SisTers PGH takes a stand on Capitol steps

Ciora Thomas, founder and director of SisTers PGH, took to the Capitol steps in Harrisburg on Tuesday morning to speak on the Fairness Act, a civil rights law that would protect LGBTQIA+ people in Pa. from discrimination. As an openly trans, Black woman who has worked nearly half of her life to build tools of survival for herself and other trans people of color, she knows just how long overdue this legislation is.

“Of course, discrimination against and violence towards trans and queer people will not disappear overnight merely because of a bill. We know that. This is why it is vital that our state lawmakers, activists, and residents commit to doing the real grassroots work,” Ciora said in her speech.

The bill, introduced by State Rep. Dan Frankel (D.-23) and supported by Gov. Tom Wolf, would add sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity/expression to the provisions of state law that prohibit discrimination for housing, employment, education, and public accommodations. Rep. Frankel has pushed versions of this bill for two decades with no success. Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast that lacks clear anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Only 21 states plus the District of Columbia currently have full LGBTQ nondescrimination protection laws.

“Laws matter. What the government does and does not tolerate trickles out to all of our communities. My hope is, as the new appointment as co-vice chair of the PA Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, I can help move us in the right direction. We can take bold action together and make sure our state’s legislation is representative of the values we say we uphold,” Ciora said.

The Incline caught up with Ciora after Tuesday’s speech to talk about the day’s events, the People’s Pride plans this weekend, and the work of her nonprofit, SisTers PGH, a community center, drop-in space, and resource provider for trans and non-binary people of color in the Pittsburgh area. What follows is our Q-and-A, edited for clarity and length.

Ciora Thomas speaking in Harrisburg

Ciora Thomas speaking in Harrisburg on Tuesday Morning. Screenshot taken from IG video (📸:@sisterspgh412)

Francesca: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. How are you feeling after yesterday’s events?

Ciora: I feel good. I was talking to my team this morning. On a personal note, being able to have myself and my team — three Black trans women — walk up the Capitol steps as representation of Black trans folks in Pennsylvania, it meant so much. I asked my team what they got from it, and for many of them, it was their first time seeing the governor and other politicians. I’m glad to be in a position to pull other Black trans people to the frontlines.

As we continue to move forward, it’s so important to include us in the conversations when it comes to legislation and policy around us as one of the most marginalized groups in the community.

Similar legislation has been unsuccessful in Pennsylvania in the past. Listening to the speeches, the common phrase used was “long overdue.” Does it feel different this time?

It feels different because these folks are also starting to become familiar with me and my work. I was really shocked. There were politicians that knew me, and I didn’t even know them. We did a little tour and as we were walking around several politicians were giving me accolades for my work in Pa. and Pittsburgh. They are starting to understand the importance that we are heard and valued. That was a moment like “damn!” I had not, in my 32 years of living, seen any representation of Black trans people in these spaces where these folks were actually looking at us as human beings that need and deserve these rights.

One example of the systemic and institutionalized discrimination that you mentioned in your speech was the court defense of “LGBTQ+ panic,” a strategy that is currently legal in Pennsylvania that asks the court to blame a victim’s sexual orientation/gender identity to defend someone against violent crime. Can you expand on this?

This defense allows folks to commit hate crimes and use the excuse that they went insane in that moment because they found out that this person is gay or trans. It’s ludacris. Seventeen states have already banned the use of it. We need to eradicate this in Pa. because trans women are being murdered and this can be used in any of these cases because it is not mentioned in any of our laws that anyone can’t use this defense. It’s a hate crime. There should be no defense against that.

This legislation, the Fairness Act, was presented just days before People’s Pride this weekend. The theme this year is “Reclaiming Pittsburgh Pride.” Can you tell me what that phrase means to you? 

For so long, us Pittsburghers know we have been dealing with the Delta Foundation that has hurt us in many ways and has since been dissolved. As we were already coming into planning a virtual space this year, we thought that this was the perfect time for our organization and our allies — other nonprofits and businesses, school districts, and government entities to come together during Pittsburgh Pride and actually do what we should have been doing in the last decade: Listening to the folks most marginalized and making sure, not only are these voices centered, but we were moving legislation along. It is our time to reclaim Pittsburgh Pride and really set the movement in the position where our city government is not going to have control of Pittsburgh Pride, and neither will corporate entities.

Obviously, the work is never done. Could you highlight some things that your organization is currently working on that Incline readers should know about?

We run a variety of programs through SisTers PGH: Grow to Succeed, BroThers PGH, TGNC Youth Collective, and Project T.

  • Editor’s note: Project T is a Trans-Led Transitional Housing program for Trans, non-binary, and other gender-nonconforming individuals (TGNC), those among the most likely to experience housing insecurity because of discrimination, housing affordability, transphobia, and the barriers of access disparity, according to SisTer’s website.

We bought a house last year and since we’ve opened our doors, we’ve had 12 all Black, trans women between 18 and 25 go through our programming which includes home habitation, money management, and employment resources. Once they’re discharged from the program, the goal is for them to move into their own apartment or become homeowners. That’s how you demarginalize the people that’s how you create generational wealth.

When we first started SisTers PGH, I was jumping on a camera and recording videos about news about trans life in Pittsburgh. Our vision, mission, and values continue to change, advance, and move. What I’m understanding through my 32 years of living here, is that it’s probably going to take another 32 years until we get to a point where we are actually thriving. SisTers is just giving you a head start to thrive on your own. That’s the goal.

How can The Incline readers get involved to help protect their neighbors?

Invest in this generational wealth and equity with your dollars, privilege, and volunteer time. Make sure we are on an even playing field within our community. Support SisTers PGH; If we have resources, our communities will have it.

This liberation is real, and we’re going to keep moving and growing. That’s what comradery is about. Not just allies — allies to me are folks who show up for photos — I need a comrade. I need someone who is going to lose their job for this liberation if they need to.

And call your state legislators and tell them to support the Fairness Act, no matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican. I have actually met Republicans that are in support of LGBTQ+ issues, but there is room for more conversation. We have a lot of work to do.