A Year in the Life of a City of Pittsburgh Commissioner on the LGBTQIA+ Commission

One year ago, I was among a group of 17 individuals nominated and approved to serve as Pittsburgh’s first LGBTQIA+ Commission. That was February 9, 2021 so a little more than a year.

Sue Kerr, Kathi Boyle, Richard Parsakian, Leonard Orbovich, Sarah Rosso, Jam Hammond, Guillermo Velazquez, Denise DeSimone, Luca Salerno, Tiffini Simoneaux, Nekia Burton Tucker, Rev. Deryck Tines, Marcus Robinson, Britton Maulk, Billy Hileman, Bruce A. Kraus, Christopher Robinson, Chauntey Porter

It was a grand experiment both in its sheer size (17 Commissioners!) and its mission to bring LGBTQIA+ issues and the voices of our community to the Commission level. While the City itself has been assertive in support of LGBTQIA+ needs, there was a long way to go.

I would be remiss not to mention that Mayor Bill Peduto formed this Commission. He had been intimately involved in LGBTQ politics for decades and was the right person to bridge the transition from Advisory Group to Commission. While future Mayors will make their mark, the foundational credit goes to him. He showed up.

I was nervous about what to expect – I had no Commission experience and barely any board experience. It was unusual for a blogger to take on a role like this, but I felt that my close attention to the Advisory Group since its inception in 2006 gave me a unique perspective and institutional history that could prove valuable. I’m also pretty well versed in municipal politics and paid close attention to the newsmakers (usually bad) in the LGBTQIA+ community.

And in the early months, I learned quite a bit particularly about creating by-laws. Quickly, I realized how significant this step would be for future incarnations of the Commission. I call it the “foundational document” period and it was essential and informative. I’m not sure if the by-laws are public yet so I’ll hold off linking to them.

The most unique achievement was establishing three co-chairs to address the needs of representation. This has been an error on the part of the Peduto Administration – not appointing a Black trans woman. To right this wrong, we had to expand the Commission by 1 and be even larger. But it needed to be done so we pushed hard.

We were quite busy, simultaneously getting established and responding to immediate needs. We were drafting letters of support around community issues and continuing to draft our own documents. We held elections and I spontaneously threw my hat in the rignt. Soon enough I was a co-chair alongside an Executive Committee I did not know very well.

I was a co-chair of a Commission. I had been the first person approved by City Council. I was in for a dime, in for a dollar.

I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t feel qualms about any new endeavor. Six out of 18 Commissioners are women, including me. We’ve never really had a reckoning around identity, a source of ongoing concern but three members have publicly identified as nonbinary. That leaves 9 seats occupied by men. One seat (occupied by a woman) is now open because of the Mayoral transition (the Mayor gets one appointment) so I hope Mayor Gainey will appoint a woman to at least get us back to where we were.

I realize not much can be done about this imbalance and disparity – we cannot ask people to resign. But it is telling that one of the most representative bodies in the city still struggles with gender balance.

Still, we persevered. Like many Commissions, participation varied with mileage. The Executive Committee began meeting monthly to craft the agenda and discuss leadership business. Committees were established. Inevitably issues around meeting times arose. I was unavailable during “rush hour” as I called it because of helping my wife commute to and from work safely. Neither of us feels great about her being on the T too often and the lack of compliance with mask requirements by her coworker compels us to take extra steps for her health and safety. I suspect others have equally important reasons to limit their availability – this is just how a large group works.

The co-chairs tried to meet as well, but often relied on email. That worked pretty well. We could read over the feedback at our convenience and construct solutions. As the sixth month mark passed, we began working on goal planning ans well as preparing for the transition to a new Administration. One thing I tried to do was collect relics from previous Advisory Groups and the founding of this body, but that provide unsuccessful. i was able to connect with the City Archivist to address that moving forward. Hey, that’s another thing I thought of because of blogging.

The Commissioners are eager for face-to-face contact, to engage socially. That is a concern I do not share, although I recognize their desire. I find that people’s interpretation of what is best practice versus what is recommended vary widely. It is significant weakness of the City and reflects structural weaknesses going back eons. So I’m fine with online meetings.

Of course, I have my own agenda, issues I’d like to see addressed. But I’ve also come to respect how the process is important. I’ll have a chance to bring first my issues when the time is right. It is important – nay, critical – to spend the correct amount of time focused on that process and work out the kinks and snafus.

I’ve almost given up. It is a lot of work, a lot of time each month. I’ve had my own issues to juggle, especially health issues. I don’t feel like the Commissioners really engage and know one another, a netherland between being professional colleagues and having those social bonds. I probably expect things based on my time in the paid workforce that are not realistic (and it has been 12 years.) So I continue to have to learn how to navigate this new world.

I also bring with me a lot of baggage from the blog. I’ve written in the past about people on the Commision or their employers. That creates a wall. I  won’t presume that the other Commissioners read my blog – this could all be in my head. It does give me some insight into the less than stellar aspects of our community, particularly the criminal and alleged criminal conduct. I do feel like I’m constantly pointing out why people are problematic. It seems my lot to remind folx that the emperor has no clothes.

I’m concerned now that the pandemic fatigue is oozing around the entire Commission. This is where the City could provide leadership and support.

Over the year, we’ve made a lot of progress – regularly monthly meetings, leadership meetings, committee meetings – and productive responses to serious issues. Considering our newness and the Mayoral transition, it is impressive really that we’ve achieved so much. The Commission is well positioned to move forward.

Being a co-chair with chronic illness has been tough. I struggle sometimes to attend meetings or give it my full attention. I’ve requested a few accommodations. Would I do it again? I don’t know. I am not a thick-skinned person so sometimes this is really hard. The lack of gender diversity is a serious issue that’s hard to explain to folx who are not women. The people who keep defending it are not women and they cannot understand what it is like to be the only woman speaking out in a group of people who are not women. I suspect most women do know what that is like. A significant percentage of the community is under-represented, but I can’t seem to make that point resonate. My next hopes would be for any new appointments to be not men and for the commission to work with the gender equity commission on this particular issue. There are other areas of underrepresentation as well. I mean, there’s always room for improvement.

And that starts with me. I am so proud of what we have accomplished and the infrastructure we’ve built. Yes, I have my misgivings and wishes, but this year has been a success and I believe the next one will be an even greater success. If there is harmful fallout from the areas I’ve mentioned, we’ll deal with it. And if not, then I will continue to work to refine my Commission-ering skills.

So my personal efforts moving forward to strengthen my own skills are to:

  • watch the other commission meetings
  • find a sense of acceptance around issues that are uncomfortable and don’t have easy solutions like gender balance
  • get to know the Commissioners,both in terms of their identity and just like human beings interacting rather than just attending a monthly meeting. to me, we are colleagues.
  • keep in mind why i signed up for this, not for me. i signed up to channel my experiences and all the privileges that has afforded me to be of service.

I encourage you to follow the Commission on Facebook to stay abreast. And share your thoughts and ideas lgbtqiacommissionpgh@gmail.com

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