The Next Page: Building bridges in Pittsburgh's LGBTQ community
The #AMPLIFY project unites the community and lets participants share their hopes and dreams, writes Sue Kerr
May 15, 2016 12:00 AM
By Sue Kerr
Because Western Pennsylvania is home to nearly 4 million people, it is reasonable to estimate that we have 80,000 to 200,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) neighbors. It is commonly believed that this community comprises 2 percent to 5 percent of the population.
Yet only Erie and Allegheny counties provide protection against discrimination, leaving residents of the other 24 counties in this part of the state vulnerable to being fired, losing their housing or being denied services because of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Erie has the only LGBTQ media publication in the region, Erie Gay News.
While Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are reasonably resource-plentiful in terms of community organizations and human service providers for the LGBTQ community, most of the other counties have few, if any, supports. That means no community center, no youth programs, no bowling leagues. No visibility. Almost no opportunities for a person to get to know LGBTQ neighbors.
At the invitation of Most Wanted Fine Art, a gallery and community service organization in Garfield, I began a multi-year residency as a blogger artist. They challenged me to use the art of blogging to create opportunities for people to get to know their LGBTQ neighbors. First-person stories from LGBTQ individuals living in Western Pennsylvania are circulated, or amplified, via Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, the longest-running LGBTQ blog in Pennsylvania. So, the #AMPLIFY project was born. (You may view it on my blog at pghlesbian.com/amplify.)
Participants complete a questionnaire about their experiences and about their political and social needs.The purpose is twofold: To build bridges among members of the LGBTQ community, especially those from rural counties who may feel isolated, and to introduce ourselves to the community at large. Outreach to the public is very important given the current conversation about gender identity, including the controversy over the hurtful North Carolina law that attempts to dictate restroom use based on the gender listed on a person’s birth certificate.
Since last May, we’ve published more than 120 contributions from people with ties to 17 out of the 26 counties. We plan to keep going — and to invite more and more of our neighbors to contribute. We’ll solicit contributions at pride festivals, community meetings, summer picnics and house parties organized by our supporters.
Below are excerpts from some of the posts we’ve received. The posts, in response to three of the 27 questions posed in the questionnaire, illustrate that we are not a monolithic community. Our identities, hopes and challenges are diverse, complicated and nuanced.
The project does not require people to use their legal names, but the excerpts here are from contributors who agreed to allow their names to be published. I do not edit responses for grammar or spelling to keep the voices as authentic as possible. At the request of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and with permission of the contributors, however, I have made some edits here to accommodate newspaper style. I encourage you to read the original Q&A posts to experience more of the contributors’ comments.
• • •
Beyond discrimination, what barriers do you and your LGBTQ neighbors face?
(We asked contributors to identify challenges that may or may not be tied to their gender identity and sexual orientation. These responses highlight the need for a broad approach to LGBTQ policy. While marriage equality captured the public’s attention, there is no single issue at the heart of the LGBTQ community.)
“It is simply hard to live in a vacuum. Everyone wants to be able to talk about the person that they love and the ups and downs of life, including big, life-changing events, and small everyday things. Not being able to live openly takes many tolls on people.” — Joyce Shulick, 56, Beaver County
“Navigating the bureaucracy to get health care, legally changing your name, updating your ID and birth certificate to the proper gender are all issues for trans people. The gatekeeping involved wears a lot of people down.” — Moira Myers, 33, Beaver County.
“When we are little, we learn gender roles. This expectation we make for our kids is 100 percent harmful because it leads to shame, or even bullying other students who don’t conform to these roles.” — Patrouious Achatz, 21, Allegheny County.
“I have seen a lot of time people just tend to be blissfully ignorant of the fact that we exist.” — Claudette Sherree, 22, Allegheny County.
“Poverty and fear are what I see in the lives of the LGBTQ seniors I visit in rural counties.” — Kathi Boyle, 69, Allegheny County
• • •
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania?
(Like every community, we have hopes and dreams. We know our resiliency, our strengths and our resources. We have survived rejection by our families, struggled to find and keep our jobs and witness daily the pain of discrimination. We know where the seeds of our continued survival lie, and we know how they can best be nurtured.)
“That we truly become equal citizens able to live without fear.” — Joyce Shulick, 56, Beaver County
“That being in the LGBTQ community will become a non-issue.” — Cindy Shaffer, 56, Allegheny County
“I hope that LGBTQ rights will keep expanding. I hope that LGBTQ individuals, along with the allies in the community, will continue to educate and push for full equality in rights and privileges.” — Shelly Bouchat, 33, Indiana County
“I love, love, love the establishing of GSAs [Gay Straight Alliances] in high schools. After I graduated, my high school started a GSA. This is its first year and it already has 100+ members. Young people are the future, and I’m proud to be a part of such an inclusive generation.” — Carina Nicole Stopenski, 18, Washington County.
How do you describe your identity?
(Too often, we require people to fit their identity into defined labels and categories. #AMPLIFY asks about identity as an open-ended question. We can distill a few generalities — more than 25 percent of the contributors are transgender, 25 percent are people of color, and nearly 28 percent identify as bisexual or pansexual. But the unique responses best illustrate the complex identities of those who are LGBTQ.)
“I prefer the term ‘queer’ because it is ambiguous. It has room to move around in. Trying to nail down an exact label has never been that easy for me.” — Sam Thorp, 45, Allegheny County
“That can be a loaded question. I was born in the U.S., of Dominican parents, and grew up in Puerto Rico. I’m of African descent and consider myself gay. I guess that makes me a black, gay Domini-rican.” —Nayck Feliz, 50, Allegheny County.
“I was adopted so don’t know my ethnic background. I am a heterosexual female, a HIV+ Trans woman who often regrets transitioning now that I’m older. Seems things such as relationships would be easier and life less lonely had I stayed a gay male. I wouldn’t know how to be a man, though, since I transitioned at age 23.” — Jazmine Brockington, 46, Allegheny County
• • •
We solicit contributions from LGBTQ individuals 18 and older with ties to at least one of the 26 Western Pennsylvania counties. #AMPLIFY will continue to accept contributions through 2017.
Meanwhile, other aspects of the project are unfolding, The first issue of the #AMPLIFY zine was published last week. We also plan to begin recording and transcribing the contributions for those with limited Internet access. At 8 p.m. June 24 and 3 p.m. June 26, we will stage a series of monologues — based on the contributions — at Off The Wall theater in Carnegie. It will be the first time that all of our contributors will have an opportunity to be together in one place.
In addition to writing her blog, Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, Sue Kerr (email@example.com) is a resident artist with Most Wanted Fine Art and a community activist. To contribute to #AMPLIFY, go to bit.ly/DonateAmplify.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.