I think it’s hard to silence or dismiss a community whose members are bold enough to step forward, name themselves, and shed light on their genuine experiences.
Name: Dakota Garilli
County of Residence: Allegheny, formerly Butler County
How do you describe your identity? Queer
Please describe your coming out experience. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face? I came out at 14. At that point, I was living in northeastern New Jersey (where I was born and raised) and attending high school at a private Catholic boy’s school. I had known I was different from the time I was six years old, but didn’t meet another person who identified as part of the community until I was a freshman. This person, my best friend at the time, came out to me as bisexual over AOL instant messenger. I minimized our chat box during the conversation and went to the bathroom; when I came back, my mom was using the computer and had read our conversation. She made me tell my dad, but wouldn’t let me tell any other family members. She was worried about my safety and how I would be treated by other people (my family is conservative). I didn’t feel acceptance in my family for over a decade, and even now I don’t feel safe or comfortable every time I’m home with them. I found some acceptance in my friend group, but I generally withdrew from my church community, stayed to myself at school, and didn’t start to get to know who I was as a gay person until I got to college and met other gay people.
How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”? I’m on the cusp of a second coming out process. Since 2011, I’ve been thinking very deeply about gender identity, dysphoria, and my future. While I’m not sure if I will ever pursue transition, at this point I identify as nonbinary and am starting to use they/them pronouns. It’s been difficult deciding to and understanding what it means to come out again, especially given that people have known me as proudly identifying as a gay man. While I know that label doesn’t feel exactly right for me, I’m not sure what does yet, and that discomfort leads me to not be open all the time about my identity. I don’t always explain how I feel to other people and generally don’t correct folks who use he/him pronouns.
Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? The first person I met from the community was my best friend from high school. In the end, our relationship had a pretty negative impact on me. He couldn’t accept himself for his sexuality, said a lot of hurtful things to me because I was comfortable with myself and he was ashamed to be seen with me, and eventually suffered a lot of mental and emotional turmoil because of it. When I realized he wasn’t able to accept me for who I was, I cut the relationship off.
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character or creator in television, film or literature? Please tell us why. Currently, I’d say Steven Universe for the show’s depiction of how mutable gender can be and feel. But growing up my two favorite books were Boy Meets Boy and I Am Not Myself These Days, because they depicted innocence, young love, naïveté, adulthood, drag, and complicated relationships in ways that felt particularly queer.
How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? Mostly from other queer folks on social media. A lot of what I follow is writing and book publications, given my background in poetry.
Describe your geographical community. Pittsburgh is an urban community that is mostly LGBTQ-friendly, but I’ve found that’s often on a surface level… which I think is true for the way Pittsburgh appeals to lots of minoritized groups. There are community spaces for queer folks, medical providers who cater to our specific needs, nonprofits dedicated to our causes, and local businesses owned by members of the community. But it often feels like Pittsburgh’s blue-collar roots are at odds with contemporary queer community-building. Queer folks, to me, feel very disparate and broken up into cliques — sort of how the city is split up into so many tiny neighborhoods. As I write this answer, I’m realizing that I don’t think I’ve ever let my guard down to feel like my full self in any of the five years I’ve been living in Western PA.
Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community. Honestly, I don’t feel that I have a local or regional LGBTQ community. There are gay bars in Pittsburgh and community events, but I’ve never felt connected to the scene here. It’s very different than the community in the NYC metro area. Pittsburgh is a much smaller, much more conservative city, and masculine-identifying folks here seem very concerned with bravado and heteronormativity. I have a few close friends who are queer who are my safe space and family in Pittsburgh, but there’s not a place I feel I can go publicly and be my full self. I’ve often considered moving to a city like Chicago or San Fransisco to be around more people who could be empathetic to my experiences.
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Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity? Specifically, in a job setting, when applying for housing or while in public. I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced discrimination based on my identity, but I’ve also existed in workspaces and public spaces that make me feel like I can’t be my full self at all times. So, if anything, I’ve kept my sexuality and gender identity mostly to myself (other than sometimes saying that I identify as queer) to avoid potential problems or judgment.
Tell us about your access to health care in Western PA. Has it been LGBTQ competent (or not?) My healthcare hasn’t been queer-competent in Western PA, other than the times I’ve visited Allies for Health and Wellbeing (formerly PATF) or the Pittsburgh Equality Center (formerly GLCC). I also went to therapy at Persad for a period of time. I wish more medical providers understood the needs and experiences of queer folks and didn’t make me feel like a science experiment or like I’m being interrogated. That might be in the cards for a future Pittsburgh, but I think the city has a long way to go in terms of progress before we can realistically expect that type of competency to be common.
Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? I see a lot of Black trans* folks in the Pittsburgh area being left out of the LGBTQ rights conversation and the Black rights conversation. We know nationally that folks in this community are overlooked and at higher risk for so many troubling things, so it’s upsetting to see people ignore or diminish the issues they face. Activists like Ciora Thomas do so much for folks in our region, but it shouldn’t fall on them to stop others from marginalizing and mistreating them. We need to be talking about issues like mass incarceration, the opioid epidemic, failing public education, access to equitable healthcare, job insecurity, food insecurity, housing insecurity, and safety specifically as they affect Black trans* folks — in addition to all the other groups that face these barriers, of course, but Black trans* folks can’t be erased or melted into those groups given the fact that they deal with unique challenges in these areas.
What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? Put their money and their actions where their mouth is. I’m tired of “Love is Love” campaigns. I think the creation of a mayor’s advisory council is a great first step to have community voice and representation in City Hall, and I will never bad-mouth the folks on that council. But our elected officials are setting the council up for failure if they leave it to them to be the sole representatives of our diverse communities. I want to know what our elected officials plan to do to improve schools, doctors’ offices, apartment complexes, and public spaces for queer folks. I want to know what they plan to do to tackle drug use in our communities. I want to know what their plans are regarding employment and sustaining a career safely and openly. And I want them to be brave enough to stand up for us even if it isn’t popular, and until it becomes popular.
Please share a lived experience, anecdote or fact about life as an LGBTQ person in your community. Every day, I work in an educational space that doesn’t provide gender-neutral restrooms for staff or for youth, despite the fact that it’s required to by policy. Folks there don’t seem to see how starting important conversations about building inclusive communities creates benefits for all people in a space, not just LGBTQ folks.
Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? I think I’ve referred to a lot of what I see as our challenges in the answers above, so I’ll just say here that the separation I talked about earlier seems to impact our ability to build coalitions, create our own broader public spaces (like a neighborhood or queer business district), and feel connected personally and emotionally. There are queer folks I’ve come into contact with (generally white cis gay men) with a very “us vs. them” mentality; they seem to think that, as long as things are ok for people who look like them, we need to work to silence more radical members of the community before they make all of our allies turn on us. I’ve never understood this mentality and never felt quite so overwhelmed by it. If it weren’t for trans* women of color, gay rights (and LGBTQ rights in general) wouldn’t exist. We need to be more aware of our history, more grateful for the heroines and heroes who came before us, and more accepting of each other as teammates and partners in building a better Pittsburgh.
What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? Queer Pittsburgh, the online magazine. Persad Center for mental health and community events. Allies for Health and Wellbeing for medical and social services. 5801 (as much as I don’t like going to Shadyside) seems to have the most racially and gender-diverse crowd I’ve seen in all the bars I’ve visited in the area — I used to give Blue Moon that designation, but it seems their clientele has changed over the years. I can’t think of any physical businesses that feel like safe spaces to me, but Steer Queer for shopping online. Dreams of Hope and Garden of Peace for safe events and community programming. SisTers PGH and New Voices Pittsburgh provide important resources, and folks seem to feel safe at Judah Fellowship (if you’re looking for a faith community).
What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? That majority groups within our community, namely cis white gay men and women, will undermine real, needed progress for everyone else in our community.
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? Queer folks in our region seem deeply tapped into the arts and culture scene, and I see people creating amazing counter-narratives that affirm us and our lives every day.
What can allies do to support your LGBTQ community? Listen to us. Don’t assume you know what we’re going through. Create spaces in your movements for us to be heard. Support, physically and financially, the work of queer activists in our region. Pay for our art. Stand up for us even when we’re not in the room.
How can gay men and lesbians support the bisexual, transgender and queer members of our community? Recognize that, while we face unique challenges, we’re all members of the same community. We’re here to fight for your rights. Please don’t leave us behind.
What motivated you to take part in this project? I think it’s hard to silence or dismiss a community whose members are bold enough to step forward, name themselves, and shed light on their genuine experiences.
Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. How do you express your gender? For me, I know how I would like to — with less masculine clothing, less attention paid to making my voice and movements masculine, and constantly reminding folks of my pronouns. As it is now, though, I just dye my hair funky colors and am trying to build up the confidence to do all those other things.
Thank you, Dakota.
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AMPLIFY LGBTQ is a series of blog posts designed to give a “signal boost” to the voices of our LGBTQ neighbors throughout Western Pennsylvania. These are glimpses in to the lived experiences of LGBTQ people in Western Pennsylvania as told in their own voices.
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