Queer pride is everywhere in Pittsburgh — Bloomfield storefronts sell queer-friendly merchandise, rainbow flags dance in the winds of Lawrenceville homes and banners adorned with local drag performers hang from streetlights Downtown, advertising the upcoming Pittsburgh Pride Festival.
The queer community has changed drastically in recent years, let alone the almost 50 years since the Stonewall Riots started the modern queer rights movement.
For resident LGBTQ+ Pittsburghers and new-to-towners alike, Pittsburgh’s queer community provides solace from the day-to-day struggles of being queer.
Kate Shindle, a rising senior majoring in biology, is the newly-elected president of Rainbow Alliance — Pitt’s gender and sexuality organization. Shindle says that the queer community in Pittsburgh — and especially at Pitt — is a large family.
“We really are a family for one another — especially because a lot of [students] have very strained relationships with the families that they grew up with,” Shindle said. “[Rainbow Alliance functions] as a support system for one another when family isn’t always there.”
Advocacy through engagement — The Rainbow Alliance
Rainbow Alliance is an organization at Pitt devoted to the community of LGBTQ+ students on campus. Its advocacy and activism has won students at Pitt the ability to use one’s preferred name as opposed to their legal name, use gendered facilities that correlate with their identity and offers events focusing on pronoun usage.
The organization strives to be a safe space for LGBTQ+ students on campus and offer the student body a way to connect with the larger Pittsburgh community through events such as Coming Out Week, the Trans Day of Remembrance Vigil, which is held every fall, and Lavender Graduation, which is held every spring.
Shindle remarks that the work Rainbow Alliance does on campus is vital to maintaining a positive and welcoming environment for all students at Pitt.
“I feel like we can really make a difference on campus — not only reaching out to the LGBT community, but the campus at-large,” Shindle said.
Shindle has plans to continue Rainbow Alliance’s advocacy during their tenure as president by continuing to offer support and an open space to those who may not have come from welcoming environments.
However, Rainbow Alliance looks to continue adapting in an age where more and more people are becoming knowledgeable about LGBTQ+ issues.
New students to Pitt may not have much experience with some terminology that is common in the LGBTQ+ community, such as the words queer, which was previously a derogatory slur used toward LGBTQ+ people, but now is used in a reclamation nature to refer to a person who is not heterosexual or straight, transgender, someone whose identity is at odds with their sex, and cisgender, someone whose identity is aligned with their sex.
Rainbow Alliance looks to continue programming in the fall that introduces queer issues to students while maintaining an open format accessible to those outside the LGBTQ+ community.
Shindle’s involvement in Rainbow Alliance dates back to 2014 — their early days at Pitt.
Having come from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania — a town of about ten thousand people roughly ten miles west of Harrisburg — Shindle acknowledges the differences in the communities they found at home from the ones at Pitt.
Where Pitt and Pittsburgh offer a bustling, vibrant queer community, the queer community in south central Pennsylvania is small yet resilient, according to Shindle. They also say that LGBTQ+ people are not as visibly out in the region as they are in Pittsburgh and can even lose connections with friends and family if they come out.
When getting involved in Pittsburgh’s queer community, Shindle wanted a community that was stronger than what they had at home, and was looking for a safe and welcoming environment to live in.
After looking at organizations like the PERSAD Center — which offers health services to members of the LGBT community — the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Pittsburgh — which offers social spaces and other queer-centric organizations in Pittsburgh — Shindle found Rainbow Alliance, and joined after talking with an officer of the organization.
“[Rainbow] has been such a supportive environment — [it] really allowed me to grow and find my identity,” Shindle said.
However, according to Shindle, the greater Pittsburgh queer community is mostly centered around bars and drinking — underage LGBTQ+ people don’t have many places to turn to. Shindle hopes that Rainbow can offer another sense of community in the city.
