Wade Bowers endured harassment, beatings, bullying and being ostracized growing up in the 1970s in the East Freedom area.
He was peppered with homophobic slurs, and other classmates wouldn't befriend him because then they too would be targeted by his tormentors, he said.
In one incident, Bowers, who did not know how to swim, said his classmates threw him into the deep end of the pool during swimming class, and his teacher shrugged it off.
In another incident, two girls smeared lipstick on him and sprayed him with perfume.
"This all happened before I knew for sure that I was gay," he said. "It made coming out impossible to do in Pennsylvania."
The now 54-year-old moved to Florida in the 1980s so he could come out without hurting his family and friends, he said. He moved back to Altoona in the 1990s only to discover not much had changed. He now lives in Maryland.
Today, organizations supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are trying to change the Pennsylvania landscape to gain equality.
While Bowers, who is gay, hasn't lived in Blair County for years, he is part of the Keystone Alliance/Gaylife Newsletter, a nonprofit organization supporting LGBT individuals whose roots are in central Pennsylvania.
Bowers is executive board vice president and president of the Cumberland, Md., chapter.
President John DeBartola, 34, of Johnstown, who is gay, said the organization, among other activities, has hosted Johnstown and Altoona community-wide pride events for the past two years.
The group has pressured politicians for their views on LGBT issues, and honored them for their support, including state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, who wrote letters to the national Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays on behalf of DeBartola and the former Altoona PFLAG chapter during a legal dispute, DeBartola said.
University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown professor Catherine Cox is the organization's executive board treasurer and president of its Altoona chapter.
Cox, 45, a lesbian, said she is "aware of how painful and frustrating it can be for LGBTs when bigotry rears its ugly head and, it seems, no one outside our community takes it seriously."
She suffered harassment at work for her sexuality, she said, but did not comment further, citing an "ongoing police investigation" and "pending criminal charges."
LGBT individuals "have a range of experiences that are shaped by context as well as choice," like other minority groups, she said.
"Some of us are fortunate to find that families and workplaces and neighborhoods are accepting, even friendly; others, and anecdotal evidence suggests the majority, find some degree of discrimination, bullying, harassment, threats of job loss and social isolation," she said.
Lack of legislative support
Support from area legislators on LGBT issues has been limited, retired Blair County Commissioner Donna Gority said.
In 1997, state Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, supported a statute on defining marriage as that between a man and a woman, which was signed into law at the time, he said Wednesday.
He feels the same today, and he said the majority of his constituents agree.
He also does not believe in adding sexual orientation to protected classes, he said. "Everyone should be protected equally under the law."
Gretchen Gailey, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, said Shuster "believes that marriage is between a man and a woman" as well, and he does not support protecting LGBT people under hate crimes law.
The Pennsylvania Hate Crimes statute covers race, color, religion and national origin, Eichelberger said.
The District of Columbia and 27 states, including Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York, have hate crimes laws protecting LGBT people, according to Equality Pennsylvania, an LGBT advocacy organization.
"A crime is a crime and all crimes, no matter what the motive, should be prosecuted under current law," Gailey said in a statement. "Legislation that protects just one gender identity or sexual orientation is unfair and unjust."
Eichelberger expressed similar sentiments.
"Adding sexual preference to this law would help to establish a special class for LGBT people. Advocates for same-sex marriage push for this change in the hate crimes law to strengthen their argument for same-sex marriage," he said. "Sexual preference does not meet the legal standard set forth in the state's hate crimes law."
He said the standard applying to the victims of discriminatory acts includes race, color, religion and national origin.
Currently LGBT people are protected under federal law.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which included protection for LGBT people, Equality Pennsylvania said.
Different organizations support adding LGBT people to the hate crimes statute, including chambers of commerce and the American Association of Retired Persons, Equality Pennsylvania Executive Director Ted S. Martin said.
Eichelberger has made his stance on same-sex marriage clear over the years. He sponsored an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage, but it was defeated in 2010.
"As a public policy-maker, I won't change my view on weakening the definition of family, the fundamental building block of our American society," he said recently. When same-sex marriage has gone on a state ballot to be recognized it has been defeated each time, he said.
"The traditional definition of marriage has won every time," Eichelberger said. "I don't see Pennsylvania, including central Pa., being any different than the vast majority of Americans on this subject."
Is the vast majority
In 2011, President Barack Obama and Congress repealed the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. In May, Obama announced his support of gay marriage.
Currently, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, the District of Columbia and Connecticut permit same-sex marriages.
A same-sex marriage bill was signed into law in Maryland earlier this year, but a referendum will appear on the November ballot seeking to repeal it, Bowers said.
Polls show more Americans are "accepting, if not approving, of LGBT rights and marriage equality," which is "indicative of more universal acceptance," Cox said.
"It is my belief and hope that LGBTs will someday, perhaps even in the next decade, have universal marriage equality and federal rights recognized by the courts; I hope as well that this legal progress will coincide with growing social acceptance of identity-diversity in what constitutes legal marriage, family and communities, and that bullying, harassment and other such crimes will vastly decrease as a result of legal and social progress," she said. "The fight for equality will continue, as indeed it must, until all Americans have equal rights protected by law."
Area advocates are fighting, too.
On Tuesday, DeBartola asked the Somerset County commissioners to consider a non-discrimination ordinance that includes "sexual orientation" and "gender identity," same-sex health care benefits for county employees and the creation of a countywide human relations commission "to oversee the enforcement of the non-discrimination law," he said.
In April, Allegheny County expanded its health coverage for county employees to include same-sex partners.
