By telling our stories, we expose others to narratives they may not be familiar with. This includes reaching potential allies, and folks who are struggling with their sexual and gender identities, as well as those who feel isolated because of them.
Name: Eli Shumaker
County of Residence: Allegheny County, formerly Clinton, Centre counties
How do you describe your identity? Transgender Man, Bisexual, Queer, Massage Therapist, Small Business Owner, Boston Terrier Fanatic
Please describe your coming out experience. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face? Coming out is an ongoing process, especially since our sexual and gender identities can be fluid and change over time. When I first came out, I was about 24 or 25. I came out as a lesbian, as I didn’t understand my transgender identitiy at that point (that label never made me comfortable, but I didn’t have any awareness of what transgender meant, or that it was a thing that existed). It was a new realization for me, even though I had had a long-term stealth LGBT relationship with someone during college. When I came out, I told my aunts, two people I trusted. They didn’t take it well and ended up telling my parents. My mother called me at 2am and demanded that I drive home to upstate NY immediately. She tried to hurl the bible at me, but I deflected her attacks with specific scriptures (I had been forced into such full entrenchment of Christianity, that I knew the Bible far better than most folks). It didn’t matter. She still demanded that I come home the next day. I refused, as I had to work the next day and this didn’t seem a reasonable excuse to abandon my post. When I did go home, my parents took me out to lunch at a local pizza place to “have a talk”. I didn’t eat a single bite. My mother berated me extensively, and my father looked away, out the window the entire time without saying a word. My mother holds most of the power in our immediate and extended family. I was terrified that she would not allow my brother to let me see my nephew and niece again.
Things settled down. Like many things in our family, it was swept under the rug and pretended to not exist. This was more comfortable than outright rejection, so I lived with it and kept that part of my life quiet. When I was about 32, I met a transgender man in my Massage Therapy class. It was spending time with him that awakened me to this part of my identity. As I began to realize that this was what felt right to me, what actually fit, I began transitioning. I came out to friends, and they were supportive for the most part. Some never spoke to me again. I was hard set against even telling my parents, as I knew the response would be even worse than the previous time. A close friend suggested I at least give them the benefit of the doubt. On Christmas Day, I wrote my father a letter and delivered it to their mailbox. I heard nothing back. I had a few conversations with them following that, none with recognition of what I had written. They proceeded to consistently dead name and misgender me. When I started HRT a few months later, I simply stopped contact. They didn’t even notice for about two months….when I didn’t call home for Mother’s Day. That was pretty much the end of our relationship. I am so thankful to have chosen family who love, accept, and support me. I’m thankful for the LGBTQ community in Pittsburgh.
How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”? I am pretty much fully out, as I own and operate a local small business that primarily serves the LGBTQ+ community.
Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? The first LGBTQ person I knew was my 6th grade science teacher. I don’t think I had much knowledge at that point of the existence of LGBTQ people, as I grew up in a very small town with a very narrow minded religious family. I remember the first time understanding that he was gay when my grandmother made a wrist flip gesture in reference to him. I don’t know if I would have picked up on it otherwise. 6th Grade was my first year in public school. Christian school had been full of physical and emotional abuse. After having this amazing teacher, who taught me so many awesome things about science and encouraged me as a person, I found it so difficult to understand why my family cast such negativity on LGBT people. He showed me that gay people exist and have careers and fulfilling lives and there is nothing “wrong” with being LGBT.
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character or creator in television, film or literature? Please tell us why. Freddie Mercury. Because he was incredibly HUGE and flamboyant and could see no limits for what he could be, and his influence on the community was epic. He was bold and unapologetic about being who he was. The whole homophobic world had to set aside their hatred because of how incredible and outstanding of a performer he was. Growing up in a small town, Queen’s music was one of the only pieces of queer culture to ever be celebrated. One of the treatment rooms at Body Euphoria Inclusive Massage Therapy is named after him
How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? I have several terms on my Google Alerts, to provide relevant, fresh information. I also follow a number of Trans & LGBT accounts on FB and IG, and am connected with local LGBT organizations.
Describe your geographical community. I think Pittsburgh is somewhere on a spectrum of being LGBTQ friendly. It seems that some local politicians are not supportive are even oppressive. There is a lot of work to be done. I’m thankful for all the LGBT run organizations in Pittsburgh that are fighting these forces and forcing these issues to be addressed.
