A Matter of Pride: Delta Foundation's Struggles with Success
Within the span of 10 years, the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh has brought the city’s annual Pride festival to previously unimaginable heights. That growth, however, has left some members of the community behind — and unhappy.
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photo by john altdorfer
This year’s Pride festival will be the biggest yet.
The first night of the Pride Rocks PGH concert, now a two-night affair, will star pop performer Troye Sivan, with a second national headliner to be announced. The Equality March and two-day PrideFest will be accompanied by seemingly endless activities. The Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh has no reason to think Pittsburgh Pride 2018 won’t best the 2017 event’s impressive attendance mark: approximately 175,000 people.
When Delta began producing Pittsburgh’s Pride celebration in 2008, 6,000 participants was considered a success. Ten years later, Pittsburgh is home to the largest Pride event in Pennsylvania; it is the fourth-largest special event in the city, competing with Light Up Night, the Regatta and the Three Rivers Arts Festival.
It’s easy to forget how different LGBTQ life was just 10 years ago. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell undergirded a military at war. Twenty-six states passed same-sex marriage bans between 2004 and 2008. Trans and gender-identity issues were not part of mainstream discourse. Politicians said, bluntly and publicly, that LGBTQ people were undermining the fabric of society.
Now, Pride attracts people from all walks of life. Teenagers from nearby counties. Young adults who have never known anything different. Older adults who have. LGBTQ families. Straight allies. Community groups. Local companies. National corporations.
It wasn’t just the groups you might expect, either. Last year, Walmart brought a tractor-trailer and 483 people to the March, which was sponsored by natural-gas company EQT. Rehumanize International, a pro-life group, sold T-shirts emblazoned with rainbow-colored fetuses at PrideFest.
You might not have noticed, in all the revelry, who wasn’t there. Or you might have, if you stayed after the Equality March to see police in riot gear standing watch over a countermarch, People’s Pride, led by black femmes and supported by LGBTQ community members of color and their allies.
In 2018, who runs Pride, who participates in Pride and who funds Pride are so distant from the concerns of the Stonewall Riots as to almost be inconceivable.
photo by seth rosenberg
The Peoples Pride march (shown above) came about in response to criticism of the Delta Foundation.
In June 1969, patrons of New York City’s Stonewall Inn were tired of being harassed and threatened by the police and society. They just wanted to be allowed to be, already. A smashed window started riots that would last for six days and usher in the contemporary gay-rights movement. One year later, on June 28, 1970, participants in four cities celebrated Christopher Street Liberation Day and the gay pride parade was born.
Pittsburgh joined the movement in 1973, as about 150 marchers made their way from Market Square to Oakland’s Flagstaff Hill. The event lost momentum in the ’80s, but the Pride Parade returned in 1991, growing bit by bit over the next decade.
The Gay and Lesbian Community Center (GLCC) assumed leadership in 2001. By 2007, other cities had moved their Prides from local parks to the streets. Jeff Freeman, who is the Equality March Chair for Delta and had run Pride out of the GLCC, says of the time, “We were happy with having picnics in the park because it was segregated. They were safe. Being gay in Pittsburgh ... is very, very difficult.”
The GLCC was also concerned about risky financial expansions of the event. Freeman was insistent: “You’re going to make money!” He knew, having been part of Utah’s Pride scene, that there could — and should — be more. So when Gary Van Horn, president of the newly reconfigured Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, approached him about a Pride kickoff concert that would shut down Liberty Avenue, Freeman couldn’t have been more thrilled.
In the following years, Pride exploded into Pittsburgh’s mainstream. In 2008, Delta assumed sole responsibility for Pride. Attendance jumped to 25,000 in 2009 and grew every year after (except 2013, when it rained). The burgeoning concert series showcased Melissa Etheridge, Patti LaBelle and others who attracted audiences within and outside of the LGBTQ community. General audiences were key to, as Van Horn puts it, starting conversations.
“If we just relied on the LGBT community, we wouldn’t have anything,” says Van Horn. Even as the number of self-identifying LGBT adults increases nationally, making up 4.1 percent of the overall population according to a long-running Gallup poll, Pittsburgh lags behind. Of the country’s 50 largest metro areas, Pittsburgh ranks second-to-last, with 3 percent of our population identifying as LGBT. Below us is only Birmingham, Ala., at 2.6 percent.
photo by john altdorfer
The Delta Foundation's Pride March, sponsored by EQT.
