“Have you met Michael?”
Longtime activist Tyrone Smith asked me this back in 2016 as I was writing about acts of racial discrimination in the Gayborhood. At the time, I was being stonewalled while trying to get answers from the city about its history of dealing with the issue. City Hall acted as though its outward-facing LGBTQ work began in 2008 when Mayor Michael Nutter appointed Gloria Casarez director of the city’s brand-new Office of LGBT Affairs. I presumed the man Smith was pointing me to was the mayor.
“No, Michael Hinson,” Smith said. “Go talk to him if you want to know the truth.”
I had never heard the name before, but given the urgency in Smith’s voice, I jotted Hinson’s name in my pad and made a point to find him.
I would meet him a few weeks later, in October 2016, after demands grew louder that Nellie Fitzpatrick step down as director of the Office of LGBT Affairs. It was at a private meeting for the local Black queer community at the African American Museum, and Hinson stood out like a sore thumb. Those in my generation were enraged by the racial profiling they faced and wanted answers from a government that kept giving bureaucratic responses. Sitting there wearing a poker face was a man who projected calm amid the chaos.
Smith, one of the few elder radicals in the room, spoke up: “Let Brother Michael speak.” The room fell silent as I looked around to see if my hunch about Hinson’s identity was correct. Broad-shouldered, fit and a bit intimidating, the man cleared his throat. In measured tones, Hinson unpacked his years of protesting racism in the Gayborhood and detailed how those protests led to policy changes. “Hold this city accountable — they work for you,” he said firmly. “They know what needs to be done, because none of this is new to them. … I was there; they know.”
From 2001 to 2008, Hinson was Mayor John Street’s assistant managing director and the city’s first LGBT liaison. Hinson worked to ensure that gender identity became a protection under the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance back in 2002. Before LGBTQ youth homelessness was a talking point, Hinson advised Department of Human Services administrators on policy changes that led to Bethel House, the city’s first LGBT housing facility for queer youth. His work extended to the school district, leading to marked improvements in the treatment of LGBTQ youth through sensitivity trainings and specialized counseling when such measures weren’t standard. And he helped secure funding to launch the LGBT health clinic at the Mazzoni Center. Hinson accomplished these things before they were hashtag movements. He’s the godfather of local LGBTQ policy change.
Yet Hinson is a “hidden figure” in our city’s history, because much of his impact came before LGBTQ advocacy was trendy. While today’s LGBTQ political agents can tout their massive coalitions, Hinson had few people he could lean on. He had the courage to advocate for inclusion long before LGBTQ acceptance became a universal code of decency. He took on the big homophobic elephant in the room without many allies by his side. And while legendary gay locals like Mark Segal, Malcolm Lazin and Mel Heifetz are revered, one can’t help but wonder if Hinson is less celebrated because he’s Black — an identity he fearlessly embraced throughout his pursuit of racial and sexual liberation.
In 1991, the year I was born, Hinson founded COLOURS, a magazine that highlighted the voices and championed the intersectionality of queer people of color. Three years later, Hinson, still in his 20s, morphed the publication into the first local nonprofit social service organization by and for people of color in the Gayborhood. I hear echoes of Hinson’s story in my own. As a Black gay journalist in my 20s, I have never been afraid to speak about the importance of embracing both my race and my sexual orientation in my writing. As I covered protesters last summer who urged community members to “Take Pride Back,” I was reminded that Hinson co-founded Philadelphia Black Gay Pride in the early ’00s, in response to the lack of diversity in the city’s pride parade.
Hinson, who is now the executive director of SELF, Inc., a nonprofit working with homeless and behaviorally challenged individuals, has embraced the fact that he’s a trailblazer who’s paved the way for others, like me, to make demands more loudly.
“Even on the days when the weight of the challenges seems insurmountable and the loneliness of the roads traveled seems endless, I am forever grateful for the opportunities and platforms available to me to contribute in a small way to the humanity I know we all deserve,” Hinson told me, reflecting on his more than 20 years of activism. “Simply waiting for change to happen has never been an option.”
Ernest Owens, an award-winning writer, is the LGBTQ editor and columnist for Philadelphia magazine.
Published as “Heroes” in the February 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.