This is part of a new occasional series exploring LGBTQ organizing in rural Pennsylvania communities.
After our recent driving trip through the PA Wilds communities, I was impressed that after an almost complete lack of queer visibility, a slew of new LGBTQ projects unfolded in my feed – a Pride event in Elk County, a Pride parade in Altoona, the election of an openly gay borough council member in Indiana borough, and the emergence of an organized LGBTQ community group near Williamsport, serving many of the communities we had just visited. One revelation just let to another. Hence, a new Q&A series.
This Q&A series is designed to keep that momentum going in terms of all of us learning about the significant work our neighbors are doing on the ground in our rural communities across the Commonwealth. We’ve reached out to folks in Erie, Elk, Altoona/Johnstown, Washington, Westmoreland, Beaver, and beyond to talk directly with community organizers. If you know of someone whose voice should be part of this project, please email pghlesbian at gmail dot com.
Next up we have two voices from Erie County – Caitlyn and Michael. Erie County has been home to multiple organizations, including a film festival, Pride events, and more. Scroll to the end for links to all posts in this series.
Your Name: Caitlyn Strohmeyer
Your Pronouns: She/Her
Your Age: gulp…54
How do you describe your identity? Trans woman
Your Name: Michael Mahler
Your Pronouns: He/Him/His
Your Age: 56
How do you describe your identity? Gay male. Cisgender. Pagan. Democrat.
Please describe the geographic area you focus on in your online organizing. Please include the counties and regional names for context by those who read this and live outside of your region.
Caitlyn: My main focus is on Erie, Crawford counties, but as former President of TransFamily of NWPA, we tried to focus on all counties of NWPA: Clarion, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, McKean, Mercer, Venango, and Warren counties.
Michael: Erie County/NW PA. Mostly Erie County, but interact some with Meadville/Crawford County, Jamestown NY/Chautauqua County, and Ashtabula County, OH
Erie area is rather unique in that we are geographically separated from much of the state and therefore tend to not be included in conversations around advocacy and organization.
What types of LGBTQ supports and services are available within your region?
- TransFamily has had a support group in Warren for the last few years, but the leader of that group recently stepped down and so its future is unknown.
- Alternatively, there is also a trans support group in Jamestown called Transgender Support of Jamestown NY, as well as a great therapist (Bethany Robson) and at least one doctor prescribing HRT, though I do not have that name.
- I’m working with the Erie County Department of Health, UPMC, AHN, and LECOM to expand culturally competent healthcare on the region, including planning/hosting an annual LGBTQ Health Conference in Erie.
- This conference won’t happen next year due to the PA LGBTQ Health Conference being held in Erie for the first time, but it will resume in 2021
- I’m working with Lori Palisin of Safe Journey Domestic Violence shelter in Union City to put together an LGBTQ Domestic Violence Coordinated Response Committee to tackle DV in the community.
Michael: Over 40 – So What/Aging with Pride, TransFamily support group, Erie Regional GSA for youth, student groups also at Mercyhurst University, Edinboro University, Penn State Behrend. Possibly also at Gannon University and Collegiate Academy high school. There may be other youth support groups.
List of resources at https://www.eriegaynews.com/news/resourceall.php
Please list some of the most urgent unaddressed LGBTQ needs in your region.
- Affirming Healthcare
- Affirming Homeless services
- Affirming Aging services
- Lack of County-wide ban on conversion therapy
- Lack of LGBTQ people in public office
- The need for greater Ally engagement
Michael: Some populations don’t have specific support groups. (POC, disability, etc.)
Describe how you use Facebook to organize and engage LGBTQ folx in your region?
Caitlyn: I just share as much knowledge as I can. I have a number of alerts that update me on articles and research regarding the transgender community and i do my best to share them in order to educate the masses. Facebook is also used for promoting LGBTQ-themed events in the area.
Michael: Post events and news to Facebook page.
Did you create the Facebook tools? If not, please summarize the history of the tools before your time.
