Loyal readers of this column (thank you, friends) know that I spent the first 28 years of my life in the Midwest before fleeing for Texas to find my gay tribe. I grew up in a land of corn and clear air, but a mere hour away from my neighborhood’s pristine pastures lay the steel-birthing, black-belching, river-tainting smokestacks of Pittsburgh.
The last time I saw Pittsburgh was in 1967, while on a church youth summer cruise of the three rivers that convene in a triple water crotch to form the Mississippi River, eventually dumping Pittsburgh’s sad tributaries into the Gulf of Mexico. I remember it as a gray day, although the sun was shining.
Last month, circumstances presented me with a rare and welcomed gift: I was invited by VisitPittsburgh.com to tour the city and witness Pittsburgh Pride.
Suffice it to say, Pittsburgh has changed. A lot. In fact, everything I remember from the Pittsburgh of my youth is now wrong.
Lunatic raving of GOP presidential nominee hopeful Rick Santorum aside, the city is now being touted as the San Francisco of the East. After visiting, I have to agree. The Gay has come to the Keystone State.
Houston has Montrose. Pittsburgh has Liberty Avenue, the fictitious setting of Showtime’s Queer as Folk. Of 16 gay and lesbian nightclubs peppered throughout the city, three are situated along Liberty Avenue, which was closed for Saturday’s Pride in the Streets concert headlined by Patti Labelle. Who but Labelle, a Pittsburgh native, could deliver a steamy 45-minute, pulse-pounding, prideful set, then invoke Malotte’s vocally soaring
“The Lord’s Prayer” as her encore? Amen, Sister.
Organizers estimate that a comfortable crowd of more than 50,000 people attended the following day’s LGBT Pride Awareness March and Festival, produced by Pittsburgh Pride and the city’s LGBT-promoting Delta Foundation. Last year, around 100 vendors exhibited at the festival. This year, it offered nearly 200 booths, with a waiting list of those who didn’t make the cutoff. Not bad, considering the city’s population is estimated at less than 350,000.
In all, 10 full days of Pittsburgh Pride celebrations included the sexy Splash pool party for guys, the Lez Date dance party for lesbians, a pub crawl of those 16 bars, a trans fashion show, and much, much more.
Interpreting Pitt Pride’s optimistic theme, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a big homo flash mob danced Friday afternoon, stopping traffic and eliciting cheers from passersby. Stuart Milk, Harvey’s nephew, continued his family’s tradition of imploring the crowd to “Come out!” at the political rally. Instead of the Steelers’ black-and-yellow “Terrible Towels” twirling everywhere, colorful Pride banners flew from downtown utility poles in civic support of the LGBT community.
Pittsburgh’s gastronomic community has experienced a sophisticated rebirth as well. I dined at Caya, a Caribbean-themed eatery housed in a redone brick shotgun space located in one of the city’s several reenergized business districts, enjoying deliciously light ahi sashimi, pan-seared dorade with micro peas and asparagus, and finishing with chipotle ice cream. And that fresh blood-orange mojito didn’t hurt one bit. What happened to sauerkraut and beer?
Turns out, they’re still there. A trip to The Strip, yet another revitalized district, revealed blocks of bakeries, delis, cheese shops, and more—all purveyed by multigenerational families of diverse ethnic spectrums. And oh, the cured meats! It was a veritable sausage fest, but not the kind some of you are accustomed to.
I also enjoyed an amazing breakfast at Pamela’s P&G Diner, a kitschy, lesbian-owned café found in one of Pittsburgh’s many progressive neighborhoods. Pamela’s’ delicious, nearly wafer-thin crepe pancakes are the Obamas’ wise breakfast choice when they visit the region. So much for my diet.
I spent too little time in The Warhol, the prized art museum archiving the works of the Pitt-born pop-art icon, absorbing the vivid murals, profane videos, and Brillo Pad boxes. Equally as entertaining and inspiring was a stop at RandyLand, the home of openly gay, exuberant folk artist Randy Gilson, who has converted nearly every inch of his north-side property into a colorful art installation, utilizing found and donated objects.
The plush, nearly 100-year-old William Penn Omni Hotel, located within walking distance of the main events, was home base for my stay. Scenes from Jodie Foster’s famed horror classic, The Silence of the Lambs, were filmed there, so each night I convinced myself that Jodie had likely slept in my bed. Hey, what’s a vacation for, if not to escape?
More name dropping: former Hollywood Squares star Bruce Vilanch, the very gay head writer for the Oscars and numerous other shows that require clever quips, showed up at a Pride Eve dinner hosted annually by one of Pittsburgh’s respected (and yes, gay) chefs. One of Vilanch’s employers, Bette Midler, refers to him as “the first man to put something in my mouth that actually made us both money.” I asked him what was he doing in Pittsburgh, of all places, expecting a snappy retort. Working? Former resident? “No,” he replied, sans punchline. “I just love Pittsburgh.”
And so did I. But it’s still summer. The snow hasn’t fallen yet.
As with most vacations, it was fabulously refreshing to get away, but it was also great to return just in time for Houston Pride. Revisiting Pittsburgh was like a dream. In a way, I felt like Dorothy in Oz.
But it wasn’t a dream, it was a place. This was a real, truly live place, even though I had remembered that some of it wasn’t so nice. But most of it was beautiful. And if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with! Oh…there’s no place like home!
Click here to see photos of Nancy Ford’s summer vacation.