AMPLIFY LGBTQ is a new occasional 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 mostly avoid editing their responses. The questions, however, may change as we ask each participant to tell us what we’ve missed asking. It is one of the vibrant elements of a blog format – evolution & growth.
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 (because “we” are not listening?) Obviously, my choice of questions does shape the conversation, but beyond that – 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.
This weekend is the Erie Pride Picnic so I was very happy to have the chance to share Mike Mahler’s Q&A. Mike is a long-time editor of the Erie Gay News which is one of three remaining LGBTQ publications in Pennsylvania.
Name: Michael Mahler
County of Residence: Erie
Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? Technically, my late bisexual father, who came out to me over the phone when I was 11. We weren’t close, and he had a lot of issues. Probably slowed me down slowly from coming out as I didn’t want to be like him because of the other issues. First gay friend as an adult was Keith, whom I met through Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA.) He has been a great friend, and helped me become more comfortable being who I am. His wedding was also the first legal same-sex wedding that I went to.
How do you describe your identity? I am an openly gay, openly Pagan male.
How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? I have been the co-editor of Erie Gay News since December of 1992, so usually it’s because folks are sending me press releases or calendar entries. 😉
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character in television, film or literature? Harvey Fierstein as Arnold in Torch Song Trilogy. Probably because I admire Harvey as a person so much. When I was first publicly coming out, I sent him a fan letter, and I got a handwritten postcard back. Seriously cool.
How would you describe yourself in terms of “being out”? I was the first person in Erie County to speak to local media with my full name and full face as of May 1992 for a story by WSEE TV 35 for a 2nd degree murder gay bashing. I have done local media stuff for LGBT since then, and if a story breaks, I usually get calls. I am so out that it is probably visible from space!
Tell me about your local or regional LGBTQ community. I really feel good about Erie PA. We are having our Pride Picnic this Saturday and we are having our Pride Fest on August 29.
Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity in a job setting? How about in terms of being served by a business? Please explain. I have been lucky in that regard. I basically have been with the same company since December of 1986, and it is the only real job that I have had. When I first came out, the owner/founder asked if anyone had given my any trouble, and there has never been a problem. I also haven’t had problems in dealing with any companies. I sometimes wonder if being so out has warded off someone who might have been a problem.
Describe your community in terms of being LGBTQ friendly (or not.) I personally feel safe and happy, and have very frequently people to be friendly and accepting. I held hands with the guy that I was dating on Presque Isle when we were first dating in 1993. Our handfasting photo was a file photo at the local news stations when we were together. For our Pride events, I can’t recall any serious problems or confrontations, for the most part. We did have a float that was vandalized for Erie’s Bicentennial Parade back in 1995, but folks came together to repair it, and when the float finally arrived in Perry Square at the end of the parade, people applauded/cheered as the story had been covered in local media.
Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? Probably need people to be better informed and more frequent communication would help. There are probably services needed here that are not being covered, but several local groups recently came together for an LGBTQ roundtable, so we are working on it. Some instructors at Edinboro University are working on a community needs assessment survey. They will have a table at our Pride events with survey for folks to fill out, and Erie Gay News will also post a link to their online survey.
What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? Pass HB 300/SB 300 for anti-discrimination that includes LGBTQ people at the state level! Amend the Bias Crimes Act to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression again. (It got removed on a legal technicality in 2007, I believe.) Local and statewide anti-bullying legislation that addresses the needs of LGBTQ students. Oh, and maybe more out officials. In Erie, we have quite a few folks who are out, but we have never had someone who was well known for something else who came out as LGBTQ.
Please share any anecdotes about life as a LGBTQ person in your community that might help outsiders better understand. One of my favorite stories: the same folks that had organized Erie’s Bicentennial Parade in 1995 organized a parade for the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie (AKA Perry 200) in 2013. About 100,000 attended. Because of the float that was vandalized and rebuilt for the first ever LGBT float in a mainstream parade in 1995, it felt really important to be in the 2013 Perry 200 Parade. So NW PA Pride Alliance had a float. By sheer coincidence, Greg, who had been the main organizer for the 1995 float, walked by as we were pulling out into the Perry 200 Parade and remarked that wow, we had a fair number of people on the float, and we were non-controversial.
During the parade, lots of folks smiled and waved at our float, and it really was empowering and uplifting to be so welcomed at a non-LGBT specific event.
We went out to dinner afterwards and Chris, who had ridden in the cab of the truck with Ben Heggy (fondly remembered – he drove up from Pittsburgh and was unfailingly kind and cheerful, and we were sorry to hear of his recent passing), said that the only negative thing that they had seen while driving the truck was when some small child pointed to our float and said “Faggots” Some guy, presumably his dad, patted him on the head, but an African-American woman from 3 rows behind in the spectators, walked up and smacked the kid for being rude.
So, I may sound like a Pollyanna, but I really believe that people in Ere are overall friendly and accepting. I realize that this is only my own perspective/experience, and that is not necessarily the same as others, but since being involved since the fall of 1991, and out since May of 1992, I really feel privileged to be here in Erie and lucky to have so many great people in our local community!
Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? Probably hard for folks to find services, and in my opinion, one of the biggest barrier is folks assuming that they will not be accepted. We are our own worst enemies sometime.
What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? This is shameless self-promotion, but check out http://www.eriegaynews.com/resources.php. Local groups include NW PA Pride Alliance, Greater Erie Alliance for Equality, Erie Gay News, LBT Women of Erie, TransFamily of Erie Support Group, Erie Sisters, Drenched Fur, and several more.
What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? Probably if folks are divisive/turfy. Also if we assume that people are hostile and thus don’t take action.
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? That we all work together, accepting our individual differences, and that we realize that good things happen when we are visible and reach out.
Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. I can’t think of anything. Thanks for this opportunity.