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.

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.”


photo by seth rosenberg 

The Peoples Pride marchers campaign on the importance of acknowledging intersectionality, or the ways in which race, class, gender, sexuality and all other identities intersect with one another.

Following Pride 2015, Delta added Dena Stanley, a trans woman of color who is the founder of Trans YOUniting, to its board. In February 2017, President Trump announced, via Twitter, that he was going to reverse Obama-administration protection of transgender students. Delta paired with Stanley’s Trans YOUniting as well as SisTers PGH to bring 700 people together two days later on the steps of the City-County building. 

It was, Stanley says, “historic,” the largest trans rally the city had seen.

But during an interview in Delta’s North Shore offices, there was little else she was given space to say. Instead, Bryan and Van Horn told the story for her, throughout which Van Horn’s arm and shoulder kept crossing in front of her, pushing her back from the table.

When asked how the board takes in and reconciles criticisms, Van Horn, Freeman, and Christine Bryan answer by talking about something else nearby the question.
“You have to understand that the LGBT community is very diverse, just from LGBT plus all the letters you can add to it. Then you add intersectionality to it. Then you add political viewpoints to it,” Van Horn says. “If we truly are inclusive, what does inclusive mean?”

Bryan, Delta’s director of marketing and development as well as Delta’s sole paid employee, added, “Where is the line?”

For Ciora Thomas, the line was EQT buying the naming rights to the Pride March. Thomas is the founder and president of SisTers PGH, an organization that serves the trans and non-binary community. While corporate sponsorship of naming rights is standard procedure for large public events, involving a corporation so visibly in a Pride celebration felt, to Thomas, like “they sold our pride,” she says. “Our individual pride as human beings and trans folk and LGBTQIA folk. It felt like an auction block, and they sold us to EQT.”

In 2017, Pride wasn’t the only Pittsburgh event to bear the EQT name; the company also sponsors the Three Rivers Regatta, among others. But it was the EQT Equality March that got attention. In addition to the potential environmental effects from fracking — EQT received a $1.1 million fine for fracking damages in Tioga County in 2012 — the concern also came from the company’s financial support of anti-gay politicians.

Van Horn notes that people would be hard-pressed to find a corporation that didn’t, at some point in its history, support an anti-gay politician. That argument is true enough in fact, but obfuscates that EQT’s support of such politicians is not historical; it’s relatively current. Donations were as recent as 2016 ($7,000 to now-former Representative Tim Murphy, who received a 0 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign across the entirety of his 14 years in Congress) and 2015 ($10,000 to State Representative Bill Shuster, who received the same rating). 

Thomas has spent years working within and around the mainstream LGBTQ community. “As another trans person in Pittsburgh, it’s just — I guess we’re always put in these situations where we have to stand up for our community, and that’s been shown in history.” So, as with Roots Pride before, Thomas used the weeks before Delta’s Pride to start something new: People’s Pride. 

Big name corporations like Google (which, it should be noted, has donated to some of the same anti-gay politicians) pulled their support from Delta and put non-monetary support in People’s Pride. Smaller groups who were not in a place to lose the money they’d already spent showed solidarity by wearing gray to Pride events.

What Thomas is trying to avoid is Pride as a point of profit. “I think the endgame is keeping it a community-driven thing, where community people are at the forefront of the conversation and at the table.” Thomas is also a member of Mayor Bill Peduto’s LGBTQIA Advisory Board and will be pairing People’s Pride 2018 with Pride in the Square. Thomas isn’t looking to turn down money from corporations, “but your name is not going to be on it. They shouldn’t have that type of control.”

photo by john altdorfer

Two marchers at the Delta Foundation's Pride event pose for a photo.

Given the appearance of big-name corporations around — and on top of — Pittsburgh Pride, many have wondered where the money goes. Unfortunately, the answer to such queries is less than clear.

Delta’s internal finances have frequently been the subject of concern. “If you look at Heinz Endowments, Pittsburgh Foundation, Three Rivers Community Foundation — the major foundations in the region — they publish their annual reports and they list where their money is going,” says Sue Kerr, editor of the Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents blog. “There is money going to the LGBTQ community in lots of different ways.

“What you can’t find is where the money from Delta is going.” 

In the early 2010s, Delta was netting either negative or modest incomes, with net assets hovering in the low $30,000 range. Suddenly, it posted a net income of just over $61,000 in 2014, $108,000 in 2015, and $237,000 in 2016 (the most recent available data) and net assets of $96,000, $204,000, and $460,000, respectively. 

This change coincided with the 2014 absorption of the Lambda Foundation, from which the original Delta Foundation was splintered in 1999. Previously, Lambda had been a major source of in-community funding. 

Delta is not legally obligated to divulge the recipients of grants or other forms of charity, nor has it acquiesced to the community’s repeated questioning (including for this story). In 2013, Delta claimed $18,500 in grants awarded, $17,000 in 2014, a mere $1,500 (plus $800 in non-cash awards) in 2015 and $12,000 in 2016. In comparison, the Lambda Foundation’s last available 990, from 2010, claimed almost $30,000 in grants and scholarships.

photo by seth rosenberg 

Those marching in the Peoples Pride Parade carrying signs that read "Black Trans Lives Matter" and "No More Trans Lives Destroyed." 

Whether Delta intends to be or not, it is the voice of the Southwestern PA LGBTQ community. “My whole life, we’ve been fighting the establishment,” says Freeman. “And now, all of a sudden, I’ve become the establishment? And people are fighting me? We were fighting for our right [to be] at the table. We were fighting for our right to be seen.” 

Which brings about a philosophical question: What does the voice of a community owe that community?

Bryan will tell you about the work that Delta does outside of Pride. Some of it is flashy and fun, like Pens and Pirates games — the former for which Delta sponsored the attendance of 200 high-school students. Or a 50/50 raffle at a Pirates game that went to Proud Haven, a local organization providing services for homeless LGBTQ youth. Van Horn will tell you about less flashy advocacy, such as meetings with the county’s health department regarding outdated plumbing codes mandating that single-use bathrooms have designated genders.

Or they’ll tell you about the upsides of corporate pride participation. Pennsylvania is one of 28 states without employment protections regarding discrimination and sexual orientation/gender identity. To have a company like Walmart, the 12th largest employer in the region, participate in Pride bears the hope that they’ll remember that participation by hiring and maintaining the employment of members of the LGBTQ community. It’s also corporations — notably, not Walmart in this case — that helped lobby for marriage equality and threw down consequences when places like North Carolina pushed for restrictive bathroom laws. 

“Politics should not be controlled by corporations, but they are,” says Van Horn. “That being [the case], I want them on our side. If they’re not on our side, then they’re against us at this point. And, against us, we’re not going to get anywhere near our goal [of equality].”

According to Van Horn, in the year since EQT became involved with Pride and started an internal resource group, “they’ve had a 300 percent increase in self-identified LGBT folks. Tell me that’s not powerful. Think about the areas that they serve in Beaver and Butler and West Virginia and rural Ohio. It’s beginning those conversations.”

These efforts — both from Delta and from other groups — add up. In 2017, the city of Pittsburgh received its first 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index. The index scores 506 cities across the country; the national average is 57. While the city does not have fully inclusive non-discrimination protections, it did receive recognition for the non-discrimination policies that are in place, its first-in-the-state ban on conversion therapy and access to trans-related health needs.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that we aren’t asked to do more,” says Van Horn. “We are one organization that does a lot. It is our mission to serve as much as the LGBT community [as possible, but] we also recognize that we can’t do everything for everyone.”

There are limits to what any single group can do. And Delta is proud that it only has one employee. It has a big, mostly empty office — and now a significant, increasing profit. What’s stopping Delta from hiring more people and using that space and money to broaden its efforts? If Mayor Peduto’s LGBTQIA Advisory Council, founded in 2017, can be truly representative of the community why can’t Delta’s board be?

“The reality is, Delta doesn’t want to,” says Kerr. “I believe wholeheartedly they do not want to share power at all and they’re not going to. There would have to be a change in leadership. Much like in any other organization when we say people need to step down and start fresh. They’re not going to. They have way too much to benefit from that.”  

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