The Union League Is Philly’s Hottest New Gay Club
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.
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.