Five Essential Lessons From Pittsburgh Pridefest 2014

I am breaking my silence on events that unfolded at Pittsburgh Pridefest. As some of you know, my partner of eleven years is an investigator with the City’s Office of Municipal Investigations so I do not comment publicly on active investigations of alleged police misconduct. But there are some serious problems with how the LGBTQ community is responding to this situation so I am going to speak OUT now. 

First, Ariel Lawther is a 19-year-old queer woman. Using her name – without her express permission – to promote any political or policy agenda is wrong. She is facing serious criminal charges that could alter her life, her whole life all of which lies ahead of her. Raising money to help pay her legal fees? Organizing moral and emotional support for her? Helping her connect with resources and services? Amplifying her message? All good. But speaking FOR her, adding her name to your agenda, invoking her name to affect some sort of change – these are not good or ethical things to do. She is 19. She should not become a poster child for any agenda. Rallying against the police is not the same thing as rallying for Ariel. Especially if you haven’t asked her. She’s a living human being with her whole life ahead of her and your actions could have a negative impact if you aren’t consulting her (and the people she consults.)

Second, the talk about needing police training ignores an important point – there is already a process in place to systematically train the City of Pittsburgh Police on LGBTQ matters. It is led by Persad Center which has been the soul and conscience of the local LGBTQ community since 1972. Their Community Safe Zone project works with multiple levels of law enforcement and it works. Any conversation or reference to police training that does not mention Persad is uninformed or simply ridiculous. We could be talking about more funding for a program that works so it can have a broader impact. We could be talking about how to volunteer, donate or engage with Persad to support this critical, successful project and build on the a solid foundation. Or we can just talk and divert resources into duplication of something that has a proven track record of success.  Anyone who wants to claim that Betty Hill and Ted Hoover are not carrying the legacy of Randy Forrester forward to tackle this issue needs to revisit their history and read the data. Not the headlines, the data.

Third, Repent Amarillo is a serious threat. If you have done your homework on this group, you will notice a significant increase in their “professionalism” from 2010 to 2014. Someone is funding them and for some reason, one of their members relocated to Pittsburgh. They are not a joke and not something to be dismissed, a trend I’ve noted among many local mostly white heterosexual cis men in the media. Repent Amarillo stand to gain a direct benefit from everything that happened at Pride and afterwards. Whatever happens to Ariel or the police officer, Repent Amarillo wins because they have terrific footage to use for fundraising and promoting their agenda. Connect the dots between the agenda of the religious extremists – first they come to your Pridefest and now they are coming for your non-discrimination protections in the form of religious exemptions. These things are very much connected. Make sure you understand your true enemy, because I can guarantee you that they know you. I’m not linking to their stuff, but you can find it (or ask me privately.)

Fourth, we all let Ariel and the others at Pride down. All of us – citizens, the police, the organizers, the sponsors, the attendees, religious groups, everyone. No one was prepared for a well-funded, efficient hate organization to harangue Pride for 7+ hours. Well, some people were prepared as I have noted photos of counter-protest signs and I understand that some of the former Act Up/Cry Out folks brought their whistles (to use to drown out the hate.) But most of us dropped the ball. I knew there was an incident last year involving a protestor – one that went unreported because the ally “started” the altercation and they didn’t choose to accept potential legal consequences for their actions. Those of us who knew about that incident are all culpable, too.  We were not prepared and our young people have never been prepared to cope with this. It is easy to say “just walk away, sis” but with some advance planning and practice, we could have helped make tools available at Pridefest to support that message. We underestimated Repent Amarillo and that’s on us, all of us. The question now is whether we’ll continue to point fingers and get defensive or if we’ll take action to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

For the record, action does not equal distorting the First Amendment. It means we need to be trained as much as the police need to be trained. And there are many living breathing elders in our community who went through this in previous decades whom could teach us. Some are willing to do so. The wisdom is in our community. We just need to listen and learn.

Finally, the changing tone of political rhetoric around LGBTQ rights and religious exemptions means Pride is forever changed. We can resist that or we can embrace the metamorphosis to create a new experience of Queer Pride that reflects growth. Too many people dismiss Pride as a big street party with no meaningful impact. I think that’s a mistake. The issue is the corporatization of Pride . Corporate sponsors probably are fine with an all-you-can-drink beer tent, but not so much a tightly focused counterprotest. Because that could get ugly and draw our attention away from becoming a XYZ bank customer. Because that would remind us that corporations are donating to the foundations that support the religious extremists.  Because that would remind us of how the corporate sponsorships of services and programs is gone, instead directed to our street party. And we might turn that tightly focused counterprotest energy into other queer issues like poverty, corporate welfare, environmental protection, municipal bonds for renovation of the water supply infrastructure (that caught you off guard, right), and so forth. I think a street party most people dismiss as apolitical is exactly what the corporate sponsors want. Unfortunately, those days are gone. 

I don’t know what Pride will look like in the next few years. I’m sure any change will be slow, but inevitable. I’m sure there will be resistance and perhaps a resurgence of people who want to go back to Schenley Park or Ellsworth Avenue or wherever. But we need simply reflect on the first “Gay Liberation March” in Pittsburgh in 1973 to realize that its the march that matters, not the destination.

In conclusion, we must do better as a community. We must not turn a blind eye to threats like Repent Amarillo or misguided notions of launching a police training component that is already in place. We must not allow anyone to exploit Ariel or others who were caught up in situations much bigger than any one person. We as an LGBTQ community (and our allies) must take ownership of our movement and stay the course toward a more just and equal society.

Pittsburgh Pridefest


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