Content Note: racism, transphobia, homophobia, harassment of children, police, legal case, fear
I did a little research and started to get a sense of how these transphobic bigots operate, the playbook they use. These people are truly despicable. To answer your question, no, I don’t think people connect the dots. And that’s not a condemnation, because I didn’t connect the dots and some of those dots lead straight to my family. We all have to do a better job of understanding how these bigots are working the political system to achieve their goals.Sean O’Donnell
In late May, a local LGBTQ family spoke with the Pittsburgh City Paper about the harassment and abuse they have endured at the hands of neighbor. The family lives in the Observatory Hill section of Pittsburgh’s Northside. I helped to connect one of the fathers, Sean, with resources, including the CP reporter, and have tried to rally people to turn out for the upcoming hearing at the Magisterial Court on one count of harassment.
Please read the City Paper article to catch yourself up on the background.
But that wasn’t enough. The more often I spoke with Sean, the deeper I felt that the public needs a deeper glimpse into the family’s day-to-day experiences. I write far too many memorial posts about young BIPOC trans folx to just let this go. I want to write a post about the community stepping up to support this entire family. So I asked Sean to do a Q&A and he agreed. The final question is about connecting dots, a point I think it very important because this latest form of harassment is right out of the anti-trans playbooks in Texas and other Southern states.
What would you do if this were your family, after two years of harassment? And what will you do now that you know this is happening to this family?
Your Name: Sean O’Donnell
Your Pronouns: he/him
How do you describe your identity? Husband, father, donut lover is the short answer.
Tell our readers about your family. My husband Todd and I are the parents of four children. We adopted our kids from foster care, starting in 2013 when we adopted our son Christopher (then 7, now 16). In 2015 we adopted our youngest son Elijah (then 5, now 12) and then in 2016 we adopted our oldest son A’Sean (then 12, now 18). Finally, in 2019 we adopted our daughter Ke’Juan (then 12, now 15).
What are some of your favorite parts of parenting? I honestly never thought I would be a father. It was hard for me to conceive of a time where, as a gay man, I could be a father. So I mean it when I say that every moment of every day raising my four kids is the best part of being a parent. I feel like this was what I was meant to do with my life.
As you recently told the Pgh City Paper, your family has been experiencing harassment from a neighbor. When did it start? Has her behavior escalated or been consistently awful? The harassment began on June 3, 2020. It has definitely escalated. Our neighbor does not respect boundaries. She ignored the boundaries set by me as a parent. She ignored the boundaries set by law enforcement. She ignored the boundaries set by a judge. And with each of her dismissals of the previously established boundaries, she was emboldened to go further…and she did. She is a menace.
Multiple members of your family have been targeted, especially by her racist beliefs. Most recently, she’s targeting your 15-year-old Black trans daughter (and you, her dads.) Do you mind telling us about when you first saw the sign and the impact it has had on you? My initial reaction to the sign was anger. I was furious that someone had the audacity to attack and condemn my family. The fact that we are living in a time where bigots have been made to feel so emboldened that they no longer traffic in dog whistles—they just say the quiet part out loud—is disgusting. A few seconds after I saw the sign my anger turned to profound sadness because I thought, my kids are going to see that sign. My kids are going to see that sign and see those words and how will that make them feel to look up and see these words condemning their sister and attacking their fathers, whom they love very much. It’s outrageous. What kind of a person does something like this? It’s unconscionable.
This sign appeared in our neighbor’s backyard on May 8, 2022. It stands approximately 9 feet tall and has been placed directly on the property line between our two houses. The sign intentionally faces into our backyard and is directly visible from the bedroom of my 15-year-old transgender daughter. The sign has made my daughter feel unsafe. – Sean O’Donnell
What is helping your kids cope with all of this? Where do they find support and resiliency? Our kids are the four toughest kids ever put on this planet. They each traveled a difficult path to get to us, and they were challenged by things that most adults could not handle. My kids find their resiliency from the past they survived. As to support, they have my husband and I. We talk openly about what is going on with our neighbor and how best to handle it. And we cope by laughing, because you have to laugh at things, especially terrible things, or you just get swallowed up by it.
People might be surprised to learn that the sign is legal. The language is protected by the First Amendment and the sign itself does not violate City building code because it is collapsible, I believe. Were you surprised to learn that? Do you think the building code should take hate speech into account – it’s one thing to put up a big sign for a one-time event like a graduation or something, but to torment a kid seems like it violates the spirit of the law here. I love the first amendment. The first amendment is our friend. So when people who engage in this sort of hate speech immediately cite their first amendment right to free speech, I think, okay, fine, then how do we deal with this? We need to look at combating this from a different angle, because I do not see this as an issue of free-speech. That sign is part of a two-year campaign of terror against my family. The language on the sign is very specific. The positioning of the sign is very specific. The intent of the sign is an escalation. The bottom line is freedom of speech is not freedom from accountability. You can say whatever you want to say but there needs to be consequences.
