Of Pittsburgh’s many buildings, some of its most beautiful and influential are churches and synagogues. From East Liberty Presbyterian, to Heinz Chapel in Oakland, to Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, places of worship shape both the architectural and cultural landscapes of Pittsburgh.
But that influence is waning with time. A study by the Pew Research Center found that from 2007 to 2014, the number of adults who described themselves as religiously affiliated dropped by six percent, and the number of those religiously unaffiliated increased by seven percent.
The difference is even more pronounced among the LGBTQ community. The Pew study also found that LGBTQ Americans were nearly twice as likely to be non-religious, at 41 percent of respondents, compared to 22.8 percent for straight Americans.
This is not necessarily surprising as scripture, particularly that of the Abrahamic religions, has been used for decades to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people. This can be seen even today in the modern battle over “religious liberty” laws, which would allow business owners to discriminate against LGBTQ people if it conflicts with their religious views.
Every LGBTQ person in America in some way, miniscule or monumental, reckons with the effects of these battles, as do allies who publicly support the LGBTQ community. But while they affect so many of us, the effect they have is far from uniform.
In high school, Chas Cheatham was your stereotypical girly girl.
“I was ultra-feminine,” Cheatham said. “Always had long hair and nails. I wore skirts to school every day.”
Born in Beaver County, Cheatham was raised there as a member of the Church Of God In Christ, or COGIC, a predominantly African-American branch of Pentacostal Christianity.
“There’s a way of attending church, a way of praying, a way of carrying yourself, a way of thinking about yourself, but it’s still Christianity,” Cheatham said. “It’s like mainstream Christianity but on caffeine, so to speak.”
Cheatham never experienced the urge to sneak away with a boy from school, as many of her friends had done, but attributed it to her faith guiding her to be righteous. Nor had Cheatham been exposed to members of the LGBTQ community, especially lesbians.
“I never saw two women and understood that those two women had a special bond, so I never knew I was gay in that way,” Cheatham said.
After graduating high school, Cheatham began attending a bible college, studying theology. Her freshman year, she had her first ever sexual experience with another woman, a fellow Christian. Everything clicked in place, according to Cheatham. It was that moment that she realized she was gay.
She would not fully explore her sexuality until her late twenties, however, primarily because she was so entrenched in Christian culture.
“It took me years before I would get involved with [another] woman…because I was still a Christian, I was in bible college, I was offered a full scholarship to go to Oral Roberts University,” Cheatham said. “So I already had my path set.”
Ultimately, Cheatham would drop out of Oral Roberts after one year due to an administrative scandal leaving her with no financial aid.
It was then that Cheatham sought to find her authentic self. She began shedding her ultra-feminine presentation little by little. Always a tomboy at heart, Cheatham felt she no longer needed to look how she was “supposed” to look, according to her faith community. She also moved back to Western Pennsylvania to pursue performance art and music. But she also found, living as her authentic self, she had to cut ties with many people from her past.
“I realized that, living my truth, I wasn’t going to find any love from even the people who loved me my whole life, who watched me grow up, who knew me in church and called me a ‘little sister’ or ‘like a daughter,’’ Cheatham said. “I knew the moment these people got wind that I was gay, they were going to switch it up on me, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Today, Cheatham lives in Pittsburgh, and her relationship with her immediate family has improved. She works at an organization called Project Silk, which works to reduce HIV and STI infection rates in black and Hispanic LGBTQ people, as well as support members of the community in need. Many of her clients face similar negativity from people of faith in their own communities and families.
The 1980s were a difficult time for the gay community. Still very much a cultural transition period, LGBTQ people were just coming to be somewhat accepted by mainstream society, and the culture was largely based around nightlife. As a result, religious minorities, like Jewish peoples, among the LGBTQ community had few people like them they could turn to regarding their faith. Judy Meiksin and her peers wanted to create a solution.
“A few friends approached me in the 1980s about starting an LGBTQ congregation, because we shared a kind of isolation within the LGBTQ community where we felt invisible,” Meiksin said.
Meeting in the Israeli nationality room of the Cathedral of Learning, they called their congregation “Bet Tikvah,” meaning “House of Hope.” Meiksin and the other early congregants wanted to ensure that Bet Tikvah would be an open and welcoming community, and tailored services to eschew material that would not contribute to that environment.
“We acknowledged those of us with very traditional beliefs and those more secular, so we focused on prayers that would accommodate everyone,” Meiksin said. “We also cared that the prayers would be non-sexist, so women would really feel included.”
Bet Tikvah became increasingly important to Pittsburgh’s Jewish LGBTQ community as the HIV/AIDS crisis gripped America in the 1980s.
“Many in the gay community were mourning friends and loved ones dying from AIDS,” Meiksin said. “It was very important to be able to come together and mourn this loss in a Jewish congregation. We were fulfilling a very important emotional need.”
Today, Bet Tikvah continues in the tradition of openness that it was founded on over three decades ago, according to Deb Polk, a leader in the congregation.
“We are not affiliated with any one branch of Judaism, our members come from all branches of Judaism,” Polk said. “We’re also not exclusively LGBTQIA, we have a lot of straight members who come to Bet Tikvah because they like Bet Tikvah.”
Bet Tikvah hosts a monthly Shabbat service on the first Friday of each month. They are run 100 percent by volunteers, and each service is lay-led, meaning a different member of the congregation leads service every month. Bet Tikvah also works to organize Passover seders, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, as well as other external social gatherings.
“We’re small, but it’s nice because you really get to know everybody,” Polk said. “Different people volunteer to lead the Friday service, and you get to know them in a different way through that.
In 2005, Rev. Janet Edwards was an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church of America, or PCUSA.
Through her work on a task force about LGBTQ issues, Edwards met Brenda, a Buddhist whose fiance, Nancy, wanted a Presbyterian wedding.
“Nancy was a lifelong Presbyterian, she still attended her church in her hometown in West Virginia,” Edwards said. “So Nancy wanted a Presbyterian minister to preside at their wedding, and Brenda had met me.”
The couple also insisted on having a marriage announcement in the newspaper, like a straight couple would be afforded. Since the officiant of the ceremony would be listed, Edwards knew accepting would be risky. The couple gave Edwards several months to think over whether or not she would commit to officiate.
“We knew that I would be in jeopardy in the Presbyterian Church USA,” Edwards said. “That there would probably be conservatives that would take me to church court, accuse me of violating scripture and the constitution of the PCUSA in presiding at their wedding.”
Edwards ultimately agreed to officiate, and she and the couple set up a team to help them manage messaging and press coverage.
“Nancy and Brenda agreed that we would try to use this as a platform to widen the discussion about marriage of two men and two women beyond the church and into the community,” Edwards said. “We would try and get our message out and provoke conversation both within the church and in Western Pennsylvania.”
Once word of the wedding got out, reaction was swift. Edwards would be accused by a total of fifteen different people and subjected to two church trials to determine whether or not she should be stripped of her ordination. Ultimately, the court acquitted Edwards twice.
Six years later in 2012, PCUSA changed its constitution to allow LGBTQ ministers to be ordained. Three years after that, they changed the constitution again to allow ministers to conduct same-sex marriages. It is Edward’s hope that her fight in 2005 lit the fuse for these future victories.
“The conversation was definitely furthered in the Presbyterian church and in culture, and I hope contributed to the legal decisions that came in the next few years,” Edwards said.