as benign as holding hands or kissing — could be considered “obscene.” For an act between two people of the opposite gender to be considered obscene, it must be fairly graphic or even illegal in nature.
Recently, this law made national news after state lawmakers voted down an amendment to remove “homosexuality” from the law. The vote, which broke down along party lines, was disheartening to many — given that the current law puts homosexuality in the same category as bestiality. As Pennsylvania Representative Brian Sims tweeted, “May you never have to see your colleagues vote to keep the ways you love a ‘crime.’” As the law stands, it is a crime to distribute books, pictures and videos which depict “acts of homosexuality” to minors.
This law is, on its face, discriminatory. It criminalizes depictions of gay people in love while allowing the same depictions of heterosexual people. Put another way, if a store displayed a poster that showed a man and a woman kissing, it would be legal. If that same store put up a poster that featured two men or two women kissing, it would be illegal.
Pennsylvania’s obscenity law was originally enacted in 1977. It isn’t some relic of a long bygone era, but one that was created just over 40 years ago. Even if it were an antiquated law, it would still be discriminatory. There would still be no excuse for refusing to amend it in 2021.
Laws like these are steeped in hatred and bias against lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender (LGBTQ+) people. Regardless of whether or not these laws are ever enforced, they are incredibly damaging to the entire LGBTQ+ community.
The homophobia reflected in this law arises from toxic gender norms and a belief that gender is binary — the idea that there are only two genders and men and women should act in a specific way based on their gender. People who buy into these gender norms believe that men and women should act in very carefully scripted ways: men should be strong and sexually aggressive, while women should be polite and sexually timid. Both genders should only be attracted to someone of the opposite gender. These ideas are both wrong and outdated. They also contribute to the rising tide of homophobia and transphobia that so many LGBTQ+ people experience in this country.
This law should have never been written to include homosexuality as something that is obscene. It should not be controversial to remove homosexuality from this criminal statute. As a state, we can and should do better. Even if no one is ever prosecuted for obscenity using this definition, the word homosexuality should not be included. Period.
At Blackburn Center, we offer services to anyone who has experienced gender-based violence (including domestic violence and sexual assault) and other types of crime. If you need help during Pride Month or at any time, we are here for you. Reach out today at 1-888-832-2272 to speak to a trained crisis counselor.