Days Into Campaign, LGBT Advocates Raise Questions About Candidate For District Attorney

Jul 8, 2018

Turahn Jenkins announced his bid to challenge Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala on July 2. Less than a week later, some of the progressive activists who initially supported him are calling on him to withdraw, citing Jenkins' ties to a church with deeply conservative views on abortion and homosexuality.

"I don't think there's a bridge there ... that would lead to folks feeling comfortable supporting him," said Maria Montano, a Pittsburgh activist for LGBT issues and other causes. "He needs to withdraw his candidacy and he needs to ... learn about other folks' lived experiences."

"If we can't trust you to confront the leadership of your church over something so deeply personal for us in terms of being treated as a human being," she added, "then how can we trust you to confront the powers in our county that continually allow young black men to die in our streets?"

Jenkins' candidacy arose in the aftermath of the death of Antwon Rose, who was gunned down by an East Pittsburgh police officer on June 19 while trying to flee a car that had been pulled over. Rose was unarmed. Zappala has since charged that officer, Michael Rosfeld, with criminal homicide, but the case fueled long-simmering doubts about Zappala's willingnes to prosecute police. Jenkins, a top official in the public defender's office, was initially welcomed by progressive activists.

But questions have been raised about his ties to the Bible Chapel Church, a socially conservative faith with churches in Wilkinsburg and four other Western Pennsylvania communities. Montano hadn't heard of the church, but said it wasn't hard to visit its website and find content hostile to homosexuality, which Bible Chapel describes as a sin and an "attack on [God's] design" -- one that "can be tamed." The church also touts a partnership with the Human Coalition, which operates a "Womens Mobile Unit," which seeks to dissuade "abortion-determined women" from terminating their pregnancies by using ultrasounds and "Christ-centered encouragement."

Often referred to as "crisis pregnancy centers," such operations have been repeatedly accused of misleading and browbeating women seeking an abortion.

Within a day of announcing his campaign, Jenkins was queried on Twitter about his beliefs on homosexuality. Jenkins responded that he "believe[s] in equal protection under the law and equitable treatment for everyone. This must include protecting the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination, abuse, and unfair treatment by law enforcement or the justice system." He said he would require bias training for prosecutors and that "as a Christian I am called to love everyone unconditionally."

Jenkins also met Friday evening with activists who had concerns; Montano said she participated in the two-hour meeting by phone. After participants introduced themselves, she said, "Somebody called the question and asked, 'Do you believe being gay is a sin?' And he said, 'Yes, just like being an adulterer is a sin.'"

Montano's recollection was supported by other sources who did not want to be named. Sources said one activist left within minutes.

Montano said she was shocked.

"When someone says that who you are is a sin, a characteristic about yourself that you can't change is a sin, that is language that has been used in the past to justify so many horrible things," she said.

Montano said she herself was an assault survivor whose victimizer "would lay in bed reading their Bible and talk about how bad it is to be gay." She said she recounted that story to Jenkins and "followed it up with saying, 'If that were to happen to me now, I would not feel comfortable coming to your office asking for help.' ... When you say to another human being that who they are is a sin, they're immediately not going to trust you."

"It was a very defensive posture" she said of Jenkins' responses to such concerns. "There wasn't a lot of conversation back."

On Saturday, Montano and other activists said they hoped Jenkins would withdraw from the race quickly.

But on Sunday morning, Jenkins offered a statement on Facebook which suggested he wasn't planning to do so. The statement did not explicitly address Friday's gathering -- though it allowed that Jenkins "clearly hurt and offended members of the LGBTQIA+ community, which was never my intent" -- or accounts that he had said homosexuality was a sin. It also did not address concerns about the church's position on abortion.

Jenkins message read, in part: "My campaign for District Attorney is premised on TREATING PEOPLE LIKE PEOPLE. It both frustrates and saddens me to see the injustice within our system, especially as it pertains to some of our most vulnerable citizenry, including the members of the LGBTQIA+ community."

The statement said Jenkins "categorially reject[s]" what it called "social media reports of my faith equating to a bias or phobia. ...  I further reject any speech or rhetoric from any source, including my church, that seeks to teach hate or prejudice based on race, sex, color, age, orientation or any other classification."

Jenkins pledged to "take the necessary steps of meeting with members of the LGBTQIA+ community to learn more [about] their important issues." He also said he would create an advisory board to "eradicate implicit bias in the criminal justice system."

Montano said she and others felt worse after reading the online statement. "This half-hearted apology to our community isn't enough," she posted on social media.

The aftermath may be painful for activists, who were riding high after a May primary brought electoral success to progressive candidates Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee.

Montano said she was "really excited" about Jenkins at first.

"We were really let down by a handful of folks, I'm guessing, who just didn't investigate the specific portion of [Jenkins'] background," she said. Still, she added, "I'm hopeful, because people are hungry for change, and I think they're ready for something different. And when we find our candidate, we'll do everything we can."