Luna Skye, Indi Skies, and Chi Chi de Vivre. Photo by Mara Rago.

The first Pride was a riot. Should this year’s be?

LGBTQ+ activists call on Pittsburghers to stand up and speak out against growing conservative threats

LGBTQ+ activists call on Pittsburghers to stand up and speak out against growing conservative threats

In 2023 alone more than 460 bills have been introduced in State Legislatures across the country targeting drag performances, gender-affirming care, trans kids and adults, and LGBTQ+ books.

This year’s Pride Month comes at a time of uncertainty and fear for many members of the LGBTQ+ community. Across the country, drag shows are being canceled, a record number of hateful legislation has been put forth, and anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes continue to rise. The White House has declared an “epidemic of violence” against trans women and girls, especially people of color. And while there are still wins to celebrate, local activists are calling for both community members and allies to stand up and speak up against threats to their safety.

“Show up. Speak out. Take these attacks seriously,” says Chi Chi de Vivre, a Pittsburgh drag queen who was recently subjected to hateful online posts from right-wing conservatives opposed to her performing at a family-friendly political fundraiser.

Her incident is just one of many anti-LGBTQ+ incidents making headlines. And it’s not just hateful rhetoric that’s at play.

Chi Chi de Vivre. Photo by Mara Rago.

In late 2022, five people were killed and 17 were injured during a drag queen’s birthday celebration at an LGBTQ+ club in Colorado Springs, Co. This followed a 2016 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., where 49 people were killed and 53 more were wounded.

Pittsburgh resident Sue Kerr has spent the last decade chronicling the violent deaths of trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming folks on her award-winning Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents blog, she says to both “celebrate their lives but also diving into the circumstances of their deaths.” In the past 10 years, she’s written nearly 300 obituaries.

“Make no mistake, if they are coming for the trans and nonbinary community, we are next — ‘we’ being everyone,” says Kerr. “If they are coming for BIPOC, that includes QTPOC … We would be fools not to learn from the past.“

Show up. Speak out. Take these attacks seriously.

Chi Chi de Vivre

In Chi Chi de Vivre’s case, the hateful attacks against her drag performance forced organizers to move the fundraiser to a new location, but they were able to safely continue with the event elsewhere.

A growing number of politicians, however, want similar drag performances — along with countless lifesaving services like LGBTQ-positive education and gender-affirming health care — made illegal.

Many Pennsylvanians breathed a sigh of relief when Democratic Attorney Josh Shapiro defeated far-right Republican Senator Doug Mastriano in the Pa. Governor’s race in November. Mastriano, known for his hateful stances against LGBTQ+ rights, has likened LGBTQ-positive education to “grooming” and pornography, went on record saying he thinks gay marriage should be illegal, and said that it was “madness” to want to add gender identity to anti-discrimination laws.

Gov. Shapiro, on the other hand, has vowed to protect the rights of his LGBTQ+ constituents, telling QBurgh, “As Governor, I will continue to stand with the LGBTQ+ community and fight to protect and expand the rights of LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians.”

But the hateful rhetoric of Sen. Mastriano and other conservative politicians remains a threat to LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians, even after his loss.

In January, following outcries from far-right lawmakers over a queer prom in Eastern Pennsylvania that featured drag performances, Mastriano proposed banning drag shows in public places, a bill that would label drag performances as “adult-oriented businesses.” If passed, this would not just ban shows like Chi Chi de Vivre’s but essentially put an end to all Pride events across the commonwealth.

“In Pennsylvania, there has been an alarming uptick in drag performances that appeal to children,” Mastriano wrote in his memorandum announcing his upcoming legislation.

Indi Skies. Photo by Mara Rago.

But Chi Chi de Vivre says drag performers have no interest in grooming children into their lifestyle, but instead “hopes the exposure will be fun and help in shaping them into more of an open-minded and tolerant little human.” She points out that family-friendly drag has also existed for decades, pointing out the “OG drag queen, Bugs Bunny, and classic movies like Mrs. Doubtfire.

