County of Residence: Allegheny, formerly Washington
Preferred Pronouns: She/Her
How do you describe your identity? At some point, the mental switch flipped in my head firmly into a “female” identity. (I think it was always set to “female” but I was trying to force it to say “male”!)
So I identify as a trans woman. I am attracted to women, which I guess makes me a lesbian, but I am partnered with a woman who identifies as heterosexual and female. Which I guess makes her straight but not narrow?
Please describe your coming out experience. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face? Phew. Well. It took a long time for me to figure out I was transgender. Getting connected to the Internet — actually, Usenet in the early ’90s — helped me a little bit, because at least I learned what the terminology was.
But a lot of the chat rooms were little more than pornography or people trying to arrange one-night stands, and it didn’t help me shake the shame that I had grown up with, and the mistaken idea that “gays” were obsessed with sex.
Our university library in the 1990s had, I think, a grand total of three books in the social sciences department that dealt with being “transsexual,” and one of those was a survey of Greek mythology about being trans — so not exactly relevant to modern times.
So instead of using my college years to explore gender and sexuality, I went deep, deep into the closet for a decade. I tried to “pray away the gay” (didn’t work). I got very, very depressed and talked to therapists (but never told them I was transgender — that didn’t work either!). And I started drinking. (Bad idea.)
Flash forward to the early 2000s. I was doing some research at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on psychology. Looking for a book on something completely unrelated to sex or gender, I turned around and — at eye-level — I saw a book called “My Husband Betty: Love, Sex, and Life with a Crossdresser,” by Helen Boyd.
I stood there and read it — secretly — in the aisle until they announced the library was closing. (I didn’t dare check it out!) And then I ordered my own copy (under a fake name!) from Amazon. And then I joined Helen’s online support group for transgender women and men and their partners. It has been an amazing experience and I have met so many amazing people. (My wife, to whom I came out on our third date, calls them “my sorority sisters.”)
How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”? Not quite out, but not quite in. I present as male 90 percent of the time, but I’m probably increasingly being read as “queer” or gender fluid, based on my wardrobe and other cues.
But a very wide circle of friends knows that I identify as female, and most (if not all) of my friends have met “her.” I now look for every opportunity I can to spend time living my life as a woman.
Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? Well, it wasn’t good, but it was probably typical of the 1980s. Growing up, we had a neighbor across the street of whom it was rumored that he was gay. He was single, kept to himself, and usually had bleached blonde hair. I can remember him keeping to himself, and also can remember the other neighbors … not exactly shunning him, but being what I would call “Pittsburgh nice” — they gave him a wide space and didn’t invite him to events.
We also had a teen-age boy next door who came out to his mother as gay. This poor kid, who no doubt was a complete ball of raging hormones (as most teen-agers are!) may also have had some behavioral problems — looking back on it today, I would probably suspect ADHD. So he knew a little bit too much about sex and was willing to talk about it to every kid in the neighborhood.
So as a child of 8 or 9, my initial meetings with two people who were gay — or at least presumed to be gay — left me thinking that gays were first of all, to be avoided, and second of all, obsessed with sex. I suppose some people still think that — luckily, I grew up! Ha!
This was also around the time the AIDS panic hit the United States. I can remember kids on the playground playing a game called “AIDS.” It was like “Tag,” but unlike “Tag,” if you got “AIDS,” you couldn’t give it away, and no one was supposed to play with you for the rest of the day. (Charming, right?)
When I started to realize I didn’t identify as male, even though I was being raised as male, at first I thought I was gay. I’d never heard the word “transgender” — I didn’t even realize that was a thing.
So, naturally, I felt this enormous sense of fear and shame — gays were people to avoid and maybe even be scared about, I didn’t possibly want to be one of them.
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character or creator in television, film or literature? Please tell us why. Wow, that’s hard to come up with someone. I admire a lot of real life LGBTQ people — I had a MAJOR crush on Ellen DeGeneres long before she came out, and I can think about a half-dozen other lesbians who seriously gave me the vapors. I just love strong, confident women — and wish I was one!
How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? Mainly on the Internet. I occasionally pick up a copy of The Advocate.
Describe your geographical community. It’s urban — one of the suburbs of Pittsburgh — but is decidedly not LGBTQ friendly. Like a lot of western Pennsylvania, it is very segregated (white versus people of color) and is trending very conservative in terms of guns and God. I do not always feel safe there.
Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community. This is an area of my life where I really feel like I’m missing something. I have a circle of friends who are gay or lesbian, and a few who identify as bi, but very few friends locally who are transgender. And I don’t belong to any LGBTQ groups that meet in person, just online.
Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity? Specifically, in a job setting, when applying for housing or while in public. It’s sad to say I have the privilege of “passing” relatively well, or at least blending in. I’ve also entered the age bracket where women start to become invisible to men, especially young men.
So I’ve never really faced open hostility, but I have once or twice caught someone staring, and recently saw a teen-age boy staring at me and laughing. I’m pretty sure he “clocked” me as trans. It’s not a good feeling.
Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? There are a ton. Our religious leaders in Pittsburgh are far behind other urban areas in the mid-Atlantic region in talking about LGBTQ acceptance. None of our mainstream religious leaders would speak out in favor of discrimination, but they don’t speak up against it, either. But the evangelicals are very, very vocal, and make up a substantial portion of western Pennsylvania churches. As a result, Pittsburgh almost feels like a “Bible Belt” community in some regards. The center city is mostly accepting and tolerant, but just outside the city, very, very bigoted attitudes are prevalent — and people are proud of them. That goes for LGBTQ issues as well as issues of race — there are many parts of western Pennsylvania where white people think it’s OK to use the N-word or tell racial jokes, and where straight people think it’s OK to mock gay males or transgender females.
What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? We need some elected officials — besides Bill Peduto — to actually speak up in public in favor of protections for LGBTQ people. Most of our elected officials are wishy-washy, and have shown no leadership on this issue.
They will say privately, “of course, I support equality,” but they keep their mouths shut in public. That’s almost as bad as doing nothing at all, because — to quote an old saying from the HIV/AIDS movement — silence is death.
Please share a lived experience, anecdote or fact about life as an LGBTQ person in your community. Being LGBTQ in much of western Pennsylvania — especially when people don’t know you’re LGBTQ — means you feel like a spy or secret agent. People say things around you and don’t realize how bad they hurt.
I can’t tell you how many times when I’ve been in a meeting at work or church and had someone say something horrible about LGBTQ people. On the one hand, that’s one reason I’m trying to speak up and speak out more — but on the other hand, it’s one reason that I’m scared to.
Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? Outside of Allegheny County, there are very few welcoming churches, temples or synagogues — try looking for a rainbow banner on anything but maybe a Unitarian church.
Outside of Allegheny County, there are very few doctors or mental health professionals who have any experience in LGBTQ care.
Outside of Allegheny County, there are few governments or municipalities that have any protection for sexual orientation or gender identity.
And — and this is the part that’s terrible — I don’t see a lot of interest from those groups in educating themselves and fixing problems. Instead, it seems like opinions are hardening, which is probably a function of our divided political system right now, and the ongoing culture wars. So people who are tolerant move into Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, and people who aren’t and who want to discriminate move out to places like Butler and Washington counties.
What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? Persad is obviously a huge resource, as are the Gay and Lesbian Community Center and PFLAG. I frankly don’t think much of the Delta Foundation and would really like to see some other groups come to the forefront on these issues.
What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? See above — Western Pennsylvania seems to be getting more divided, not less. Conservatives seem to be moving out of Allegheny County and liberals are moving into Allegheny County. We can’t just have progressive oases here and there — there’s no impetus to change or grow or understand other people’s positions if we just live is segregated communities.
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? I am encouraged by an influx of highly educated professionals of all races and colors, and by Allegheny County finally benefiting from some immigration from other countries. We need to break away from old ways of thinking.
What can allies do to support your LGBTQ community? They can speak up against bigotry and discrimination. We don’t need you coming up to us after the fact and tell us how sorry you feel — stand up and make your voices heard.
How can gay men and lesbians support the bisexual, transgender and queer members of our community? I‘ve had a couple of gay men recently tell me they don’t think trans and queer people are part of the LGBTQ community. Honestly, we are all in this fight together.
What motivated you to take part in this project? A friend asked me to participate, and I think it’s such an important thing to do for the community to collect these stories and opinions. I’m not sure anyone else has ever done this before in such a public way in Western Pennsylvania. I think this could be an important historic record.
Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. Oh, golly, I have no idea. This survey is a little bit exhaustive! But it also made me think, which is one of the points, I guess!
Thank you, Patricia.
Read the entire AMPLIFY LGBTQ Q&A archive.
AMPLIFY LGBTQ is a series of blog posts designed to give a “signal boost” to the voices of our LGBTQ neighbors throughout Western Pennsylvania. We are using a Q&A format and will minimize editing their responses.
Our intent is to highlight the voices of marginalized members of our community who are not always invited to the table or whose voices are not heard. These are glimpses in to the lived experiences of LGBTQ people in Western Pennsylvania as told in their own voices. If you would like to participate, please email me pghlesbian at gmail or visit the online Q&A.