John has the distinction of being the 100th person profiled in this series since May 2015. Thank you, John.
Name: John DeBartola
County of Residence: I hail from New Jersey. I lived in Susquehanna County, PA when I was finishing high school. I have lived in Cambria County, PA and the surrounding area since 1995.
Preferred Pronouns: Mr.
How do you describe your identity? Gay.
Please describe your coming out experience. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face? My parents died when I was young but I always had my grandmother. She died recently. She was my rock. I don’t think I would be the person I am today had it not been for the love, acceptance and strength she gave me. She was so proud of everything I was doing.
How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”? I am a Johnstown-based LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activist, promoter and president of the Keystone Alliance/Gaylife Newsletter, www.gaylifenewsletter.com. The newsletter has had hundreds of columnists over our 16 years and hundreds of advertisers.
I also serve as the executive producer, assistant director and star of the Miss Pittsburgh Public Access TV Pageant Series now in its 4th season on Pittsburgh’s PC TV 21. We are the 1st gay drag pageant in the country and the 1st gay tv show in the state. I started out in TV with Brian T-World guest starring on his show in 2010. We have collaborated this series. It has been a lot of fun and I am thankful for the opportunity. Our show benefits the Trevor Project.
I have done lectures at various colleges on civil rights and on being gay, coming out and suicide prevention, hosted gay proms, pride events, marched in parades, hosted benefits, you name it. The newsletter hosts the Reader’s Choice Awards, PA’s only gay awards to honor the outstanding work done in our community. I have written so many editorials in newspapers all over the state as well as making headlines and being on the TV news for supporting various issues spanning close to 15 years that you can’t get more “out” then this.
Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? My uncle was gay. He was in the closet and it was not openly discussed.
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character or creator in television, film or literature? Please tell us why. I loved Queer as Folk. My favorite character is Brian Kinney. The show brought the gay lifestyle into the limelight and opened up conversation. I have always identified with Brian’s total lack of care with what people thought about him.
How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? Every news source and social media outlet possible.
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Describe your geographical community. No, our area is not friendly. Since gay marriage was legalized last year, hundreds of couples have gotten married in Cambria County. Of those, only one couple has placed their name and picture in the newspaper announcing their union. It was Keystone Alliance/Gaylife Newsletter columnist, Philip Bayush and his partner, Eric. The paper did a whole spread on them for openly discussing their lifestyle. It is sad I live in an area with so much fear and attacks on what anyone would perceive as different that people are not free to be who they wish to be. A lot more work needs to be done to break the stigma but little by little it is happening.
Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community. I live in Johnstown. Our area is shrouded in fear when it comes to gay issues. Earlier this year, I asked for a proclamation for the gay community in celebrating the newsletter’s 15th anniversary and to acknowledge our 7th Annual Johnstown Gay Pride Celebration and Pride Prom. It was protested from the city of Johnstown and turned into a 5 month soap opera. A local councilman made untrue assumptions about gay people leading to a protest of the city and eventually the city apologizing to us. I have asked for a non discrimination and hate crimes bills to address the issues but that request has fallen on deaf ears.
Our school district has made some leaps and bounds but improvement is still needed. 3 months ago 200 of us protested the Greater Johnstown School District for the hiring, corruption, missing money, lack of programs for youth, failed education and to ask for a nepotism policy among other things. After several months of this conversation, I met with the school superintendent and we have come to a compromise for the school to promote acceptance and awareness, for the school board to pass Senator Wozniak’s Nepotism Bill and for educational reforms to begin which is an amazing thing for them to agree to. We have to remain vigilant they follow through on these things now. The Auditor General returns in the spring to investigate the allegations of missing money.
Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity? Specifically, in a job setting, when applying for housing or while in public. I have been discriminated and so have others that it has convinced me to be an activist and stand up to discrimination where ever I find it.
One example from our community is from 3 years ago. I was the special advocate for Casey Karon, the high school transgendered student who was discriminated over being on the Richland High School Homecoming court here in Johnstown. It made international news and shows our communities lack of understanding and openness. Another example is University Pittsburgh at Johnstown transgendered college student Seamus Johnston who was discriminated over using a bathroom at the college.
Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? 4 years ago the Altoona Mirror did a story on my request for the Somerset County Commissioners to extend health benefits to same sex partners and create a Human Rights Commission along with a non discrimination and hate crimes protection for the county. They voted it down but did listen to the request. The Altoona Mirror interviewed all of our local representatives and many said they did not, at that time, agree with gay rights.
5 years ago then Congressmen Critz from Johnstown was in the newspaper refusing to give us his platform on gay marriage. It made regional headlines.
6 years ago I was involved with Senator Eichelberger from Altoona. He said our community was “allowed to exist”. He has not spoken out on the gay community since he and I battled in editorials in the newspaper. For the past 8 years the newsletter has hosted a large Altoona Gay Pride event at Penn State Altoona.
Coupled with this years city proclamation controversy and school protest, I’m sure you can see a pattern here with our elected officials. They need to join the conversation.
What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? A hate crimes and non-discrimination laws are a start. I would like to see them passed on the local level to show our state leaders the local communities support them so they can gain steam to pass on the state level. PA has no job protection and can fire anyone at will.
I would like to acknowledge Rep Boyle who is the author of the Hate Crimes Bill in PA. He did stand up for us here in Johnstown earlier this year against the city’s discrimination of us and advocating his Hate Crimes Bill. He lives across the state but was a strong voice for equality and we thank him. Our local leaders would not stand up. It took someone of his caliber and standing to represent us.
In the last few years the Newsletter has gotten more vocal and been involved in more protests to bring awareness and fight for our equal rights on all sorts of topics. That’s where it starts. It starts with average, common citizens standing up and saying they will not tolerate being seen as less then equal to other people. I would like to see more politicians speak out for our community and not just allow us to exist as Senator Eichelberger has stated.
Please share a lived experience, anecdote or fact about life as an LGBTQ person in your community. I laugh at so much but more so about my political enemies calling me “Queen John”. They use my picture, place horns on it, downright slander me and call me names and slurs and try to belittle me as often as they can. I share as many images on facebook as I can for I find it very humbling and quite flattering they take the time and really care to trash me. It’s great to have such loyal fans.
Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? Well, we need to be seen as more then just gay. The gay community is just as affected by all the other issues out there as the straight community. We must realize that the issues facing the gay community are some of the same issues facing the rest of the community like social justice, hate, civil rights, equal pay of work performed, and environmental justice for our planet. It is time for the gay community to show it cares about the larger issues at hand facing the community. Together, we can make a difference in creating change to make the world a better place for all of us to live and work.
What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? Very few in my area. The Newsletter is the only GLBT resource in my regional area. We tried to create a GLBT Youth Center in 2010 but were not able to secure the funding from the Cambria County Commissioners after 6 months of talks.
What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? Apathy. We have worked so hard to get where we are and that we can lose those rights with the flick of a pen.
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? To wake up and be proud about who they are, standing firmly in the power of who they are, with conviction, and standing up for all of our rights.
What can allies do to support your LGBTQ community? Be vocal.
How can gay men and lesbians support the bisexual, transgender and queer members of our community? Be visible. Stop hiding.
What motivated you to take part in this project? Sue Kerr is a friend of mine and writes for my publication. She has been a guest on my TV show and is an amazing person who reaches out to stand up for all of us. I admire her work and admire her energy to bring this project to people to show there are gay people from all walks of life willing to stand up and be counted. It takes all of us being vocal, being visible, stopping to hide to bring awareness and change to our community.
Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. The question we need to ask is how are we going to embrace the changes that we have created, fought for, and still remain a gay community unified toward the common goal of acceptance and awareness?
Our community is going through a lot of changes. I remember when the bars were packed and we gathered together all the time. It seems that life is coming to an end and the way of life many of us have embraced is changing as social media and other forms of communication change the conversation.
We also need to create a safe space for our youth. The Trevor Project is an amazing resource for them. The creation of more GSA’s for students, anti-bullying and anti-suicide programs and education to promote tolerance is needed. They have no where to go and need to be able to express who they want to be, whether it is gay or straight.
Thank you, John.
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. We are using a Q&A format and will minimize editing their responses.
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. 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 or visit the online Q&A.
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