Editor’s note: Shortly after this story was posted, Pittsburgh Pride headliner Iggy Azalea cancelled her concert at Saturday’s Pride in the Street event. In cancelling her appearance Azalea wrote in a statement: “I feel my participation at this point would only serve to further distract from the true purpose of the event.” You can read about Azalea's cancellation here and we’ll have more details as they become available on our Blogh.
Photo by John Colombo
Joy KMT and Michael David Battle, organizers of Roots Pride Pittsburgh
Just hours after the Delta Foundation announced Iggy Azalea as the headliner of this year’s pride festivities, the ensuing backlash caught the attention of two local black LGBT activists.
But what surprised Michael David Battle and Joy KMT wasn’t so much that people were angry over Delta’s decision to hire Azalea, who has been accused of sending racist and homophobic tweets that have since been deleted.
Instead, they were surprised by the systemic criticism that began to emerge of Delta Foundation itself, the organizer of Pittsburgh Pride. Critics accuse Delta of catering mostly to affluent, white gay men.
People were saying, “This is oppressive, this is violent, this is erasure,” Battle says. “We were like, ‘Wow, this is stuff we’re usually saying.’ This is the first time we saw the community galvanize like that.”
Battle and KMT are trying to build on that momentum to create an alternative to Pride — called “Roots Pride Pittsburgh” — which is pitched as both a protest of Delta and as a more inclusive celebration of LGBT people of color and other marginalized groups. And they’ve racked up some impressive supporters: from Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus to the local chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), among other organizations.
Part of their critique of Delta is that it claims to be the “leading LGBT organization in Western Pennsylvania” and to serve as “a vigilant catalyst for change,” according to Delta’s website. Yet much of its resources are essentially devoted to Pride itself, not investing in advocacy efforts or the rest of the community. Critics also argue that Delta’s title as a “foundation” is at odds with its spending priorities. Of the $929,689 the nonprofit spent in 2013, $18,549 went to “awards and grants,” Delta’s most recent federal filing shows.
Fundamentally, though, Roots Pride supporters say Delta simply doesn’t represent marginalized groups within the LGBT community, and often cite the Delta board’s overwhelmingly white male composition as evidence of that.
But some people connected to Delta defend the organization against the criticism that it is not inclusive and seem puzzled by that assessment.
“If there was any exclusion, I don’t think it’s intentional in any way,” says Jim Sheppard, a current Delta board member.
Sheppard argues that Delta has been hugely successful in growing Pride to include “an allied community we wouldn’t normally share a party with.” Indeed, Pride now attracts nearly 100,000 attendees each year. The argument Delta has successfully made, Sheppard notes, is “ʻWe’re just like you’ … it changes hearts and minds.”
But for some Roots Pride supporters, the idea that members of the LGBT community should be normalized is part of the problem.
KMT (pronounced k’met) makes the argument this way: “The material reality of queer/trans people of color in this city is different than the material reality of a cis, white gay man … people all over are grappling with, ‘How do we make a society and culture that honors and respects all of us?’”
It’s a question organizers of the nascent Roots Pride are just starting to tackle.
The fundamental problem that Roots Pride is dealing with — the exclusion of marginalized communities — is undeniably complicated. But one reason it has attracted wider support, many argue, is that resentment of the Delta Foundation has long festered under the surface.
“This goes far beyond Iggy Azalea,” says Anne Lynch, operations manager for Three Rivers Community Foundation, an organization that distributes money to LGBT organizations, among other causes. (Lynch’s organization has given $250 to Roots Pride.) “This has opened up a conversation that has been simmering under everything for the last several years.”
The critiques are “certainly not new,” agrees Vanessa Davis, who heads the local chapter of GLSEN and who announced that the group would not march in the Pride parade this year.
“I recognize that the Delta Foundation has done a really great job of growing Pride events,” Davis says. “They also do programming for Pittsburgh Red for World AIDS Day and have also done some political-advocacy work as well and work with law enforcement. [But] I just don’t know how one asserts itself as the leading LGBT organization when a lot of what they do is throw parties. They don’t work with youth populations whatsoever.”
