Pittsburgh Museum Faces Backlash for Supporting PrideFest, LGBTQ Community

On Tuesday night, Joe Wos of the ToonSeum shared on Facebook that a community member had cancelled their membership because of the ToonSeum’s involvment in the LGBTQ community and PrideFest. We profiled Joe as an ally in 2013.


Here’s his post:

Today I got an email saying “we will not be renewing our membership because of your participation in pride fest, and their gay agenda.” they then went on to express their disappointment as “cartoons are meant to be wholesome family entertainment.” I told them I would personally refund their membership out of my pocket, and that perhaps they should watch some vintage Warner Brothers cartoons and adjust their definition of “wholesome.” Then perhaps look at the world around them, the wonderful people in it and adjust their definition of “family.” Sadly this is not the first nor the last time that we will have this issue and others like it come up. I have been told “we won’t come there because it’s by all those gay bars.” “We won’t come down there because it’s by planned parenthood.” We won’t come there because it’s on GASP! Liberty Avenue” and the only one I agree with…we won’t come down there because of the cities parking enforcement. I know a hundred reasons not to do anything because it’s always going to be easier to just lie on the couch than it is to live an active, productive, creative life, filled with diversity, art and joy. Cartoons are for everyone and we are happy to share our block with Pride. At any rate we lost a member today. But stood up for our block and our “family”

I asked Joe to expand upon this.


 One thing that struck me about the complaint is that the ToonSeum has been promoting the gay agenda for years, both in terms of your exhibits and your support of LGBTQ community groups. Why did they notice now?

I think they noticed now because we included a promo for our participation in our newsletter and we were very supportive in posting gay oriented comics images during the lead up to the ruling on gay marriage. It became very clear that the ToonSeum as an organization had taken a stand in support of the LGBTQ community. In many ways this is unusual for an organization to do. Supporting what many misguided individuals consider a “political issue” when it is in fact a human rights issue. It isn’t just a problem with perception of the “issue” it’s about perception of the ToonSeum. We are a museum that does a lot with kids and families, however we also do a lot for just adults. We are not a Children’s Museum. We are a museum for everyone.

 Is it fair to say that ToonSeum’s work as an ally grows as much out of the cartoon and comic media itself as the personal beliefs of the Board or staff?

Yes I think that is fair to say. Cartoons have never shied away from taking a stand on any given topic. It is the nature of what we do. Since Ben Franklin first drew a snake cut into pieces with the word’s “Join or Die” cartoons have been used to educate the public on issues and to take a stand for the artists beliefs as well. (That image has often been co-opted by the Tea Party, and Ben Franklin would be repulsed! I think he would have much rather seen it co-opted by the Gay rights movement! lol. Ben was a pretty open-minded guy and would have probably been arrested for stripping down naked on a parade float and waving that Join or Die flag!) 

Ben Franklin
Ben Franklin’s join or die cartoon

As executive director my personal beliefs have been very fluid and while I personally am an advocate for equality of all peoples, we do try to show both sides of any issues. So there are times when my personal beliefs run counter to the mission of the ToonSeum and I try not to let my personal values interfere with the integrity of the exhibition or art. But there is no denying the ToonSeum has tried very hard to showcase women artists, minority artists, and LGBTQ artists, not just in showcase exhibits where they are singled out for their gender or race, but included equally in exhibits as simply artists.

I am outspoken in my support of a variety of topics. As far as LGBTQ goes, these are my literal neighbors, my friends, my community. There was never any question that we would support them. We are especially supportive of the great work Gay for Good does. they are amazing.

Our board doesn’t always agree with my approach to advocacy of issues. LOL, believe me there was a certain “rubber duck” incident that I took a lot of flack for. But in the end they support my judgement and leadership.

The first thing people tend to say in a discussion like this is “I love Bugs Bunny in drag.” What are some other examples of comics and cartoons exploring subversive gender and sexual norms?

Batman was “outed” by “Seduction of the Innocence” during the comic witch hunt, which used it as an example of the homoerotic nature of comics. This was of course denied and still is. And even if it truly was without any homosexual reference inferred, the fact that it had to be defended puts it historically as one of the many incidents of media having defend itself for perception of homosexuality! Spongebob has had to defend against such attacks as well, it happens again and again. I think we live in a society now where Spongebob could soon come out and say, yeah so what I’m gay, its a kids show, we have never shown sex on the screen before what makes you think we would do it now? Many characters are left-handed, it’s a characteristic you are born with, it has no bearing on the show itself or it’s content necessarily. It’s a part of who they are but it ultimately doesn’t define them.

Cartoons have often used crossdressing as a gag, it dates back to vaudeville, and can be argued further to classical theater when men played all roles. But there is more to it. Bugs Bunny isn’t just in drag, he is actively seducing Elmer Fudd. There is also a lot of male characters kissing their atagonists in Looney Tunes! There are other characters that have taken cues from gay stereotypes and culture. Snagglepuss sure seems gay! lol. and Vanity Smurf come on! I think many of these you have to go, yeah we know. It doesn’t matter we still love you crazy toons.

Kitty Pryde
Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde in the latest installment of the Xmen

Tell me about the Kitty Pryde event. Who is Kitty Pryde and how is she connected to Chaka Khan?