Pittsburgh is also no stranger to queer proms. The Andy Warhol Museum in the North Side has been providing students a safe space to celebrate at its LGBTQ+ Youth Prom for years.

“Many young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer do not attend their official high school proms. This can be a result of bullying, harassment, and even unsupportive faculty and administrators,” Mona Wiley, The Andy Warhol Museum’s inclusion programs coordinator, tells QBurgh. “Prom night is a recognized milestone in the life of a young person. The Warhol’s LGBTQ+ Youth Prom is a unique, inclusive event that creates lasting memories, a sense of belonging, and the ability to participate in a significant coming-of-age milestone.”

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s 2021 National School Climate Survey backs up this need, reporting that 78.8% of LGBTQ+ students avoided school functions because they “felt unsafe or uncomfortable.”

But despite efforts by many to educate the public, threats continue.

In 2019, the Carnegie Library and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh both canceled Drag Queen Story Hour programs, events featuring drag queens reading stories to children in venues like libraries and community spaces, after threats were posted on social media. This year, threats against such programs continue in Pennsylvania and nearby states.

Akasha L Van-Cartier. Photo by Mara Rago.

Since the beginning of 2023, at least 32 bills like Mastriano’s targeting drag performances have been filed across the United States. In February, Tennessee became the first state to officially ban drag performances in public venues or anywhere minors might be present.

For Rick Allison, the longtime host of OUTrageous Bingo, a monthly event featuring drag queens and benefitting the Pittsburgh Equality Center and the Shepherd Wellness Community, attacks on the LGBTQ+ community have led to him increasing security as a way to provide a safe space for his patrons.

“We have had no incidents at our events, but with recent anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric and actions, we have increased security measures,” reads a disclaimer on the event website. This includes entry scanning, bag searches, and armed guards courtesy of the venue, Rodef Shalom.

I did what I could do to survive… then I got the f**k out as soon as I could.

Nikki Burfield

Pittsburgh trans woman Nikki Burfield grew up in Wadsworth, Ohio, which recently made national headlines when more than a dozen nazis invaded a “Rock and Roll Drag Queen Story Hour,” a fundraiser raising money in remembrance of the victims of the Colorado Springs massacre. As a young student, Burfield says a truancy officer brought in a closeted, gay member of the military to subject her to conversion therapy, a practice that attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, after she wore a skirt to class.

“I did what I could do to survive in a town like that, and then I got the fuck out as soon as I could,” she says. As a parent, Burfield says she now tries to create a more loving and accepting environment for her own children.

In 2022, Pennsylvania became the 26th state to at least partially ban conversion therapy for minors, with then-Gov. Tom Wolf calling it “junk science.” But the commonwealth still faces other discriminatory practices.

Spotlight PA reports efforts by some Republicans to restrict LGBTQ+ curriculums in schools. PublicSource reports a need for improved gender-affirming health care services for trans Pittsburghers.

Nikki Burfield. Photo by Mara Rago.

For trans man Ollie Gratzinger, having access to gender-affirming health care services was a lifesaver.

“Being transgender right now is sort of surreal, because I wake up and suddenly see that there’s some trending article or event debating whether or not I have a right to exist as I am,” Gratzinger tells QBurgh. “It’s sometimes hard to put into words. There’s a sense of dread about what’s yet to come, and a grief for what’s come and gone.”

This February, Gratzinger had top surgery, a bilateral mastectomy performed to alleviate gender dysphoria, and he credits it as “the best decision I’ve ever made.”

“I feel so happy and at peace inside my own skin, and I can’t even put into words how much that means to me,” he says. “All because of access to gender-affirming care! Every trans person deserves access to this if they want it.”

The fear-mongering and trans bashing done by elected officials across the board is a huge problem.

August Copeland

August Copeland, executive assistant of Black-led Trans YOUniting, a nonprofit providing resources to Pittsburgh’s trans community, says he believes politicians like ones putting forth anti-discrimination laws are the biggest single threat to the safety of the LGBTQ+ community.

“The fear-mongering and trans bashing done publicly by elected officials across the board is a huge problem, especially from people who don’t seek to understand but use these tactics to reach a demographic of people who also do not understand or seek to,” says Copeland.