I grew up in a small SMALL city in upstate NY. It was definitely not LGBT friendly. At one point there were two gay bars in the city. They have both since closed and not been replaced. Currently, the only LGBT resource in that community is a LGBT centered independent church. There’s a lot of homophobia and transphobia. An example, the school district I graduated from and later taught in, when requested a name change on my high school transcripts told me flat out that they could not do that. I had to go as far as calling the NYS department of Education and having them intervene. Not everyone is homophobic. I was a firefighter in our local volunteer company for 2 years, and was completely accepted.
Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community. I live in Upper Lawrenceville and also operate my LGBTQ+ centered business here. I feel like this area is becoming more and more LGBTQ+ centered and friendly. There are many queer or ally owned businesses, and this is constantly increasing. We have the city’s “Best Gay bar” in our neighborhood, as well as the Persad Center.
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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 was fired from Walmart for being queer (this was in central PA). Of course it wasn’t stated outrightly as such. But you know when you know. I also was passed up for job opportunities in the education field, which I believe to be discriminatory.
Have you experienced microagressions based on your identity? Think everyday indignities & slights that you experience, but would not characterize as discrimination. Please describe in your own words. Yes. Not so much recently, but when I first started transitioning I got a lot of purposeful misgendering and dead-naming, as well as political arguing. Something I still get quite a bit of when people find out I’m trans is asking personal questions about transition and surgery and genitalia and sex that are honestly none of their business. It just boggles my mind that people think it’s okay to ask someone you just met these questions.
Tell us about your access to health care in Western PA. Has it been LGBTQ competent (or not?) For the most part, the Health Care I’ve received in Allegheny County has been LGBTQ competent. I think agencies like Central Outreach Wellness Center, Metro Community Health, and others have done a great job. I also see things changing within other medical systems in the area to ensure transgender competency among all their employees.
Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? Yes. For me, one obvious one is within my profession. There are Trans and LGB people who are hesitant to get massage, even though they may desperately need it, because of fear of so many aspects of the experience, including acceptance, understanding, disclosure, having their bodies questioned or judged, among others. These concerns are not unfounded. I have witnessed a number of massage therapists slamming trans and LGB people. That’s why I do what I do. I believe it is so important.
I’m sure there are many other issues that are invisible and not being addressed.
What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? My main concerns for LGBT people in PA include: Having statewide Non-Discrimination policies, an end to housing incarcerated transgender people in populations contrary to their gender identity, resources and community building for LGBTQ people in rural areas of PA, housing and other support for transgender and LGB individuals, better access to mental health services, full prosecution for hate crimes against LGBTQ people.
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Please share a lived experience, anecdote or fact about life as an LGBTQ person in your community. In 2016, I was homeless for 6 months in Pittsburgh. Persad helped out by letting me shower and do laundry at their facility from time to time. Other than that, being a 30-something, there weren’t many resources in place, and I felt really alone in the struggle to just stay alive and hold on to a shred of self worth. I’m thankful everyday that I made it out of that experience alive. We need resources for ALL homeless LGBTQ people.
Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? Constant assault from the current presidential administration.
What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? Persad Center, Body Euphoria Inclusive Massage Therapy, Central Outreach Wellness Center, Allies PGH, Metro Community Health, FB support groups, SisTersPGH, TransbuddyPGH, Proud Haven, TrueT PGH, TransPridePGH, bigburgh.com
What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? Divisiveness of resources and action leading to less efficacy of achieving our overall goals.
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? Equitable access to housing, jobs, healthcare. Healing and unifying of the LGBTQ community.
What pieces of local or regional LGBTQ history would you like to preserve and why? The history of Pride in Pittsburgh, the way the region was/is affected by the AIDS epidemic, the history of transgender people in Pittsburgh & surrounding areas.
What can allies do to support your LGBTQ community? Speak up against discrimination, homophobia and transphobia. VOTE for candidates who support our rights, not diminish them.
How can gay men and lesbians support the bisexual, transgender and queer members of our community? Be aware of your biases. Continue to educate yourself and others. Don’t exclude us from conversations that effect us. Support us when we are being assaulted by pet political policies. Stop erasing us. Acknowledge that the first Pride was a riot started by TWOC. Accept that TRANS WOMEN ARE WOMEN and TRANS MEN ARE MEN. Stop fetishizing us.
What motivated you to take part in this project? I think it’s important to tell our stories. A significant portion of the human experience is narratives. By telling our stories, we expose others to narratives they may not be familiar with. This includes reaching potential allies, and folks who are struggling with their sexual and gender identities, as well as those who feel isolated because of them.
Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. N/A
Thank you, Eli.
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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.