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Setting Sights on Visibility

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A group of local gay-rights activists who meet each month, officially dubbed Voices for A New Tomorrow, is trying to create the city's unofficial gay agenda.

            "I've always heard we had one," joked Betty Hill, executive director of Persad, the local gay counseling and AIDS center. "I just thought we ought to get it down on paper."

            Begun after Persad surveyed the needs of the local gay community in 2002, Voices last year focused on spirituality, thanks to battles over gay marriage and gay ordination fights in major Christian denominations. Politics and practicality dominated this year's first gathering in East Liberty on Jan. 26.

            "We're not disappearing into the woodwork because of the election" and the defeat of the gay-sympathetic Democratic presidential ticket, said Cathy Cairns, a development consultant with Cairns & Sabur. She pressed for "more positive visibility" for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered (GLBT).

            One Voices member suggested creating a kind of speakers bureau for GLBT issues. "I think there are a number of us who are willing to be spokesgays at any one time," said Scott Safier, founder of Steel City Stonewall Democrats. "But the problem is getting the invitations."

            Kat Carrick, who runs a local lesbian potluck event, recalled the power of a local bus-borne advertising campaign 13 years ago. "On the placards inside and outside the bus: 'Lesbians, gays and bisexuals come from families just like yours.' And we had a fund-raiser with the ones that had been defaced."

            Another Voices member suggested countering conservative radio with gay airwaves.

            "The problem is not really media -- the problem is [gay] City of Pittsburgh leaders," said Josh Ferris. (Ferris, like perhaps half the Voices members, is active in the local GLBT community but does not represent a particular group.) "They're there, they're leaders, they're not out. We do not really have someone on the upper echelons of the city who is proud to be who they are."

            One prominent way to become more visible, said Hill, is through "corporate coming out. We're not making any progress in Pittsburgh when people in our corporations" are still closeted. Voices member Susan Whitewood, for one, is active in PRISM (Pride, Respect, Individuality and Support at Mellon), a year-old group of GLBT Mellon Financial Corporation workers. Because a lack of diversity pushes away capable workers who happen to be gay, Whitewood says, "Diversity is a hot issue in corporate America because it has a business cost behind it. ... Mellon is embracing the right thing to do, but because it's good business."

            Voices members, though generally in harmony, did not always sing the same tune. "We have a far more important issue with people not being able to come out in low-income professions," Ferris offered.

But white-collar gays will be important in the renewed fight expected over domestic-partner benefits in Pennsylvania, said Safier. "We fully expect our opposition [in the legislature] to introduce a measure to oppose same-sex marriage," he says. "It will be economics that govern the discussion, so it'd be great to have a gay chamber of commerce" to argue that the idea makes business sense.

 

Jeff Friedman, coordinator of the city's oldest effort at gay visibility, Pittsburgh Pridefest, believes the annual June event is still the best chance to show the gay community to the metro area and beyond. Says Friedman: "We're inviting 2.5 million people."

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