In early May, the ACLU was tracking over 450 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the United States, including three in Pennsylvania, five in Ohio, and 12 in nearby West Virginia.

Even the White House recently condemned “shameful, hateful and dangerous” political attacks against LGBTQ Americans.

“Just think about a kid who’s sitting at home in this community, who’s listening and hearing elected officials talking about how they want to take away their rights, or how they want to even threaten their parents with felony charges for seeking healthcare for their children,” said White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre in March.

It’s hard to believe that a few words hastily scribbled onto a piece of poster board could cause such harm.

Sean O’Donnell

It’s LGBTQ+ children who inspire Black Pittsburgh trans woman Ciora Thomas to keep fighting.

Thomas, the founder and director of local Black- and trans-led nonprofit SisTers PGH, which provides resources like transitional housing to members of the trans community, says she wishes she had been exposed to a program like hers when she was younger.

“If I can just be some type of smile, and light for our youth, you know, in all of this,” she tells QBurgh. “I keep my head up as high as I can, and I inspire them to keep their heads up too, because I’ve been talking to a lot of our trans youth, and they’re all going through it.”

Ke’Juan Hall, a 15-year-old Black trans girl, is one example. She faced discrimination in 2022 after her Observatory Hill neighbor hung up a nine-feet-tall transphobic sign, “Transing kids is abuse and homophobia,” facing her bedroom window.

“The sign has made my daughter feel unsafe. It is detrimental to her mental health. It puts my daughter and our entire family at risk from small-minded bigots like our neighbor,” her father Sean O’Donnell wrote in a Facebook post about the incident.

Sean O’Donnell. Photos by Mara Rago.

“A year later and my family continues to feel the after effects of that sign,” O’Donnell, who lives with his husband and four children, tells QBurgh. “It’s hard to believe that a few words hastily scribbled onto a piece of poster board could cause such harm. But here we are. And yet still we know that we are fortunate because we had each other through this process, and not every person who finds themselves at the receiving end of this type of harassment has a support system behind them.”

In January, a Moon Township library faced backlash from online conservatives after featuring a children’s book, “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish,” as its Book of the Day. Pittsburgh City Paper reports that the library was forced to temporarily close due to those violent threats.

“We must recognize that LGBTQ young people face stressors simply for being who they are that their peers never have to worry about,” says Amit Paley, CEO & executive director of The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit working to build a “safer, more inclusive world” for LGBTQ+ youth.

The Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation on Pittsburgh’s North Side focuses a lot of its own work on programs and services for LGBTQ+ youth and their families.

“We’re seeing huge increases in legislation targeted at trans and nonbinary youth that’s attempting to take away access to affirming care, safe adults, recreational activities, and supportive educational environments,” says Executive Director Sarah Rosso. “Knowing people in your life (family, co-workers, neighbors, etc.) support these measures, and knowing people in positions of power feel LGBTQ+ identities need to be hidden, silenced… that’s so harmful to our wellbeing at any age, but it’s having a very real, harmful and lasting impact on our youth.”

Sarah Rosso. Photo by Mara Rago.

At the college level, LGBTQ+ students in Pittsburgh are also facing similar obstacles.

This spring, students took to the streets in protest and gathered over 11,000 signatures in a petition to “Hold the University of Pittsburgh Accountable in Protecting LGBTQIA+ Individuals,” following a string of events they called an “egregious display of transphobia and hate” at the Oakland university.

This included a speaker condemning trans women competing in college sports, and a debate hosted by Pitt student group the College Republicans on “transgenderism and womanhood,” featuring Daily Wire host Michael Knowles who has said, “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely — the whole preposterous ideology.”

Pitt isn’t alone. Carnegie Mellon University faced anti-trans rhetoric across its campus in 2021, with The Tartan student newspaper reporting anti-trans stickers appearing in bathrooms and other public spaces on campus.

Laura Stravach, the president of University of Pittsburgh’s student LGBTQ+ group Rainbow Alliance, says they believe the biggest threat to their community is miseducation, which has “made the campus feel a little bit less of a safe space.”

