Our Chat With Metro Columnist Who Wrote That Gayborhood Bars Are Racist

We caught up with the writer who caused quite a storm after he suggested that the Philly gay scene is still as racist as ever.

Ernest Owens

Ernest Owens

When Ernest Owens wrote “Black Not Fetch Enough for Woody’s” in last week’s Metro, he was hoping to start a discussion. Well, he succeeded: As of this publication, his commentary is the No. 1 “most read” piece on the Metro website, and chances are, if you’re involved with LGBTQ culture in Philly and you’re on social media, you’ve seen the piece posted on your newsfeed. Yet, I felt that there were a ton of misconceptions floating around about the message that Owens presented in his piece, plus there were a lot of unanswered questions that started to surface about race, class, and culture in Philly’s LGBTQ community. Lucky enough, I was able to chat with Mr. Owens about his piece to get more insight on his discussion of inclusion and micro-aggressions.

When your first piece first came out, I was joking that it broke the Internet. Did you have any idea that it would cause so many people to start a conversation? I hoped it would. This discussion was a long time coming, and when I first pitched it to the editor at Metro Philly we were both stunned to see that there really wasn’t any recent pieces that directly spoke on it. Social media and many of my queer mentors for years had water-cooler debates about their experiences, but no one really took it further than that. I was fortunate to have the opportunity and platform to get this published as we prepare for Pride next month. It’s high time we start thinking about inclusion in a different way.

One of the biggest misconceptions that I’ve seen people mention in regards to your piece has to do with the physical number of people of color who attend the clubs you mention (i.e. I’ve seen a lot of “There are always black people at iCandy!,” etc.). Clearly, people who are having this kind of reaction are missing the whole argument, right? Absolutely. Separate isn’t always equal. The inclusive vibe of the space and the respect that takes place is what is lacking. You can put various people of color in one room, but that doesn’t mean they feel as welcomed. Clearly, Woody’s and iCandy had no problem accepting my cash to enter, but after checking in my coat, my experience didn’t match what the white gays experienced. Acceptance and tolerance are two different things. I was tolerated there, but I wasn’t truly embraced and that felt alarming as a young gay black man who grew up in Texas. “Isn’t this supposed to be the City of Brotherly Love?,” I thought. After a continuous series of out-of-pocket remarks and subtle micro-aggressions, I just stopped going. What I would later find out is that these incidents were not just my own but many others that look like me. That’s not a coincidence, and the Gayborhood needs to stop acting as if it is.

Do you feel like these racial divides in the “community” exist outside of Philly? Would we see this in NYC, or is there something uniquely problematic about Philly’s gay scene? Of course they do: Division is everywhere. I have written about some of these experiences for HuffPost Gay Voices and the response tends to be the same: Often cis-gender white gay males would criticize my sentiments as though they have all the answers and solutions to the LGBT community when they are only a portion of the population. Those type of imperialistic mindsets represent a culture that is beyond just the queer experience, but mainstream social and racial dynamics. And anyone who thinks otherwise should really check their privilege or just simply study history.

Elaborate more on the Beyoncé night you talked about in the piece. I honestly see that being a really keen symptom of the issues you discuss, that there’s almost a pandering towards different types at these bars. White gay men are especially obsessed with seeing black queer bodies in a performance outlook. It’s borderline voyeurism (no-pun intended). I cannot begin to tell you how many times I was assumed to be a dancer or into ballroom vogue culture just because of the media’s projection of hyper-sexual, show-stopping, black entertainers. Whether it is Beyoncé, Diana Ross, or RuPaul, predominately white gay spaces have shown a sense of favoritism to those black gays who are willing to put on a show for them and dismissive of those who weren’t. I often felt that when I entered the dance floor and wasn’t interested in being the performer for many of them who wanted the illusion and hipness of black artistry. I’ve been slapped on the butt and howled at a couple of times when a hip-hop song got played and the moment the pop/techno beat came back on, it was as if I was no longer relevant to the crowd. There is an uncomfortable dynamic that happens in these clubs when my body and visibility is over-indulged as a fetish conditionally to certain stereotypical music and themes. If this sounds like exploitation, then you completely understand where I am coming from.

I don’t think the answer, as some people are suggesting, is to restructure how the “clubs” do things. This has a lot more to do with cultural perceptions in gay Philly, right? Right. The clubs as an institutional geographical space are fine. However, the mindsets need to change. I would never advocate for an accepting queer space to be shut down as long as it operates just as that – an accepting space for ALL queer members. Cultural perception can only come from more dialogue and straight talk. What I admired so much from the readers were how they opened up about their own experiences and challenged those who were stagnant. Cross-cultural inclusion on some of these Pride boards, event/social planners, and the alike can really be a great start. My brief piece was a public introduction to the conversation, but not the end of it. My intention was to never have all of the answers or solutions, but lay the context from which it can start. Let’s keep talking!