The Union League Is Philly’s Hottest New Gay Club

How the A-Gays of the city’s premiere power club are making clout in town a little more fabulous.

On new year’s day 2012, the union league—still the center of the universe for anyone moving and shaking in this town—was hosting its annual open house.

Every New Year’s Day, the über-private club invites members to bring guests for a stroll through its storied halls, or at least a Bloody Mary to shake off the cobwebs from the night before. Wives clutch old-fashioneds and gossip about their husbands, in-laws and politics, not necessarily in that order, as kids stake positions on the ornate p­ortico to watch string bands march by in all their plumed, banjo-picking glory. The august gents who comprise the League’s Old Guard—many of them thick-bellied chaps who are modernized versions of the thick-bellied chaps in the oil paintings that line the walls—slouch in overstuffed leather chairs and bitch about politics, their wives and their portfolios, not necessarily in that order.

The A-Gays of the Union League were at the bar, their roll call teeming with bold-face names: Drew Becher, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, is a member, and was there with his partner, Eric Lochner, whose software company, Kenexa, was sold months later to IBM for $1.3 billion. (Yes, with a “b.”) Evan Urbania, the young co-founder of social-media strategy firm ChatterBlast, greeted fellow member David Schellenberg, CEO of Li­nguiSearch, a marketing research consulting company. Rounding out “the Davids,” as they’re known, were League member David Devan, head of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, and his husband, David Dubbeldam, who’s studying to become a Unitarian minister. They kibbitzed with Brad Richards, who would soon be named the associate director of alumni relations at the Wharton School, and who was in one of his trademark dapper suit-and-bow-tie ensembles.

[Click here to learn more about the members of the Union League's A-Gays]

Everyone drank steadily and ate nothing. At one point, Becher recalled looking over at a similar collection of accomplished men standing at the club’s restaurant, 1862, just a few weeks earlier. “Every one of them,” he said, “was gay.”

Founded to support the interests of the North in the Civil War, the Union League quickly became the clubhouse for the lords of old Philadelphia society, esteemed civic leaders with surnames like Drexel, Elkins and Wanamaker—the ultimate Wasp status symbol. Until 1986, women were banned as members. So it’s doubtful that in the 150 years since the League’s doors opened, anyone has staged a full-blown reenactment of a catfight between Alexis and Sable from Dynasty within its walls. Yet this is exactly what happened between Brad Richards (um, Alexis) and Matthew Ray, Urbania’s business partner at ChatterBlast (Sable) on New Year’s Day.

“I have just bought your tankers at auction, Alexis!” Ray thundered.

Richards drew back, aghast, clutching a martini. “What?”

Ray stepped forward. There was laughter from those in the well-dressed peanut gallery. “For 10 cents on the dollar!”

“I don’t believe it!”

“You’ve asked me what I wanted from you, and I said, ‘Everything you’ve got.’ Let’s consider this the second installment, Alexis!”

For those fretful that “The Gays” are turning the Union League camp, fear not. For one thing, they have no interest in taking over. They are, however, very interested in occasionally taking over the bar. Becher, Urbania and Richards are just three of the engines behind a semi-stealth effort to bring more gays into the club ranks, sponsoring newbies for membership and inviting other gay colleagues for after-work cocktails or lunches. Their mission is not to stand out, but to assimilate. Because if you want to build a formidable gay economic networking hub in Philadelphia, where better than the power nexus of the city itself?

Welcome to Gay Philadelphia 2.0. The occasional cheek-kiss greetings and love of vintage prime-time soaps aside, this isn’t the gay vanguard of old, the one telegraphed through angry ACT UP protests, flamboyant drag queens, shirtless go-go boys and wanton sex. Today you’re just as likely to see an out gay man at the head of a boardroom table as you are to see him sipping a cosmo at Stir. Activism remains essential, but economics even more so. (It’s no coincidence that Comcast was recently named one of the “best places to work” for LGBT people by the Human Rights Campaign.) Gays are elbowing their way into some of the most elite power circles in the city. And they’ll be happy to buy you a drink at the Union League.

There was a time, not so long ago, that Philadelphia’s gay community looked very different. There were the public institutions: the Philadelphia Gay News, Giovanni’s Room bookstore, Woody’s on 13th Street. There were those outrageous parades. And there were, of course, the bars—watering holes tucked away on Drury and Camac. Or, even further in the shadows, the seedy goings-on at the Adonis Cinema on Sansom Street. Today the PGN is teetering on the edge of obsolescence in an age when the Inquirer can write about Devan’s “male partner” with the dispassion paid a weather forecast. The parades are now more an excuse for brunch than a political statement. Internet hookup sites have practically run porno theaters out of business (though, oddly, the Adonis survives). Gay bars and clubs still thrive, but by choice rather than necessity. When Woody’s first opened in 1980, it was windowless; last year, floor-to-ceiling windows were installed, allowing a clear view of who’s inside. Nowhere to hide, because really, who needs to hide anymore?