The Somerset County commissioners said they would look into Allegheny County's ordinances, and offer a formal response in 30 days, DeBartola said.
He wrote a letter in July to Blair, Cambria and Somerset county commissioners asking them to publicly acknowledge their stance on gay marriage.
"My hope is that the commissioners will join with President Obama in re-affirming equality for all, show our state officials in Harrisburg [that] the local community here wants equality on the state level, the passage of same-sex marriage, anti-discrimination in the workplace and hate crime protection by law," DeBartola said.
DeBartola provided the Mirror responses from Somerset County Commissioners Joe Betta, Pamela Tokar-Ickes and John P. Vatavuk.
"I can condone and respect a partnership of friends for life but asking me to support anything more than that would be akin to me asking you to condone a behavior pattern that you have been taught all of your life [is life and soul threatening]. Sorry, I can't go there," Betta said.
Tokar-Ickes said if it became law, she would uphold it.
"I personally do not support homosexual marriages, but I will uphold the laws of the land as I swore to do when I took office should that become the law," Vatavuk said.
Cambria County commissioners Doug Lengenfelder and Tom Chernisky both said they do not support same-sex marriage.
The commissioners follow state law and don't make the laws, Commissioner Mark Wissinger said. He said the county has non-discriminatory policies.
He said same-sex marriage does not come up often in Cambria County, and so he has not devoted much thought to it, he said. He said as a Christian, he does not support LGBT issues.
Lengenfelder, who said he is a Bible-believing Christian, said he has a right to believe what he wants. At the same time, he is obligated to uphold the law as an elected official.
"Our country was created so individuals can have their own individual beliefs without worrying that somebody is going to attack them," he said.
Those pushing the matter should be more concerned about whether or not the commissioners are upholding the law, he said.
Blair County Commissioner Diane Meling said her position on gay marriage is "evolving" like others, and she could support civil unions.
Same-sex couples "should not have to face additional legal obstacles" such as what comes with property ownership or being permitted at a bedside when a loved one is sick, she said.
The issue of same-sex benefits for county employees has not come before the commissioners, she said. Blair County Commissioner Terry Tomassetti said he would not approve same-sex benefits for county employees because it "would attack the core fundamental unit of our society."
He also said he does not support gay marriage.
As for passing an ordinance protecting LGBT people, Tomassetti said he did not have an ordinance to read in order to make an informed opinion, but the same principles he applied to same-sex benefits would "guide my decision-making process."
Blair County Commissioner Ted Beam said he has not taken a position on same-sex marriage.
In Pennsylvania, 28 municipalities, including State College Borough, currently have non-discrimination ordinances that cover LGBT individuals, according to Equality Pennsylvania.
In the past two years, the group has gotten 10 non-discrimination ordinances passed, Martin said.
"They're adding on quickly," said Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission spokeswoman Shannon Powers.
Currently, Equality Pennsylvania is working with 12 communities, including three in central Pennsylvania, on getting ordinances in place.
Martin would not say which three communities, because it would alert those who might oppose it.
Most people are "horrified" to learn LGBT people can still get fired or evicted based on their sexual orientation, Martin said. They think there are laws against it.
Altoona, Bellwood, Hollidaysburg and Spring Cove school districts include sexual orientation in district policies on non-discrimination and harassment, according to their websites.
Local elected officials, who are passing non-discrimination ordinances in response to the people, are ahead of the legislators in Harrisburg, Martin said.
Susquehanna Polling and Research showed 69 percent of 1,200 registered Pennsylvania voters polled in 2011 support legislation banning "discrimination against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression on matters dealing with the workplace, public housing and public accommodations including hotels and public bathrooms," while 24 percent opposed it.
Martin said Pennsylvania is not doing a good job protecting its LGBT citizens.
"In a state with a rapidly aging population and a serious problem with young people leaving in significant numbers, this discussion is as much about economic development as it is about civil rights," Martin said. "I assume that each time someone leaves or chooses another location to start a career or join a work force, it's because they don't feel safe or respected here. And that hurts our economy.
"Legislators need to address this sad fact, and they can change it by passing smarter and more fair laws to prohibit discrimination to start with. That's what Equality PA is fighting for here in Harrisburg and around the state every day," he added.
While people who contact the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission about discrimination do so most often because of race, discrimination for sexual orientation comes in second, Martin said.
LGBT people in Pennsylvania, as well as other states, still face "many legal inequalities," which creates "an environment of second-class citizenship, which contributes to how LGBT people are seen and treated," said Joe Wilson, co-director of the documentary "Out in the Silence."
"But equally troublesome is the social climate, sometimes hostile and intolerant, and sometimes simply an air of indifference, that makes it difficult for LGBT people, particularly youth, to be comfortable being open, and therefore healthy, about who they are," he said.
The broader community's indifference is most troubling to him, he said.
Wilson directed "Out in the Silence" with his partner, Dean Hamer, after their wedding announcement in a newspaper in Wilson's hometown of Oil City, Pa., sparked angry letters to the editor, and prompted the mother of a gay teen in the area to reach out to Wilson for help. The documentary was released in 2009.
A screening of the documentary was held at Penn State Altoona in 2010. About 50 people attended, while about 15 members of the Faith Baptist Church in Altoona held a prayer service on campus to protest the showing.
Bowers said he plans to do whatever he can to stop the repeal of same-sex marriage in Maryland.
"It has been a long and educating journey to reach the point where I am comfortable with myself in my views and opinions today," he said. "Being born in Blair County, I believe our time has come for everyone to achieve total equality."
Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.