County of Residence: Allegheny, formerly Butler County
Preferred Pronouns: He/Him/His
How do you describe your identity? Being gay is not the first thing that I tell people when they meet me and it is only one ingredient that makes up me. Certainly it is a huge part of my life. However, I am also a child, spouse, friend, colleague, and many other roles. When I tell people my last name, I often say “It is difficult to pronounce. It’s Belgian.”
Please describe your coming out experience. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face? I came out in stages over a period of five years. I first told two co-workers when I was 17 years old and slowly told close friends. The official moment where I decided to come out to my father happened during one of my classes at Butler County Community College titled ‘Contemporary Social Problems.’ During that class, we were watching the documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story at which time I decided that it was time to tell him. I went to my car and called him. The phone rang and went to his voicemail and in my fear, I told him I was gay through a voicemail. Several minutes later, he called and left a voicemail. I did not speak to my father for several days and decided to talk to him on the following Saturday. At which time, my greatest fears were realized and my father was very homophobic and rejecting. I often say that he said things to me that most parents would not and should not tell their children. Fast-forward to the present, my father and I continue to not speak due to his homophobia. My mother on the other hand was extremely accepting and said that she knew for a long time.
I found support in places I never imagined. A small group of friends were my foundation during that time when I was in community college. I tell them often that I wouldn’t have made it through that period with my father if it hadn’t been for them. Another place were I found support was through the local chapter of PFLAG. Butler county does not have a wide variety of LGBTQ+ resources. When I found PFLAG, I felt that I had found a paradise! I know have the great privilege of serving as the President for PFLAG Pittsburgh.
How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”? Presently, I am a very “out” gay man. I often jokingly tell people that I don’t need to come out because rainbows are often around me and people “just know.” I certainly do not hide my sexual orientation and make it known when I feel it is appropriate. Now that I am in a more public role, I feel that being a positive gay role model is very important and I try to be that for anyone who is watching.
Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? The first LGBTQ+ person that I met was a hair stylist at a local salon in Butler, PA. I remember family members telling me that he was gay like it was a disease or that he was deemed inferior to them. I remember his home was always intricately designed for Halloween. As a child, I thought was “cool” and would like going to see his house when I would walk through the neighborhood. Many years later, I had the opportunity to meet him. I still think about the treatment he received from the small town I was raised in. What impacts the most is that the treatment he received over 20 years ago is still occurring in that town and is one of the reasons I left several years ago.
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character or creator in television, film or literature? Please tell us why. Clayton Hollingsworth from The Golden Girls is my favorite character that was on television. He appeared in two episodes on the sitcom before its end in the early 1990s. I admired his ability to be honest with himself even when it was difficult and could cost him his family. He wouldn’t compromise and was willing to give it all up in order to stay true to himself. I think that is admirable and brave.
How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? I am the President and former editor for PFLAG Pittsburgh’s newsletter as well as a board member for Proud Haven so I am researching, reading, and discussing LGBTQ+ issues a lot of the time. I have the privilege of providing trainings and working with various organizations in the community so I try to stay current on issues by talking with my colleagues, reading online articles, and listening to stories of the various people who come into and out of my life.
Describe your geographical community. I reside in a small community within Allegheny county which I would classify as suburban in nature. I think that the community for the most part keeps to itself and does not really care who is doing what. There are many LGBTQ+ friendly restaurants and businesses in the area, but not far from me are areas that I would say are not LGBTQ+ friendly and are not safe. Growing up and I personally believe presently, Butler was not a friendly place and continues to not be inclusive. I think that fear and a lack of education is what is causing this to happen. People are afraid of the unknown. Life is full of unknowns – why not take a chance?
Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community. When I think of the local/regional LGBTQ community I think of the greater Pittsburgh metropolitan area. I feel that we as a community are experiencing growing pains and we are having some challenges with finding our voice and working together. Over the years as technology advances, we see different gadgets such as phones, computers, laptops, cell phones are being created to improve “communication,” but we as a community are not communicating more effectively. If nothing else, we are communicating less. As a result, we have become fractured and splintered. I believe that we need to find common ground and celebrate our differences and unique identities. We try to put people into our own little boxes of what we think they should be rather than letting them be themselves. As a result, we get angry, don’t listen, and cut people out of our lives. As an individual, I personally do not like being put into someone else’s box, so why should I do it to them? Society is trying to box us in, why aren’t we working together to make effective, long-lasting changes that will result in growth, peace, and good will?
Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity? Specifically, in a job setting, when applying for housing or while in public. While living in Butler, whether past or present, it is not safe to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community or perceived to be a member. When living in Butler, I received threats, was harassed, had my car vandalized and have been physically harmed as a result of being gay and prior to coming out, for being perceived as a gay person. I think a mistake is being made if people deny a problem exists. Just because someone says something does not exists, doesn’t mean it doesn’t.
Tell us about your access to health care in Western PA. Has it been LGBTQ competent (or not?) Over the years, I have had various doctors- some LGBTQ+ competent while others were not. I believe that my current PCP is very competent and is someone who I am comfortable discussing any issues- regardless of the topic. As a side note, PFLAG Pittsburgh has a directory for LGBTQ+ competent medical providers if anyone is looking!
Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? I think that one of the biggest issues that often goes unaddressed is the violence that is being projected on to African American and black trans woman and men in our communities. I have heard numerous stories from friends about their experiences and am horrified that the hometown of Fred Rogers can harm someone based upon something that really is none of their business. Greater awareness needs to be brought to this situation and effective policing, policies, and action needs to be taken. We cannot continue to allow these issues to happen.
What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? Pass comprehensive LGBTQ+ non-discrimination laws on the federal and state levels. Leaving these policies up to local communities who have elected officials that won’t learn about an opposing perspective is scary and dangerous.
Please share a lived experience, anecdote or fact about life as an LGBTQ person in your community. One lived experience that I can think of off the top of my head is that people can and will surprise you – both positively and negatively. When I became publicly out to the world, I was an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). It was during that time that the pastor of that church asked me to resign due to my “choice” of being gay. I recall that after consulting with Covenant Network of Presbyterians, organization that works to further the inclusion of LGBTQ persons within the PCUSA, I did have options and could have remained in my position; however, the pain was too much. I later learned that many of the church members were not against me and were rather upset about the decision to ask me to resign. I was surprised because even in rural western Pennsylvania, people can and will support you – no matter what.
Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? Access to competent healthcare, bullying within our school systems. Many LGBTQ+ youth have difficulty navigating the educational system and do not know how to advocate for themselves because it is so overwhelming. I applaud the youth in Pine Richland who are not going to back down and are making a stand!
What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Pittsburgh
American Civil Liberties Union of PA
THRIVE of Southwestern Pennsylvania
Dreams of Hope
Erie Gay News
Pittsburgh Lesbian and Gay Film Society
Three Rivers Community Foundation
What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? I have two fears – that my black trans friends will continue to be attacked, assaulted, and murdered without justice and that our state will continue to not act on LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination legislation.
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? My greatest hope is that we would begin to work in a more unified manner rather than ignoring, fighting, and arguing. We recognize the need, but now it is time to act.
What can allies do to support your LGBTQ community? Be vocal. Stand with us. Attend rallies. VOTE
How can gay men and lesbians support the bisexual, transgender and queer members of our community? Be vocal. Stand with us. Attend rallies. Get involved. VOTE
What motivated you to take part in this project? It was suggested by several friends to participate in this project- I finally made the time to have my voice heard.
Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. Great questions- I enjoyed thinking and struggling through with some of the answers. I hope I give voice to a perspective that hasn’t been considered.
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.