Content Note: transphobia, sandwich, Braddock, complicity, homicide
Until this afternoon, I had never heard of Robert Portogallo. He’s a Swissvale High School graduate, alumni of Point Park, and owner of Portogallo’s Peppers N’at, a sandwich shop in Braddock.
He’s also a transphobic jagoff who decided to target Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health who is an openly transgender woman. Dr. Levine is absolutely amazing and an excellent leader for all of us during this pandemic. It hurts me on many levels that trans (and queer) folks who tune in to her daily press briefings have to deal with or disregard that stream of nasty hate comments in the Facebook live feed. She’s a public figure so Facebook won’t moderate the comments. It is unfortunate that we have to endure them as well, especially our trans neighbors.
Robert Portogallo thinks he’s just jaggin’ around. But his ignorance unleashes a tirade of vitriol among his Facebook friends. It doesn’t shock me, but it still has the power to horrify me. It is horrifying how many people walked through that door he opened and just dump some terrible, vicious transphobic content of their own. We’re supposed to count on these neighbors to protect our public health? What is wrong with us?
Here’s a sample of Robert’s community values.
228 people liked, loved, or laughed at his video mockumentary of Dr. Rachel Levine dancing to Madonna’s vogue.
137 people liked, loved or laughed at his second video mockumentary of Dr. Rachel Levine.
(I’m not giving them clicks so you’ll need to visit his page to watch for yourself?)
268 people liked, loved or laughed at this image, including several local journalists who probably scribble “I <3 Wendy Bell” in the margins of their notebooks.
387 people liked, loved or laughed at this image.
Here’s the thing. Robert Portogallo is a grumpy, nasty old cisgender white dude who doesn’t care a bit that his images offend and hurt completely innocent, vulnerable people in his community and beyond. He’s the absolute epitome of Mon Valley Trumpers. No regard for anything but his own feelings. He’s a selfish lout who knows full well that hundreds of people will laugh at his cruelty and thousands will continue to buy his food support his music events, and more – the same people who continue to patronize Chick-fil-A and Peace, Love, and Little Donuts. The same people who hold leadership roles in the local Democratic Party and support Trump (see the Washington Post article.)
Dr. Levine doesn’t deserve this, but she’s an educated woman with a lifetime of experience and a mission to save the entire Commonwealth from a novel virus and ourselves. She is a symbol here and it is the many other trans folks whom she represents in this abusive content that we must protect. She’s saving our lives and our communities. We should do our part to return the favor.
I asked a friend of mine, local trans business owner Allison Butka, what exactly a blog post like this could accomplish . They shared this:
Trans people won’t have enough spending power in my lifetime to be considered a worthy demographic by most capitalist enterprises, so it’s up to allies to speak with their dollars. It’s the only way we’ll reach critical mass and be able to hit businesses where it hurts most—the bottom line.
It’s up to allies to speak with their dollars. It is up to you to speak with your dollars.
So what are you going to do?
Send him an email? (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Call his business? (412) 660-0600
Are you going to visit his Facebook profile and punch up in the comments? Or report each comment that violates Facebook TOS – quantity of reports really do have an impact so can you make that time so your trans friends don’t have to?
Are you going to visit his Facebook page and leave feedback or a review?
Are you going to visit his Facebook fundraiser for local musicians and suggest people who donated request a refund? (and donate through another avenue) Is he the guy who we should trust with monies?
Leave a Yelp review?
Leave a review on their Amazon sales page?
Contact artists and bands who perform at his venue and ask them to book elsewhere moving forward?
See who you have as friends in common and reach out to ask them how they are using that access to resist his bigotry?
Creative ways to protest without physically protesting?
Damn, this is Braddock. I grew up across the river, so I can’t say I’m actually surprised – but our Lieutenant Governor lives in Braddock and he is a big, big champion of Dr. Levine. PA State Representative Summer Lee’s district includes Braddock and she is a huge, well-informed ally.
So Robert Portogallo is probably savvy enough to realize that Dr. Rachel Levine is easy to scapegoat because she’s vocal about public health policies and she’s trans. He also probably knows that a lot of people agree with him and most of those who don’t agree won’t really interfere with his business. Or remain silent.
It would take immense public pressure to convince him to change his mind, retract his comments, and make amends. I’m not sure we can count on that happening. And that means that once again trans people will bear the worst of the brunt among all of us.
Just a week ago, a 25-year-old Pennsylvania trans woman was murdered in Baltimore where she was seeking help from a rehab facility. Her name was Johanna Metzger. The media and Johanna’s family deadnamed and misgendered her. She was buried under the wrong identity, as if Johanna never existed. Her family even suggested memorial contributions be made to an anti-trans ministry. They used the erasure of her life and death to feed the same outcomes for other trans folks.
Robert Portogallo and Johanna’s family and all the commenters are contributing to a unique form of transgender genocide that is now unabashedly accepted as an outlet for our fears, anxieties, and ignorance. Accusing them of genocide should shake them enough to reexamine their actions, but it won’t. I have no hope they will change at all.
What I wonder, dear reader, is how you and I will change both in our understanding of the gravity of this situation and our actual actions? The moment to do something is right here in front of you (and me.)
Are we willing to seize the moment?
If you are outraged, please consider supporting the transgender community right now via projects centering trans neighbors.
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