Is Real Equality Finally Coming to the Gayborhood?

How a new generation of activists, a shocking viral video, and a government investigation led Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community to start facing up to its longstanding racial problems.

Illustration by Matt Clough.

Illustration by Matt Clough.

“Anti-blackness anywhere is anti-blackness everywhere!” The chant roared through a bullhorn on September 23, 2016, as a group of 15 mostly black and Latinx LGBTQ people took to the Gayborhood, carrying signs while chalking the rainbow-flagged streets. The diverse fleet made stops at popular bars and nightclubs, calling out the racial discrimination and profiling that members said they’d experienced at each location.

At ICandy, the 12th Street nightclub that had been criticized earlier that spring for its alleged “no Timberland boots” dress code, protesters tied a pair to the door and encouraged patrons to boycott the space. As the crowd grew, the group marched on, and more police arrived to escort them. Residents and barflies stared from windows in surprise — they had never seen a protest quite like this in the Gayborhood.

In the months leading up to the march, the issue of Gayborhood racism had been raised in news reports and at fraught town halls. The legendary Woody’s was accused of “covert racism” after a bouncer turned away a patron for wearing hip-hop attire. Nonprofit stalwarts Philadelphia FIGHT and the Mazzoni Center became targets because of the lack of diversity on their boards. The city’s Office of LGBT Affairs was hammered for not taking a strong stance on the issue — though it only mirrored the reaction of many community residents, who weren’t convinced the matter was a serious one.

All of that would change less than a week after the protest, when a smoking gun emerged — a leaked video showing the owner of ICandy repeatedly referring to a former employee as a “nigger.” The revelation set off an investigation and a public hearing by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations that would force city government — and the Gayborhood’s entrenched white power structure — to finally acknowledge the truth: Racism in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community was real and urgently needed to be addressed.

For the past two years, I’ve had a front-row seat at what’s been happening in the Gayborhood, first as a member of the community, then as a writer voicing my opinion on what was wrong, and finally as a journalist. Why did it take so long for Gayborhood racism — first formally documented three decades ago — to be taken seriously? Bayard Rustin, the late black gay civil rights leader from West Chester, once said, “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers.” For our community, a new generation of activists became the “angelic troublemakers” that got nonprofit staffers, journalists and city officials to finally prioritize an age-old problem.

Gayborhood racism was first officially reported back in May 1986 with the publication of “Racial Discrimination in Lesbian and Gay Bars in Philadelphia: A Report on Admission and Employment Policies and Practices.” The report was produced by the Coalition on Lesbian-Gay Bar Policies, a collection of local LGBTQ social justice organizations that was seeking community intervention in a racial problem that persisted, ironically, even as gay liberation was advancing. The coalition had been formed in 1984 after several community patrons observed the racial segregation at popular Gayborhood bars and the practices that abetted it.

“Back then, we were really segregated,” remembers Sandy Smith, one of the authors of the report and a member of the organization Black and White Men Together-Philadelphia. (Smith, a journalist, is currently Philly Mag’s real estate editor.) “Though none of the bars explicitly discriminated against black folk, you sort of knew where you’d be comfortable and where you wouldn’t.”

The report, which landed on the desk of then-mayor Wilson Goode, was more a discussion of a “pattern of exclusivity” than solid proof of overt racism. Perhaps because of that, the energy behind it faded. While the coalition made recommendations in light of the report, they were never implemented.

Today, the Gayborhood is more than just a space for bars and pride parades. It’s the home of multimillion-dollar nonprofits and emerging businesses that enjoy their alignment with LGBTQ causes. In other words, the Gayborhood is Rittenhouse Square with a slant toward community activism. Practically every week, one can find Gayborhood leaders hobnobbing with major political figures at fancy galas and fund-raisers. The political capital of LGBTQ folks in Philadelphia is undeniable. It was Gayborhood bars that rallied the community to vote for Mayor Jim Kenney. (Woody’s even plastered his campaign sign atop its front roof.) The Gayborhood now has coordinated political action groups, an openly gay state representative (Brian Sims), and the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs.

When I moved to Philadelphia in the summer of 2010 to attend the University of Pennsylvania, I imagined the Gayborhood as a kind of mecca in which I could explore my full self. I was 18 at the time — young, impressionable, and unapologetically gay. Growing up black in Houston, Texas, meant suppressing my sexual orientation, to a certain degree. Even though our city had a lesbian mayor, Annise Parker, I was still told by those around me that “white people can afford to be gay.” Translation: Being both black and gay amounted to two strikes against you in society. At the time, I adamantly disagreed with my provincial peers. I thought their notions of a racist world were dated, given that we were living under an Obama presidency. “We are post-racial,” I remember telling my grandmother. “We have a black president.” But when I stepped into the Gayborhood during my first week as a college freshman, I felt like a dumb-ass.

“Do you have another ID?” the bouncer at Woody’s asked me. I was confused. He’d already patted me down three times, and I’d shown him my state ID and a college one just to enter. It was College Night, a weekly Wednesday ritual that was the only time under-21 patrons were allowed inside the club. This was my safe space. I didn’t like the Penn frat parties or the hyper-hippie kickbacks. Woody’s had it all — the lights, the boys and the music. In many ways, I compromised my racial dignity for social acceptance in such spaces. I heard white boys use the N-word (nigga, not nigger), and I let it slide because I bought into the illusion of solidarity — weren’t we all marginalized liberals? But when the lights came on, I would see the visible divide — whites in the center of the dance floor, people of color on the sidelines. When I left the club, drunken white guys would hurl racial slurs.

