The nation’s second safe haven for gay counseling began as an underground phone network in Pittsburgh where men and women called and connected with the community they called their own.
During a time when homosexuality was still being treated as a pathology and illness, this revolutionary social network grew into the Persad Center, a nationally renowned center for the gay and lesbian community, led by Swissvale’s Betty Hill.
“In some ways, it was political and some ways social because everyone was hidden then, so it was ‘Where are the gay bars, where do I go, where are my people, where’s the party?’ but what happened on this phone line is people started asking for services,” Hill said. “They wanted counseling, they wanted help for things, and in 1972, a counselor’s going response was to help them not be gay, so people on the phone line were saying, ‘I need counseling, but that’s not what I need.’”
Now in its 39th year, the nation’s second oldest licensed counseling center for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community recently was named the 16th Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders affiliate in the country.
“It’s a national organization focusing on the aging in the gay community,” Hill said of SAGE. “President Obama put money in to develop a national resource center and they have affiliates across the country.”
The Persad Center is unlike other nonprofit organizations as it serves an entire community from youth to the elderly. Counseling, preventative programs surrounding HIV/AIDS, transgender issues, bullying prevention and advocacy work all are included under its umbrella – and that’s just to name a few of the services offered there.
“We work with the gay community and its allies,” Hill said. “When you are serving a population of people, it takes you to whatever their next need is. If you’re following a disease or a problem, you follow the developments of that field -- that’s how we are complicated but small.”
Founded on the back of a peace march bus to Washington, D.C. by Jim Huggins and Randy Forrester, has a history of being a pioneering center for achieving equality for the gay community.
Forrester worked to achieve the city’s first ordinance protecting gay people from discrimination in the work place 20 years ago. He passed away in 2008.
“Just last year, we got the ordinance for Allegheny County,” Hill said. “That’s how early he was in his progressive kind of thinking.”
Huggins, who has a private practice in Pittsburgh, taught people in the field how to provide identity-affirming counseling for the gay community. In the early ‘90s during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Huggins played a major part in creating the first HIV/AIDS curriculum for the state in human services and the medical community.
“This was a time when funeral homes wouldn’t bury people who had AIDS, nurses wouldn’t touch them and there was so much fear,” Hill said. “There was a lot of education needed on how the disease was transmitted and how it wasn’t. They were huge pioneers of gay and HIV services.”
Hill is carrying on the founders’ legacy and reputation of providing services for the gay community that they cannot get anywhere else.
Huggins of Fox Chapel said that when Hill became executive director 10 years ago, he and Forrester made it clear they would step back and let her take the reins.
“Betty was exactly the right person to take over for where the agency had come to,” Huggins said. “We were able to leave and know it was in great hands. She had a similar vision that was different in ways that were really wonderful and immediately we knew she had so much energy for it.”
Hill’s Journey to Persad Center
Hill, who has spent her entire career working in human services, grew up in Indiana, Pa. and majored in psychology at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
After graduating, she moved to Kittaning to work at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility at 20 years old.
“I stayed there for 10 years and learned all kinds of things about addiction, about recovery, counseling and helping people,” Hill said. “It was a hard and wonderful learning ground and I left there as their clinical director. I worked my way up from aid to counselor, to supervisor.”
Hill decided she wanted a different life after spending a decade there, then found a job working for Allegheny County in preparing agencies for managed care until 1991. At the same time, she earned her master’s degree in public management from Carnegie Mellon University.
Hill wanted a more direct experience with people who needed help and moved on to work at The Whale’s Tale, a large youth and family services agency, where she stayed for 10 years until a merger in 2001. Upon leaving, she received several calls from friends who asked if she was applying for the open position of executive director at the Persad Center. She was intrigued by the thought of working as the head of an organization with such a powerful position in the gay community.
“I had never worked gay before – I am gay but I never worked gay – so I thought, that’s interesting to work for my own kind of community and never thought about that before, “Hill said. “Persad had such an extraordinary reputation for being at the cutting edge of all things gay and having such an interesting impact historically on the Pittsburgh region.”
Today’s Biggest Issues
As services at Persad form with the prevalence of different issues in the community, Hill said bullying, teen suicide and the idea that the movement is over are among her top issues.
“Gay kids commit suicide at a rate three to five times higher than their counterparts and the reason for that is the discrimination and often the bullying,” Hill said.
She also discussed how many people believe there is not much left to do to gain equality for gay people.
“We have TV shows and they think it’s not the issue that it is, so it’s kind of like it’s where discrimination is more insidious and harder therefore to change,” she said. “There is lots of incredible discrimination that goes on but people don’t think about it anymore because it’s not quite the same as it used to be. We have lots of very discriminating major systems. It’s engrained homophobia and heterosexism and it shows up everywhere.”
Hill said she cherishes the opportunity to help people in a community of which she is a member as she smiled and said, “the day after I got this job I suddenly became 10 times gayer than I was the day before.”
“It’s an honor to me to be able to shepherd Jim and Randy’s creation for as long as we are able to do that,” Hill said. “I have always been in human services because I do have that ‘we are our brothers’ keeper' kind of orientation to life, but it’s really clear to me that some of the people who come here to get what we offer could not get these specific services anywhere else.”
Hill lives with her partner, For more information on the Persad Center and services, visit http://www.persadcenter.org/.