So let me just come right out and say it: I know nothing about how the LGBTQIA community is doing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Part of this is due to the fact that I recently moved back to Pennsylvania from a seven year stint in Colorado. Another part of this is that I’m a heterosexual, white female, who despite doing her best to stay informed, realized when moving to Pittsburgh how shallow that pool of information actually is. Distance, whether it’s physical or psychological, plays a huge factor in how much we really know about members of our surrounding communities. We all have reasons as to why we don’t know Allegheny County better. People come from different neighborhoods, are born in different cities, states, and countries, or in this article’s particular case, identify with a different sexual orientation and lifestyle. I want to change that and get to know Pittsburgh’s LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual) community better so I can lend my support and advocacy. In this article we’ll focus on Project Silk, located at 304 Wood Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.
Project Silk was created as a Community Based Participatory project, with CHS initially only providing service coordination and psycho-social support. However in 2015, CHS fully acquired the program as an effort to become more inclusive to the Pittsburgh communities it provides services for. Project Silk’s mission? To provide a community health space for LGBTQIA youth of color, with an emphasis on HIV prevention and care. Within the program’s foundation is the understanding that youth voice is not just helpful, but is critical for program development. It’s advocacy at its finest, and that’s essential for groups facing institutional and societal barriers. As Jess Netto, Director of Youth Programs for Project Silk, explains, “There is a lack of opportunity and advocacy support overall for young people of color in this city that have aged out of foster care or experienced trauma from institutional oppression. Systemic racism and overall stigma literally contributes to reduced life chances, which is exemplified in the school to prison pipeline, policy brutality, and communities with high HIV incidence rates.”
So how is the LBGTQIA community doing in Pittsburgh? It’s complicated. While the city is supportive of LGBT individuals, white communities are at the forefront of the city’s scope, alienating the voices and concerns from people of color. Even with the entities and organizations in Pittsburgh who have historically provided culturally relevant services to the LGBTQIA community, this effort must always combat an overarching historical circumstance of institutional racism and stigma that makes it difficult for people of color to access health services and support. Even when services are available, it can be a harrowing experience. “Stigma perpetuated by social work and medical providers is constantly re-traumatizing for those seeking services and reduces uptake and retention in care. Institutions are constantly honing in on individual risk behaviors instead of altering program design to serve communities better,” explains Netto.
Accessing health and education services not only depends on the provider, but on the receiver. It’s a relationship whose power dynamic is easily shifted to the provider, with the responsibility on the receiver to find and access those services. This is something Project Silk and other organizations are actively trying to combat. Drop in hours are from 1pm – 8pm because afternoons and evenings are harder on youth of color facing homelessness and those having trouble finding safe places because of their sexual orientation. Silk's partnerships with organizations in Pittsburgh (AIDS Free Pittsburgh, Southwest PA Regional HIV Collaborative, Macedonia FACE, PACT Clinic, Central Outreach Wellness Center, PGH Equality Center, Persad, Allies for Health and Wellbeing, Positive Health Clinic, Carnegie Library, YWCA, Allegheny County Department of Human Services, and Dreams of Hope) provide outreach and advocacy opportunities to its members. It encourages those in the program to share their experiences and knowledge, and also provides the chance to be seen and heard. Netto explains, “Through our partnership with AIDS Free Pittsburgh, Project Silk members have been able to shine as community leaders and ambassadors of HIV prevention through various speaking platforms and media campaigns. I am inspired also by all the work our peer advocated do in their own communities related to HIV prevention and art based healing programs.”
The space at Project Silk is inviting with its brightly colored tile floor, lockers for those who need a stable place to keep their items, and space for members to hang out and be themselves. Members have a place to listen to music and dance, practice their makeup, sew new outfits, and express themselves through art. But other than providing a supportive, safe place for LBGTQIA youth of color, Project Silk also offers medical services such as HIV testing and education. The rooms are clean and the staff is supportive. Importantly, that support goes beyond health. Silk's support system gives members a chance to build life skills such as civic engagement, leadership building through creating and facilitating groups as peers, resume building, career counseling, and financial budgeting. It’s a place without judgement, and like what many organizations in Pittsburgh are trying to do, it’s designed by what works best for its members, not the services it’s providing. As Michael Brookins explains, “We here at Project Silk allow youth members to create and build their own future. Providing them options and not directives, in hopes of executing each goal or task with their full support.”
The issues that create and retain barriers for people of color in the LBGTQIA community are deep and complicated, not only in the institutional structures of the medical and educational fields, but within ourselves. And that stigma is not going to be solved by one program or organization. That answer is only going to be found in the collective. We are all members of the Allegheny County community, and we all deserve access to information and services that make our lives healthier, safer, and fulfilling. As said by one Project Silk member during their Hotter Than July event with Aids Free Pittsburgh, “These types of events are important so that they can bring light and bring normalcy to the things that some may find weird or not their normal. It allows you to see that other people have creative talents and gifts that you may not be aware of and may not be able to do, but you can appreciate it when you see someone else doing it.”
To learn more about Project Silk, visit our website or email firstname.lastname@example.org. And to see how Silk is already making an impact as it joins others in overcoming the AIDS epidemic in Pittsburgh, check out this incredible video.
CHS Development Specialist
October 11, 2018