This Pride month, the 50th that Pittsburgh has celebrated, the city streets were flooded with rainbows and progress flags. Lawrenceville held its first communitywide pride event, and LGBTQ+ people across the Western Pennsylvania region joined together at everything from drag queen brunches to queer craft markets.
Now more than ever, as legislation targeting LGBTQ+ youth — particularly transgender kids’ access to sports and education about their gender identity — are proposed, community leaders agree this kind of representation is crucial. While these bills may not become law in this state (Gov. Josh Shapiro has said he will veto them), they pose an additional, less tangible threat: contributing to an atmosphere of fear.
As Sue Kerr, social worker and president of Pittsburgh LGBTQ Charities, explains, it means people might be more hesitant to seek out resources or feel there is “a target on their back” if they display a pink, blue and white trans flag in their yard. On the other hand, resources and visibility can make even more of a difference now, she says — if trans kids see that their neighbors have a trans flag or that a local library hosts Pride events, it can be a “lifeline.”
The Pittsburgh Union Progress spoke with community leaders who work to uplift these kids and maintain these lifelines. Below is a (still growing) overview of the resources available to kids and families.
PGH Equality Center
PGH Equality Center is a support referral service that serves the Western Pennsylvania region, connecting those who reach out via phone and email with appropriate resources for social support, housing and gender-affirming care. As Ray Sidney-Smith, a PGH Equality Center board member, puts it, “We’re putting the right people in touch with the right people, and saying, ‘OK, these programs are trans children friendly. And so you can have these children know that they’re going someplace that’s going to be trans-affirming.’ ”
Some of the organizations the center works with include Big Brothers Big Sisters and local GSAs (gay-straight alliances or gender-sexuality alliances), which help fulfill social needs. Sidney-Smith adds that virtual programming for LGBTQ+ youth is also in the works. The organization plans to launch a Discord service where kids can express themselves to adult facilitators and get social support from their peers.
According to Sidney-Smith, often people don’t realize that the needs of LGBTQ+ kids extend beyond gender-affirming care. “I think [people] forget that gender-affirming care is one slice of all of the things that those young people need, but they need all of the things that all other young people need. So that’s clothing and housing and socialization,” he says. “They need to be able to be socialized in a way that helps them normalize their existence.”
Imi is a collaboration between several LGBTQ+ organizations, including CenterLink, to which the PGH Equality Center belongs. It’s a web tool that provides information about gender identity and sexuality to kids who may be figuring out their identity, as well as emergency mental health resources.
Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation
A major part of the Hugh Lane Foundation’s mission involves making sure that trans kids can reach trusted adults and form support systems. Coley Alston, the foundation’s program director, adds that Hugh Lane is active and engaged with the child welfare system since LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately involved in out-of-home care.
Hugh Lane runs the Youth AFFIRM program, a support group made by and for trans people, rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. Sessions are available virtually and in person to increase accessibility. Young people can also get support through the Teen Mental Health First Aid program.
“Youth AFFIRM is predominantly for young people to identify how they really, truly feel about themselves, and the differences between their personal values and what outside influences have tried to tell them what is important,” Alston says. “Youth AFFIRM is very much focused on the self, whereas teen Mental Health First Aid is all about recognizing the mental health challenges that a friend might be facing and helping them get to a resourceful adult.”
After participants have completed both these programs, they can get involved in Hugh Lane’s Youth Advisory Board, which plans social events and advocacy programs. Other Hugh initiatives include Big Sibs mentorship, life skills workshops, a Discord server for LGBTQ+ youth, and a virtual program that helps caregivers create an action plan to support their kids.
PFLAG Pittsburgh is a chapter of the national PFLAG organization, which aims to build a community of allies and uplift LGBTQ+ kids. There is also a chapter located in Greensburg, as well as several others in Pennsylvania. Much of the group’s outreach is directed toward family members who have children in the community — such as parents or grandparents — who may not have the vocabulary to navigate their child’s gender identity.
Kerr emphasizes that PFLAG can serve as a “really, really” important resource for parents of trans kids who need a space to process. “It’s important that families and parents understand that there are places they can turn. And even for the most supportive, loving parents, you know, it’s still frightening to send your kid into this world,” she says.
Proud Haven’s mission is to provide safe shelter to LGBTQ+ youth in the area who are experiencing homelessness, often due to identity-based family rejection. To support these young people, the organization offers short-term overnight housing to trans youth over the age of 18. For young people under age 21, Proud Haven has a Youth Haven Drop-In program from 1 to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday equipped with resources, workshops, games, and arts and crafts programming.
