By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
Wednesday, November 20, was Transgender Day of Remembrance.
SisTers PGH and the LGBTQIA+ Advisory Council of Pittsburgh held a vigil on the steps of the City-County Building. It was a powerful ceremony. Trans leaders from our community spoke, and attendees honored and celebrated the lives of the trans folks the world lost this year to violence — more than 300 that we know of so far.
Many at the vigil were holding signs regarding the “suspicious” death of Elisha Stanley who was found in Downtown hotel room at the end of September. Many in the community believed her death to be a homicide, but the Allegheny County medical examiner just this past Tuesday ruled her death an accidental overdose. At the rally, folks held up signs with her image and the words “Give Us Our Roses While We Are Still Here.”
In Pittsburgh (and all around the world), black trans women are leading the way in the fight for equality, and they always have been. Stonewall was a riot started and led by trans women of color, who moved it beyond a moment into a movement. But they have yet to see the fruits of their labor.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, it was announced that the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) gave Pittsburgh a perfect score on its Municipal Equality Index. Now, the HRC isn’t the end all be all arbiter for these metrics, particularly when it comes to trans folx. Just last month, 100 trans leaders wrote an open letter to the HRC, reading: “Trans people, and primarily Black trans leaders and trans leaders of color, have been leading the work for trans liberation since long before HRC existed…Our work in recent decades has more often been opposed and undermined by HRC rather than supported.” But the Delta Foundation, arguably Pittsburgh’s most well-known LGBTQ organization, seemed to take it as gospel shared an article about the HRC score with quotes from their president, Gary Van Horn, touting the supposed progressiveness of the Steel City. How can we have a perfect score for LGBTQ metrics after receiving a report that says Pittsburgh is so bad for black women that the best thing they could do to improve their life expectancy is to leave? Where was Delta’s post about that report? Do they not recognize the black women and femmes in the LGBTQ community?
The juxtaposition of the celebratory post from Delta a day before a black trans women-led vigil mourning their dead sisters is in keeping with the friction that has happened for ages between groups of affluent white cis gay men and LGBTQ people of color. This segregation and contrast is something Pittsburgh sees every year, the divide is so wide that we have two Pride celebrations.
People’s Pride, led by SisTers PGH, centers and celebrates the most vulnerable of our LGBTQ community. Contrast that to Delta’s, which is bolstered by corporations like EQT, Walmart, 84 Lumber, and tobacco companies. LGBTQ young adults are twice as likely to use tobacco, but at least they can get it in a rainbow package! Even anti-choice groups, whose explicit purpose is to shut down Planned Parenthood (a big provider of quality LGBTQ healthcare in Pittsburgh), have been welcomed at Delta’s Pride. When I had a conversation with Delta board members about this a couple of years ago, a member said, “Well, you can be gay and pro-life. Some gay people are even Trump supporters. Intersectionality, right?” Naw, that is not what that means.
I thought about this as I watched the Democratic Presidential Debate last week. I was expecting (and frankly looking forward to) Pete Buttigieg getting dragged for his multiple recent missteps with the black community, but it didn’t happen.
I was excited when Pete announced he was running, and apparently, many others were, too. Pretty quickly, several LGBTQ organizations endorsed Buttigieg as their presidential nominee, which on some level makes sense; it is a big fucking deal to have someone out and gay running for president! One of the groups that endorsed him was the Victory Fund, a national organization that works to get as many LGBTQ folks in office as possible. I am a fan of them, and hey, they also endorsed me when I ran for office this past cycle!
But the thing is, just because Pete is gay doesn’t mean he’s the best candidate for LGBTQ issues, and I think that needs to be centered when it comes to endorsements that benefit and potentially claim to speak for that community. Personally, I believe Pete Buttigieg is the flesh and blood personification of the Delta Foundation. Talking this over, my friend Ronnie put it perfectly: “Pete Buttigieg is like Bud Light at Pride.”
Representation matters so damn much. But just because someone is part of an oppressed group doesn’t mean they are the best person to enact policies benefiting that group. Intersections are also important. Pete Buttigieg is gay, and while gay rights are under attack, Pete is also a cisgender white Christian man. He has a lot of privilege that many LGBTQ folks simply don’t have, and so far, it doesn’t seem like he is very in tune with that reality.
While his polling has been climbing in Iowa, folks have raised doubts about Pete’s electability since he lacks support from folks in the black community. This is in part due to issues in his town of South Bend, Indiana. During his term as mayor, he fired the town’s first black police chief. In June 2019, Buttigieg took a break from the campaign trail when a police officer murdered a black person, and he’s been scrutinized for how he handled it. Another police officer on the force had a history of police brutality against black folks going back years, and despite public pressure at various points, Buttigieg didn’t have the will or the leadership to get him removed.
In July, a month later, the Buttigieg campaign released the Douglass Plan, a plan for black America, touting a list of 400 black South Carolinian folks who endorsed the plan. One big problem: a lot of folks on the list didn’t know how their names got attached to it! Also, a lot of them were actually white. Seriously, 42% of this list of “black leaders” were in fact white folks.
Johnnie Cordero was one of the black leaders that was mistakenly listed as a supporter. He said he was asked to give the Buttigieg team feedback on the plan, but before that happened it was released with his name on the list. “It’s presumptuous to think you can come up with a plan for black America without hearing from black folk. There’s nothing in there that said black folk had anything to do with the drafting of that plan…We’re tired of people telling us what we need. You wanna find out what we need? Come and ask us.”
What really bothered me was when results from a focus group were leaked recently, the folks who conducted it attributed Pete’s lack of support with the black community to homophobia. This is insulting to black folks, incredibly lazy, and not backed up by research. Black writer Charles M. Blow said in an opinion piece in the New York Times, “Reducing Pete Buttigieg’s struggle to attract black support solely to black homophobia is not only erroneous, it is a disgusting, racist trope, secretly nursed and insidiously whispered by white liberals with contempt for the very black people they court and need.”
Last week was a reminder for me and for many others that we still have a long way to go when it comes to LGBTQ representation and equity. It also shone a light on the struggles so many people of color, particularly black trans women face every day. They deserve leaders, both in the community and in politics, who will truly listen to their concerns, acknowledge their own privilege, and work to improve society for our most vulnerable.
Because we need our Pride to be bold, not light. Lives are depending on it.