LGBTQ&A: Woody’s Co-Owner Billy Weiss

For the first time, an owner from Woody's speaks publicly about Gayborhood racism and the establishment's new commitment to addressing it.

Billy Weiss

Billy Weiss

Billy Weiss is the co-owner of the Gayborhood bars Woody’s and Voyeur. The brother of fellow co-owner Michael Weiss, Billy did the following interview over email to address recent allegations of a racially discriminatory dress-code policy at Woody’s and the bar’s next steps in handling public complaints. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Woody’s has a long history in Philadelphia, even predating the term “Gayborhood.” What was it about the property that made you and Michael decide to purchase it?
My brother was an active member of the Palmer Social Club, and when he was elected to the board, they decided in 1996 to move the club to its current location on Spring Garden Street. During the time we ran the Palmer, we had several gay nights, as my brother is gay and wanted to give the LGBT community an option besides what was in the Gayborhood. We then opened 8th Street Lounge and Transit in the same area. Both places did have gay late nights and other gay events. During this time, my brother was a board member of Mayfield Social Club. We knew that the 24th Ward Young Men’s Association was moving from its location on Saint James Street, so we moved the Mayfield into that space and it has been there ever since.

When my brother first started to go out to gay clubs, Woody’s was always known as the top gay bar in Philly. The Mayfield, which was called Pure at the time, was a club that everybody went to after Woody’s. Bill Wood, Woody’s original owner, had told my brother that he was interested in selling and thought that we ran a quality operation and cared about the community. We had several conversations about what our vision for Woody’s would be if we bought it from Bill Wood. He liked our ideas and we bought it. Buying Woody’s was important to my brother because he knew that the bars were not only the place where people got together to party, but to mourn the losses of people from our community. It was the place where everybody in the community could go to a be a part of our community and be accepted. It was a real gay club.

When we purchased it, we kept everything the same for a few years so we could find out what made Woody’s Woody’s. We listened to our staff and our customers, and made some changes. We put in more dance-floor space so we could have different types of music, we continued to add rooms to make Woody’s the entertainment complex that it is now. There is something for everybody. We also knew that with Woody’s came with a huge responsibility to the LGBT community, and we have tried our best to fulfill that by holding events for people running for office who were pro-LGBT candidates. We had Latin nights for the LGBT members of the Latin community. At Voyeur, we had First Fridays with Simply Christopher, which was a predominantly African-American crowd. We also knew that by owning Woody’s, we could do our part to give back to the community and understand what the community’s needs were.

How do you believe Woody’s has contributed to the Gayborhood, and to a larger extent Philly’s LGBTQ community, under your ownership?
We feel that Woody’s has contributed to the Gayborhood not only by the simple fact that we kept it a trouble-free location where every time you walked by, you would see a large crowd of diverse people having a good time. This enticed other businesses and people to move into the area, clean it up, and make it what it is today — one of the hottest locations in the city. We also prided ourselves on always offering a space for any LGBT organization that wanted one. We have been dedicated from day one, and still give back financially and of ourselves to as many LGBT events and causes that we can. But we want to make it clear: It isn’t us giving the money, it is our customers who are allowing us to give the money by patronizing our establishment.

My brother, Michael, has also given back to the community by volunteering for or accepting appointments to the following positions. He was appointed by Mayor Rendell, then again by Mayor Street, to sit on the Police Advisory Board to represent the LGBT community, and is its vice-chair. He sits on the police commissioner’s LGBT Advisory Board. He is the board secretary of the Mazzoni Center. He is a committeeman in the 8th Ward, where he can push for candidates who are pro-LGBT. He was the original chairman of Liberty PA, and was a long-time member and one-time treasurer of Liberty City. He also is on the Airport Board, representing the concerns of the LGBT community as far as making sure that they and other minorities are represented. Lastly, he has served as a special advisor to the District Attorney’s office, advising the D.A., Seth Williams, and organizing several community events where the community could ask the D.A. and his top staff questions about LGBT issues.

In recent years, Woody’s has been accused of racially discriminatory dress-code policies and having a role in the overall exclusion of LGBTQ people of color from the Gayborhood. Being the owner and enforcer of these operations, how do you explain these polices that appear to target and reject LGBTQ people of color?
We have been accused of discrimination, and I would like to answer these allegations. When I heard about the issue of the dress-code enforcement, I was surprised — we never had a dress-code policy, and therefore never posted one. We don’t have a dress code because we do believe that a dress code is discriminatory in nature — how am I to police a policy that could be broken for a celebrity, a friend, or an employee. I assure the LGBTQ people of color that we strive to be unbiased in how we operate the club. We take this more seriously than people know. If you ever worked at Woody’s, you know that we personally have fired over 10 to 20 people for racist remarks. I have even fired an employee who was a friend of mine for comments like “Oh, these people don’t tip.” People who have been in staff meetings know that we have zero tolerance for discrimination against anyone.

