What prompted a fight between a drag queen and three men at a Bloomfield intersection April 30 may never be fully known, but the altercation has rallied some in the LGBT community to call for more tolerance and awareness.
Veruca la'Piranha, a.k.a. Greg Labon of Bloomfield, is hazy on the details surrounding the incident that left him with blackened eyes and scraped knees and arms. The alleged instigators of the fight are unknown.
Labon never filed a police report. But by his account, he and two others dressed in drag as Jem and the Misfits were leaving a gay '80s dance party early in the morning April 30 when three outdoor patrons of the Pleasure Bar started yelling profanities.
"I'm fine until you call me a fag," Labon says. "When someone yells that, they're not just yelling at you. They're yelling at all gay people."
What happened next varies from accounts. Labon says he confronted the group of men in their 20s and they jumped him. Friend and witness Eva Stulc says Labon was beaten while she and two others tried to intervene.
But Pleasure Bar bartender Rolando Bustamante, who says he watched the skirmish from inside the restaurant, offers a different account. From his vantage point, he says he saw Labon throw a wooden saw horse (nearby for use as a barrier during the Pittsburgh marathon) at the patrons, leading to the fight. As the fight progressed to the middle of Liberty Avenue, Bustamante called the police and tried to break it up.
"Either side wouldn't let go," he says. He doesn't know the men, but banned them from the bar when they tried to re-enter afterward.
The fight eventually dissipated and both parties left before police arrived. No arrests have been made.
The incident mobilized the LGBT community and its allies. Nearly 18 hours later, about 150 people rallied on the corner of Liberty and Cedarville. Chanting "Hate hate!" they called for an end to discrimination and violence.
"Some people just don't blend in or can't blend in," says Eli Kuti, organizer of the city's Dyke March. "You should be able to walk down the street and feel safe."
But some don't, she says, in part because they feel they can't turn to police for incidents of anti-LGBT or domestic violence because "they aren't taken seriously." Those concerns lead to victims not filing police reports, she says.
Kuti acknowledges "many cops don't have prejudices and just don't know what to do."
But still, the victim's fear of reporting crimes, she observes, sometimes outweighs the risk of it happening to someone else.
"If they're going to do it again, they're going to do it," Labon says of the perpetrators. "Gay people just need to make it known they aren't going to be pushed around." He now carries pepper spray and has taken a self-defense class.
Kuti is calling for officers to be briefed in handling LGBT issues, and for communities to have more tolerance and awareness, especially in the Bloomfield area where some say there has been a smattering of violence.
"I think [Bloomfield] is a little old-fashioned," Labon observes.
Sena Hockenberry, 25, says she was attacked in Friendship Park early one morning in December 2007, when three men saw her walking and yelled gay slurs, then beat her until police showed up. But even then, she says poor treatment continued.
The police, she says, "told me they would have done the same thing."
She also recalls when someone threw eggs at her and another woman, who was also punched in the face. Labon says he's been harassed before too, but never in a way that became as physical as the April 30 incident.
They haven't filed police reports, in part, Hockenberry says, because the police have "not been helpful. I was encouraged not to file a police report because they were very insensitive."
Police spokeswoman Diane Richard and city officials encourage anyone who feels they aren't treated respectfully by police to contact the officer's supervisor, the Office of Municipal Investigations or their city councilor.
"If they're not being treated respectfully, then we have an issue on our end," Richard says. Officers respond to every call, she says: "People of the gay persuasion or dressed in drag -- we don't look at them any differently. They're still people."
Officer Michael Gay Sr., community relations coordinator for Zone 5 -- which covers that portion of Bloomfield -- says he hasn't heard reports of gay-bashing in the area prior to this. But he added that police couldn't establish, or respond to, a pattern if reports aren't filed. "We respond to every call," he says. "It doesn't matter what they are -- if they're white, black, gay or straight."
The same goes for allegations against police, observes Beth Pittinger at the Citizen Police Review Board, where complaints against officers can also be made: Without a formal complaint, the board can't take action.
"You can't presume a police officer isn't going to be a decent person," says Pittsburgh City Councilor Doug Shields. Occasionally, he says, the city has an officer who "is going to do something less than we expect." But that, he adds, is "the exception."
And while there has been tension between police and the LGBT community in the past, Pittinger says, "In recent years, we haven't had a great number of complaints."
"I don't know if the community is just being gun-shy and not wanting to deal with police because of history, because of fear, or if they have any legitimate issues. But there's no evidence to tell me that."
Gary Van Horn Jr., president of the Delta Foundation, says he hasn't had any issues with police covering Pride in the Street, part of the annual festival for the LGBT community, in the event's four-year history under the foundation. Nor has he heard prior complaints of harassment or violence against the LGBT community in Bloomfield.
Local gay blogger Thomas Waters says that if incidents are unreported, it may mean the community doesn't have a good sense of police response, signaling an issue that needs to be addressed. And there are outlets to do that, he notes, like the mayor's LGBT commission.
"We can't expect the system to benefit us if we don't use it," he says.
Waters says Pittsburgh is generally an accepting city, but notes that the LGBT community needs to stand up for itself and have zero tolerance for harassment.
"Even the most crazily dressed drag queen deserves to get out of the car and not be harassed," he says.
According to a 2008 study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, Pennsylvania saw a 22 percent drop in victims of anti-LGBT violence. The country as a whole saw a 2 percent increase over 2007; and the NCAVP reported that more than half of the time, the police weren't called.
"It can be hard to ask a victim to take a leap and trust the police," says Elizabeth Fregiato, director of policy and programs at the national PFLAG office. And violence against those in the community who appear to defy traditional gender norms is an unfortunate, common occurrence, according to Fregiato. But she believes reaching out to the police, as well as prosecuting hate crimes, can help.
"Gay-bashing isn't a crime against an individual," she says. "It's a crime against a community. It makes everyone feel unsafe."