This transformation has been long, but also surprisingly quick in many regards: Just 30 years ago, the idea of an openly gay politician in Harrisburg would have been inconceivable. So would gay marriage. Or even Ellen DeGeneres hosting a popular talk show for suburban housewives, and everyone … shrugging. Certain archetypes within gay culture remain: the twinks (young, pretty), the bears (mature, hirsute), the party boys (gym by day, club by night) and the elder statesmen (cut from the Quentin Crisp literati cloth). But out of this, a new demographic has been carved in Philly, one perhaps best captured by the term coined by author Armistead Maupin: the A-Gays.

In Maupin’s seminal Tales of the City, published in the ’70s, the term is an indictment of the craven scenesters who turned early urban gay life into Lord of the Flies. In Philadelphia, it now symbolizes the op­posite—men of status like the Union Leaguers, savvy networkers scheduling power lunches to discuss deals and strategic partnerships (with occasional after-work drinks to discuss Magic Mike). Put all of their W-2s together and you’d have one formidable investment group.

“Some of the battles have been fought,” Brad Richards says. “Not all of them are won. Twenty years ago, we wanted to not be fired from work. I just want to marry my partner. In the League, it’s the same idea. There’s acceptance, you’re in, but sometimes there is no table for you. You have to create your own.”

It’s 8 a.m.—breakfast time—in the Union League’s regal dining room. I’m sitting at a table with Richards, 42, and three other openly gay members. Bryan Hoffman, 50, calls himself a “high-impact horticulturalist”; his Hoffman Design Group recently decorated the club for its 150th anniversary. Bob Hotes, 50, is an architect who was involved in the League’s much-raved-about exterior makeover in 2004. The youngest of the group is 29-year-old Ben Haney, a real estate investor and, along with fellow St. Joe’s Prep grad Rob McElhenney of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia fame, a co-owner of Mac’s Tavern, the cozy Old City taproom.

The atmosphere is part art museum, part old Le Bec-Fin. We all take a pass at the buffet and the made-to-order omelet station, as gray-haired dowagers order eggs Benedict and businessmen chat over coffee. No one looks twice at our group. Richards makes a crack about our table in the corner. “This is like the gay mafia,” he says, to laughter all around. “Have to keep your back to the door.”

Hotes, a member since 2002, grew up in clubs like this—his father was a lobbyist. Shortly after joining the Union League, he discovered that he and his date were one of only a few gay couples he knew of among the roughly 300 people at a black-tie gala hosted there. When they took a turn on the dance floor, “My partner at the time got a little uncomfortable,” Hotes recalls. “We got some looks.”

Still, the breakfast group is unanimous—even strident—in saying that neither the League nor its members have ever made any of them feel unwelcome; the club never balks at extending gay partners the access accorded spouses. The League’s shift toward inclusivity—along with its makeover, buzzy restaurants, and first female president—helped earn it the title of Number One City Club in the country last year from Club Leaders Forum, a trade publication.

The rise of Philadelphia’s A-Gays can be traced to two landmark events that occurred within the past decade. In 2003, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation launched its “Get Your History Straight And Your Nightlife Gay” campaign, making Philly one of the first cities to actively target gay tourists on a national scale. (The commercials featured a Colonist penning a letter to his sweetheart, hoping to reunite at Independence Hall; his lover turns out to be a dude in a tricornered hat.) The ads sparked outrage from conservatives in far-flung corners of the state, until the GPTMC announced the return on its i­nvestment—$153 in spending for every advertising dollar. Money, as they say, talks. A civic bear-hug of the Gayborhood followed: 36 rainbow signs were posted to designate the neighborhood.

The less splashy, but no less significant, moment arrived two years later. Bill G­ehrman had just left his post at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and had been thinking a lot about gay economics. There are volumes of research on the power of the gay dollar—a projected $845 billion in spending in the U.S. last year alone—but Gehrman had no sense of the impact of gay businesses. No stats on their contributions to the tax base, the workforce, nothing. A few years after a trip to the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce conference in Washington, D.C., he invited a handful of local gay business leaders to a meeting at the William Way Community Center on Spruce Street. That led to the creation of the Independence Business Alliance, the city’s first gay chamber of commerce, today headed by Urbania. Its board has included such A-Gays as Schellenberg, city director of engagement management Stuart Alter, and David Huting of PNC Bank. An unscientific survey of the IBA’s members places their collective annual revenues close to $80 million. The money is still talking.

“The last six years have been a really important time,” Gehrman says. “It was an organic progression. For the first time, people were connecting LGBT to business. Businesses started to recognize that the community had power. It wasn’t just about health care, or youth being oppressed. It meant opportunities. LGBT went from being a liability to a positive—something you could leverage.”