Caitlyn: Facebook tools?? Please explain
Michael: Not sure what is meant by “creating” Facebook tools. Have had a Facebook presence for many years. Erie Gay News had had a web site since at least the late 90’s. There were a few sporadic print publications before we began in December of 92.
How do you describe the success of Facebook in building community for LGBTQ folks in your region?
Caitlyn: Its been largely successful for me, but can be problematic. The big success for me has been the ability to connect with cis hetero people and educate them on the struggles of the community. These people might still be in the dark if not for that. I receive thanks fairly regularly from people for having helped them understand the trans community and it has helped them become true allies.
Michael: It is okay, but I believe that organizations tend to rely on Facebook and social media/email more than they should and don’t give direct personal contact the attention that would probably be more effective in reaching folx. I tend to see pretty much the same people for a particular group when I go to that group’s events, which indicates to me that social media alone does not bring in new people. (Or, as I have been heard to exclaim on more than one occasion “For the luvvagawd, put down the damn Facebook crackpipe already! If you aren’t going to new events/group because of what you see, why are you relying on this so heavily as pretty much your major/sole outreach tool!”)
What are some challenges you face using Facebook or other social media tools to organize?
Caitlyn: Getting the message out through all the other noise.
Michael: Not everyone has easy access to social media. Also, if new folx show up to a new space and can’t easily connect, that can be a problem. I.e. a group holds an event that is supposed to be social, but when someone new shows up in a space that may have a general audience as well, they may not know whom to approach. If the new person is not particularly outgoing, they may not easily make contact and thus the event is not “social” for them.
Do you network or engage others from rural Pennsylvania doing similar LGBTQ organizing? If so, what regions?
Caitlyn: I try to, but its been difficult with no reliable transportation. My goal for the last few years has been to get into the rural areas of the region to talk to people and learn about what they are going through, but I’ve so far been unable to do so.
Michael: Mostly Meadville. I get some updates from Butler. I don’t hear from too many other regions in PA, but I do hear from Ashtabula OH and Chautauqua and sometimes also Cattaraugus County NY.
What sorts of real-time LGBTQ events take place in your region (film festivals, informal meetings, GSA, etc.)
Caitlyn: It’s best to defer this to Mike. He is the Calendar Master lol
Michael: Meetings including support groups, social groups, etc are all listed in https://www.eriegaynews.com/news/calendar.php.
Has there ever been a LGBTQ Pride event or gathering in your region? Why or why not?
Caitlyn: Erie Pride gets bigger and better every year!!
Michael: We had our first Pride picnic in June of 1992. I have been at every major Pride event locally since then and have been an organizer for most. I was one of the founding members of NW PA Pride Alliance and currently serve as treasurer for that organization. We currently have a Pride Fest the last Saturday in June and also a Pride Picnic the second Saturday in August, as well as some additional events.
Do any of your local school districts have a GSA or similar organization?
Caitlyn: Some schools have groups, others do not. The Greater Erie Alliance for Equality has created a Regional GSA that meets at our main library branch, monthly I believe??
Michael: Mercyhurst University, Edinboro University and Penn State Behrend all have GSAs. (Edinboro has been around since the early/mid 1970’s) I think that Gannon University has one – not sure if it is active. I believe that Collegiate Academy (High School) may have a GSA. There is also Erie Regional GSA for youth that meets first Thursday of the month at Blasco Public Library. I was talking with someone at the TransFamily picnic this past July, and I believe that there may be a GSA at Fort LeBoeuf High School.
Do you have any colleges or universities in your region?
- Penn State Erie, The Behrend College
- Mercyhurst University
- Gannon University
- LECOM Medical School
- Edinboro University
- Clarion University
- Allegheny College
- Thiel College
- Slippery Rock College
- Grove City College
- Others, I’m sure
Michael: See above.
Who represents your region in US Congress, PA State Senate, and PA State House?
