Here’s the press release:
Pittsburgh – A face mask distribution project centering the trans and queer community in Western Pennsylvania marks a milestone with an online tribute, Saturday, April 3, at 8 PM via Zoom. Hosted by local artist, Alistair McQueen, the event will feature guest co-hosts Gisele Fetterman and Bruce Kraus.
On April 4, 2020, local organizers Lyndsey Sickler and Sue Kerr discussed potential barriers facing the trans and queer community as the pandemic worsened and the need for face masks took on a new urgency.
Sickler and Kerr decided to team up their organizations, TransPride Pgh and Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents to address these barriers. They created the Pittsburgh MasQue ProjecT with a specific focus on the trans and queer communities, defining queer as both a specific identity and an umbrella term.
The project recognizes that not everyone understands the disparities and barriers facing the trans and queer community or how they are likely to be excacerbated during a pandemic.
“We wanted to immediately create a ‘safe space’ approach to face masks,” says Lyndsey Sickler, co-chair of TransPride Pgh and youth programs coordinator at Proud Haven. “We didn’t want people to struggle to find credible sources that would not hassle them or make purchasing masks uncomfortable.”
The project created a list of trans and queer competent vendors, in this region and across the nation, long before businesses like Target had masks for sale in their stores. This list included Q&A’s with the vendors to educate the public about mask styles, effectiveness, and modification for the trans and queer community. They also began distributing face masks directly to the public via no-contact door drops by volunteers and through the USPS. Within a few weeks, they decided to commit to providing two masks per person in each household each month and continue through 2020. They also teamed up with the Pittsburgh Equality Center as their fiscal sponsor.
After realizing masks would be part of our lives through 2021 and beyond, they set out to crowdfund operational expenses, tapping into a 100% matching grant through the Elsie Hillman Foundation and raising more than $10,000 to cover postage, storage expenses, outreach and general supplies. Most direct donations were in the $10-20 range.
“It was clear very early on that the calvary wasn’t coming for our community,” says Sue Kerr. “It was up to us to conceive, create, and implement mask distribution centering the unique needs of trans queer households. No funder would consider us for grants, no corporate donations were open to us; we were completely on our own to do this work.”
Masks were handmade by volunteers for months until the project teamed up with Global Links to access bulk donations of simple cotton style masks. Providing options was well-received by households.
“We’ve found that people seem to like some variety not just for aesthetics but for comfort, fit, and durability,” says Sickler. “So we actively sought out multiple sources of masks to mix and match our distributions each month.”
By autumn of 2020, the CDC was suggesting minority community or vulnerable populations be targeted for public health resources. At that point, the MasQue ProjecT had distributed 8,000 masks.
Data from UCLA’s Williams Institutes shows that the Pittsburgh Metropolitan region population is about 3.3% LGBT. 10% are unemployed, 12% lack health insurance, and 22% are food insecure compared with the general population.
In late 2020, Harvard University and the Movement Advancement Project released national research showing 66% of LGBT household reporting financial disruption compared to 44% of non-LGBT households. The impact among BIPOC households in the LGBT community are even more stark. A whopping 95% of Black and 70% of Latinx LGBTQ households identify serious financial disruptions. LGBTQ households are also twice as likely to report access to healthcare during the pandemic.
“As we anticipated, the barriers are there,” says Sue Kerr. “Job and income loss, lack of transportation, child care, the hostile political climate, and the very targeted transphobic attacks on Dr. Rachel Levine are just the first things to come to mind.”
Kerr explains that when she approached potential partners or larger donors, one of their first questions was to identify a specific local incident where a trans or queer person had been denied a mask because of their identity. In spite of the deluge of media coverage of the transphobia targeting Dr. Levine, they were still in disbelief that gender identity or sexual orientation might impact the typical trans and queer person. She points out that in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, cisgender heterosexual students sued their school district to prevent trans students from using bathrooms and locker rooms, trying to get the case in front of the US Supreme Court.
“They didn’t believe us because we wouldn’t drag someone into the limelight to talk about a traumatic experience,” says Kerr. “We were trying to minimize traumatic experiences and lift up our resiliency after all. How much more evidence do foundations and the media need?”
Describing their project as a form of social justice and social change, they took things one step further to create a weekly video chat called “MasQueerade” to give people a place to interact and address social isolation.
MasQueerade has drawn hundreds of people these past months, logging onto Zoom on Saturday nights from all across Pennsylvania, chatting about topics ranging from mask care to popular movies. The leadership team decided with host Alistair McQueen to use this forum to acknowledge the one year mark of the project. They prefer to avoid terms like celebration and anniversary to avoid minimizing the deep pain and trauma the pandemic has wrought.
The project has distributed more than 30,000 masks and countless bottles of hand sanitizer, boxes of gloves, and cleansing wipes. Recently, they were offered a donation of 180,000 masks plus other items by a local source and have plans to team up partners as diverse as the veterinary Fix’n Wag’n that travels throughout rural Western Pennsylvania to gay bars and gay owned businesses.
“Planning a tribute event while looking for a storage facility for nearly 250,000 pieces of public health equipment and scrambling to find a new volunteer for a monthly route is just not what I saw myself doing in the year 2021, paid or unpaid (I’m unpaid like all of us), “says Kerr. “But I’m proud of what we’ve built together and proud of our collective resiliency, creativity and compassion. Those are necessary for social justice, no matter what the powerful institutions say.”
“Centering the trans and queer community has had a positive impact with this project,” say Sickler. “Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned by all of us.”
Trans and queer (LGBTQIA+) households with ties to Western Pennsylvania can register for monthly mask deliveries at bit.ly/FaceMaskRequest Donation and other distribution can be found at pghmasqueproject.com
Pittsburgh MasQue Project distributes face masks and related supplies to LGBTQIA+ households throughout the region. pghmasqueproject.com
TransPride Pittsburgh is an umbrella coalition supporting and affirming transgender community groups, nonprofits, and business in the Pittsburgh region. transpridepgh.org/
Pittsburgh Equality Center has been the region’s LGBTQ community center since 1978. pghequalitycenter.org
Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents is a local blog amplifying and documenting queer experiences. pghlesbian.com
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