The Union League Is Philly’s Hottest New Gay Club
If there’s a farm team for the A-Gays, Michael Braunstein is among its top prospects. The 32-year-old is drinking Tröegs Sunshine Pils at Mac’s Tavern, co-owned by his pal Ben Haney. Braunstein is one of the youngest ad sales executives in the history of KYW Newsradio. He got into the radio business out of his love of music; his management career began at WYSP, when it was the home of the Eagles. “Rock-and-roll and football—it was a boy’s-club environment,” he says. He was terrified of anyone finding out he was gay.
He’d first confided in his straight buddies from the Haverford School, who took him on his maiden voyage to Woody’s. (“They had a blast. I was the one in the corner with my hat pulled down low.”) The stress of telling his family led to sleepless nights, which spilled over at his job when he snapped at an employee. That night after work, over a drink with the boss, Braunstein explained why he’d been so uncharacteristically on edge. “He took a sip of whiskey and said, ‘I knew you were gay before I hired you,’” Braunstein recalls. “It was such a relief. I couldn’t believe it.”
Braunstein’s younger social circle often overlaps with the power crowd that the A-Gays run in. He’s as much a club-goer—he and his 25-year-old boyfriend are regulars on the Center City scene—as a future League member, and has been a housemate in a Rehoboth Beach summer share that included Richards (who, after appearing on a billboard for Temple’s Fox School of Business, found copies of the photo plastered on every open space in the house as a gag). Braunstein and Richards represent two ends of the well-off, well-traveled Center City gays: The former jet-setted to Ibiza last summer, while Richards spent a week in a chateau in Brittany with an A-Gay roster that included Devan and Dubbeldam; Alter and his partner, Jonathan Wright of Chanticleer; Becher and Lochner; and Fred Haas, of the Rohm and Haas family, and his partner.
A few weeks earlier, I’d sat down inside the Union League’s cigar bar with Haney, the bridge between the two groups. He’s both a businessman and a League member, but also single, handsome, under 35, and known to occasionally be present for last call. A Republican (he did advance work for the Romney campaign last fall), he turned an internship with Michael Smerconish into a part-time gig on Smerconish’s radio show; the talk-show host was his Union League sponsor. Like Braunstein, Haney is part of a new generation pressing an agenda that’s as much about economics as tolerance. He also happens to have a degree from Notre Dame, which rates just above BYU and Bob Jones University on the college diversity rankings. “If you looked at me at 18 and asked where I’d be at 29, I never thought I’d be doing an interview about being gay,” Haney says, adding that his conservative politics—long an earmark of the Union League—don’t clash with his liberal lifestyle as much as one might think. “It’s not perfect, but I’d say I’m in 70 percent agreement with the party. Chris Christie is a guy I like, and his whole thing in regards to working with Democrats is, ‘It’s a lot harder to hate up close.’ That really speaks volumes for the gay movement. As soon as people realize, ‘Oh wow, this guy that I’ve done business with or I’ve had drinks with or cigars with or worked out with is also gay,’ it’s like, ‘Shit, that doesn’t change anything.’ Or maybe it changes their whole opinion on what it means to be gay.”
I think of this a few weeks later when I meet David Schellenberg up on the 11th floor of the stately Philadelphia Building on Walnut Street. He’s taking me on a tour of the new headquarters for his firm. It’s still months away from being fully decorated, but no detail has escaped him. Plans include French glass doors for each office, art that reflects the ornate architectural flair of old Philadelphia, and an elemental theme reflected in the waterfall near the doorway and the fireplaces. Windows offer views of both the Gayborhood and far beyond. There’s a sense of pride in his voice as he describes how the space will look when it’s done.
In today’s gay landscape, achievement in business is its own form of activism. And currency. “So many people still have horrible stereotypes about LGBT people,” Schellenberg says. “For decades, all they saw were people on the fringes, because they were the only ones with the courage to be out. There are areas where it’s not so easy to come out, and they don’t have the courage to do it because they’re still discriminated against. Those of us that are successful are not afraid to be out. I’ve got clients that are not particularly enamored, but they believe we’re among the best in the country at what we do. Economic success is a route to greater tolerance.”
In other words, sometimes money doesn’t just talk—it shouts.
If the A-Gays are leading Philadelphia toward a rainbow-hued future, what does that place look like? The last stronghold may be politics, but even those walls have crumbled. Ed Rendell was the first candidate to actively court the gay vote; today, politicians ignore the Gayborhood at their peril. Mayor Nutter established an LGBT Affairs office during his first term. State Senator Larry Farnese has held fund-raisers upstairs at Woody’s (they politely remove the stripper pole beforehand), and aspiring mayoral candidate Jim Kenney is a fixture on the LGBT charity circuit and a vocal proponent of gay rights in the city.
As one would expect, the A-Gays are in the thick of all of this. Richards was instrumental in fund-raising for Brian Sims, who defeated 27-year incumbent Babette Josephs in November to become the first openly gay legislator in the Commonwealth. It’s not hard to envision a gay or lesbian on City Council, especially considering the fund-raising channels available. (Richards, Becher and DelBene are all basically professional fund-raisers; Adam Hymans, the natty donor engagement officer of the Philadelphia Foundation, spends such largesse for a living.)
The city hasn’t yet entered into a “post-gay” era. But that era is closer. And,
perhaps, inevitable. It could be that the final glass ceiling isn’t elected office at all,
but pro sports. Because if an Eagle or a Phillie steps out of the locker-room closet, the A-Gays may just go to A-plus. And they’ll merrily sponsor membership in the Union League.