LGBTQ Liberation and Equality in Pittsburgh

The road to equality and/or liberation is bumpy. I use the term “equality and/or liberation” because the juxtaposition of those goals (destinations?) indicates one significant reason for the bumpiness.

Indiana and Arkansas happened this week. A lot of my friends (including me) tried to figure out the nuances of RFRA laws, something that only became more complicated when amendments were added to the bills. Here in Pennsylvania, a federal judge ruled that the University of Pittsburgh is not discriminating against transgender people when it demands they use the facilities that corresponder to the gender they were assigned at birth. Meanwhile, Laverne Cox came to speak at Pitt, but only to undergrad students with appropriate student ID; no one is commenting as to whether Laverne was permitted to use the women’s room (and note that it would be a special exemption, right?)

I could go on and on with current events related to LGBTQ issues, but my larger point is already well-illustrated: things are going to get incredibly complicated before they get simple, no matter how the Supreme Court rules on marriage equality.

Consider this list of various types of legislation that may come to light – hate crimes, nondiscrimination, school bullying, trans healthcare, adoption/foster care, RFRA, domestic partnerships, homelessness and HIV/AIDS bills. That’s just nine possible types of legislation. Factor in 50 states, one federal district (DC), one federal government, five territories and countless municipal levels of government. Assume for each type of legislation, there are three clusters of legislation (just for the sake of simple math, there could be dozens of variants of each type of legislation.) For example: nondiscrimination that includes the whole LGBTQ community, nondiscrimination that only covers sexual orientation and no nondiscrimination at all.

So for each legislation type there could a mix of 27 (3 x 9) clusters of legislation across 50+ different governments in the US alone. 27 cluster of legislation that would eventually need to be sorted out in federal court.

Then add in the fact that “clusters” don’t always align – States A and B might agree on nondiscrimination, differ on bullying and have slightly different responses to HIV decriminalization efforts. State C might agree with B on HIV decriminalization, but not nondiscrimination. Got that?

Confused? Good, because that’s my point – it is confusing and complicated and going to be a slow dance to weave these different threads into our government. There will be resistance, from legislator votes to crowdfunded shows of “public opinion” to acts of violence and resistance and all that we’ve come to expect. Factor in the LGBTQ’s community ongoing struggle to address racism, classism, sexism, ableism and so forth among our own ranks (see the pizza joke debate) and all the other aspects of queer identity that are unpalatable to those with the most power, privilege and resources.

That brings us back to my original point about equality and liberation. We are struggling for both at the very same time and with challenging consequences for all of us. Yes, this is in part a backlash against victories in the marriage equality struggle, but it is also a backlash against the increasing visibility of queer, bi and trans voices in our community. I think Pitt students groups made a huge mistake by not partnering with a trans led community group to cosponsor the event with Laverne Cox. It was poor planning resulting now in a defensive crouch as the trans community responds to this mistake. It was an example of white and class privilege at its most well-intended perhaps. They have a window to address this and to address the very salient factor of the court decision about discrimination. Hopefully, they’ll rise to the occasion and maturity will trump good intentions. The bigger threat to us is a permanent institution (administration) not a transient set of deciders (student leaders.)

I had a conversation the other day with another queer woman – we were discussing racism and white privilege. I kept wanting to talk about Pittsburgh, while she kept reminding me that it is everywhere. We were both right. And it was a difficult conversation to end gracefully because I think our different points were part of the issue – I was being hyperlocal and perhaps hypercritical of Pittsburgh while she was (I think) resisting the local conversation by making an accurate observation that changed the discussion entirely. It didn’t end badly, but it did remind me of how incredibly difficult these new few decades will be – even for friends.

I don’t expect Pittsburgh or Southwestern Pennsylvania governments to be anywhere near the forefront of this struggle. It will be up to the community to figure out new ways to navigate these waters and wrestle, however ungracefully, with the ugly fallout. Our elected leaders aren’t prioritizing LGBTQ issues or queer, bi and trans residents. Frankly, we’ll need them to hold the course and prevent the erosion of our existing freedom. I don’t see the political imagination necessary to forge new frontiers for equality or liberation. Just avoid making it worse.

There are reasons for hope – Persad’s gorgeous new facility and dedication to serving the most vulnerable among us, the wonderful Pittsburgh Dyke Trans March with possibly the most diverse group of queer, bi and trans folks of the year, the fact that Pittsburgh has an umbrella group for the multiple transgender led organizations in the region, and more.

But the generation of student leaders who didn’t think to include the local gender nonconforming community in the planning for the Laverne Cox event will soon be the chiefs of staff and program directors and outreach coordinators for legions of local nonprofits and elected officials. That’s a close circuit of access, privilege and resources.

Let’s get some pizza and talk about it, eh?

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