You did successfully obtain a “no-contact” order from your magistrate and your neighbor moved to another one of her properties. Then she returned when it expired and started right back up again, suggesting the no-contact order did not have any benefit beyond the respite for your family. Pennsylvania does not have restraining orders or protection orders except in the case of family or interpersonal relationships. How does that lack of legal protections feel to you and how has it shaped your response? I understand that protection orders are issued in only the most extreme cases and I would assume that is why they are specific to family and interpersonal relationships. But I do think we need to make allowances for cases where children are being threatened, where the safety of our children is being threatened. I think we need to have an exception for cases like that because we need to make it clear to those very sick individuals who would attack a child that we take this very seriously and it will not be tolerated and there will be severe consequences.
But without the order, I know that my daughter will not feel comfortable going outside, playing in the streets, riding her bike. I know that without the order my family will be less likely to spend time on our backyard patio. We will be less likely to have outdoor family time together in front of the fire pit or eating dinner at the picnic table. Without the no contact order my family will be forced to change how it lives because we will need to weigh every outdoor activity against having a potential interaction with our volatile neighbor.
You’ve kept a detailed log of all engagement with her and that convinced District Attorney Zappala to proceed with a single count of harassment. What other options do you wish had been available to your family? If I’m being honest, I’ve actually been surprised by the amount of support that we received. I didn’t expect anyone to take it seriously. You experience enough discrimination in your life or you watch as people in your family experience discrimination, and you eventually become accustomed to discrimination and micro aggressions as being reality, until you learn to live with it or even worse you begin to apologize for it as if you the victim have done something wrong But that wasn’t the case this time. I wasn’t dismissed. The police took a detailed report from me. The ADA was incredibly helpful and appropriately horrified by what we were going through. Councilman Bobby Wilson came to our home and talked to us and went back to his contacts in the city to brainstorm out how they could help us. If I had one complaint it would be that it took a few weeks to get the bureaucratic ball rolling, and that was frustrating.
You indicated the Pittsburgh Police officers who did respond were respectful and professional. But they did not refer you to Police LGBTQIA liaison or the Zone One Community/Neighborhood Resource Officer. I’ve asked the City to follow up on that with you – has there been any follow up? There has not been any follow-up. I hope that they address this oversight so in the future other LGBTQIA persons experiencing this type of harassment will have access to an essential resource.
How have your neighbors responded throughout this ordeal? We live in a very supportive neighborhood. It is a diverse neighborhood that reflects the makeup of our family. Our neighbors are kind people. I’m not sure how many of them know the specifics of what is going on, but I do believe those who know about the situation are horrified. I did speak with a neighbor across the street in order to make a plan in the event my kids needed to flee the house. I asked our neighbor if it would be ok if my children came to her house if they were home alone and felt unsafe because of the harassment. I asked if such an event they could stay with her until the police arrived. For the record, it is insane that my neighbor’s ongoing harassment made it necessary for me to have that conversation.
Has she targeted others? She had previously bothered two other families with children. She had complaints about noise, but I think she’s more just opposed to people being happy and expressing happiness because that’s the kind of person she is. My understanding is those instances of harassment against those two families petered out when the families didn’t push back. Our neighbor doesn’t like when people push back against her bigotry.
You have a hearing before a Magisterial Judge coming up later this month. What did the ADA tell you to expect? What’s your best case scenario for an outcome? This harassment has been going on for two years. It is clearly rooted in racism, homophobia, transphobia. Our neighbor has given us no reason to believe that she will stop. I believe the only way she will stop is if she is punished to the fullest extent of the law. According to the law she can be fined and/or imprisoned for up to 90 days. I doubt very much she’ll go to jail, but after what she’s done to my family — my children, I believe she deserves to serve jail time. The most realistic best-case scenario is that the judge issues a no contact order forbidding our neighbor from having any contact with us.
Community members can attend the hearing, either in the public gallery of the courtroom or in the parking lot to show solidarity with your family. Is that something you would welcome? If the public feels compelled to come out and support our family then we would absolutely welcome that gesture. My husband and I have aggressively pushed back on the harassment because we wanted our children to see that we had their backs. We wanted them to see that we were going to protect them. I think members of the community coming out to support us would drive home those ideas. Community support would also be an opportunity for LGBTQIA persons in Pittsburgh to see that their friends and neighbors support them and love them and want them here in this city. It will show everyone that Pittsburgh does not tolerate hate or bigotry.
