Saturday night, Ledcat and I sat down to talk with Lance Friedman, co-chair of the Steel City Stonewall Democrats which is the local chapter of the national gay democratic network. Friedman has been co-leading the group since January 2007 after the unexpected departure of Steel-City's controversial co-chair Scott Safier.
Since then Friedman and co-chair Tara Reynolds have been working with a small but dedicated board to rejuvenate the organization. Of late, Friedman's energies have been wholeheartedly focused on the May 15 primary, dedicating countless hours to turning out the gay vote and working for candidates such as openly gay Bruce Kraus' campaign for city council.
“Elections are about turnout,” says Friedman, a three year Pittsburgh resident originally from Michigan. “A small group of gay voters can make a difference in this election.” The May 15 election is not expected to generate a large turnout.
Friedman and his partner, a University of Pittsburgh researcher, relocated to Pittsburgh from New Jersey. They have been together for nearly 10 years and Friedman, a history major, has been politically active the entire time.
When he arrived in Pittsburgh, he became involved with the Gertrude Stein Club and Steel City, eventually joining the Steel-City board. With the departure of Safier, Friedman has been actively reaching out to former board members asking them to reconnect with the organization. He says that several have indicated a willingness to get involved and perhaps rejoin the board.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I was a board member of Steel-City and resigned over the antics of Safier in my pre-blog days. Any hint of criticism that seeps through this post is solely my own. Friedman spoke not a single ill-word about the man.
The current board includes 4 people, all of whom are juggling a lot of competing interests and are self-proclaimed political junkies (h/t to David and Maria). Friedman and Reynolds are looking for fresh blood to keep the organization moving forward.
Friedman says frankly that he doesn't perceive himself as a leader. “I took the co-chair job because no one else wanted it,” he explains. He envisions recruiting new leadership and being able to step down from the executive committee to a typical board role.
Friedman's modesty about his leadership talent is unwarranted. The organization recently hosted an endorsement party, drawing a good sized crowd of both candidates and community members. Friedman had his concerns that the turnout would be gay-lite and candidate-heavy, so he got on the phone and contacted every gay person he could think of and encouraged them to attend the event. It worked. Ledcat and I rolled in around 3:30 and rolled out an hour later laden with stickers, flyers and postcards and a fresh look at the candidates.
Others noticed as well, including the Allegheny County Democratic Committee (ACDC) which was planning their own LGBT forum with their endorsed candidates. They wanted to partner with Steel City to turn out the gays, but Friedman acknowledges that the timing was a bit dicey as the event was scheduled for the day after the Steel City endorsement. The ACDC and Steel City groups did not achieve endorsement parity, but did cooperate in the event planning.
Moreover, the Steel City candidate questionaires were the primary source of information for the ACDC forum. Friedman was rather pleased with this event and views it as a step forward for the LGBT community. Here's my take on the event.
The dynamic co-chair seems to understand the challenges of turning out the gay vote while remaining delightfully optimistic about the opportunity. “I'd like to think gay people are voting even if they aren't politically active,” he offers. He chalks up the lack of political activity to the subtle, but widespread oppression LGBT individuals face in Western Pennsylvan's political climate (heavy on the Catholic conservatism).
Friedman believes the election of Bruce Kraus could change that. Seating an openly gay individual on City Council would demostrate how open-minded Pittsburgh can be. He believes it would play a major step in breaking down homophobia by creating opportunities for other elected officials and the public to interact with a real gay person rather than just an image from the media or as painted by anti-gay activists. According to Friedman, Kraus is ready to wear the “gay mantle” should he win Tuesdays election.
Kraus deserves the support of the entire LGBT community. Just this weekend, local businesses endorsing Kraus had their property vandalized. Two separate businesses. Kraus' campaign also reports more than 18 signs have been stolen which seems to be a lot for a city council race.
Meanwhile, Friedman and his small but dedicated group will continue to grow their organization in a new direction. He sees endless possibilities for collaboration with the ACDC, the Gertrude Stein Club, LGBT business owners including the tavern guild, and the elected officials themselves. While frank in his assessment of the gay friendliness of any particular candidate, Friedman remains positive on the possibility for the gay community to change their attitudes and welcoming to anyone who wants to join his group.
And that truly marks the dawn of a new gay in Pittsburgh.
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