Sojourning exhibit shares LGBTQ+ journeys

John Hamilton | Staff Photographer

A new exhibit is flipping the script on LGBTQ+ awareness — letters and photos of encouragement will come not from the accepted, but from the accepting.

The exhibit, titled “Acceptance Journeys Pittsburgh,” is on display around campus, with two to four narratives stopping in Posvar Hall, Parran Hall and O’Hara Student Center now through the first week of April. The exhibit holds a collection of photographs and short personal stories of love from straight Pittsburghers of all ages — siblings, friends and parents — written to an LGBTQ+ person. A team from the Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health collected each participant’s stories, which are set on easels next to the author and subject’s photograph, in order to address LGBTQ+ stigma. 

The exhibit is an offshoot of “Acceptance Stories Milwaukee,” which was a similar campaign the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Diverse and Resilient — a community organization — and the University of Wisconsin-Madison launched in 2011. Organizations in St. Louis and Cleveland have also launched sister programs.

The idea of a Pittsburgh version first came to fruition in 2014, when a team from the School of Public Health began conducting focus groups and launched a billboard and social media campaign in the city to gather stories from individuals who wanted to share their acceptance and love for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“We did a lot of work to determine how ready Pittsburgh was for this conversation,” said Sarah Krier, the director of the Acceptance Journeys program.

In conjunction with the University-wide Year of the Humanities initiative, “Acceptance Journeys” will conclude by holding panel discussion in the Cathedral of Learning 11:30 a.m. April 7. It will include Pitt faculty involved in the project, as well as representatives from the “Acceptance Journeys” program within Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. “Acceptance Journeys” experts from many different fields, including journalism, psychology, anthropology and women’s studies, will speak in the panel.

The event’s press release states that LGBTQ+ stigma is especially high for young black men, putting them at an increased risk of HIV and community isolation. Krier said this year’s “Acceptance Journeys’” focus “is on sharing photos and stories of acceptance, primarily of LGBT people of color, and their friends and family. By disseminating these stories throughout the community, we’re countering stigma and normalizing acceptance.”

Marcus Robinson, president of Pitt’s Rainbow Alliance, said people of color tend to be underrepresented in LGBTQ+ efforts reducing stigma.

“So many LGBTQIA groups suffer from a lack of people of color attending their events, and in order to say you are really representing the community you need to ensure that all identities are being included and respected,” Robinson, who is a gay black man, said. “Personally, I’ve just also felt that many LGBTQIA groups could make a better effort to diversify, as it can be alienating to be the only person of color.”

Krier said young gay black men often feel left out of larger LGBTQ+ social movements.

“One thing that’s come up in focus groups is that they often don’t see themselves represented in campaigns to address stigma,” she said.

While making an effort to target minorities specifically, “Acceptance Journeys” vignettes often contain pieces of advice for other straight people who may be struggling to accept a gay or transgender friend or family member.

“It takes a lot to stand up,” Krier said. “And our campaign is different in that we are collecting stories from families and friends, the non-LGBT person.”

One “Acceptance Journeys” contributor named Michelle, who described her relationship with her gay brother Michael, wrote, “It’s a personal question that you have to ask yourself. “If you love a person, if you’re friends with a person, if you cherish a person, then those labels shouldn’t matter.”

Another contributor, Luis, who spoke of his gay brother’s premature death in a car accident, wrote, “If someone comes out, whether it’s a friend or a relative, we have to not only be open-minded, but also understanding. We have to see the person as a whole, without judgement. We have to give encouragement, love, affection.”

Krier said it was often difficult to gather stories from straight-identifying men, possibly due to increased pressure on men to validate their heterosexuality.

“If you’re a straight-identifying man and you’re out and visible about a friendship with a gay identifying man, that may call your sexuality into question,” she said.

Many of the pieces in the exhibit also address the conflict between deep-held religious views and accepting an LGBTQ+ child or sibling. They do so in a largely non-controversial way, avoiding the stickiness of religious views on homosexuality, and instead focusing on loving and accepting LGBTQ+ individuals for who they are.

One participant, Nadine, wrote about her gay son Brandon, telling of her decision to “let God do the judging. Until that time, I’m here to love and to draw people to a loving God.”

In another story from Rev. Kelly, she describes her close relationship with a gay congregation member, Gary, and his involvement in her son’s life.

“It’s so important to for me that Gary is in my child’s life,” she wrote. “Not only do I want my son to experience difference, I want him to understand there is no stigma.”

Each story is displayed alongside a photograph of the individuals sharing their story, typically taken in a familiar setting for the participants. The exhibit is accompanied with an online gallery at Pittsburgh’s “Acceptance Journeys” website.

“The journey is very real, and the struggle to accept is very real. We are hoping that in these stories people see themselves,” Krier said. “This is Pittsburgh. These are the people that you know and work and live with. This is about bringing the message home.”

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