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Remembrance! Snippets of Pittsburgh LGBTQ+ History

Ronald W. Lawrence

In writing my recent memoir, Warrior for the Tribe, I proudly acknowledge that my life as a young gay man began in my first hometown of Pittsburgh. Preparing my writings gave me the opportunity to sift through memories, clarify them, and place them into prose. In my portrayals and clarifications, memories were no longer the smudge of a blur.

In my late teens and early twenties, I knew that I was gay, but hardly had a word for it.  And the word “homosexual,” sounding very clinical, was bandied about here and there. The guys in high school could be heard saying that, “All the queers hang out in downtown Pittsburgh,” and a silent part of me knew that at some point I had to affirm that information. Otherwise, the feelings of aloneness were mostly my reality until my early twenties came into being.

As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, word of a gay bar in the area flew into my consciousness.  And when I walked into the University Grill on Forbes Avenue, all the faces around the bar assured me that I wasn’t alone. Greeted by Lucky (Fortunato) Johns, the handsome bartender, added warmth and feelings of safety. And on occasion, when he would hand me a beer, he would bend down and whisper to me, “Careful honey, I think the guys in the back are plainclothesmen, so don’t make a date with anyone right now!” I was too reticent to make any “dates” anyhow, but it was helpful and caring information that protected my safety. In addition to Lucky’s kindness, I came to know people there and made “bar friends.” The experience brought feelings of warmth and safety.

But then came that terrible day when I was watching the news and learned that my emotional anchor had been destroyed. The University Grill had been reduced to rubble in an early morning gas explosion. (hummmm). I was stunned and in disbelief. So, I drove down to witness it for myself. There it was, a burned-out basement, literally a hole in the ground. How would I ever see my friends again? Where would they go? In those days there was no internet, no Facebook, and no cell phones. And sadly, I never did see many of them again.

And then there’s that one situation where the old saying “by the skin of my teeth” was my reality. It was about a pleasant connection with friends at the Transportation Club on a Saturday night. But I was tired from a busy work week and left with my partner at midnight. But at 1:00 am the police rolled in complete with paddy wagons handcuffs and night sticks, and perpetrated what they called a raid on a “disorderly house,” which was the same legal classification for houses of prostitution. Friends were handcuffed, taken to jail and arrested. And they would find it necessary to consult with attorneys to get their arrest records sealed or expunged. And at what cost?

And my lesbian friends related that they were fearful of such events as well. They related that the first gathering place for women was an old barn somewhere out in the country. While women went through a trap door to a loft area, someone would always keep watch to ensure safety.

I always say that the glue that held us together during such times was our love for each other. It was about our deep friendships and partners. The raids would not come to an end until after the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969. If only I could travel in a time machine, I would go back and tell everyone, “The days of better times are coming. Live on with the faith that it’s so.”

And in my writings, I celebrate the nuances of change that happened after that time. And all this history makes our annual Pride Celebrations reflect utmost importance. And, in my eightieth year of life, I truly know that from a historical perspective these events must never be forgotten. It was imperative that I offer the memoir Warrior for the Tribe to the community I love.

Ronald W. Lawrence is a retired psychotherapist living in Brockport, New York with his spouse of thirty years. He was born in Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania. This article is an excerpt from his upcoming book, “Reflections of a Warrior Therapist.” His current publication is “Memoirs From the Veil.”