Most people who’ve had at least one decent history class can easily recognize the name Martin Luther King Jr., but you’d be hard pressed to find similar recognition for Bayard Rustin.
Rustin was a chief strategist for the March on Washington and some people called Rustin the heart of the civil rights movement. Years after his death the Obama Administration gave Rustin recognition in the form of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but his contributions lay largely forgotten because he was a gay man, some say, in a world where the church and the respectability politics of the time considered him a liability to the cause.
Thirty years after Rustin’s death, the New Pittsburgh Courier wondered what life was like for Blacks who identify as LGBTQ+ in this, the sometimes-labeled “Most Livable City.”
While not every perspective is covered in this article, for some Black members of the LGBTQ community that the Courier interviewed, being in the most livable city can be complicated.
A recent Harvard study showed that people of color were twice as likely to report experiencing anti-LGBTQ discrimination when it came to applying for jobs and police interactions than their White peers. AMANDA TAYLOR came out to her mother four states away as a teenager. She is pansexual, which, for her, means gender isn’t a factor in romantic attraction. She wrote a “melodramatic” letter to her mother; her mother read it and asked if the crush in the letter was the same girl she didn’t like from across the street, and two weeks later her mother surprised Taylor by introducing her to her own girlfriend. Taylor considers herself incredibly fortunate, but it wouldn’t be entirely smooth sailing. Her mother was accepting—as for the rest of her family, she felt a change.
“It wasn’t so much bashing me or outright hatred, things were just different between us after that,” she told the New Pittsburgh Courier in June. “There were just little comments that let me know that it was very strange and not entirely OK.”
When she came to Pittsburgh as a young adult she realized that finding a community in the city might be complicated. In the beginning she spent time in LGBTQ spaces that were mostly White; it was familiar experience. Growing up, she’d felt “disconnected” from her Blackness and at times rejected by African American people around her.
“Growing up in the South most of the Black people I knew rejected me either outright or indirectly,” she said. “I had a White name, I talked ‘like White people,’ I was just never Black enough. Adults loved me—kids, not so much.”
However, as time went on Taylor grew discontent in what she called the “White homogenous queer community.” She described instances of exclusion or racism she’d heard about secondhand or witnessed.
“Seeing what’s been considered to be the queer community, which is the White queer community and seeing so few people like me and realizing how much the community is willing to forgive and forget when it comes to aggressions that are faced along racial lines is entirely disheartening,” Taylor said.
A recent Harvard study showed that people of color were twice as likely to report experiencing anti-LGBTQ discrimination when it came to applying for jobs and police interactions than their White peers.
The study also found that LGBTQ people of color were “six times more likely to say they have avoided calling the police” for fear of discrimination. Only five percent of White LGBTQ people reported being afraid to call the cops, as opposed to 30 percent of LGBTQ people of color.
Overall, studies show that 4.6 percent of African Americans identify as LGBTQ. More than 10 million adults (of all races) in the United States identify as LGBTQ.
Black celebrities have also recently made public their LGBTQ identity, such as CNN host Don Lemon, television and film director Lee Daniels, and ABC “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts.
In Pittsburgh, Taylor said that Black LGBTQ people lacked visibility within the city and spaces, and as a result are often overlooked.
“We just aren’t seen or thought of really,” she told the Courier in an exclusive interview.
“Not when it comes to fundraising or events. Most of us just don’t have the patience…we don’t want to constantly deal with the microaggressions in order to change the White homogenous queer community and make it more accepting.”
TAYLOR ANDERSON shares a different view. Anderson told the Courier he has found acceptance within Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community. At 21 years old, he said since coming out, the city has been more accepting than his own family.
“My mom just didn’t accept it,” he recalled. “People like putting other people in boxes—in the LGBTQ community I feel like there’s less of that.”
He detailed a childhood where as a boy, sports weren’t a hobby, but a required way to express manhood in his family. He added that he sometimes felt like being openly gay was less accepted in the Black community.
A study showed that more than half of Black Americans support same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights in general, but for some people, feelings of disconnectedness can arise. But, there can also be a sense of pride in being connected to two communities that have survived, in some people’s eyes, such a great deal of oppression.
“There are few communities that have struggled as much as the queer and the Black communities have and we’re still here and surviving. And in both of those communities there’s still that determination not only to survive, but to thrive,” Amanda Taylor said.
She told the New Pittsburgh Courier that what helped her become confident as her identity as a Black, queer woman was meeting other Blacks of the same identity. But, sometimes she thinks this can be better accomplished in spaces dominated by Black queer people.
“Most of us just don’t have the patience…we don’t want to constantly deal with the microaggressions in order to change the White homogenous queer community and make it more accepting.”
For SHARI MORRIS, 20 years of being out, she’s experienced it all; from welcoming and respectful to disappointing and disillusioning. She’s proudly an aunt, a grandmother, a Hill District native, a retired public health educator and happens to be married to another woman. Morris said she approaches the “Being Black and LGBTQ” from a place of being willing to learn and educate others. She stressed that everyone’s experience is different.
“There are so many accomplished Black, LGBTQ people. But if we keep them in the closet or don’t speak up when we have the opportunity, our elders get lost in history,” Morris said.
She sees any racism present in the LGBTQ community a result of living in a society where racism is still pervasive.
”There’s racism in our community because there’s racism in our society,” she noted. “It has to be challenged and dealt with rather than avoided. One would think our mutual oppression by the mainstream would unite us and it does sometimes, but there is much work to be done.”
As for 29-year-old JOHN “DEZ” EASTER, the Erie native said he grew up without much media representation or other LGBTQ people to share similar experiences.
When he came out to his mother, she was accepting, but his father took more time to come around. He thinks this is in part due his being more effeminate than his dad would have liked. Like with Anderson, masculinity is sometimes a reason for feeling disconnected.
“Masculinity is really huge for the Black community, so as a Black, gay man, I feel like we struggle with that as well,” he said. “It’s just like a historical thing and I feel like it goes back to slavery, a time you had to be strong and people feel like a man has to be strong all the time.”
After he graduated from Pitt, Easter decided to stay in the city, but even after he became involved in the “ball scene” as a college student, looking around the city he noticed a lack of spaces for people who looked like him.
Ball Culture is a subculture comprised primarily of Black and brown LGBTQ performers who compete in voguing dance competitions. Easter said he found a home there, but still longed for something more.
While he forged a path in wellness outreach, Easter took things one step further in the betterment for Black LGBTQ individuals. He co-founded True T PGH, a community platform that collaborates with several nonprofits in the city, aiming to share LGBTQIA resources and queer arts and entertainment from an African American perspective.
“We really started this entire organization because there was nothing in Pittsburgh for young, Black gay men in Pittsburgh, so we wanted to create something for ourselves,” Easter said.
July 31-Aug. 5 was True T PGH’s Fourth Annual Blackout Week. Eleven events over a six-day period were held for “queer people of color to connect through meaningful resource sharing, and bringing together a diverse mix of people,” according to a press release announcing the events.
Events included a day at Kennywood Park, a Young Adult Mixer and Discussion at Hotel Indigo in East Liberty, a fashion show featuring five queer designers at Ace Hotel in East Liberty, a Community Town Hall, and a Black Gay Prom, held Aug. 3 at Kimpton Hotel Monaco, Downtown.
“Blackout Week is about highlighting the many great happenings both within and outside of the LGBTQIA+ Communities of Color,” said True T PGH executive director Duane Binion in a release. “Many times social media, news outlets and people that might not agree with the LGBTQ lifestyle like to portray us negatively. Blackout Week unapologetically reclaims our greatness and celebrates the excellence that lives inside us all.”
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