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Pittsburgh LGBT community unites under new administration

By Andrew Henderson, Point Park News Service:

There are plenty of chairs in the one-room apartment, but Heidi Simpson prefers to sit on the bed.

Simpson, a 32-year old English teacher has lived in the Mount Oliver apartment for many years, and has crafted the former corner store into a representation of herself. With a quick look around her apartment, it is possible to get to know who she is with surprising accuracy.

Logo of The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Pittsburgh. Photo credit: Facebook

Every wall but one is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Most hold novels, but some are reserved for board games, paintings and vinyl records. A small wiener dog chases a ball around the kitchen linoleum.

It’s easy to see why Simpson feels comfortable here: She designed it that way.  And that safe space may soon be needed more than ever.  As a member of Pittsburgh’s LGBT community, Simpson said that the recent presidential election, and current President Donald Trump has left her, like many members of the LGBT community in Western Pennsylvania and around the country, feeling rattled.

“I worry about the safety of women and minorities regularly,” she said.  “But even more so with the things that [Trump] has said about them recently.”

And while most of Trump’s minority-related statements have not been directly about the LGBT community, there still may be reason for concern. Vice President Mike Pence has a record of making statements and taking actions that many have decried as anti-LGBT.

As a congressman in 2007, Pence voted against The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which was designed in part to protect LGBT individuals from discrimination in the workplace. In 2015, as governor of Indiana, he signed a religious freedom bill that was criticized for allowing orientation and gender identity-based discrimination. And as head of the Republican Study Committee, he supported an amendment to the Constitution that would have defined marriage as being between one man and one woman only.

While Trump has been much less consistent in his statements (he has spoken both for and against marriage equality as well as both for and against the South Carolina “Bathroom Bill”), many still are concerned about whether he will protect American gay individuals and communities.

Because of this, LGBT-based nonprofit organizations in Pittsburgh are preparing for a potentially difficult road ahead, although many are urging caution and optimism.

“There’s a lot of unknowns right now,” said Chris Bryan, spokesman for the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit group aimed at supporting the LGBT community in Pittsburgh.  “We do know, of course, that there are laws in place to protect marriage equality, women’s rights, so on and so forth.”

According to its mission statement, the Delta Foundation, started in 1996, exists “to be a vigilant catalyst for change that produces increased opportunities and a high quality of life for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community in Western Pennsylvania.”

Bryan said that the election results haven’t changed the organization’s goals but that community support has grown exponentially.

“We’ve seen an increase in donations as a result of the election,” she said. “We’ve seen an increase in Facebook fans and specifically conversations and engagement on our Facebook page. And we’ve also seen an increase in volunteers.”

This uptick in community interaction is not limited to the Delta Foundation. The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Pittsburgh has also seen a huge increase in support – so much so that GLCC Board Secretary Theresa Bosco called it a “relaunch” for the organization.

“We are working to get back to our core mission of outreach, visibility and creating safe and supportive spaces for LGBTQ+ individuals in Pittsburgh,” she said. “Our change of focus hasn’t come about as a result of the election, but it has motivated us to reach out further and spread the message of support and inclusion at our center.”

She said that within hours of the election results, donations and offers of volunteer support began pouring into the Center.

“I just couldn’t keep up with people who wanted to help,” she said. “It was actually very miraculous.”

Bryan and Bosco both said that their organizations are ready to fight to keep the progress that the LGBT community in the United States has made over the past few years. The Delta Foundation is the main sponsor of Pittsburgh Pride every year. While Bryan was quick to say that Pride 2017 will not be a reaction to the new administration, she said it is more important now than ever for gay people across the city to be visible and to stand up for their rights.

“Be visible and speak up,” she said. “Make sure that you’re not just sitting there and not speaking up.”

Bryan also said that members of all minority groups must band together and stand up united in order to protect the rights of every marginalized community.

“Intersectionality is huge,” she said. “Any group that is being marginalized, we’re all fighting for the same thing.”

“No one is equal until we are all equal,” she quoted, referencing a speech on racial intersectionality given by Fannie Lou Hamer in 1971 to the National Women’s Political Caucus entitled “No one’s free until everyone’s free.”  (The quote is often misattributed to Martin Luther King Jr.).

Both Bryan and Bosco said that the LGBT communities around the country might have reason to worry.

“Many individuals are very afraid to lose the rights they have fought so hard for,” Bosco said. “People are looking for reassurance and hope, and especially ways to help others who are afraid.”

“We don’t have protections in Pennsylvania for sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” Bryan said. “You can get married in Allegheny County and get fired in Beaver County tomorrow, and that’s just the reality of the situation in this state.”

She also added that the Delta Foundation anticipates that the American transgender community will be hit the hardest by the new administration. The transgender community is protected from some discrimination by a 2016 executive order signed by former President Barack Obama, which can be immediately overturned by the President Trump.

Simpson understands the fear and apprehension people have of the Trump administration.

“I am hoping that he does not continue to spread hate through the words that he uses, but I’m not sure,” she said.

She does feel personally safer in Pittsburgh, though, knowing that the community in this city is so strong.

“I live in a city that is very progressive, and am typically surrounded by people that not only tolerate my sexually, but also support it,” she said. “My biggest concern is for people that live in places that do not have access to an environment like mine, that live in the Deep South and are surrounded by people that tell them they are going to hell for who they are.”

For anyone interested in volunteering or donating to the Delta Foundation or GLCC Pittsburgh, information can be found at deltafoundation.us and glccpgh.org respectively.

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