County of Residence: Allegheny County, formerly Indiana County
Preferred Pronouns: She/her
How do you describe your identity? I am a woman who loves, and is affectionately and romantically attracted to women. I have the capacity to love men and have male friends, but am not sexually attracted to them. I am a multiethnic person, but I have this in common with many people who have ancestry which includes the experience of chattel slavery. Identified and identifiable as African American, the issue of race and racism color my life in ways beyond my control. I believe that in a just and better world, people would love whomever they love regardless of identity. Unfortunately, we are socialized to limit our capacity to love and befriend others based on sociocultural biases. Love really is love, and people are just human beings. If we find another soul with whom we can share our friendship, love and life, we are fortunate and blessed.
Please describe your coming out experience. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face? I came out after exploring the gay community and becoming comfortable with my sexual orientation. I still had the value of delaying sex until I was in a committed relationship, but I went out with women who were friends or romantic interests. I was very old fashioned that way. I told my mom first. She was raised Baptist and thought it was wrong, but she loved me and let me know she’d always love me even if she didn’t agree. Our relationship never changed, so she was still like my best friend. My uncle said he’d known since I was 14, which was long before I knew about myself. When I finally had a wedding, both my uncle and mom gave me their blessing. My mom passed a month later and my uncle proudly displayed our wedding picture in his office until he retired. He became a part of CCAC’s diversity committee.
Sadly, one of my best friends and confidantes, who had been my high school art teacher, died the year after I came running out of the closet. That had much more of an impact on me than the coming out process itself. As an artist, I kept trying to perfect the last thing she saw me draw and paint, which was illustrating women’s tennis. Martina Navratilova became my muse. I’d met her and had a great deal of respect for her, even though she was never someone to whom felt a romantic attraction. The power, artistry, self expression and athleticism was something I tried to capture in my artwork. I sold lots of that artwork at tennis tournaments and even sold some T-shirts including here in Pittsburgh at the now closed Gertrude Stein Bookshop.
How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”?
Confident, calm and self respecting. My mom was very proud of the work I did in the LGBTQ community as well as anything productive in which I participated. My dad, siblings and grandparents asked a lot of questions, which helped them to understand my life, so that made me feel more accepted in my family.
Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? I really don’t know who the first LGBTQ person that I met was because there were several LGBTQ people I knew in my life, but they were closeted. I considered myself asexual up until I met someone who was out and comfortable with being out. I just knew that my boyfriend, who was my best friend, was suspected of being gay, but we were only 13 when we started dating. I brought him to dinner with my family and one member commented, “that boy got a little sugar in the seat.” I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but I knew that people thought he was gay. I knew he was dramatic at times, very comical, and I loved him. We went to two of his proms and my senior prom, but he never pressured me to have sex, and we never did. I later found out that he considered himself bisexual, but we were adults by then. There were some of my male family members who were called, “funny,” but I never thought anything about it.
I didn’t realize that I was gay until I met a person who was openly gay and comfortable with it. I admired her ability to be herself even in the face of adversity. I was a Sunday School teacher and I played rugby. I was called the “sacrificial virgin,” because I didn’t drink, do premarital sex, or drugs. I just played sports, went to school, church, work and did my artwork!
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character or creator in television, film or literature? Please tell us why. I like the character Jeffrey Harrington on the Tyler Perry television show (on the Oprah Winfrey Network OWN), The Haves and The Have Nots. Jeffrey grows from a closeted, insecure, well educated, African American man to a courageous, self respecting man who learns to stand up to people in his life who try to ensnare him in their own life drama. He battles his own demons with the support of a loving parent with his own flaws. Although the show has its preachy moments, and at times falls into some stereotypes, it is really a game changer in terms of well developed diverse gay male characters.
How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? Word of mouth, social media, texts
Describe your geographical community. My geographical community is urban, eclectic and friendly. The Pittsburgh Environmental Charter Charter School at Frick Park has a few LGBTQ families and its great that the children who have LGBTQ parents are included and accepted in ways never imagined just a generation ago. Recently we ran into a group of kids with their parents after a holiday concert. Our grandson asked one of the other kids, “are your parents lesbians?” They smiled and he said, “my grandmas are lesbians!” Then they went on talking as if it was no big deal, because to them, it wasn’t. I’m sure there are other parts of the neighborhood that aren’t as open or friendly. When I first moved here in 1992, I worked at PATF and my next door neighbors where I was renting were skinheads. Two were also Marines. They used racial and ethnic epithets at will and more than once, I thought there would be a nasty confrontation. We contacted the owner and soon after they were gone without incident. Their car read: 4Skins, Tomorrow Belongs to the White Race, and Heritage Not Hate (referring to the confederate flag). This neighborhood has a history of quietly rooting out those who are intolerant or hostile. Block watches are informal, but we look out for each other and know each others names. This block is changing, but I hope it will always keep that small town attitude!
Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community. I live in the Regent Square/Wilkinsburg neighborhood in the Pittsburgh area. My immediate neighborhood is very diverse in a number of ways. There are LGBTQ friendly people and businesses such as Biddles Escape, Pawsitively Pets, The Cafe on the Square, and its easy to get around on buses or by car. Frick Park is a friendly place with dog parks, trails and the playground abounds with children, some of who have LGBTQ parents. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for over 20 years and love the fact that children on my street still play on the street and neighbors still talk to one another, sometimes sitting on stoops having conversations and community yard sales.
Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity? Specifically, in a job setting, when applying for housing or while in public. Yes, but it was primarily racial discrimination or sex/gender discrimination in pay. Because I understand discrimination often is stimulated by style of dress, I usually dress more conservative on interviews and then as people get to know me as a person, I become more true to my own style of dress, and more confident about who I can approach about inequities.
Tell us about your access to health care in Western PA. Has it been LGBTQ competent (or not?) My access to health care has been mixed. I’ve been on both sides and seen the best and the worst the systems have to offer. I have had the same chiropractor, Marcia Kass, for over 20 years. She is friendly, competent and a great complement to my complex medical needs. I also see lapses in hospital care depending on what hospital or health care system one goes to. I have had good doctors and a few who ended up in jail. They weren’t necessarily bad people, but they got greedy or didn’t care. As far as LGBTQ people, most were okay, but I think years of previous training has helped lower the stigma of coming out to physicians because now most use terms like spouse or partner rather than husband or wife and use more open ended questions to allow for people to explain if they choose. In rural areas, I imagine this is far different. As a former health educator, I’ve heard many ignorant statements in the past, particularly with regard to people living with HIV/AIDS. Again, communication, education and personal experiences or connections seem to be what helps change practices, hearts, and minds.
Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? People who are differently abled are the visible invisible.
What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? Speak out in support of LGBTQ issues. Use their power and influence to make identified changes to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and it will improve life for all citizens.
Please share a lived experience, anecdote or fact about life as an LGBTQ person in your community. I used to work with Allegheny County Department of Human Services. I often trained staff an families on cultural competence. I always included LGBTQ issues as part of culture. There were some who tried to shut it down, but I prevailed and though there were some who objected on religious grounds, but fortunately, having a major in theology helped me to understand and defend my message of inclusion, particularly under the rubric of marginalized youth.
Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? Affordable/accessible housing, religious biases in community/public resources, particularly with women of low income eg. utility assistance offered through community ministry organizations with personnel who make disparaging remarks about LGBTQ people as they take the application
What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? Persad, Biddles Escape, Pawsitively Pets, PATF, GLCC, ReelQ, Sembene Film and Arts Festival, City of Asylum,
What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? That some of us will become as nasty toward other LGBTQ people as some of those in the mainstream, eg. hating because of our differences instead of celebrating our diversity.
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? That we develop enough resources for our youth and elders as well as safe spaces for all of our community. We have to become more inclusive of people of color within our community, particularly as it relates to power.
What can allies do to support your LGBTQ community? Speak up. Lend your time and resources to youth and elders. Make sure your friends know that you support us and why. This is what changes hearts and minds.
How can gay men and lesbians support the bisexual, transgender and queer members of our community? Communication and education. We should be a coalition of allies rather than competing for status or resources. Stand up and give voice to those who may not be in the room when prejudice rears its ugly head.
What motivated you to take part in this project? Youth. Its important, especially in this political climate of backlash to make sure that our youth continue to know that they are not alone. This is particularly true for rural youth and youth of color who live in spaces where they may not be as accepted.
Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. Who is your personal s/hero? I have many. My mom, maternal grandparents and in the community, my muse.
Thank you, Shari.
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. 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, visit the online Q&A which takes about 30 minutes.