On the day that Gov. Tom Wolf and Dr. Rachel Levine held a press conference at the beginning of the pandemic telling Pennsylvanians they should all be wearing masks, my partner Laura and I were driving to do a porch pick-up of two masks we had already ordered through Operation Face Mask Pittsburgh. I got to savor the rare moment of being ahead of the trend.
But soon after washing, wearing, and rewashing these masks, I realized we would need more than just the two we purchased. Finding a vendor was tough. Backorders. Wading through patterns. I am not a sewist (sewer + artist + activist), but I wanted to support those who were, and help my other friends get access to them too, especially as a member of the LGBTQ community who knows how important finding a safe outlet is to our friends during normal times, let alone a pandemic.
Members of the trans community continue to face escalating public abuse and violence, a fused layer of transphobia, racism, and sexism that makes navigating a pandemic extra treacherous.
So I went to Lyndsey Sickler at TransPride Pittsburgh and proposed that we team up. My blog, Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, and their organization are established institutions that we hoped would signal credible safe spaces for trans and queer neighbors to engage. And thus, Pgh MasQUe ProjecT was born.
We deliberately chose to use the phrase "trans and queer" in our project to center our most vulnerable neighbors as a show of solidarity and support. (Admittedly, I'm surprised how many lesbians and gay men don't see themselves in that phrasing and have to be specifically invited. That's a small taste of how trans and queer folks navigate a “gay and lesbian” world each day. It should be an "aha" moment, but I suspect I'll have to continue explaining, and that's part of being an ally.)
Once we decided to go forward with the project, we hashed out some basic details, set up a Facebook fundraiser, and created a Google Form.
We had 28 requests in the first hour.
Two weeks later, we had received requests for more than 600 masks. Most are individuals in the Pittsburgh region. Some live as far as Elk County, Steubenville, and Johnstown. A few are in West Virginia. At least three organizations asked for batches of masks to distribute to clients and volunteers.
Some donated, others cannot at this time. One donor, himself a former target of gay-bashing in Bloomfield, chipped in $600. A 14-year-old drag artist, E! The Dragnificent, live-streamed a new performance, raising over $200 in tips she donated to us.
Then came the sewists. Plundering their fabric stashes, they found patterns and sent us batches of 10 or 30 or 100 masks. Cotton and elastic are like gold.
Our volunteers dubbed themselves "QPS" and made the rounds, doing scores of no-contact drop-offs. Some accepted gas money, others did not.
We added links to trans and queer-friendly retailers for folks who wanted to buy their own. We also linked to other projects. I joined an online group of volunteer mask sewists to coordinate our requests in manageable batches.
Much like Laura and I realizing our two masks would not be sufficient for our family, we realized that even after every request is filled right now, the rest of 2020 stretches out ahead of us. One mask won't get anyone through the remainder of the year. Wear and tear, damage, work demands, access to a washing machine, even having a net bag for delicates could have a huge impact on sustainability and durability. People are going to buy food before replacing masks.
So we've sought out another community partner, the Pittsburgh Equality Center (PEC), to serve as a fiscal sponsor. We recruited a database manager to set up forms and spreadsheets. We've been soliciting sewists in outlying counties. I set up an account with USPS and sourced a vendor based in Erie to handle requests. A friend is cleaning up two old sewing machines to lend out; another is borrowing their mom's machine.
Phat Man Dee is writing us an anthem.
Global Links has begun sourcing bulk masks for us, so far donating 3,000 that we are distributing to other trans and queer orgs, including SisTers Pgh, Shepherd Wellness Community, True T Pgh, and Garden of Peace.
We have plans to mobilize PriZilla, a decommissioned school bus, to take masks to Beaver, Butler, Greene, and Mercer counties.
At the same time, we've had to log into Dr. Rachel Levine's daily briefings and read horrible transphobic comments heaped on her by our neighbors and members of the media. It’s terrible for her, I imagine. Facebook doesn't moderate comments about public figures.
Imagine how terrible that is for trans folks, in particular, who simply want to get an update. They are not public figures, but they must wade through unprecedented transphobic hate to access this information. That's unconscionable. Creating daily watch parties mitigates exposure to comments, but they are still there, another threat level to navigate.
In the midst of this project's early days, I learned of the brutal murder of a 25-year-old trans woman while seeking rehab in Baltimore. Her name was Johanna Metzger and she was from Philadelphia. Her family misgendered her, buried her under her deadname, and suggested donations in lieu of flowers to an anti-trans ministry. The erasure of Johanna was being used to subsidize more anti-trans activities. I carry her name in my heart as I try to create more safety.
Over the course of this project to date, I've had to write five additional memorial posts for victims of fatal anti-trans violence, the latest among hundreds of similar posts I've written over the past years. So I am intimately aware of the importance of allies taking action to protect the safety and peace of mind of our trans neighbors in tangible ways.
Still, if you had told me six months ago that I'd be knee-deep in bias tape, bobbins, and bolts of fabric, I wouldn't have even understood how that would be necessary or desirable. COVID-19 has altered the course of human history, but we can choose to carry forward into this new normal the best parts of ourselves. I'm glad my toy drive skills combined with 15+ years of LGBTQ blogging create a useful vantage to help. Some days I'm grateful, because it helps me cope with my own terror and existential dread.
We have a leadership team that includes a database manager, a retired physician, and logistics experts. Two of our deciders are trans, three identify as queer. We are trying to be smart, transparent, and accountable.
We all hope this project will not be necessary in 2021. The virus will set the pace, but we will be right there to swing into action.
I'm not going to spout the party line about unity and coming together or other phrases that erase the very real tensions and inequities in the LGBTQ community and this region. I'm going to maintain my boundaries around whom I'll work with, but I will give masks to anyone in need. This project has the capacity to solve an immediate problem. It could be a tool to move us forward a little closer together, but that requires deep examination of the realities, not the nostalgic "back to normal" rhetoric we so desperately clutch to find our way through frightening times.
For now, it matters that we leverage resources and privilege to address this particular gap. Our model can be replicated elsewhere. We hope it is.
As of publication date, we have received requests for more than 900 masks. Keep in mind that Western Pennsylvania is home to 80,000-200,000 trans and queer residents, most of whom live outside of the Pittsburgh region.
We need help. Masque up.
The Pittsburgh MasQUe ProjecT offers face masks to trans and queer (and LGBTQ) households with ties to Western Pennsylvania and nearby communities. Currently, we are offering each household two masks per person every month.
You can request masks using this form.
You can list your trans and queer-friendly storefront or sign up to sew masks for the project using this form.
You can connect with the project on Facebook.
You can chip-in via PayPal, Venmo, Zelle, Ca$hApp, Google Pay, check, or via our Facebook crowdfund.
You can volunteer to pack masks at home or take one monthly no-contact delivery shift.
You can organize an online fundraiser, donate your graphic design or video editing skills, or find some other unfilled need.
About the author: Sue Kerr (she/her) MSW has been blogging at pghlesbian.com for 15 years. Her site was named OUTstanding Blog in the 2019 GLAAD national media awards and twice voted Best Local blog by City Paper readers. She can be found on Twitter @pghlesbian24 and on Facebook at facebook.com/pghlesbian. She and her partner live in Manchester where they foster cats and foment uncomfortable conversations.