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Pittsburgh transgender advocate Wendi Miller remembered for generosity, trailblazing activism

Wendi Miller stands in front of her framing business
Cooper Miller
Wendi Miller outside of her frame shop in February, 2023.

“Don’t dream it, be it.”

The iconic proclamation from the 1975 hit “Rocky Horror Picture Show” was the motto by which pioneering Pittsburgh transgender advocate Wendi Miller lived her life, according to her son, Cooper. Miller, 75, died last Thursday, leaving behind her decades of activism for the city’s LGBTQ community.

For 50 years, Miller owned Miller Framing, where she employed transgender women during a time when they faced discrimination in housing, employment and society.

“Everyone who’s come up to me [after her death] has basically told me versions of the same thing, which is: 'Wendi saved my life,'” said Cooper Miller. “She would do things for people that, people in their own life, weren’t there [to do] for them. She was filling in those gaps.”

Miller was born on July 14, 1947, in Pittsburgh, and earned a degree in sculpture from Carnegie Mellon University (at the time called Carnegie Tech). She would go on to start her framing business first in Oakland and then in East Liberty in 1982. There, according to a recent proclamation by Pittsburgh City Council, she worked with Pittsburgh clients including Fred Rogers, Mario Lemieux and Willie Stargell.

“The Miller Frame stamp can be found behind artwork all over Pittsburgh,” said Cooper Miller at the proclamation earlier this week. “She lived a life of transformation, leaving no heart unchanged by her generosity, bravery and talent.”

Miller served as the president of TransPitt, a support group for area transgender people, where she helped educate the city about gender dysphoria and gender identity in the 1990s. In 1995, she advocated on the federal and local levels to include trans and gender non-conforming people in nondiscrimination policies. In a 1993 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article about the group’s visit to peer organizations in Chicago, she talked about the importance of having gatherings for trans people.

“Just finding out that they’re not alone can be a godsend,” she was quoted as saying.

According to QBurgh, she was also a member of the inaugural LGBT Advisory Council under former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

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Cooper Miller said Wendi had an “interesting take on religion,” and he laughed when he found the soundtrack to Jesus Chris Superstar saved on his parent’s phone.

“She loved a good musical,” Cooper said. “And of course, she died right in the middle of Easter … she had a very Monty Python-inspired sense of humor.”

Recently, Wendi and her son had been watching "Star Trek: Picard," a reboot of the classic Star Trek series featuring many of the original cast members (Wendi was a big sci-fi fan). Cooper said he used to watch it all the time with Wendi while he was growing up, and the pair even went to a Star Trek convention — Cooper preferred to dress as Commander Data at the time. The show has been praised for its diversity, and Cooper said the storylines and characters helped him better understand when Wendi came out to him in 1991.

A Star Trek symbol.
Cooper Miller
Cooper Miller's Star Trek symbol.

“So I think it made the conversation easy for her to have because those topics would pop up, topics around gender within the context of the show,” Cooper said. “The fact that it was one of the last shows that we watched together — that was really meaningful.”

Outside of her occupation as a framer, Cooper said Wendi was also a “scuba diver that became a scuba instructor, then a cave diver, and a photographer.”

“She didn’t have the normal limitations that other people put on themselves,” Cooper said, adding that personality trait could sometimes lead her to be a bit too generous: “She didn’t know how to charge for her own time.”

Still, Cooper said Wendi’s generosity made her lovable. She valued relationships more than money. And being a framer meant she was often rewarding in that she could take family photos or other portraits and “elevate it” to something “meaningful, or museum-worthy.”

At a recent City Council proclamation, Mayor Ed Gainey's press secretary Maria Montaño said Wendi will be remembered in Pittsburgh history.

“If it was not for Wendi and the legacy she created, not just for me, but for every single one of us in our community that stands on her shoulders, her work, her life and her legacy lives every day here at City Hall.”

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA and 91.3 WYEP, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.