There are a lot of falsehoods about the club, and I guess this is my fault, because I have not spoken out earlier and sent a clear message to everyone. I need feedback from customers with specifics so I can root out any employees who are not following procedure. So I would like to set the record straight: There is no dress code at Woody’s. I apologized to Kemar Jewel for any embarrassment I have caused him, and I told him at the public hearing that if he could help find the door person responsible for this discriminatory action that they would dealt with accordingly.

As far as any other allegations, we think that Woody’s itself is proof that we strive for a diverse crowd by the music we play, the staff we hire, and rules of conduct that we hold our staff and ourselves to. Do we make mistakes? Yes. Do we sometimes hire a person we later regret? Yes. But we are committed to taking action when an employee has not conducted themselves accordingly.

Both you and your brother have been absent from community forums addressing Gayborhood racism. Is there any reason you did not release a statement or appear publicly before being subpoenaed by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR) for its October 25th hearing?
Michael was on the panel of one of the community meetings that Liberty City held about LGBT issues. Michael also attended a meeting within the last month with Nellie Fitzpatrick, Rue Landau, some folks from the Human Relations board, folks from the Mayor’s Office, and leaders of the Black and Brown Workers Collective and Black Pride. Michael was one of only two bar owners to attend that meeting. Michael did appear two times in group settings and has spoken at length with elected officials to determine the best way to move our community forward as one. After the success of the Orlando fundraiser “Philly4Pulse,” we both publicly stated that we wanted to do the next fundraiser and call it “Unity,” where the proceeds would go to the minority programs in our city.

Editor’s note: Asked for comment on meeting Michael Weiss, representatives from the Black and Brown Workers Collective (BBWC) said they have never met him and were not present at the private September meeting held between Gayborhood bar owners, Philly Black Pride, PCHR, Office of LGBT Affairs, and the Mayor’s Office. BBWC has previously spoken out about such private meetings being held by government officials and Gayborhood stakeholders. A representative from PCHR also confirmed that BBWC was not present at the private meeting they participated in.

Now that the PCHR has documented members of the community citing experiences of racism at Woody’s, how do you plan to tangibly address these complaints?
One, we will hold a once-a-month forum at Woody’s where I and/or my brother and all the managers and staff will be present for a Q&A to listen to the public’s perception about issues — not just the minorities’ issues within the community, but all issues we encounter. I hope that we can have a moderator from outside the staff of Woody’s to keep it fair and balanced.

Two, we will have sensitivity training for all staff members that is mandatory and transparent.

Three, we will personally go to as many meetings that we can attend for better understanding the issues people are dealing with.

Four, we will hire a person who is a direct hotline to the community for any complaints or misunderstanding that might arise at the club. There are a lot of employees, and numerous ones have been fired for racist comments and overzealous behavior. But note we will be transparent about the investigation, but there are rules for us to terminate people, and we will terminate on the basis of a transparent investigation. My staff should be expected to be treated with the same respect that you are asking for as a customer — no more or less, just the same.

Five, we never had a dress-code policy, nor do we have one now. We should have never turned down the Kemar Jewel for wearing sweatpants. I don’t know if the door person was new and made it up or had some personal agenda, but I have made it clear that sweatpants, sneakers, hats, and Timberland boots are allowed. If someone at the door tries to pull this “there is a dress code policy” on you, please ask to see a manager. Just to note, all city laws do apply to the dress code. For example, you can’t come in nude and tell us that there is no dress code, LOL.

Is there anything you want LGBTQ people of color in Philadelphia to know about Woody’s after the PCHR hearing?
Yes — the meeting opened my eyes about the problems that not only a person of color has, but specifically what a LGBTQ person of color deals with. My take was an overall view from society in general, knowing about racism as an everyday part of life a person of color deals with, whether it’s getting stopped from the police for no apparent reason, getting a bad table at a restaurant, and the overall disrespect that needs to be overcome on a daily basis. I know about this kind of racism, and I think it’s disgraceful. My daughter is biracial and she is 6 years old, and I have to face questions by white people — “Is this your daughter?” with a look of disgust on their face, or “Oh, she’s so cute — what is she?” I feel like saying “She is a fucking human being — what are you?” But I keep telling myself to move forward, to keep my eye on the prize of finally having equality. I guess I try to have the moral high ground, and by this, I look to the teaching of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., where they say that morality will win over injustice, and that if you take high ground, people will see the errors in their ways and that the few can’t control the many.

I was looking at this issue solely as racism in a general way, and I was dealing with this just from my point of view and in knowing that I personally don’t stand for racist comments from my staff. I hire people based on performance and their character, especially my managers. This meeting made me look at all the managers I have ever hired throughout my career — I never thought about it before, but I listened to make sure my head was not in the clouds. I thought this would be a good indicator, because after all, the manager is the most trusted — they have the keys, the alarm codes, and they handle the money.

I have had 32 managers in the last 15 years at various clubs, and 26 out of 32 were people of color. Right now, I have five managers — two African-Americans, one biracial, one Asian, and one white person. My social media and marketing manager is a transgender who has worked with me for over 20 years, and my assistant is a African-American female. Doing this was a reality check of really trying to see if I am a person who is guilty of implicit racism.