Tell us what your family’s summer will look like both with and without the no-contact order. It will be a busy summer. Our two youngest kids are involved in camps. Our two oldest sons have jobs that will keep them occupied. Those things won’t change regardless of the no contact order. But without the order, I know that my daughter will not feel comfortable going outside, playing in the streets, riding her bike. I know that without the order my family will be less likely to spend time on our backyard patio. We will be less likely to have outdoor family time together in front of the fire pit or eating dinner at the picnic table. Without the no contact order my family will be forced to change how it lives because we will need to weigh every outdoor activity against having a potential interaction with our volatile neighbor.
Are you comfortable sharing some of the other slurs/insults/comments she’s made to help our readers really understand what day-to-day life is like. Absolutely. She has referred to my daughter as a boy. After being corrected, she has continued to use male pronouns in reference to my daughter. She said in reference to my husband and I, “People like us should not have children.” She pointed at our African American neighbors and said, “Those people have too many kids.” A week after the murder of George Floyd she confronted my son and daughter, both of whom are African-American, to tell them that they were recycling incorrectly and if they didn’t do something about it then she would call the police and let the police “take care of them“. She also stalked my then-10 year old, leaving notes and sending emails detailing what she saw him do. And then there was the time she posted our address online and encouraged people to confront us about stealing her cat, which we had not done.
What are some ways the community can embrace your children with support and encouragement? (Anyone who wants to send a note or message to the family can send it via the blog and it will be passed along.) The community has already done so much for us. The encouragement and support on social media has been overwhelming. For my children to be able to see that level of support has been healing. We want to thank everyone who has reached out to us, kept us in their thoughts, and offered us resources as we try to navigate the situation.
Would you welcome the input of a lawyer to discuss the harassment? Yes.
Do you see a way forward, Sean? For me, the way forward, the only way forward, is through legal intervention. My family needs for the court system to hold our neighbor accountable. My family needs for the court system to protect my children. The way forward is that no member of my family has to worry that at some point they will be the victim of a racist or transphobic or garden-variety bigoted attack from my neighbor.
It was hard for me to conceive of a time where, as a gay man, I could be a father. So I mean it when I say that every moment of every day raising my four kids is the best part of being a parent. I feel like this was what I was meant to do with my life.
The term ‘transing’ is right out of Texas and other laws that are targeting transgender kids access to health care. It is a next step from the Pennsylvania laws preventing trans children, especially trans girls, from playing on youth sports teams. Do you think people understand how those dots are connected? I like to think that I am someone who is well-informed. I watch and read the news. I keep current of political shifts, especially those which effect my family. But still, prior to my neighbor posting that disgusting sign, I had never heard the term “transing” before. I did a little research and started to get a sense of how these transphobic bigots operate, the playbook they use. These people are truly despicable. To answer your question, no, I don’t think people connect the dots. And that’s not a condemnation, because I didn’t connect the dots and some of those dots lead straight to my family. We all have to do a better job of understanding how these bigots are working the political system to achieve their goals. They aren’t reaching for the stars. This isn’t about becoming a senator or a governor. The anti-trans contingent, the racists, the homophobes, the antisemites, these people are running for school board and city council and to be local representatives because they understand that the local level is where you affect change. So we need to do our homework. We need to not get distracted. We need to vote smarter. Every marginalized person from every marginalized group needs to work together. We need to understand how this works and we need to support candidates who aren’t human garbage.
Thank you, Sean.
Support at the hearing is very important. It will send a message that actual Northside residents, especially those from Observatory Hill turn out to support the family. We are permitted into the public courtroom if possible, but we can also be in the parking lot. Signs are fine outside. The focus is on supporting the family and condemning the behavior, not targeting the neighbor.
Wednesday, June 22, at 10 am at the magistrates office on Perrysville Avenue in Observatory Hill: 3880 Perrysville Avenue Pittsburgh, PA 15214. I’d love to keep track of who plans to be there so if you can respond, terrific.
These kids, this family, should not have to spend most of their summer hiding inside their home. I’m also hoping we can create some positive memories for the four children this summer – if you have ideas, let me know. If you’d like to connect with the Dads, I’ll put you in touch.
One final note – the neighbor self-identifies as a cat rescuer. In no reality does anyone who tries to help cats while treating children like this get to be cat folx. And in no reality should any local rescues be working with someone who conducts themselves like this. Enabling her abhorrent behavior “to help cats” is not okay. There are other ways to help cats without hurting kids. That’s just my opinion. Cat lady status revoked.
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