Tuesday, July 16, 2024
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The queer mask project: How one woman made a difference

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, long-time activist Sue Kerr realized she needed to get more masks to queer and trans people in need. Here she shares her story.


It hit me the day after my partner and I picked up our first face masks from a local sewing cooperative. We had washed and worn them, then came home and realized we needed to wash them immediately to use the following day. 

Clearly, we needed more masks. But where to find them in the early days of April 2020? I visited Etsy anticipating many options. It was when I saw a rainbow Pride print mask next to a Confederate flag print and a MAGA print that I realized how complicated and dangerous this brave new world of PPE could be.

If it was complicated for us as white cisgender middle-class lesbians whose income had not changed due to the pandemic, what about others in our community? 

I asked TransPride Pittsburgh to join my blog, Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, as co-founders of a mask distribution project because it was important to start off with a project informed by diverse experiences in our regional community. We made a concerted effort to center the trans and queer members of our community, a deliberate choice by this lesbian blogger. 

We thought this would be a one-time distribution. Within a few weeks, we realized one time wasn’t going to be sufficient and pivoted to a monthly distribution model, using volunteers to make no-contact drop-offs. We recruited other leadership team volunteers and found a fiscal sponsor. We teamed up with Global Links to access bulk masks created from surplus materials as well as working with individual sewists. 

Fast forward to December. We have distributed more than 10,000 masks across six counties and five states. We distributed 1700 masks to the local gay and queer bars and hundreds to local LGBTQIA+ community groups. We have about 30 active volunteers. And we raised more than $10,000 to support our operations throughout 2021. 

Face masks are still the number one public health tool to reduce transmission of the COVID-19 virus. That won’t change until an effective vaccine becomes widely available. So we plan to continue as long as we are needed and we have resources to access. The CDC also recommended that communities who ‘experience a barrier’ to access should develop plans to distribute masks. 

One thing people ask me quite often is whether I have specific stories of our community, especially trans folks, being discriminated against when they tried to buy a mask. That’s such an uninformed perspective on the realities of LGBTQIA+ life that I can only shake my head.

Diane Pitman, part of the Pittsburgh Masque Project, and tote bags filled with gloves, hand sanitizer, wipes, and masks

We live in Pennsylvania, a place without statewide non-discrimination protections. In Western Pennsylvania, two out of 26 counties have protections on a local level. Statewide about 33% of Pennsylvanians have these protections. 

We live in Pennsylvania, a state where parents sued a school district over policies to keep trans students safe and tried to go all the way to the Supreme Court without success.

We live in a nation where people did go to the Supreme Court to defend their right not to bake cakes for same sex households. 

Churches in Philadelphia brought a case to the Supreme Court demanding that their religious beliefs entitle them to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ children and adults in foster care programs. Churches in Pittsburgh went to the Supreme Court to successfully gut the Affordable Care Act of some employer mandated protections. 

Pittsburgh Masque Project supporters showing off their masks

Those of who are queer and trans move through this reality each day. We must constantly assess our ‘outness’ in any given situation. I am well-aware that when I walk into a retail establishment, they assume I’m a cisgender heterosexual middle-aged white lady, an assumption that both erases me but also protects me from the worst immediate threats to my physical safety. It is a terrible trade-off, but a far cry from the experiences of so many of my trans and queer neighbors.

Last week, the Movement Advancement Project released research findings titled ‘The Disproportionate Impacts Of COVID-19 On LGBTQ Households in the U.S’ that confirm our intuition, gut feelings, and hunches. 

The findings show that LGBTQ people and their families are more likely to experience job losses and economic challenges resulting from the pandemic, that they are more likely to have health challenges from the pandemic, including not getting needed medical care, and that they are struggling to manage work and childcare responsibilities—all at higher rates than nonLGBTQ people.  

We started this project because we knew that we would have to save ourselves. There’s no turning back now. Reach out to us if you want to start a similar project in your community. 

For more information on the project, visit http://www.pghmasqueproject.com

Make a donation here.

About the author

Sue Kerr has been blogging about the Pittsburgh LGBTQ experience since 2005. Find her blog at pghlesbian.com and follow her on Twitter @Pghlesbian24 and Insta @Pghlesbian  

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