In May 2015, a year after graduating from Penn, I wrote a guest op-ed for Metro titled “Black Not Fetch Enough for Woody’s?,” about Gayborhood racism. I was then a new freelance writer and didn’t realize that my article was the first time in decades that a Gayborhood bar had been called out that way. The piece prompted numerous conversations that summer about exactly what was happening to people of color within the Gayborhood. In January 2016, I became the editor of G Philly, this publication’s online LGBTQ channel, and started to witness how words led to actions.

Covering Gayborhood racism revealed to me that my personal experiences in the community were typical of those of LGBTQ people of color. For the first time in a long time, diverse members were beginning to come forward about discrimination they faced. I saw the frustration in the eyes of Marcus Berry, a young black gay club-goer who told me he “felt as though [the bouncer] was implying that the boots made my outfit ghetto, or not classy enough,” when he was rejected from ICandy for wearing Timberland boots. I heard the disappointment in the voice of Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca, a longtime Latinx community advocate I interviewed during the controversy surrounding the Gayborhood’s “Philly4Pulse” fund-raiser for victims of the Orlando nightclub shootings; he said the lack of Latinx organizers for the event made those in the community feel like “an afterthought.” I shared the betrayal expressed by Kemar Jewel, a popular Gayborhood performer who believed that his being turned away at Woody’s for wearing sweatpants was “covert racism.”

When the Black and Brown Workers Collective (BBWC), an intersectional LGBTQ social activist group, formed in February of 2016, it became the fire that propelled the fight against Gayborhood racism. Unapologetically steadfast in advocating for the liberation of both their racial identity and their queerness, this coalition of unassuming civilians represented a segment of the Gayborhood that had had enough of backroom negotiations and toothless town-hall apologies. Though they lacked major fund-raising, political power, social capital and community backing, this new wave of young, diverse protesters were confident in their ability to bring about change. BBWC co-founders Shani Akilah and Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, former employees of Gayborhood nonprofits Philadelphia FIGHT and the Mazzoni Center, had experienced what they saw as institutional racism in the community and felt it was time for action.

“The heart of what we do is to liberate black and brown voices in spaces of oppression,” they told me. Muhammad said that for the community to pretend there wasn’t “obstruction from governmental bodies with regard to addressing incidents of racial bias in the Gayborhood” spoke to “the anti-blackness within institutions of power.” In other words, the BBWC was looking at a broader picture, not just a few incidents.

Then came the video. On September 27, 2016, an anonymous reader dropped a YouTube video in the comments section of a G Philly article. It showed ICandy owner Darryl DePiano referring to a black former employee as a “nigger” repeatedly. In the 21-second video, which now has more than 65,000 views online, DePiano, a white gay man, repeated the racial slur several times while invoking a stereotype that black patrons seek free drink passes. Once the video circulated, DePiano took to Facebook to apologize for “some very hurtful and racist language” that he said was three years old.

The video wasn’t just a revelation of overt Gayborhood racism; it was also telling of the times. Back in 1986, when activists first raised concerns about racial discrimination within the community, there were no cell-phone cameras that could capture such incidents. Nor, of course, were there digital media outlets that could make such videos go viral instantaneously. The social media era we now live in was as vital to exposing decades-long racism in the Gayborhood as were the new activists leading the movement.

The boycotts and protests that followed gained momentum as the BBWC formed alliances with Black Lives Matter Philly, ACT UP Philadelphia, the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice, the Gran Varones and several other groups. This would finally prompt action from the city, as the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations launched an investigation and held a public hearing with nearly 400 community members present. Mayor Kenney installed a Commission on LGBT Affairs, and Councilman Derek Green proposed legislation that would impose tougher penalties on commercial entities that discriminate. Change came fast once the truth was revealed.

Today, PCHR is making sure that bars and nonprofits in the community comply with the bias training recommended in its recent Gayborhood racism report. The report notes that my 2015 op-ed on Woody’s echoed “the same concerns … raised in 1986.” It acknowledges the efforts of the BBWC and how its call to action “focuses attention on employment inequities produced by racism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism and classism.” Amber Hikes, a black queer woman, has replaced Nellie Fitzpatrick as the Office of LGBT Affairs director. People of color comprise a majority of appointees to the new Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs, and the commission has said it will strive to inform the administration about issues impacting the LGBTQ community more directly.

The truth is, none of this would have happened without the grassroots efforts of LGBTQ activists of color. It was the visible risks taken by the most vulnerable members of the community that led to systemic progress in the Gayborhood. Once disapprovingly referred to as “a small core of activists” by Mayor Kenney, these outspoken individuals reminded him that had it not been for both of their demographics (communities of color, LGBTQ), he wouldn’t have been elected. I think he acquiesced to their demands due to the current political climate. Kenney would look like a hypocrite calling for Philadelphia to remain a sanctuary city during the Trump era while ignoring the legitimate concerns of racially oppressed locals in his own backyard.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Muhammad says of the progress thus far. “This is what transformative change looks like, but there’s still more to be done.” In February, the BBWC led a protest during the Mazzoni Center’s “Justice in Action” reception, calling for CEO Nurit Shein and medical director Robert Winn to resign. While the situation at bars and clubs has improved, activists of color are still combating the discrimination they face within the Gayborhood’s nonprofit sector — a fight that’s not easily won, given that the overarching political interests involved are often institutional. As the popular movement saying goes, “The struggle continues.”

Which takes me back to Rustin’s quote: “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers.” It took 30 years for our city’s LGBTQ community to give rise to activists who were unapologetically resilient and without any fear. Despite the Gayborhood’s rainbow-painted streets and festive persona, recent history has shown us that we, too, need angelic troublemakers — even if it’s just a small core of them.