Caitlyn: I’m sure Mike has a handy list
Michael: US Congress is Mike Kelly (R) – he is lousy on LGBTQIA+ issues. PA State Senate is Dan Laughlin (R) – who is relatively good. His local office carries copies of Erie Gay News. PA State House members include Pat Harkins, Bob Merski, Ryan Bizzarro, and Curt Sonney. All but Sonney are D and fairly good. Curt Sonney hasn’t been helpful on LGBT issues. Erie Gay News has been publishing a voters guide/candidate questionnaire for many years now.
Do you see an opportunity for national organizations like PFLAG, GLSEN, SAGE, or others to organize in your region? Why or why not?
Caitlyn: I think there are opportunities for all of these to organize in Erie. ACLU and HRC as well. Maybe not so much PFLAG, as we’ve already been there and the group was dissolved, which I believe was the result of the other amazing support and advocacy orgs we have. Erie area is rather unique in that we are geographically separated from much of the state and therefore tend to not be included in conversations around advocacy and organization.
Michael: There was a PFLAG chapter here. It folded due to a lack of participation a few years ago. I have been in contact with the Pittsburgh regional organizer for the Human Rights Campaign, who has been good to work with. I think that anyone looking to start either a local chapter or a national group or just a new organization would do best if they started off making connections with existing resources. What seems to be a pattern over the past few decades is that someone or a group perceives that there is a problem or opportunity for some sort of collaborative action, and then they either call a meeting or try to start a group, but it seems like they frequently haven’t done the background work of starting to build relationships/making direct contact. I am happy to give out email and other contact info for resources, but it seems like when someone calls for a meeting and emails folks a mass/blanket email or posts something to Facebook, it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. If folx spent more time making connections before starting a project, I believe that would go a lot better.
Can you identify any local municipality in your region that might successfully consider a local non-discrimination ordinance? What would it take to make that happen from your point of view?
Caitlyn: As Mike stated, I am working on expanding Conversion Therapy ban to the whole county. It was banned this past summer in Erie City, but not the County. If I can get over the transportation thing, as I said, I’d like to expand my efforts to rural counties. Other counties will be tough nuts to crack due to being so rural, white, and Christian.
Michael: Probably the City of Meadville in Crawford County. They currently have an openly gay mayor. There have been attempts before, but it didn’t seem to go through. There had been a group down there, Crawford Area LGBT+, but that group is not currently active. There is also a Meadville chapter of TransFamily, but that organization does more with support than activism/lobbying.
What seems to be a pattern over the past few decades is that someone or a group perceives that there is a problem or opportunity for some sort of collaborative action, and then they either call a meeting or try to start a group, but it seems like they frequently haven’t done the background work of starting to build relationships/making direct contact.
What are some misperceptions people have about LGBTQ life in rural Western Pennsylvania?
Caitlyn: That it doesn’t exist
Michael: People tend to assume that either there will be greater resistance, or that there is nothing there. (FYI: I really don’t consider Erie County to be rural, strictly speaking.)
How can folks living in Pittsburgh, Erie and other regions with resources support folks living in your region?
Caitlyn: By sharing information about programs and services that have been successfully implemented and helping to develop similar programs/services in this region
Michael: Show up. Advertising in Erie Gay News would be a great start.
Please identify any openly LGBTQ owned businesses in your region. We realize that some owners prefer to remain discreet, but we’d like to acknowledge those who are able to step forward. Please do not list chains or other national type businesses.
Caitlyn: I would not even know where to begin. Lots!!
Michael: https://www.eriegaynews.com/news/resourceall.php is the list.
What can we expect next from your group?
Caitlyn: Well, since I’m not technically part of a “group” any longer, I just plan to personally continue doing what I’ve always done…advocating for the rights of LGBTQ people in ALL public and private spaces, healthcare/mental healthcare services, etc.
Michael: We will continue publishing monthly. We started in December 1992.
Where can our readers find your group on social media? Please include full links.
Caitlyn: Link to TransFamily is https://www.facebook.com/
Michael: Check us out online at https://www.eriegaynews.com
Like our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ErieGayNews/
Follow us on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ErieGayNews
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Caitlyn: Not at this time
Thank you, Caitlyn and Michael.
Previous posts in this series: