A sampling of AMPLIFY contributors. Image courtesy of AMPLIFY.

“I’m out. I’m not ashamed. But my family still hates me,” writes Dawn, a 33-year-old trans woman who lives in Westmoreland County.

This is an excerpt from AMPLIFY, a community art and historical archive project that captures the experience of being LGBTQ in Western Pennsylvania from 2015-2018. Dawn is just one of more than 200 people who has contributed to it so far.

“When I became publicly out to the world, I was an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). It was during that time that the pastor of that church asked me to resign due to my ‘choice’ of being gay,” writes Mitch, a gay man living in Butler County.

“I have a fierce love of the Leather community as it was Leather folk who saw me through my worst bouts of depressive spirals and suicidal thoughts. They’ve literally saved my life,” writes Minion, a “Queer, Black, Futch Leathergirl” in Allegheny County.

Launched in 2015 by Sue Kerr of Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents and Most Wanted Fine Art, AMPLIFY uses an online questionnaire that encourages people to open up about topics ranging from the serious (coming out stories, instances of discrimination) to lighter subjects like their favorite LGBTQ characters.

Kerr intends to spin the blog into a preserved archive that presents an authentic, unfiltered history of being LGBTQ in the region.

“I don’t edit,” says Kerr. “I format [answers] but I don’t fix grammatical issues or add punctuation unless someone asks me to. I want it to be in their voice as much as possible.”

The project contains a variety of submissions from Allegheny County and throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania. They also come from people who live in other parts of Western Pennsylvania or from former residents who relocated outside of the state, including a “queer, bisexual” woman in Erie and a “gay Pittsburgh dad” who now resides in Texas.

Several are old enough to recall the Stonewall riots, a 1969 event widely considered the beginning of the nation’s LGBTQ rights movement.

In order to represent all 26 counties in Western Pennsylvania, AMPLIFY welcomes submissions from all LGBTQ people who live or have lived in the area. Kerr says they especially need contributors from the counties of Cameron, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Blair and Bedford, none of which are represented.

(From left) Kai Devenitch, Jason Sauer and Laura Dunhoff pose with the AMPLIFY art car. Image courtesy of Sue Kerr.

AMPLIFY also serves to highlight the barriers still faced by LGBTQ people, especially in places where people are isolated or lack protections or resources.

“It is a mistake to think that because we have achieved marriage equality on the Supreme Court that everything is all better,” says Kerr, adding that while Pittsburgh has non-discrimination laws that cover LGBTQ people, the same can’t be said for surrounding counties or the state as a whole.

She also points out that no matter how you identify, discrimination still very much persists and manifests itself in everything from “micro-aggressions” like name calling to life-threatening situations. She recalls dealing with homophobia in seemingly progressive workplaces and admits to feeling intimidated when visiting her partner’s mother, who lives outside of Pittsburgh in Mercer County.

“We go to the Sheetz in Lawrence County and it’s really uncomfortable because every time we’re there, there are trucks with Confederate flags and all kinds of Trump stickers,” says Kerr. “And I think, ‘I feel like I’m in the closet here,’ because I have to for safety. I don’t think people realize that, that you can feel unsafe.”

Her point is driven home by the fact that many of AMPLIFY’s contributors choose to submit anonymously out of fear of losing their jobs or families.

“Their willingness to take that risk of being outed and being recognized because they know their story matters, is so brave and so touching,” says Kerr. “It’s really important to understand that there are a lot of people who are not out or fully out. And why is that?”

In the end, however, she believes the image of the region’s LGBTQ community should be determined by the individual and not by organizations like the Delta Foundation, which has faced backlash in recent years for its handling of the annual Pittsburgh Pride event and for not being inclusive enough.

“People should be able to speak for themselves,” says Kerr.

Want to contribute? On June 10 from 3-11 p.m., Kerr will take AMPLIFY to Most Wanted Fine Art in Garfield for a special event that includes the repainting of the AMPLIFY art car. She’s also accepting donations to pay for the maintenance and development of the project.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.