Over the past two semesters, they say LGBTQ+ students have seen “a rise in some anti-trans rhetoric going around on campus, anti-trans stickers being put around on campus, some of the conservative student groups being a little bit more vocal.”

We need to all be sharing what’s happening and being very vocal about our kind of outrage about what’s happening.

Laura Stravach

The Rainbow Alliance’s response? Combat the negativity with positivity.

“I think the first thing within a community is making sure they’re aware of it, like, it’s no good to hide what’s going on,” Stravach says. “I think we need to all be sharing what’s happening and being very vocal about our kind of outrage about what’s happening.”

But after that, they say they “want to combat rhetoric with rhetoric.” Stravach says they’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback after hanging trans-right posters around campus so LGBTQ+ students can know they’re accepted and loved.

Experts say having a support system is crucial to the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth. According to The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 45% of LGBTQ youth “seriously considered suicide” in the past year and nearly one in five trans and nonbinary youth attempted suicide, with higher rates reported for LGBTQ youth of color.

“Feeling at risk for your identity is a huge attack on mental health,” says Pittsburgh therapist Elizabeth Sherman of Heart of Gold, who stresses the importance of community. “It’s hard to build mental health or mental wellness if you’re constantly exposed to a context or an environment where it’s not safe.”

Locally, there have been some wins in the political sphere. In 2022, La’Tasha D. Mayes (D-Morningside) became the first out lesbian elected to the Pa. House, joining Jessica Benham (D-South Side), the first out bisexual state representative.

State Representative La’Tasha Mayes.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey also made history when he was sworn in as the city’s first Black mayor in 2022, and again when he named former SEIU Healthcare union communications professional Maria Montaño as his press secretary, the first trans woman to serve the position.

“Transgender and gender non-conforming individuals bring unique experiences, perspectives, and voices to our city,” Gainey posted to his social media pages on this year’s Trans Day of Visibility. “They deserve to exist in a community that is safe and inclusive and that welcomes them in open arms.”

But Thomas says liberal politicians should be doing even more, calling out elitism and religion as barriers to change.

“We are not being a part of those conversations when we’re talking about what trans folks need within the community. Even those that are our allies, in those spaces, they don’t always know what to say,” she says, stressing that politicians should be adding more trans folks to their elected committees. “You can be good-willed and loving and supportive of our community, but you also have to bring us to the table.”

We need that unapologetically support allyship that you might lose your job or you might get slandered by these people who are opposed of your allyship to us.

Ciora Thomas

Thomas alleges that a lot of members of the CIS community are hesitant to have those larger conversations because they’re afraid of losing their jobs. But, to enact change, she says “we need that unapologetically support allyship that you might lose your job or you might get slandered by these people who are opposed of your allyship to us.”

The LGBTQ+ community has seen some of the highest increases in reported hate crimes from 2020 to 2021, second only to crimes against race, according to data collected by the FBI. And the number of actual hate crimes is likely to be higher, since hate crime laws often leave out gender. The Movement Advancement Project lists only 23 states with anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination laws, and The Marshall Project details a 2019 federal Bureau of Justice statistic stating the number of hate crimes reported by the FBI is actually 250 times less than what was actually reported.      

While the U.S. Supreme Court granted workplace protections from sex-based discrimination in 2020, it did not include housing or public accommodation. In Pittsburgh, city council unanimously passed a bill several years ago to include gender identity and gender expression into the city’s non-discrimination law, and other Southwestern Pa. municipalities have followed with similar legislation. However, as of press time, Pennsylvania still lacks state-wide discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ residents.

Luna Skye. Photo by Mara Rago.

In April, the Pennsylvania house judiciary committee advanced the “Fairness Act,” a bill that now awaits action in the house appropriations committee and would add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the commonwealth’s nondiscrimination law if passed by both the state House and Senate.

“This policy is baseline,” said Mayes, one of the sponsors of the bill, in a statement. “We are talking about basic human rights for LGBTQ+ folks in Pennsylvania. It’s deeply disappointing that there is even a debate over this bill.”