We love a good pun at the ToonSeum. We love a bad pun even more. So Kitty Pryde Fest made sense. And then the actress who plays her Ellen Page came out and we said, this is perfect! So while there is no connection to Chaka Khan we try to find connections in everything to geek culture. By the way when they announced Chaka Khan was the featured guest this year we posted an image of Captain Kirk screaming Khan!!!!!! (a reference to his over the top anger at the character Khan in Star Trek.)

 You are also co-sponsoring Game Night at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center the very next day (after Pridefest.) Why? 

Because they asked! They are doing great work. While we love being a part of Pride in the Street, ultimately that is just a big party. A fun party, but a party. It’s the other side of things that is important, outreach and education, getting communities to connect. So we support the Game Night, we also support Gay for Good which I mentioned.

 What’s next for the ToonSeum?

A lot! We are a small struggling museum but we are very proud of the work we do. We have a great exhibit coming up that puts DC characters up against Marvel! It’s the ultimate superhero smackdown! We have an Alice in Comics Land exhibit coming up too. We also have some great events planned, programs, workshops, too much to list.

As a parent and educator, how do you help children understand homophobia and other forms of bigotry when they encounter it?

I mention that lefthanded thing a lot because I am lefthanded. We don’t think of it, but for a very long time and still to this day there are cultures and religions that view lefthanded as a choice, something that can and should be altered and ultimately a sin! Every day they have to try to fit in to a school built for right handers, pencil sharpeners, notebooks, pencil sharpners. It’s a small thing compared to other “handicaps” but it starts a dialogue and gives an example kids can wrap their heads around. Who cares if someone is left or right-handed. It doesn’t affect you. You should celebrate that while they are different they are still just like you! A kid. and while they are just like you, you have to recognize they sometimes have a more difficult time because they are lefthanded and be understanding. When you share a book, or they sharpen a pencil, try to compromise.

I know that must seem silly but it’s a way of addressing the sexuality aspect without having to address it to very young children. The sexuality doesn’t need addressed when it comes to gay marriage. Believe me Marriage has nothing to do with sex! lol. but seriously that’s just about loving one another and when two people love each other they should be allowed to get married.

I also teach my kids that to be a superhero you have to stand up for those around you who can’t stand up for themselves. Sometimes that is hard. Sometimes it’s unpopular. If you see a person on the ground, reach out and take them by the hand. Guess what? just because you are holding their hand to help them up, it doesn’t “make you gay!” It makes you compassionate it makes you a hero. 

Pride in the Street
Brad & George Takei support the Toonseum. This event was supported by Gay for Good Pgh

 I wonder if anyone has ever said “We can’t go to that performance at The Benedum or Heinz Hall because it is near Liberty Avenue.”

This is such a bigger issue. It’s just our block, and it is in the end about what is on this block. The city and Trust did great things in cleaning up downtown. But as they cleaned it up they did two things, they sanitized it and they unintentionally pushed all the “unsavory” elements onto the 900 block of Liberty without fixing the issues surrounding it. The community lost of a lot of character with the closing of Pegasus. and the “gay bars” were all pushed down to this block so they could be contained. The community threw a bunch of money at the August Wilson Center and then ran away from the block. It created a huge void now. This block contains Pride Fest, gay bars, the former African American Center, the ToonSeum, alternative theater, Planned Parenthood and the protestors! Forget the rest of the avenue, this is the embodiment of Liberty!!!

But guess what, there is no pedestrian lighting. Despite being one of the highest foot traffic regions of downtown there is no lighting. It is a dark place and night which furthers the perception of it as an unsafe block. A few months ago we had an event the same day as a drag competition, and a biker event at Mahoney’s plus the furries were at their monthly meeting at Fernando’s. So here were superheroes, Jedi, furries, drag queens, bikers, vikings, and protestors all on the same block and I thought “Hell yes! this is what Liberty is all about!”

What has been the response since you posted this email?

Overall supportive, but I just checked and we did get a response that said “not following you anymore.” and we had some newsletter cancels over it too. We are a tiny museums with a small budget so it does hurt when we lose supporters. There are a lot of museums out there who quietly sit by and would prefer if men or women didn’t hold hands around the kids, or don’t post their support for LGBTQ. It isn’t that they aren’t supportive. It’s that they are afraid of losing members, and maybe sponsors, foundation support, who knows.

We once had a foundation tell us we were a bit too alternative and edgy for their tastes as they only support traditional art. This was a foundation that supported the Andy Warhol Museum! and I thought to myself, you know what I would have loved to have the financial support, but telling me we are edgier than the Andy Warhol Museum, I’ll take that.

What would George Takei think about all of this?

I should ask him! lol.

Anything else you’d like to add?

As a lefthanded dyslexic I would like to ask that we come up with a term easier than LGBTQ, I can never get those letters in the right order and I always think I have left one off, and it’s just too tough to remember it all. So maybe there will come a day when full true equality is achieved and we can stop saying LGBTQ and just say- people.

I’ll add that to the gay agenda, Joe! Thanks for being a superhero!

You can support the Toonseum by becoming a member (or donating a membership to someone in the LGBTQ community.)
You an also get tickets for the Kitty Pryde Fest VIP Lounge at Pride in the Streets ($25)
Sue and Ledcat volunteering at The Toonseum with Gay for Good to greet George Takei.


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