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