This lack of community for the underage — especially underage students — can lead to self-isolation. Further, LGBTQ+ people sometimes have difficulty forming connections with people outside of the community due to concerns stemming from trust and fear for safety.
“It’s really hard to balance [support groups], you want to have that balance and you want to trust people, but it’s hard to gauge,” Shindle said.
At the Intersection of Identity and Politics
Akira Ormes-Strong — a rising sophomore at Chatham University studying media arts and minoring in music — is active in Chatham’s activism circles, taking part in protests and actions both on campus and elsewhere in the city. After coming out as non-binary and bisexual in 2014, they became heavily involved in Pittsburgh’s queer community as an activist.
Ormes-Strong also became involved in activist groups during the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., that occurred after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, and cited the Black Lives Matter movement as an inspiration for standing up for those who don’t have as loud of a voice as others.
“Being queer, you do have to be political to an extent — the more marginalized you [are], the more you have to fight for your right to exist,” Ormes-Strong said.
Skylar Rella — a 19-year-old Squirrel Hill resident who will be studying theatre and writing at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., this fall — disagrees with Ormes-Strong.
“I think [politicization of queer communities] might be one of the reasons why safe spaces are so important because I think that’s one of the few places we can exist as people and not feel like our identity is a debate — it doesn’t have to be political,” Rella said.
Safe spaces in Pittsburgh’s queer community are generally marked by a calm, laid-back tone. However, according to Shindle, most of the safe spaces in Pittsburgh are often associated with nightlife and bars.
Shindle promotes safe spaces at Pitt like Rainbow Alliance and the more recent group T Is For, a social group geared towards transgender and non-binary students at Pitt that offers a casual way for students to find community without pressure or stress from the city’s nightlife.
But to Rella, it is important that these spaces are intersectional and open to everyone. In his view, the queer community in Pittsburgh is very welcoming and accepting, but also lacks in terms of intersectionality — he says that communities tend to be focused more on cisgender white queer people as opposed to those of all identities and ethnicities.
To him, intersectional safe spaces are key to a functioning queer community. Rella acknowledges that there are a variety of identities, but stresses that these identities are the reason that intersectional safe spaces need to exist.
“Right now, especially in the media, the only representation we see is white cis gay people. And unfortunately, there are a lot of queer spaces where those are the only people [or] the only focus of the group,” Rella said.
Getting Involved: Open Conversations
For those new to the Pittsburgh queer community, getting involved — regardless of orientation or identity — can be daunting.
At Pitt, the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program offers a way for students to learn about the sometimes challenging-to-navigate world of gender identities and expression.
The GSWS department website describes the program as committed to promoting LGBTQ+ activism and engagement with the community and claims to offer a way for students and faculty alike to explore representations of gender and sexuality in the classroom setting without concern for retribution or attack due to a lack of knowledge or personal ignorance.
The GSWS program at Pitt offers insight and new ways for those who are unfamiliar to begin learning about and acknowledging the issues that the queer community faces.
“You don’t have to be queer to support the queer community … As a society, we need to work on getting rid of that stigma that first thing that it’s bad to be queer and second thing that you have to be queer to care about issues,” Rella said.
And Ormes-Strong acknowledges the stressors of coming into a new community without much idea of where to go. But, like Rella and Shindle, they encourage getting involved even if doing so is uncomfortable at first.
“Definitely try and reach out — find other people. If you’re confused, that’s totally fine and very okay,” Ormes-Strong said. “A lot of people have gone through that are and aren’t queer — just find queer communities, talk about your experience and however slow you want to take it is fine. There’s no rush.”
For Shindle, the key component is being open and willing to have conversations, even if they are difficult at times. Rainbow Alliance strives to be as inclusive of different identities as possible, and Shindle stresses trust in others and having an open mind above anything else.
“Pitt is so welcoming — even those who don’t understand [the queer community] are welcoming to it. Just try to put yourself out there even if it’s not the easiest thing to do,” Shindle said.