The City of Pittsburgh is hoping to take an intersectional approach to improving living conditions for members of the LGBTQIA+ community and racial minorities through the work of two new commissions.
“Pittsburgh has not been the most welcoming city for various different segments of our population,” said Chris Robinson, a co-chair of the city’s LGBTQIA+ Commission. “This is certainly one step towards being able to advance human rights, social justice and equity here within our city.”
Robinson cautioned that it’s not an overnight fix. Success will depend on commitment.
The Pittsburgh City Council approved the creation of the LGBTQIA+ Commission and Commission on Racial Equity in July 2020. A year and a half later, they vary in their progress. The LGBTQIA+ Commission is setting up its bylaws and goals, while the Commission on Racial Equity has yet to meet.
And some activists are concerned that the commissions won’t do enough to address the urgent issues facing residents.
“I have quite a litany of concerns going back 70 years of what the city of Pittsburgh has engaged in, and that’s done real damage to many of these communities, to many people’s lives,” said community activist Randall Taylor.
As Mayor Bill Peduto’s tenure ends and Mayor-elect Ed Gainey prepares to take office, both commissions are still in their infancy. We spoke to members and activists to learn more about their work, the scope of the problems they’re facing and what to look for in the future.
The LGBTQIA+ Commission is tasked with advocating for equity for the LGBTQIA+ community and serving as a liaison between the city government and LGBTQIA+ residents. The group also plans to focus on how racial inequity impacts members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Commission members began submitting applications to join in July 2020, and City Council appointed its first 18 members in February, with one new addition in September. Members work in various fields, including health care, higher education, activism, religion and business.
They view intersectionality as crucial to the commission’s work.
“Multiple people in our communities hold various identities,” said Sue Kerr, a commission co-chair. “What we’re trying to do as a commission is center the impact of racial justice systemically in the City of Pittsburgh.”
Many of the commission’s members are white, which has raised concerns about its ability to represent LGBTQIA+ people of color. Ciora Thomas, the executive director and founder of Sisters PGH, said that because white commissioners haven’t experienced racism, they may not advocate for legislation that benefits the entire LGBTQIA+ community or hold the city accountable to LGBTQIA+ people of color’s needs.
“They have no idea what it actually is, or feels like, to be a Black and Brown LGBTQIA person in Pittsburgh, and they’re not doing anything,” she added.
Thomas believes the best way to improve the diversity of the commission would be “scrapping that and starting that over,” she said.
Robinson said the members of the commission represent a “diverse group of individuals with various different intersectionalities.”
Although Kerr said she believes the commission is one of the most diverse in the city, she noted the need for more diversity, both in terms of race and identities in the LGBTQIA+ community.
“Having representation from the most underrepresented parts of our community — the intersex community, asexual, agender community, polyamorous community — that would be important,” Kerr said. “More from this sense of really trying to get people to engage in what we’re doing. And they may not necessarily join the commission, but they could be involved in making sure that we’re paying attention and responding to their needs.”
The LGBTQIA+ Commission evolved from a mayoral advisory council that Peduto formed in 2016. The advisory council urged the city to create the commission so it could become a permanent governmental entity, not one serving at the mayor’s pleasure.
“I was proud to create the City’s very first LGBTQIA+ Advisory Council in 2016. In 2020, we took the monumental next step of creating a permanent City Commission,” Peduto said in a statement to PublicSource. “This ensured that our LGBTQIA+ neighbors and their needs are represented in City government for generations to come.”
Thomas served on the council from 2017 until it disbanded in 2020. When advocating for the commission’s creation, she said the advisory council hoped it would address issues like creating rehabilitation services and affordable housing options for LGBTQIA+ residents and consider opportunities like creating a neighborhood specifically for LGBTQIA+ residents, like Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood.”
Only one of the commission’s current members was part of the advisory council.
As an early order of business, the commission is encouraging state legislators to ease the process for creating and designating all-gender bathrooms, said Luca Salerno, another of the three co-chairs.
The commission has published statements on LGBTQ holidays, like LGBTQ History Month, Trans Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20 and World AIDS Day on Dec. 1. In the statements, the commission referenced underrepresented LGBTQ communities, like people who are intersex or agender and adopted a more critical tone than traditional city communications, for instance in describing the creation of Pittsburgh as colonization.
“We’re not doing that just for shock value, but to really seize the moment,” Kerr said about the commission’s statement for LGBTQ History month. “It’s a long statement, but it was important that somebody said it.”
The commission has also focused on establishing its bylaws and communications strategy, like broadcasting its monthly public sessions on YouTube. The commission has an email account for residents to contact with questions, issues and requests to speak during meetings.
At its Dec. 16 meeting, the commission identified its top priorities as increasing employment for transgender people, partnership with institutions, understanding the landscape of the community and addressing how business consumer inequity and housing inequity impact the local LGBTQIA+ community.
The commission said it was meeting with Gainey in late December. Gainey’s transition team declined to provide comment for this story.
“It is our hope that we can start to live out the full intent of this commission,” Robinson said, “which is to be able to help influence policy to be able to really make sure that Pittsburgh is the most equitable place and diverse, welcoming place for all populations.”
Commission on Racial Equity
The Commission on Racial Equity’s mandate is to work with the government and its stakeholders to reduce institutional racism and increase racial equality.
The commission will also create five committees — which will include people not appointed to the commission — that will focus specifically on economic stability, health and health care, education, social community context and neighborhoods and built environment.
Taylor thinks it’s especially important for the commission to investigate whether Pittsburgh should provide racial reparations — one of the charges the commission is tasked with in the city code.
“It’s incredibly important to begin to go back and look at that history, and to begin to put a dollar figure on what we can do to try to undo a lot of the damage that the city government actually did,” said Taylor, a prominent advocate for housing equity.
Seven representatives were appointed in March, including Executive Director of the Commission on Human Relations Jam Hammond, Chief Equity Officer Majestic Lane, Pittsburgh Councilmember Ricky Burgess, Pittsburgh Councilmember Daniel Lavelle, Allegheny County Councilmember DeWitt Walton, State Rep. Jake Wheatley and Jarah Doose, a representative on behalf of U.S Rep. Mike Doyle.
Peduto in his statement said he was “happy to support the efforts” of Burgess and Lavelle in forming the commission.
Hammond, who also serves as a member of the LGBTQIA+ Commission, hopes the commission will examine the City of Pittsburgh’s hiring practices for public employees to ensure that recruiting targets diverse populations.
Under city law, the commission must meet at least four times annually, and its first meeting was supposed to take place less than 45 days after members were appointed. The commission has yet to meet.
“If we have a clear understanding of what the goal of the commission is, and we meet, I think that will be fine regardless of the fact that we haven’t met for several months,” Hammond said.
Taylor believes the commission’s slow start is hindering its ability to adequately advocate for racial equity.
He hopes Gainey will add more community representatives to the commission beyond elected officials to hold the committee accountable. Thomas similarly hopes the commission will include more Black women and Black members of the LGBTQIA+ community when Gainey takes office.
Both stressed the urgency of the work.
“These are real people’s lives that are being impacted — sometimes adversely — in Pittsburgh,” Taylor said. “Let’s take these initiatives seriously, not just have these be press events that make it sound good. Let’s really do something.”
Update (12/30/2021): The LGBTQIA+ Commission disables the comment function in its virtual meetings in accordance with practices of other City of Pittsburgh panels. An earlier version of this story suggested that the policy reflected concerns specific to that commission.
Amelia Winger is a PublicSource editorial intern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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