I drafted this for another purpose. It wasn’t utilized, so I decided to publish myself just for the record. ~ Sue
Women have always walked these grounds we know as Pittsburgh, forging paths and paying the way for future generations. The documented history of Pittsburgh might have primarily been controlled by men, but the living, breathing experiences of women have always, often silently, been intertwined in that narrative.
So to has the narrative expanded our understanding of queer women’s identities as language more fluidly described our lived experiences, organizations understood the power of naming who they serve, and we realized to be queer and trans women intersects with our racial, ethnic, health, and other identities.
Trans women are women. Nonbinary, gender nonconforming, gender creative, gender defying individuals may or may not identify as women, but those who do not identify as men, especially cisgender straight men, have historically found refuge or allyship in the women’s community, united by that oppression in a patriarchal system and forging new bonds.
As we honor the legacies of Women’s History Month, we see the intersections and the overlaps, to honor the silent voices, to remind all of us that being a queer woman is a source of pride. That no one’s experience of being a woman takes away from another person’s different experiences.
The documentation of LGBTQIA+ women is challenging to find, but women who are queer and trans have also always been part of that narrative albeit in unconventional ways. This statement acknowledges and honors their contributions to the robust struggle for equity and equality, a foundation that serves LGBTQIA+ women well in an era of unprecedented challenges, an acknowledgement of our own lived experiences as women by the First Peoples of these lands recognized.
The native peoples of this region included women whom we now describe as LGBTQIA+ as valued and revered parts of their communities. Leaders and warriors, caretakers and community builders, we owe them a debt of gratitude for lifting us all up long before many other cultures and continuing to do so.
Other women have blazed trails, most however remain nameless. We say their names in our hearts and whispers.
A few notable women whose names we know
- Gertrude Stein’s earliest days in Allegheny City (now the Northside) left an indelible mark on the world The essay “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” published in 1923 contains the word “gay” over 100 times, perhaps the first published use of the word “gay” in reference to same-sex relationships and those who have them
- Dante “Tex” Gill defied gender expectations throughout the 20th century, even by reputation backing Hollywood down from casting a cisgender female actor to play them in a movie over a decade after their death. Tex is now commonly understood to be a trans man, but his achievements and reputation created a level of respect for those assigned female at birth (AFAB) whose contributions were instrumental in shaping our landscape.
- Organizing in the early 1970s including siblings Wendy S. Bell, Cathy M. Cook, Kathleen Lane, and others putting their names out publicly to support LGBTQIA+ issues in assorted newspaper articles and their public spokesperson roles. Identifying publicly as a woman who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community is still stigmatized, too many women silenced. Note: they published their names in print media as early as 1971. We are proud to say their names now.
- Donna Riley and other local Lesbian Avengers stood up and spoke out in the 1990s, showing strength and power.
- In the 1990s and 2000s, Gloria Bigelow defied expectations as a young Black lesbian comic from Pittsburgh to build a career in Hollywood, while Lauren Morelli helped create groundbreaking queer media like ‘Orange is the New Black’
- Donna Christopher saw a void of social and recreational opportunities for trans folx so she created Transgender Pittsburgh to attend existing events as a group,a simple community organizing tool that created safe spaces within larger LGBTQI+ events.
- Jessica Benham became the first out LGBTQIA+ woman serving in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Benham identifies as bisexual and helped to co-found the The Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy.
- Bisexual woman Jessica Semler became the first out woman elected to municipal office when she joined the Etna Borough Council in 2019.
- La’Tasha Mayes, an openly gay Black woman, became the first out LGBTQIA+ woman to run for Pittsburgh City Council and now the first out Black LGBTQIA+ woman to run for the General Assembly.
Women created affirming spaces, including Shawn’s Bar on Fifth Avenue in Uptown, the Norreh on Herron Avenue, the Tender Trap as well as the Wildsisters Women’s Cultural Collective and eventually Bloomers. Birmingham Booksellers came before St. Elmo’s. The cooperative effort of the Gertrude Stein Memorial Literary Society proclaiming that where LGBTQIA+ women are gathered, there is power and energy. In the late 1970s, Amazon Odyssey drew intellectuals and politically radical women together.
The Pittsburgh Dyke March started in 2006, fought for recognition on all fronts, then morphed in 2012 to better describe who was participating first as the Pittsburgh Dyke & Trans March, now the Pittsburgh Dyke Trans & Bi March. This is an example of Pittsburgh’s LGBTQIA+ women having a solid grasp of the landscape, including Pittsburgh’s very small LGBTQIA+ population, and adapting resources to serve the actual community not just the cause.
Black women created resources such as M.A.D.E. IT, SisTers Pgh, Femz Wit a Twist, and more. Queer women helped found TransPride Pittsburgh, People’s Pride of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Black Pride, Dreams of HOPE, and Proud Haven among others.
Women were vital part of Pittsburgh’s response to the HIV/AIDS crisis both in terms of providing direct care and engaging in direct action through Cry Out Act Up!. While some were behind the scenes, many women were front and center throughout Pittsburgh’s history responding to this epidemic and generating new health sources such as the ESTHER project and New Voices for Reproductive Justice among many others .Women and nonbinary individuals also responded to the current pandemic, creating the Pittsburgh MasQUe ProjecT as well as actively supporting other resources.
In these uncertain times of the early 21st century, LGBTQIA+ women build and helm organizations, lead Pride events, respond to community needs, and continue to shatter glass ceilings. We literally bear arms and sit in the seats of political deciders. We say our names and stand on the shoulders of those who didn’t have that option. Rather than seek a place at existing tables, we build new tables that are representative, inclusive, and just.
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