Davis counts herself as a Roots Pride supporter, though she acknowledges GLSEN has received about $2,000 from Delta to sponsor events in the past. (She also says she has been promised grants that never came through.)
Also among the critics is the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, the first statewide LGBT organization to publicly disavow Delta. Executive director Jason Landau Goodman, who has been to every Pride festival in the state over the past six years, says at $450 per nonprofit to set up a table at PrideFest, Delta’s pride is the most expensive in the state by a margin of hundreds of dollars.
“It can keep emerging groups out of the arena, if you can’t afford the price tag,” says Goodman, who says there were years his organization could not afford to participate on its own.
“In Pittsburgh, [Pride] has become a very professional production with high-value features” and entertainment, Goodman says. Philadelphia, by contrast, “is very rooted in the local community [with] all sorts of different events, speakers and community gatherings.”
Still, Goodman says, it isn’t uncommon for big-city Prides to focus mostly on large-scale parties. “Prides have generally lost that distinctive political appeal.”
Delta board president Gary Van Horn would not agree to be interviewed for this story. Instead, he asked questions be submitted by email; he did not reply to emailed questions by press time.
But in a statement issued May 18, Van Horn defended the decision to hire Azalea, and wrote that Delta has brought in African-American performers for Pride; has advocated on behalf of the trans community; and has supported Latino and black-pride celebrations. (For her part, Latino Pride founder Tara Sherry-Torres says she “does not consider them supporters.” She says Delta’s only support was including her events in their promotional materials, something “I didn’t ask for.”)
“We believe that the push-back is part of a larger discussion happening across America as it relates to race and gender,” reads Van Horn’s statement. “We believe that same conversation needs to happen here in Pittsburgh and today reached out to several community leaders about facilitating a discussion about race and gender specifically as it relates to the LGBT community.”
But some Roots Pride supporters say Delta has already signaled it isn’t interested in that conversation.
“[Delta’s] Pittsburgh Pride never really took a look into the community to see what we needed” says Kenny McDowell, a leader in Pittsburgh’s “house and ball” subculture, which consists mainly of LGBT people of color. He argues that Delta could facilitate a Pride that includes events geared toward the ballroom community. “You’re never going to please everybody, but the more you include people in that discussion, the better.”
Dan Catanzaro, a Delta board member who recently left the board, says the board tries to be inclusive. “We tried to get all colors and races on that board,” he says. But Pittsburgh is “not a racially diverse city” and “most other boards reflect this.”
Asked about Delta’s funding priorities (just 2 percent of its 2013 spending went to grants), Catanzaro says it’s an “interesting, debatable question.”
And while “everyone might not agree with it,” Catanzaro adds, “Delta brought an amazing amount of awareness of our community to the rest of the Pittsburgh community and to state legislators, and what is that awareness worth?”
Roots Pride organizer KMT, a mother of five who says she has “never been above the poverty line,” argues the kind of awareness that Delta promotes doesn’t include her. It’s not intentional, but “symptomatic of structural injustices,” she says. “Creating our own spaces is a political act.”
So far, Roots Pride consists of a town-hall meeting, a "Shut-it-Down protest at Pride in the Streets, an intergenerational paint/water-balloon fight, and a healing circle and river walk. “We’re talking about more than just partying,” says Battle, a Roots organizer. “It’s about celebrating our lives and lived experiences.”
But not everyone within the black LGBT community agrees with Roots Pride’s approach, perhaps highlighting the difficulty of uniting groups that have been historically marginalized.
“To create a pride that already exists, it’s a slap in my face,” says Pittsburgh Black Pride founder Flecia Harvey, who protested at a recent Roots press conference. “Our pride is for the whole black community.”
KMT says that criticism of Roots Pride is partly because “the lack of resources makes you not want to trust everybody.”
“I think our community deserves more than one celebration in a year,” she says. “We’re not just a black Pride.”