117 Ways to Describe LGBTQ Identity

For the past year, I have been asking LGBTQ neighbors throughout Western Pennsylvania to contribute their personal stories to a blog project titled #AMPLIFY. We use a Q&A format with the goal of giving a signal boost to the lived experiences of neighbors who might not otherwise have a platform to talk about their lives.

#AMPLIFY is a project of my blog, Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, and Most Wanted Fine Art gallery where I am serving a multiyear stint as an artist in residency (2015-2017.) The project is part historical archive, part storytelling experiment that came together to create a unique community art experiment.

To date, we've published 114 contributions from people with ties to 17 out of the 26 counties in Western Pennsylvania. That's an overwhelming response, but we plan to continue to accepting responses throughout 2016 and 2017 in the hope of reaching as many people as possible. The 117 responses include those still in the queue to be published -- if you'd like to contribute, the Q&A is here.

Balancing the unique voices with the common themes is a challenge. We are meeting with local historians, sociologists, storytellers and more to help curate and synthesize this information so it is useful as well as interesting. We also ask each contributor to suggest new questions.

For starters, we asked "How Do You Describe Your Identity?"

No checkboxes. No drop-down menus. No categories, labels or predefined options. Just an open-ended question and a text field for people to share their responses.

And the results?

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As you can see, each person wrote a unique response. And while we can certainly tease out some common terms, this shows that there is no monolithic LGBTQ ( or 'gay') identity -- if we only listen to what people have to say.

Regarding the commonalities, I want to share some of those outcomes because it makes me proud to have such a diverse array of contributors:

  • 25 percent of contributors identify as QTPOC
  • 23 percent of contributors identify as bisexual and/or pansexual
  • 23 percent of contributors identify as trans*
  • 23 percent of contributors identify as queer
  • 30 percent of contributors identify as lesbian
  • 21 percent of contributors identify as parents
  • 15 percent of contributors are 55 or older

Our oldest contributor is 70 and the youngest is 18.

To be precise, these are people who actually used these specific terms. If you read the posts, you'll soon see that many contributors used lots of terms that aren't listed and all sorts of interesting combinations. This is not a rigorous set of data and I'm no social scientist. If you are interested in how someone can identify as gay, lesbian and queer, thankfully they filled out an entire Q&A so you can better understand their lived experiences. Go ahead and read a few, we'll wait ...

The results will be permanently archived on my blog and also disbursed via a multi-issue zine. We've also been asked to collaborate with a local theater company to turn the Q&A's into a 90 minute monologue performance for Pride month. And plans are underway to convert my 2000 Honda CRV into an 'art car' with the AMPLIFY theme by the crew of art car enthusiasts at Most Wanted Fine Art.

What started as a few Q&A's has rapidly expanded into a mixed media project. We plan to use digital recordings to capture the responses of community elders and others without access to a computer -- we even found a regional lesbian owned transcription company to help us with that aspect. I'm meeting with local archivists to determine in advance how to best preserve all of the original source materials for what will hopefully one day be a local LGBTQ historical archive.

My idea about amplifying some voices has taken me in directions I never anticipated. But I'm faced with the reality that even with this much response, most of it comes from Allegheny County. So I'm planning to take that art car on the road and travel to every county this year, meeting people face-to-face to invite them to contribute their unique story.

Of course, we have a crowdfundraiser running to help offset some of the expenses. If you live or have ties to Western Pennsylvania and identify as LGBTQ (or any of the 117+ variants so far identified), please consider contributing to the Q&A - it takes about 25 minutes to complete the form.

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