Dee Culp

LIVING YOUR TRUTH: The hopeful and heartbreaking lessons of the TransPride Pittsburgh conference

LIVING YOUR TRUTH: The hopeful and heartbreaking lessons of the TransPride Pittsburgh conference
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Going home has always been bittersweet. My family moved from Pittsburgh to Hazleton in 1990, and I was never happy about it. So much has changed that it’s sometimes hard to look back and remember. As such, my family often returns to the area to visit old friends and enjoy some of the many things the region has to offer – everything from sightseeing to museums to amusement parks. I really do think it’s a beautiful city, especially considering its past.

To drive along certain stretches and see clean, shiny buildings where tech startups have cleared out the rusty landscape of steel mills is, likewise, bittersweet. Pittsburgh’s blue collar history is slowly being gentrified into oblivion, remembered only by the aging generations who still cling to their roots, even as it evolves into a new era of prosperity. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Pittsburgh could have gone the way many cities in this country have (think: Detroit), but diversification of industries and businesses setting up in the city have surged it back to life. Pittsburgh may never see the level of importance and prosperity it had in its heyday, but for the moment, it’s a thriving, vibrant place to be. I believe there’s a lesson to be learned in that.

This past weekend, I had a chance to hitch a ride to my old hometown with Daye Lily Pope, transgender rights organizer for Equality Pennsylvania. We were headed to the TransPride Pittsburgh conference, now in its fifth year.

The convention ran for two days and offered a large variety of workshops. We attended workshops offering lessons in how be more mindful, we learned makeup tips from an expert makeup artist, what goes into organizing activists and advocacy groups, and a lot about the history of the LGBT movement. We heard from the experiences of different members of the community and how their lives changed since transitioning. There was so much to do and learn; we had a truly wonderful time.

Daye was there, specifically, to deliver a presentation on her recent Listening Tour, which involved traveling throughout Pennsylvania to hear the concerns of the trans community and learn about the issues we face in different places. Some of those issues include, but are in no way limited to, lack of healthcare access, lack of employment, workplace discrimination, other types of discrimination, abuse, violence, hate crimes, homelessness, sex work, substance abuse, and on and on. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s reality. Daye’s job was to gather these stories, names, and faces and assemble them into a better understanding of what we’re up against. It allows her to coordinate and organize resources to places where they’re most needed. It was a huge undertaking, and the invaluable information gathered should prove very helpful to Equality PA and for future advocates and activists.

For me, the trip was more pleasure than business. My only aim was to meet new people and serve as an ambassador to NEPA – a way to give our little nook a face and a name in the hopes that the rest of the state wouldn’t forget about us. I met a few new friends and had a great time, but I also gained some valuable insight into the attitudes regarding trans people in the Steel City.

What I learned was that things are, more or less, the same all over. People still stare; people still try to figure out what gender we “really” are. And while I didn’t witness it, I was assured that trans women of color can almost always count on increased levels of bigotry and discrimination in addition to plain old racism. Like anywhere else, as long as you’re “passing” and white, you’ve got it relatively easy. If you’re not, though… well, as I said, count on having a problem. Upon learning this, I believe my exact words were, “That’s heartbreaking.”

When I first came out, one refrain I heard time and again was, “It’s too bad you aren’t in Philly or New York. You’d be a lot more welcome in places like that.” Well, to be honest, I’ve found that Wilkes-Barre and Scranton aren’t so bad. I think I’ve been treated pretty well so far, and I don’t think there is anything inherently more or less acceptable about trans people in Philadelphia or New York, aside from the fact that there are more of us in those places. There are just more people, in general – which, unfortunately, includes more bigots, more homophobes, and more racists, too. They might even be a little bolder about it than in smaller towns. It’s a strange dynamic, but that’s just what I seem to get from people who have experienced it and told me about it, in addition to my own experiences traveling around. In places such as Philadelphia, New York, and Pittsburgh, the grass isn’t any greener; there’s just more of it.

As I mentioned above, there is a lesson to be learned in Pittsburgh’s cultural and economic renaissance. When the steel mills began to shut down, there wasn’t a lot of hope for the future. Diversifying Pittsburgh’s industries brought in new life and economic prosperity, in addition to cleaning out the heavy air pollution that once plagued it. I see a new Pittsburgh through new eyes, and I love it all over again. And I see the people who live there, especially within the LGBT community, and I love them. Indeed, I have come to find myself more enamored with transgender people every day, simply for the diversity of experience they have – people like Daye Pope, who is working as hard as she can to ensure we get the rights we deserve. I believe the world could benefit from realizing and appreciating how important diversity truly is, and how important we are to it.

Living Your Truth is a weekly column about the empowerment that comes from being true to your authentic self. It focuses on the LGBT community in NEPA and the news and events that impact it.