To Understand Gayborhood Segregation, You Have to Understand Philly

Gayborhood sign

It doesn’t take much to stroll through the gayborhood on any given night and notice the lack of people of color at the most populated gay bars, such as Woody’s or Boxers, as well as the absence of lesbian women on the scene, for that matter. Earlier this year, Metro’s Ernest Owens’ article “Black Not Fetch Enough For Woody’s?” pointed out that the root of the racial divide and the discrimination that he has faced in the gayborhood is, the “racial stereotypes and patriarchal inferiority complexes”. Though I agree with the premise of Owens’ article, it is necessary to situate the gayborhood within the larger context of the city of Philadelphia, as the gayborhood is simply a microcosm of just how radicalized Philadelphia is.

Racial divisions, micro aggressions, and racism are all the more flagrant and offensive when experienced in the gayborhood because one expects minority communities to be more inclusive, accepting and tolerant, thus for Black LGBTQ people in Philadelphia and visiting Philadelphia, the gayborhood scene and treatment of Blacks is particularly jolting when experienced.The racial divisions and racism experienced in the gayborhood is a symptom of the larger cultural context of Philadelphia. Philadelphia is a historical city and even though the Declaration of Independence was signed here, old habits die hard. From the racially motivated Columbia Avenue Riots of the 1960’s, to the bombing of the MOVE compound, only 30 years ago, to the racially segregated schools and neighborhoods of present day, racism has many faces in the City of Brotherly Love, and the gayborhood is not immune.

Perusing the comments sections of any piece by an African-American that criticizes an establishment, area or city for being racist or racially insensitive, you will find numerous accusations discrediting the polemic based on lack of evidence. For example, people will be quick to point out that people of color are free to enter or leave an establishment or that one’s experience wasn’t actually racist. Anecdotal stories are immediately dismissed and instantly challenged by asking for evidence – in other words, data to support ones experience. The data is there – it is cited within and across the larger context of Philadelphia. Where Philadelphia blacks are exposed to poverty at a rate nearly three times higher than whites, where the average black person in the Philly area lives in a neighborhood with a 24.8% poverty rate, compared to just 8.4% for whites, where the Philadelphia area has the largest performance gap between black and white schools nation-wide, where the average black or Hispanic household making more than $75,000 per year lives in a poorer neighborhood than the average white household making less than $40,000…I could go on with these statistics for several pages. In short, Philadelphia continues to rank as one of the most racially segregated cities in America, separate and unequal.

The racial segregation produces racist attitudes, which are not lost on Philadelphia’s youth. Just this summer, as I was walking down South Street, two black high school aged kids stood at a corner as a white couple walked past and they looked at the couple and said, for no apparent reason, “I cant stand white people.”

Aside from these racial divisions, one cannot ignore the cultural appropriation within city limits. From hot dog shops appropriating black power fists to the appropriation and commodification of the slang word “jawn” on billboards, which is derived from the hip hop explosion of the 1970’s – largely used by African-American youth during that time period (but of course, not credited) to the enthusiastic embracing of black womanhood and mannerisms in gay clubs, whilst simultaneously feeling uncomfortable as a black woman patronizing these clubs– there is a problem.

Yes, the gayborhood can be an uncomfortable place for black people and despite the retorts of folks that will ask you for an example of racism and then tell you that said experience was not racist, the solution is not to demand inclusion from establishments that treat you badly. Take, for example, my girlfriend who was recently treated poorly when trying to enter a gay club in Philly. She wanted to enter to have a drink at the bar closest to the entrance. However, the door man demanded she pay the 5 dollar cover and while she tried to explain that she only wanted to stop in for a quick drink at the bar in the front room, he had already jumped in her face while threatening to call the cops. After writing to the owner about her experience, the owner responded saying, “I disagree with you that we have an issue with race. We do not! We welcome everyone to [xxxx]! Men and women mingle of all races and ethnicities. I’d ask your friends who have had these horrible experiences to contact me personally so I can address them.”

In an effort to appear inclusive and sensitive to these issues, owners will be quick to to tell patrons to inform them when they feel discriminated in their establishment. However, if the owners of these establishments in the gayborhood or otherwise refuse to acknowledge complaints about overt or covert racism, it does no good to report them. It also does not make the complaint or experience less true. It is a privilege for an owner of a business to tell you that what you experienced actually wasn’t what you experienced and by extension, that your racially insensitive experiences (on multiple occasions) are not a problem. What is the point of contacting the owner?

While talking with a group of gay black men in the gayborhood, one lamented over the former club Bump which he says was black friendly and had an incredible happy hour where black people felt comfortable and actually excited to patronize. Another black male in his group added a layer of complexity, saying, “The gayborhood was superficial and if you are not the stereotypical ideal of a gay male, you will not be received well,” regardless of your race.

The solution is for people of color and black people to stop patronizing establishments that treat them poorly. Minority owned businesses in the gayborhood need to be established and patronized, such as Ram Krishnan’s new café which will be opening in the gayborhood soon. Personally, I have a list of places I will never go to in the gayborhood and outside of the gayborhood, some of which have since closed down. As a Philadelphian, I have had cab drivers demand I pay up front, which I know is because of my race. A cab driver told me to my face that he didn’t trust me and frequently, when I have to take a cab from the airport, drivers refuse to put my bags in the trunk although every other customer, not of African descent, has been afforded this service. I do not take cabs unless it is the last available option, just like I do not go to places in the gayborhood that treat me badly. As a collective, black people need to adhere to this advice. African-American’s buying power is projected to reach $1.1 trillion this year: This fact should not be lost on Philadelphia.

Black owned businesses that are already established need to be called to action to host gay friendly happy hours that are comfortable for everyone or tailored to people of color. We can ask for validation from an establishment that doesn’t want us there or we can look to patron places that make us feel comfortable or we can establish our own culturally diverse places. The latter two options are the only places of departure I have with Ernest Owens. These establishments will catch up, and if they don’t, they will suffer.

I refuse to spend money at a place or for a service that has made me feel as though my blackness is an inconvenience. I also don’t expect owners of an establishment that refuse to acknowledge the lack of diversity or the microagressions that take place at their establishment to make any changes anytime soon. Employees take on the culture of the establishment, which is set forth by the owner.

If you are the owner of a gay club, restaurant, or center in Philadelphia and your bottom line is limping along, take a look at the demographics of your establishment. Maybe you should consider how welcoming your establishment is, instead of immediate dismissal of someone’s complaint of racial discrimination, cultural insensitivity, or any form of mistreatment based upon one’s race. This is particularly important for businesses in the gayborhood, which are already tailored to small segments of the population.