With increased growth, however, came increased scrutiny from within the LGBTQ community. Delta’s governing board remained primarily filled with cisgender white males; the activities of Pride, as well as the ways the organization did (or did not) give back to the community, to many observers, seemed to reflect the makeup of the board.
In 2015, Iggy Azalea was slated to headline Pride. Backlash came when people pointed out her history of Tweets that could be considered homophobic and racist. Among the more mild examples: “When guys whisper in each others [sic] ears I always think its [sic] kinda homo.” Community members — including City Council President Bruce Kraus, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (which has since dissolved its Pittsburgh chapter) and the Garden of Peace Project — denounced the decision and opted out of that year’s celebration.
The Garden of Peace Project, which supports black queer and trans youth, was founded by Michael David Battle; he and his partner, Joy KMT, are well-known in local LGBTQ and racial-justice circles. For KMT, Azalea was the last in a series of offenses by Delta and a larger culture that celebrates white gay men while diminishing the involvement and experience of trans and queer people of color.
“I always also look at things intersectionally, with a clear focus and a clear understanding of what it means to have racial justice,” says KMT. “I’m not saying you can’t have fun, you can’t party. What I’m saying you can’t do is you can’t ignore how we got to this place. ... For Delta to even make that choice [to have Azalea perform] was, for me, indicative and symbolic of their ability to not engage with the foundations of their own existence.”
Delta maintains that it is considering such perspectives. “We have these deep conversations when we’re looking at entertainment or whatever,” Van Horn says. “What is the impact and does it bring people to the table?”
“When you are a community activist, it’s all about the community,” says Freeman. “I think the first word that comes to any community activist is ‘inclusion.’ You don’t do an event, you don’t think about an event, you don’t plan an event without inclusion.”
Yet under- and non-representation isn’t a new criticism. In 1995, Flecia Harvey led the inaugural Pittsburgh Black Pride event. “It was for that missing void that we had in our community,” Harvey says. “There was nothing for the gay black community to do, so we did this barbecue for ourselves by ourselves.”
The low-budget, family-oriented event remains one of the longest-standing, if one of the quieter, events in Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community. Modest sponsorship from corporations and local non-profits allows the group to be able to offer the entire celebration for free. “Our main focus is our African-American community. We want everybody to celebrate with us in our space,” Harvey says.
In 2006 the Dyke March — now the Dyke and Trans March — was founded by self-identified radical feminist lesbians. It was, and remains, a political act that has received resistance from mainstream pride groups — and initially, the city, in terms of proper street closures and safety precautions.
Trans Pride, as an event separate (though with support) from mainstream Pride, first took place in Pittsburgh in 2011. TransPride Pittsburgh hosts events throughout the year, from general meet-ups to community-building board game nights to educational workshops. The group has hosted a national conference each fall since 2014 to address the varied needs of the community, especially regarding medical and mental-health issues, housing, employment and empowerment. (Leaders from the Dyke and Trans March and TransPride Pittsburgh did not respond to repeated requests for interviews for this story.)
One of the largest alternative Pride events would be formed in the wake of the Azalea backlash. In the weeks that followed her cancelled Pride appearance (with Nick Jonas booked in her place), KMT, Battle and a group of volunteers pulled together Roots Pride, “a weekend of celebration, solidarity and revolutionary love” that centered on queer and trans people of color.
The immediate reactions to Roots Pride were intense. Many in the community had been hungry for something different and were eager to make the new event happen. They looked for activities that celebrated the community as a community, not a commodity; there would be intergenerational painting, a meditative river walk, a water balloon fight.
Others, however, wanted things to stay the same and tried to literally fight the group at press conferences. KMT and Battle received death threats. Town hall meetings for the event had to include armed security.
Behind the scenes, she received messages telling her about other offenses by Delta. In public, however, those same people would defend the organization. “People were literally afraid of Delta,” KMT says. She believes the threats she received were because “people misdirected their anger.”
The story got international attention. “A lot of people [in other cities] were like, oh my god, this is happening, we’ve been waiting for this to happen,” says KMT. Toronto had had similar stirrings, as had parts of France. “We’ve seen people pushing to have their own space. That was the whole point, that the work that we did could incite people to use their imagination and use their will to create spaces of autonomy and liberation and joyful celebration.
“We have to believe in ourselves more than we believe in other people’s power over us.”