Last night’s Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations hearing on racism and discrimination in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood could be considered a massive catharsis, as speaker after speaker gave highly personal stories in which they described how their interactions with Gayborhood institutions, especially bars, clubs, and nonprofit organizations, made them feel disrespected, ignored, or worse.
And those were the people who ventured into the Gayborhood. Others testified that they did not feel comfortable or safe venturing into the one part of the city where they should feel that way.
Several hundred people, far more than the hall the Commission had arranged with Liberty Resources to use for the hearing could accommodate, turned out to deliver or hear testimony on racism, sexism and transphobia in Philadelphia’s official gay community. And after Men of All Colors Together member Gary Hines and this reporter delivered testimony about an earlier effort to survey discrimination in LGBT bars to provide historical context, the testimony presented was for the most part impassioned and heartfelt.
Although the hearing, like the town hall meeting that preceded it, was triggered by revelations of racist remarks made by iCandy owner Daryl DePiano, the testimony made clear that the problem extended well beyond the bars. G Philly editor Ernest Owens set the tone for what followed by saying that “the bars are not the only problem” in the community, referring to what he called “a nonprofit-industrial complex” that at once exploited and ignored the voices of the minorities who used its services and did the heavy lifting of volunteer work.
“Far too many nonprofits turn to black and brown youth for funding but do not hire us,” said Hazel Edwards, one of three Attic Youth Center members who jointly testified as the “Justice League.” “The adults ask us to speak, but so rarely do they listen.”
One adult who did listen was Julie Chovanes, the executive director of Trans-Help, a transgender-led service agency for transgender people. Her clients, she said, “asked me to be here because they’re fearful to be here.” One reason for the fear: police harassment of transgender individuals, according to Deja Lynn Alvarez, a trans activist and director of the LGBTQ Home for Hope. Chovanes herself brought up a big piece of that history when she called on the Philadelphia Police Department to release its files relating to the to-this-date-unexplained death of transgender activist and community icon Nizah Morris while in police custody in 2002.
Members of another prominent sub-community, lesbians of color, testified that they had pretty much set up their own parallel community to address their needs. Northwest Philadelphia resident Sappho Fulton said that “Everything they have in the Gayborhood, we have outside the Gayborhood,” rattling off a list of clubs and coffeehouses in outlying neighborhoods where lesbians are welcomed. Man of them, she said, were run by women of color. Yet she was still upset that “we” – meaning people of color in general – “have never owned a bar down here.”
All eight owners of the 11 bars currently in the Gayborhood are white men; some of them had attended the earlier town hall. The commission had subpoenaed them all to attend the hearing; all but one showed up, and the one who was missing, Tabu Lounge & Sports Bar co-owner Jeff Sotland, sent Freddy Shelley, the bar’s original general manager, in his place to deliver a written statement in support of the community’s efforts to eradicate discrimination. In that statement, Sotland pledged to continue to listen to the community and urged his fellow owners and other institutional leaders to do the same.
One of the more poignant pieces of testimony concerning bar discrimination came from Asa Khalif, who testified both on behalf of Black Lives Matter and a friend named Prince who could not attend himself, as he had passed away shortly before the meeting. Khalif, who has been especially critical of Woody’s policies, shared with the commission the story of the last time he and Prince went out together — to Woody’s, at Prince’s request. As the door staff made them jump through hoops showing additional ID, then the bartenders kept Prince waiting for his fruit juice while they served white patrons who came up later, he said, “you could see his dignity deflate in front of you.” But he kept quiet out of respect for his friend, who afterward thanked him for the time they spent out. Community member Terrell Green also called the bar out for suddenly imposing a “no athletic clothes or sweatpants” dress code where none had existed before.
In general, most of the speakers’ characterizations of how the city’s mainstream LGBT community leadership viewed them were in sync with local HIV activist Prentice Bush’s self-description: “I am a threat to the bars and a gold mine to the nonprofits.”
But not all: Antoine Johnson, who described himself as “a black person who was in the Establishment,” urged the audience to tone down its anger and work with the leadership. Otherwise, he said, “the next thing you know, we are another hashtag on the Internet,” dismissed and derided. Johnson also specifically defended Nellie Fitzpatrick, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs, as having the interests of LGBT people of color at heart. Several of the organizations whose representatives testified at the hearing, such as the Black and Brown Workers’ Collective, had called for her resignation in the weeks leading up to this hearing.
Mayor Jim Kenney, who named Fitzpatrick to the post, was also present throughout the hearing to take in the testimony.
As many more people wanted to testify than the commission had time to hear in person, commission member Thomas Earle, CEO of Liberty Resources, reminded those in attendance that the panel will continue to accept written testimony for one week from the meeting. He also said that the commission will be reviewing the ID policies, dress codes and employment practices of the Gayborhood bars as part of its followup to the hearing. Once the period for submitting testimony has ended, the commission will review the testimony and its research into bar policies and issue a set of recommendations. Those wishing to submit written testimony may email it to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail it to the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations at 601 Walnut Street, Suite 300 South, Philadelphia, PA 19106.