Today the A-Gays are a tight-knit, interconnected lot. “I love the fact that it takes me 20 minutes to walk a block and pick up my dry cleaning,” says opera head Devan. “I get more work done walking down the street than sending emails.” As it’s always been socially, networking has become essential to gay businesses and entrepreneurs here. Gehrman’s financial planner, insurance guys, graphic designer, a film company he works with—all gay. Without its first client—Terra, the gay-owned restaurant below Tavern on Camac—Ur­bania’s ChatterBlast might never have gotten off the ground. Urbania paid it forward by sponsoring Mike DelBene, the 34-year-old vice president of development of the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, for League membership. This kind of loyalty is now part of the city’s commercial gay landscape—from financial portfolios managed by Brad Button at Northwestern Mutual, to marketing plans commissioned through Gehrman’s En Route Marketing, to pricey bath products bought at Duross & Langel, co-owned by Steve Duross, to showing up for the annual TOY fund-raiser at Reading Terminal Market, managed by Paul Steinke. Like African-Americans and women in their initial efforts at network-building, the A-Gays support their own.

Harvey Hurdle, the CEO of Sellers Dorsey, a gay-owned health-care consulting firm and an IBA member, was hired after chatting with the company’s founder at a fund-raiser for the Attic at the Penn’s Landing Hyatt. “We made a strategic decision to be out,” Hurdle says of his company. “It’s worth it to create a space where people can be their whole selves.” He recalls his relief knowing employees could have photos of same-sex partners displayed on their desks. “We’re going to get more work out of them if they’re not worried about making up a story to cover what they did over the weekend. That’s better for clients.”

But there’s also the Chick-fil-A Effect. Gehrman admits that he and other gay business owners are always on the lookout for potential land mines. “Depending on the client, if I know them or not, I’ll list the IBA on my résumé,” he says. “Others, I won’t. But it’s a conversation we consider. It’s still on our minds in business.” It’s a matter of particular concern outside Philadelphia—gays in Pennsylvania can still legally lose their jobs based solely on their sexual orientation.

Back at the Union League, Richards and Hoffman mention a discussion they’ve had with Becher, Urbania and others about starting their own “affinity club,” one of the cliques within the League that form around a common interest, like investments or squash. But it hasn’t gotten off the ground yet. Practically, it’s tough, if not downright impossible, to maintain a casual monthly breakfast with the A-Gays. (Being fabulous is, indeed, a full-time job.) Another consideration is how an official group united by one rather basic characteristic—homosexuality—would be received. “If we formalize it,” Hoffman admits, “it might raise a few eyebrows.”

“But that idea is emblematic of the larger conversation,” argues Richards. “A group of people involved in larger things, but you need to self-identify to make a place at the table in the most metaphorical sense.” All agree a gay club would only work if it supported a cause—itself a challenge, since everyone has his own interests. (William Way Center, Equality Forum, Sapphire Fund … the list goes on.)

Despite how apparently welcoming the League has been, several members were reluctant, to say the least, to participate in this story. Devan says he doesn’t see himself in the context of memberships in any group. “Joining the Union League was not a defining moment of my life,” he says. “I don’t want my defining contribution to be that I was a ‘gay leader.’ I want to make the Opera Company and Philadelphia better.”

For his part, PHS’s Becher compares LGBT labels to the notion of referring to Barack Obama as the first African-American pr­esident—a true distinction, yes, but not one needed with every reference to his name. “I have been very clear with who I am,” he says. “I think it’s important to have the whole picture. It’s about being professional. I don’t have to label myself as gay. Making this city better has nothing to do with who I sleep with.”

I reached out to Joan Carter, the League’s first female president (she was elected two years ago), to get her thoughts on the A-Gays among her members. I received a pleasant email back through the club’s publicist that had the usual Sesame Street platitudes, but then something interesting: “Diverse backgrounds and varied interests make the League not just relevant, but exciting and vibrant. What all members have in common is our support for the Constitution of the United States and the free enterprise system.” So basically, these days, if you’ve got a sponsor, deep pockets and U.S. citizenship, the League is happy to invite you in. As for being gay? Well, that’s nice and all, but they’re not asking. Or commenting.

In a sense, what Becher is suggesting is that Philadelphia is on the verge of a “post-gay” era. Perhaps. But the very presence of a debate among the A-Gays about how far to push their agenda within the Union League—and Carter’s polite but vague take on their existence­—proves that there’s a difference between “We’ve arrived” and “We’re at home.”

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.

  • SameOld

    The real untold story here is how, after the article appeared, the Union League Board went after and disciplined many of the members pictured on the cover. Shows how much things have NOT changed.