Pittsburgh LGBTQ Charities
Kerr is the president of PLC, a grassroots organization that aims to increase community awareness and support of LGBTQ+ issues. One project has involved distributing 1,600-plus donation-funded #ProtectTransKids signs into neighborhoods all over the region to increase visibility and support for trans youth. The group also worked with community partners to collect and deliver gift cards to LGBTQ+ kids for the 2022 winter holidays.
The Rep Room
Bailey Nace founded The Rep Room, an Indiana County-based organization, from the ground up, after experiencing all of the challenges that come with growing up trans and supporting their trans daughter. Nace, who uses all pronouns, says part of building The Rep Room involves not “reinventing the wheel” but working to build connections with Pittsburgh’s resources, so trans kids in rural communities such as Indiana County can have their needs met.
“The name came from [the goal of] eventually having rooms in schools that are representation rooms, and having community members that are trained in mental health services as well as being a part of underrepresented groups: LGBTQ, Indigenous, Black, brown, individuals, and having them licensed to be in schools,” Nace says.
They hope that the initiative will help combat bullying, suicidal ideation and traumatic situations that can arise in schools for LGBTQ+ children, and to ensure that these kids don’t feel alone. Currently, Nace has been holding monthly meet-ups at the Indiana County Recovery Center, where trans youth and allies can socialize and receive advice and information about resources such as gender-affirming health care.
SisTers PGH is a Black- and trans-led nonprofit that supports trans and gender nonconforming people in southwestern Pennsylvania with a host of initiatives and a community center in Swissvale. The center serves as a hangout space and a place where those in need can find clothing, food and other supplies.
One of the organization’s projects is the TGNC Youth Collective, which engages trans and gender nonconforming young people between the ages of 15 and 23 in leadership social justice initiatives and provides a safe space for these young people to share their experiences and express their creativity.
Project Silk was founded as a focus group by the University of Pittsburgh to destigmatize and raise awareness of HIV, particularly among young queer people of color. Now run by Community Human Services, the program offers drop-in services for HIV testing as well as life skills education. Other initiatives include an annual art show and Color it Real, a group that teaches youth about Black history, hip-hop and sexual health.
Dreams of Hope
Dreams of Hope is a queer youth arts group with the mission of cultivating an environment where local LGBTQ+ youth can gain confidence and express themselves through the arts. The organization runs a performing arts group, theatriQ, and a series of art-school and in-school art-making sessions, sQool.
Previously known as gay-straight alliances, these student-led and student-organized clubs are now often called gender-sexuality alliances. Trans kids may be able to find community in their school’s GSA — or work with faculty members to create one. Devin Browne, a teacher and GSA adviser at Brashear High School, explains that among Pittsburgh Public Schools, there is a policy in place requiring all schools to be responsive to their LGBTQ+ students’ needs and create groups to support children that ask for them.
“It could look different in different schools,” Browne says. “It could be a diversity club, it could be a rainbow club, it could be a friendship circle, it could be called whatever that makes sense in that school.”
While outside Pittsburgh Public Schools — whether in private schools or rural areas — this policy isn’t in place, many still offer LGBTQ+ support. Browne recommends that if a kid in a school without a GSA wants to start one, they should get the help of a trusted adult and go to GLSEN’s website, which has all the resources necessary to start a GSA from the ground up. Libraries, he says, can also help youth start GSA programs in their neighborhood and may offer LGBTQ+ programming of their own.
“If I could wave a magic wand and make things happen, it would be at the state level,” Browne says, adding that in order to support LGBTQ+ kids in full, a few things must be in place. “It would be to get the attention of our state Department of Education to acknowledge that all school districts need four components: policy, training, visibility and curriculum. All school districts need that.”
One more place trans kids may find local resources — especially if they live in more rural areas, farther out from Pittsburgh centers — is in Facebook support groups, Kerr adds. With the help of a trusted adult, it’s possible to find a local group for LGBTQ+ folks anywhere from Mercer County to Westmoreland County. Connecting online is one more possible way to find support and people who have shared experiences and have gone through similar journeys to figure out their identities.
The Trevor Project
The Trevor Project is a national resource focused on addressing mental health issues for LGBTQ+ youth. Equipped with counselors and a 24-7 hotline (866-488-7386), The Trevor Project aims to end suicide among LGBTQ+ young people. The organization’s website houses a resource center and TrevorSpace, a community where queer youth ages 13–24 can bond and make friends.
Another national group, Trans Lifeline is run by and for trans people, with operators providing peer support through their hotline (877-565-8860). All call operators in the organization are trans, so, as Kerr says, “If you’re looking for somebody to talk to you who really understands, that’s a good resource.” The organization has answered over 100,000 calls and aims to connect trans people in need with a community and resources, including microgrants that can cover name changes and gender-affirming hair removal.
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