Maria Montaño: Herstory In The Making

Maria Montaño. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Mayor of Pittsburgh.

On February 14, 2022 history was made in the City of Pittsburgh when Maria Montaño became the first openly trans woman to serve as the City’s Press Secretary. She was appointed by Ed Gainey, Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor. Maria Montaño serves as the formal spokesperson for the Office of the Mayor and is the primary liaison between the media and the Mayor’s office. She is currently the highest-ranking Latina in city government.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Maria recently to discuss her new role and what she hopes it will mean to the City of Pittsburgh as well as the LGBTQ Community.

When I asked Maria how it felt to be the first openly trans woman to serve as Press Secretary she described it as being a weird feeling. “First and foremost, it’s an honor to be able to serve the City, as I never imagined somebody like me ever serving in a position like this because growing up there was no trans representation in state and or local government.”

Maria grew up in a small town in rural Colorado with only 99 people in her graduating class. There were no out LGBTQ people within the staff or the students.

“It’s one of those moments where you stop and think that this is a huge honor, but there’s also a lot of weight to it. It’s incredible to get to serve the City, to help tell the story of what the Gainey Administration is doing, to talk to the world at-large, to tell the local and national media about

Pittsburgh and what we’re doing here. But at the same time feeling the pressure of being the first trans person to hold this position and understanding that comes with unfortunately a lot of people waiting for you to fail. Feeling like you’re not enough for this job and you just got it because of diversity’s sake. So it’s that challenge of feeling the weight and importance of it, but also being touched that members of the community reach out and say how great it is to have someone like me in this role.” Maria says she’s received so many letters from parents with trans kids. “I think they’re excited for there to be the space where they can point to and say look at what’s happening in Pittsburgh. This person, this woman who’s in the news everyday is a trans woman, and that could be you. I think there’s a lot of power in that for a lot of people in the community right now.”

Maria Montaño speaking at the Pittsburgh Pride Revolution Festival on June 4, 2022. Photo by Mara Rago

Maria describes her journey to this position as non-traditional. She studied music performance in college. After five years she realized it wasn’t what she wanted to do but also knew that she needed to come out. She was dealing with a lot of issues about her identity and who she was as a trans person so she left and began her transition to start living fully as herself.

One of the first jobs she worked at was a copy center where people brought packages that needed to be boxed and shipped. From there she took another job at a high art printing company in Colorado. Artists would mail their paintings in to get hi-res photos done and those would turn into limited edition prints of their artwork. They needed someone who understood shipping logistics and packaging and Maria did. While there, she saw an opportunity to help with the company’s website and ended up creating a new site that she felt better fit their image. They in turn, got her an apprenticeship with somebody who specialized in digital internet advertising because they wanted to understand how to do new marketing. This was before social media existed. So she learned advertising and digital media, which lead to another job where she took those skills and applied them to identifying and finding volunteers to staff a 24 hour crisis hotline at a local rape crisis center.

When Maria moved to Pittsburgh in 2012 she didn’t have a job lined up. She moved to be with her partner at that time. The first job she applied to was to be a digital organizer at SEIU. She got the job and through that she learned more personal communication strategies. She served as a communications specialist with SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, a union representing healthcare and hospital workers throughout the state before accepting her current role as Press Secretary.

She owes a lot of her success to just being open to new experiences.

“I know at the end of the day that I couldn’t do this job or even have considered it if I hadn’t come out or had the support to do so. Getting the chance to be my full authentic self has opened up my ability to do more, to say yes to more, to have the ability to pursue opportunities I never imagined were possible because I could barely think about existing.”

Maria says this was not a position she ever wanted. “I didn’t grow up thinking about being the spokesperson for a whole city. Even in the past two months since I started here, there are days I get into work and I see my name on the door and it feels surreal that I work in the Mayor’s office. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and also beyond my worldview of things I thought I could do. I didn’t ever imagine that trans people could be public servants like this because growing up in the 80s and 90s the representation of trans people in the media was sideshow acts on daytime TV shows. We didn’t have great role models.”

Maria was surprised when she got the call from the Mayor’s office in early February asking if she’d be interested in the position. She says she likely would not have served for any other mayor but Ed Gainey, because she believes in his vision for the city.

“I believe in the way he centers people’s voices that for so long haven’t been heard, and you see that up and down the administration. I’m the first trans woman, but we also have the first Black woman Deputy Chief of Staff. It’s the most diverse administration in the city’s history.

The administration is majority women and I’m not the only queer person. And that was all intentional. Not only are we deeply skilled professionals who know how to do the work we are doing each and every day, but we also bring that added dimension of understanding what it’s like to live in this world (for me) as a Latina, as a trans woman. I understand what that’s like, and I know the struggle of trying to survive on $11.85 an hour. I know what it’s like to not have access to good quality healthcare. So many of the struggles that others in the city are feeling, we’ve lived through as well so when we sit around the table and discuss what we are going to do to make Pittsburgh a more welcoming and thriving city, a city where everyone can feel safe, we come at it through a completely different perspective. I think that’s what is giving people a lot of hope about what we may be able to accomplish.”

Maria Montaño. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Mayor of Pittsburgh.

Maria offered her personal feelings on both the attacks against trans people and how we in the LGBTQ Community could better stand together. “Right now we are seeing a national and global movement of using trans people as a broader wedge both inside the LGBTQ community but also outside of that. We are definitely feeling the impact of legislation across the country in a way that we haven’t seen since the late 90s and early 2000s attacks against same-sex marriage. So I think for our perspective in the trans community we were right there fighting in the trenches for that and what we need now more than ever is for our cis allies to stand up with us and let them know you are with us and that you have our backs because the attacks aren’t going to just stop with us. Now is the time as a community to stand up and say we’re gonna fight for and to protect and defend trans rights. Now is the time where we can definitely use loud, active, physical allies.”

When asked what she would like to say to the LGBTQ Community, and more specifically, the trans community, Maria said, “It’s not enough for me to be the first. It’s not enough to have visibility, we need more than that. If I’m not ripping that door down to make it easier for the next person who looks like me to walk through it then hold me accountable to that. I don’t want that door slammed shut behind me. I want to make sure I’m doing the work to help improve everybody’s lives. At the end of the day, it’s very much a temporary job because administrations change. So by the time I leave, if I haven’t made it easier for one trans person in our community to come out and feel seen or feel like they could take on something big and bold then I feel like I would have failed in regards to what I hope to accomplish here. I hope that I can not just serve the city but that I can also make my community proud. So when I leave they can be like ‘that was awesome.’”

Chrissy Costa is a local comedian known for her dry wit, satirical style of comedy, and big earrings. Before doing stand-up she studied sketch comedy at Chicago’s famed Second City. You can follow her on Instragram and Facebook. (She / Her / Hers)