While Shapiro has also given his support for the legislation to pass, calling it “an important step towards building a better, stronger Commonwealth,” all Republicans on the judiciary committee voted no, with one arguing the bill would force medical practitioners to do things they might morally disagree with, including gender reassignment surgery.

We need everyone to register to vote, and get out there for every special, small, local, and regular election,” says Rosso.

Homosexuality itself was illegal in almost every U.S. state in 1969 when New York City gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, was historically raided by police. At the time, it was illegal even for bars to serve gay patrons or have gay employees behind the bar. On the night of the attack, the LGBTQ+ community fought back, leading to six days worth of protests and a new movement of gay-rights activism. One year later, on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, the first Pride march in New York City was held, marking the beginning of June being recognized as Pride Month.

The Morals Squad was a division of the Pittsburgh Police Department that targeted, entrapped, and arrested gay men in the 1950s.

But if New York City was unsafe, so was Pittsburgh.

Jim Austin, the founding publisher of now-defunct, revolutionary LGBTQ+ publications Pittsburgh Gay News and Pittsburgh’s Out, says that violence directed at LGBTQ+ individuals was even greater 50 years ago than it is today because “there was a lot less understanding and empathy towards the LGBTQ community then.”

Austin recalls being attacked and beaten up multiple times as a gay man in the 1960s, crimes he says were reported to the police but not resulted in “little to no investigation, certainly no arrests.”

“I recall it being a common occurrence for small groups of anti-gay young males to wait in hiding, targeting individuals and couples near gay bars and other places we congregated then,” he says. In more recent times, he says he has seen the hate shift to better-organized attacks inspired by the alt-right.

“We could be at a dark turning point if we don’t take it more seriously,” Austin says. “Our enemies seem to be.”

He says protests can be “an effective way to combat hate crimes, and hold our elected officials’ feet to the fire if our safety isn’t being taken seriously,” adding that folks “should praise action by law enforcement against hate crimes when warranted, and be very public in protest when it isn’t.”

We could be at a dark turning point if we don’t take it more seriously.

Jim Austin

Kerr has responded to hateful attacks like the one against O’Donnell’s family, by launching a campaign to “Protect Trans Kids,” distributing over 1,200 yard signs across the region to spread the anti-hate message.

“My neighbor thought that she could silence and shame us with her hateful sign about our child, but she underestimated us, and she absolutely underestimated the city of Pittsburgh,” O’Donnell tells QBurgh. “I have seen ‘Protect Trans Kids’ yard signs in every Pittsburgh neighborhood that I have driven through in the past year. I find that to be an incredible testament to the community spirit of Pittsburgh.”

Kerr also suggests folks share LGBTQ+ content online, including her published reports of trans deaths, even when it’s depressing.

“If we aren’t using our social media capital to express our outrage and horror,” she says, “why would anyone expect us to use our political or economic capital to actually address the problems?”

Copeland agrees, calling for community members and allies to “show up and show out.”

“When you uplift the most marginalized, it becomes a domino effect for the greater good of us all,” he adds. “Someone once said ‘to remain silent is to remain complacent.’ We are not in a capacity of Pittsburgh right now to stand down or sit back when it comes to the issues of our marginalized and ostracized communities.”

In recent years, Pride festivities in the city have included a mix of the political and polarizing. But even celebratory events can be a big win for young LGBTQ+ members in need of community, according to Gratzinger.

“Seeing a pride display in Target might feel like rainbow capitalism to us, but to a young queer person who is searching for a bit of themselves reflecting back from their society, it could mean everything,” he says. “And I think that’s what LGBTQ visibility is about — proving to each other and the next generation of queer kids that we’ve always been here, we’re here now, and we’re going to continue to be here. Things are hard, they’ve been hard before, and they might still be hard tomorrow. But tomorrow will come, and we’ll be there when it does.”

We’ve always been here, we’re here now, and we’re going to continue to be here.

Ollie Gratzinger

Find this article and much more in the 2023 QBurgh Pittsburgh Pride Guide magazine available at LGBTQ locations across the region and select Giant Eagle and Shop ‘N Save locations.