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What’s in a name? For Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community, the answer is everything.
News that the Pittsburgh’s Pride parade would be renamed after a natural gas company responsible for fracking has reignited tensions in a city long divided over the yearly event. Delta Foundation, which hosts the June festival, announced last month that it would be renamed the “EQT Equality March” in honor of its lead sponsor, Equitable Gas (EQT). This was the company that was fined $4.5 million by environmental regulators in Pennsylvania in 2014 for damage resulting from a drilling leak.
Fracking, which has been banned in Germany, France, and the state of New York, is the controversial process that includes extracting oil and gas trapped under subterranean rocks. The practice has long been criticized both for potential health risks and an adverse impact on the environment, with opponents saying it taints local water supplies.
But what has made EQT a particularly controversial choice among LGBTQ Pittsburghers is the company’s numerous donations to anti-gay Republicans.
In 2014, the corporation donated $14,000 to Republican state Rep. Bill Shuster, who has voted to add a Constitutional amendment limiting the state’s definition of marriage to one man and one woman several times. Following the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize same-sex unions across the U.S., he said in a press release that he was “disappointed,” claiming that a “handful of activist judges attempted to destroy traditional marriage and legislate from the bench.”
EQT has also given more than $68,000 to Shuster’s Republican colleague, Sen. Tim Murphy, who has also repeatedly lobbied against marriage equality as a member of the Pennsylvania legislature. He has received a 0 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign, the lowest possible score.
Following the announcement that the 2017 parade—which no longer has words like “Pride” or “LGBTQ” in it—would be named for EQT, numerous groups announced they would not be marching. Rainbow Alliance, the LGBTQ student group at the University of Pittsburgh, will be sitting out for the second straight year. Sisters PGH, a community organization for transgender folks and people of color, will be holding their own festival directly after the EQT Equality March.
Called “The People’s Pride,” it’s one of several alternative celebrations that have sprung up in recent years, as LGBTQ groups in Pittsburgh grow dissatisfied with what they believe is an event that doesn’t speak for them and doesn’t represent the diversity of the community.
“EQT Equality March is not a Pride,” said Ciora Thomas, founder of Sisters PGH. “It’s for rich people and rich organizations. It’s essentially a huge party for people with money.”
The controversy began in earnest two years ago, when Iggy Azalea was announced as the headliner of Pittsburgh Pride. That decision was unanimously condemned following revelations that the Australian rapper, who has been criticized for using a “black accent” in her music, also has a history of using homophobic slurs like “dyke” and “homo” in her tweets. Prior to becoming a household name, Azalea posted to her Twitter account: “When guys whisper in each others ears I always think its kinda homo.”
Delta initially stood by its choice in performer, saying in a press release that it didn’t “believe she would have agreed to come if she was racist or homophobic.” Azalea would eventually be dropped after groups like the First United Methodist Church and the local chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) threatened to boycott the parade.
But LGBTQ community members say that the controversy over EQT shows that the root of the problem hasn’t been addressed.
This year’s Pride event will feature a performance by Jennifer Hudson, an Oscar-winning singer with a history of supporting the LGBTQ community. Bringing Hudson to Pittsburgh, though, comes with a significant price tag. Sources say that it cost as much as “quarter of a million dollars,” and that expense is reflected in the admission. Tickets to the concert will set you back $45, and VIP passes go all the way up to $150.
That high cost is likely to be a major barrier to entry for LGBTQ people of color. A 2016 report from the University of Pittsburgh found that one-third of black city residents are impoverished. Considering that LGBTQ folks are disproportionately likely to live below the poverty line across the U.S., being queer and trans only adds to that enormous disparity.
“What’s ironic is that Delta has been trying to get black people to come out to their events because Pride has always been very much segregated in Pittsburgh,” Thomas said. “It’s on the street. Why do we have to pay to see someone on the street?”
Adding insult to injury, LGBTQ advocates say that tabling during the Pride festival has become prohibitively expensive for community groups who often have extremely modest budgets. Sue Kerr, editor of the Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents blog, said that back in the day, it cost between $25 to $50 to rent a table at Pride—and even less if you brought your own table. Now it’s hundreds of dollars. While $350 or $500 might not seem like much, it is for a local food bank or shelter that services the LGBTQ homeless population.
“A friend of mine told me that all the other Prides in Pennsylvania put together don’t cost the same as one booth at Pittsburgh Pride,” Kerr said. “Pride is the one time that so many different groups of people come out from our community. It’s important that when they get there, they get connected with community groups and get the support they need.”
Theresa Bosco, director of development at the Gay Lesbian Community Center (GLCC), said that putting an event like Pride does indeed cost money. Although the Pittsburgh metro area has one of the smallest LGBTQ populations of any city in the country, thousands of people turn out to the parade every year. Organizers have to pay for security, which Bosco said costs around $98,000, and yearly events include a bouncy house for same-sex couples with kids. The 2017 festival will also include a zip line.
To paraphrase the Milton Friedman saying, there’s no such thing as a free Pride. But critics argue that it doesn’t make it OK to charge community groups the same as major corporations to table at the event.
“I do understand that an event of that magnitude is expensive,” Bosco said. “I’m not saying in any way that it’s not. But I don’t see why small nonprofits should be charged the same as groups that can easily afford it. If you want to get these corporate sponsors, they should be the ones footing the bill.”
The People’s Pride, which takes place on Sunday, June 11, is just one of several options for LGBTQ Pittsburghers who are ready for a change this year. There’s the Trans Dyke March, which centers queer women and trans people in its organizing, and an art crawl being hosted by GLCC. Kerr believes that these events send a strong message to queer and trans communities across the country: If you don’t feel represented by Pride celebrations that have become increasingly corporatized in recent years, create space for yourself.
“What we’re doing in Pittsburgh shows that people can resist,” Kerr said. “They don’t have to just have to stay home.”
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.