Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Gay Life in Pittsburgh

Hmmmm .... does this article also capture the essence of GLBTQ life in Venango County?

by Elaine Labalme for POPCity:

Being gay in Pittsburgh is not like being gay in San Francisco, where I observed the scene for over twenty years. Nor is it like being gay in New York or Miami or most coastal cities. The openness found in larger metropolitan areas, combined with a strength-in-numbers ethos, makes this lifestyle almost seamless. Pittsburgh's gay community is smaller and you could say it's been coming out for years, aided by the friendliness and familial nature of the citizenry.

"The entire city seems gay-friendly to me," says Rick Armstrong, communications manager for the Warhol Museum. ""Everything from the traditionally gay areas – Shadyside, the Mexican War Streets – to other neighborhoods. I attribute that comfort to the generally friendly nature of the city. Events and openings here feel very gay-friendly and I'd like to see more of the community out there."

Echoing that sentiment is Leslie Fleisher, marketing director for The Cotton Factory and a Pittsburgher for the second time. "Gay culture in Pittsburgh is not defined as a separate entity, rather it's very well integrated, even in some of the city's top events like Hot House and Attack Theatre's Dirty Ball." But it wasn't always that obvious to Fleisher. "My experience at Pitt was within an academic microcosm of queer culture and I experienced little beyond that. When I moved to Seattle after college, I was blown away by how openly queer the city was. Coming back to Pittsburgh six years later, I was a different person with a broader awareness of what Pittsburgh offered as a whole. You're not necessarily queer-identified here – sexuality is so incidental and I find that refreshing."

A keen observer of gay communities across the U.S. is Jason Salzenstein, Style and Travel Editor for Edge, a leading online gay network. "Most mid-sized cities in the U.S. are no different than anywhere else," he notes. "You see the same old stereotypes and biases, they just show up more frequently." Based in Boston, Salzenstein finds that his city's ethnic tribes can be supportive of the gay lifestyle – or not. "Boston can be quasi-progressive and Kennedy-esque, in public at least," he says. "But the machismo in the culture can make it less accepting."

Pittsburgh's LGBT community moves easily within the city with respect to career, cultural and recreational opportunities. Even so, there are times when the gay community prefers to walk among its own. Gary Van Horn, Jr., president of the Delta Foundation and a Pittsburgh native, has been involved in the city's Pride events for over thirty years.

"The picnics in North Park over Memorial Day and Labor Day have been going on for a long time," he says. "From this, we've grown to Pride weekend in mid-June, a series of events along Liberty Avenue that raise funds for Pittsburgh Pride." While it attracted nearly 20,000 last year, that's less than similar events in Columbus and Cleveland. No matter, says Van Horn, since the area is making strides. "The county passed a non-discrimination ordinance last July. The city has had an ordinance since 1989 and now we have it on the county level as well."

Year-round gay-oriented groups include the Renaissance City Choir, which has both a men's and women's choir under the direction of Andres Cladera and is a cultural touchstone in Pittsburgh.

"The nice thing about the Choir is it's a place where you can meet other people and be yourself," says Carol Untch, who drives in from Mars for both the music and the sense of community. Fellow singer Sandy Vansuch finds most corners of Pittsburgh welcoming. "I grew up in Youngstown," she notes, " and both are blue-collar steel towns. Those folks are more forgiving and tolerant than people give them credit for. Our choir is out there to show that while we may be gay, we're just like you – and we make beautiful music!"

Far brassier and sassier is OUTrageous Bingo, a monthly fundraiser hosted by the Gay and Lesbian Community Center (GLCC) of Pittsburgh that draws over five hundred people to Temple Rodef Shalom in Shadyside and screams diversity thanks to its drag queen "halftime show" and high-payout games. Expect everyone from Hill District church ladies to leather-clad gents for a party that's loud and proud.

"It's a great halftime show!" one woman squeals. "I mean, let's face it, who doesn't love drag queens and bingo?"

GLCC Vice Chair Kat Carrick is in the house and rightly proud of the many initiatives the organization is supporting at its new downtown location, including a comprehensive health center. "The disparity in health services between the straight and gay communities is amazing," she explains. "If you're not out with your health provider, you may not get what you need." Services run the gamut from free HIV testing and breast screening to yoga classes and a spa night and they're open to anyone. "It's a wellness thing," says Carrick.

Feeling fine is Matthew Krause, a typical Pittsburgh boomeranger who moved to D.C., S.F. and L.A. before returning to his hometown to settle down. He's come to OUTrageous bingo with a couple of female co-workers. "I was hesitant to come back here because the gay community is really small," he confides, "but Pittsburgh is one gigantic family. What I like most is that I don't feel threatened to be me and it's easy to make friends. There are no pretensions here and there's no better city to come back to."

Across the room is Ed Stockhausen, a postal worker and lifelong Pittsburgher who has been out with his partner for 27 years, not all of them easy. "We've noticed the newer generation is so much more comfortable. Gay and straight kids hang out together. They'll go to any bars, not just gay bars. The city is progressing but we're still always five years behind New York and S.F. Pittsburgh's quaint."

For Matt Murphey, a GLCC board member and accountant for American Bridge, returning to Pittsburgh after a stint in D.C. has been bittersweet. "I like that there's a hometown feel and the gay community is small and cohesive. But there's only so many things to do. The bar scene is major, with the G2H2 happy hour for men and Lez Liquor Hour for women. But Pittsburgh is still old school. You can't hold hands – it's not comfortable. It's not called the Quaker State for nothing! But if you're in the community and are active, you're more comfortable."

Further proof of the appeal of mid-sized cities to the LGBT community is the decision of the Gay Games to hold its 2014 event in Cleveland. Yet, there's work to be done. "Cities, no matter how integrated and accepting, still need to actively reach out to the gay community," argues Salzenstein of Edge. "They need to acknowledge the community and open their doors." To that end, cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore have gay sections on their visitors bureau web sites and Visit Pittsburgh publishes NaviGAYtour, a guide for LGBT visitors to the city.

While Andy Warhol may have taken his gay lifestyle to New York City in the 1950s, one prominent Pittsburgher believes our city is stuck in the 1950s in its view of all things gay. "I find it very frustrating that people here aren't more involved in the real issues facing the gay community," says Tom Sokolowski, director of the Warhol Museum and one of the creators of the AIDS ribbon that promotes awareness of AIDS patients and their caregivers.

"Over the years we've had wonderful gay artists and teachers in Pittsburgh and rather than being embraced, they were criticized. We need people to be more articulate about the serious issues facing gay people and to realize that gay people are more than sequins and sex."

Sokolowski would gladly trade the party circuit for citizen engagement on issues that matter. "At the Museum, we have stood strong with the gay community on political issues such as same-sex benefits," he continues. "When (County Executive) Dan Onorato announced his support, he did it at the Warhol." If there is complacency in Pittsburgh's gay community, Sokolowski is eager to challenge it. "Perhaps it's been too easy here for gay people. The city is friendly and their lifestyle isn't challenged. But there's more to being gay than shaking your booty on Liberty Avenue."

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