Pittsburgh LGBTQ+ org receives $2 million of Mackenzie Scott funding

Hugh Lane staffers stand together to post for a photo at a Pittsburgh Pride event. Six people are pictured of varying ages and appearances.
Hugh Lane staffers at a Pittsburgh Pride event.

Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that launched in 2017, is named to honor the founder’s uncle “Huey” who died from AIDS in the ’90s. Their mission is to improve health for LGBTQ+ and HIV communities in Western Pennsylvania — a goal the organization is tackling by addressing social determinants of health.

It’s a relatively new organization. Sarah Rosso, executive director, was hired as Hugh Lane’s first staff person in 2019. Hugh Lane now employs 25 people serving within three distinct areas of focus — youth and families, community health and legal aid, and professional training.

The nonprofit learned last week that they’ll receive a $2 million award funded by Mackenzie Scott, a philanthropist who is the former spouse of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Rosso explained that Hugh Lane was one of over 6,000 respondents to a 2023 open call for submissions on Scott’s platform, Yield Giving — which announces opportunities to apply for funding and tracks her charitable donations. Rosso felt like it was “a long shot at best” and didn’t expect the organization would become a finalist. They’re now one of 300 awardees.

The grant will be used to expand their youth and families division, which currently offers after school programs, mentorship and leadership development, support and social groups, online programs for asexual and aromantic youth and BIPOC kids, and other opportunities. Hugh Lane plans to use the money to open a resource center — as it is currently only able to work at locations throughout the community. 

“I think part of why a tangible space — a building — is important is because it creates a foundation for the future,” Rosso explained.

“We really hope that this can become a regional resource — that over time it builds out to a resource for all of Western Pennsylvania for as many people in the Tri-State area as it is helpful for,” they said.

Hugh Lane has a youth advisory board which is heavily involved in their approach to current programming, and those young people will influence how Hugh Lane develops plans for the proposed center.

“Having a building allows us the opportunity to do some unique things — like building out specific programming spaces, kitchens, clothing closets,” Rosso said, noting that having their own place will allow them to create whatever they decide they’ll need.

One of the first items on the to-do list will be a recording studio and performance space with equipment for video content creation and editing. Rosso said that new programming will help youth learn how to produce the content they’re interested in.

“You can’t take a recording studio on the road,” they said about finding a balance between using the new site and maintaining the organization’s existing work within local communities. Rosso, who is highly collaborative, will continue to partner with LGBTQ-affirming organizations across Pittsburgh.

“We can work with different community groups and organizations to leverage and access our space but then we can also take the work that we do to the communities and across the region,” they said.

Hugh Lane’s current approach to programming includes a unique focus on supporting families as an entire system rather than offering resources solely to youth. The organization has participated in national research projects to identify needs and potential interventions for parents and caregivers of LGBTQ+ children. 

“We have some direct interventions where we work one-on-one with caregivers to help them be able to better support their LGBTQ-identified kids,” Rosso said, adding that Hugh Lane also runs support groups for caregivers, programs for foster parents, and opportunities for families to connect with each other. For parents and caregivers who are struggling to accept or cope with their child’s queer identity, Hugh Lane offers a space that meets them where they are and helps them avoid rejecting behaviors.

“My parents really struggled. They’ve come a long way, but they really struggled in the beginning,” said Rosso, who is queer and nonbinary, about their own experiences coming out as a young person. They underlined that they feel it’s important to help whole families become stronger and healthier together whenever it’s possible.

“I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and my story is not dissimilar to many others,” they said. 

“We want to create a future where people don’t have to die in the closet — or not get the care or support that they need because they can’t be out, they can’t be authentic, they can’t be who they are,” they said, noting that the funding comes at a time when it is especially important to take action to protect and affirm LGBTQ+ youth.

They noted issues in Ohio and West Virginia, which border Pittsburgh, highlighting that problematic policies and legislation are harming trans people “across the agespan but is especially targeting trans youth.” In Western Pennsylvania, Rosso noted that school districts which previously had more inclusive policies are “walking back” those stances or implementing new policies which negatively impact trans youth. Even in Allegheny County, which Rosso said has a number of protections in place for LGBTQ+ people, they underlined that trans and gender diverse community members as well as Black and Brown people do not have the same experiences as their cisgender or white counterparts.

“I think we have a lot of work to do to make sure people feel fully included and have the ability to create and build communities,” Rosso emphasized, underlining that this problem isn’t specific to Pittsburgh and exists in most places across Pennsylvania.

“There’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of questions out there right now,” Rosso said about the impact of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and misinformation. “LGBTQ young people — and particularly trans people and gender diverse young people — are seeing all of this. So this project, for us, is really important in this moment.”

“It feels exceptionally important in this moment that there are tangible things that we can do to show up wildly in support of and to affirm our trans and nonbinary people, our LGBTQ young people, and also at the same time help to support their families,” they said.

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