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October 26, 2016

Crowd jams hearing full of allegations about racism in Philadelphia's LGBT community

Overflow crowd jams Commission on Human Relations hearing

LGBTQ Race Relations
10252016_PCHR_meeting1_NHM Natalie Hope McDonald/For PhillyVoice

An overflow crowd jams a Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations public hearing on racism and discrimination in the LGBTQ community at Liberty Resources in Center City.

An overflow crowd jammed a Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations hearing on Tuesday night to level more complaints about racism and discrimination at white-owned gay bars in the Gayborhood.

Nearly 30 different speakers, most black or Latino, delivered passionate testimonials about experiencing racism in the form of dress code and ID policies, an air of "white privilege" and a bar owner who uses the n-word.

Even Mazzoni Center, one of the few health care providers specializing in LGBT health and wellness, was accused by a former employee for its lack of diversity.

“It can be a dehumanizing environment for people of color,” said Christopher Kyle, a former employee of the center and now a program specialist for the Attic Youth Center, who claimed he was threatened with termination for questioning policies related to hiring and patient services.

The hearing was called after recent protests erupted following the airing of a controversial video that captured Darryl DePiano, owner of the iCandy gay nightclub in the Gayborhood, using the n-word to complain about black patrons.

DePiano and 10 other Philly gay bar owners, whose attendance at the more-than-two-hour hearing was subpoenaed by the commission, were joined by Mayor Jim Kenney and many LGBT leaders, including Nellie Fitzpatrick, director of the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs, and representatives from community organizations, nonprofits and activist groups like Black Lives Matter.

The goal of the hearing at Liberty Resources in Center City, said PCHR Chair Thomas H. Earle, was to provide “a discourse on diversity.” This year alone, the commission has investigated 300 cases of alleged discrimination in Philly – everything from unfair employment to housing practices.

For the next week, PCHR will accept submissions related to this latest issue. Testimonials about racism in the Gayborhood will be used to create a full report for the city. People with complaints are encouraged to submit their stories online, via email, in person or by phone.

Those who spoke out at the hearing made it clear there is much work to be done.

'WOODY'S IS NOT THAT FAB TO EVEN HAVE A DRESS CODE'

Even before the hearing kicked off there were accusations that people trying to enter the building past the 6 p.m. start time were being blocked by police. Many in the audience, already on edge, braced for the worst. The tension seemed to dissipate as attendees continued to stream into two second-floor, overflow rooms that had been set up with streaming audio from the hearing.

Gary Hines, a longtime gay community activist, was the first speaker of the evening. As a member of the Mayor’s Commission on African-American Males, Hines put the event in context, saying the issue of racism in the LGBT community is nothing new. A report issued by Men of All Colors Together (MACT) in 1986 had documented “the same things we’re going through now,” including racial discrimination in gay bars and nightclubs.

Coming full circle, elders like Sandy Smith, a one-time member of MACT, said “persistent discrimination” against black people in the gay community has been happening for decades, noting the dress code and ID policies that have once again come under fire.

A controversial “No Timberlands” policy at Gayborhood nightclub Woody’s has been a source of ire for those who say it seeks to prevent entry by specific ethnic minorities for whom the shoes have become a popular fashion statement.

“The issue is too real for them to step up. Racism has been rampant for as long as there’s been a Gayborhood.” – Julie Chavones, transgender attorney, of her trans women of color clients 

Kemar Jewel, founder of Jewelbox Productions, said he was refused entry to Woody’s just last month for wearing, not Tims, but sneakers. “Woody’s is not that fab to even have a dress code,” Jewel said. He called the policies out for their “covert racism.”

Others, like Terrell Green, a public school teacher, have experienced more obvious offenses. When Green ordered a hamburger medium rare at Tabu, a gay sports bar on 12th Street, he was shocked when the server flippantly said, “I thought you people like your meat well done.”

Longtime activist Tyrone Smith, now in his 70s, was angered that such events still occur in a community that's supposed to be progressive, a community that fought back against AIDS and for same-sex marriage. It prompted him to speak with his grandnephew about racism, the same racism he faced 30 years ago. Still, he was hopeful.

“I’ve lived through the dog-biting days,” said Smith. “I have faith that this will end.”

Sappho Fulton, a lesbian event promoter for women of color, said she feels “invisible” in the Gayborhood. Not only are there no lesbian bars, but events geared toward women of color are virtually nonexistent in bars owned predominantly by white gay men.

Rich White, a black bisexual man who had, up until last night, been closeted – he admitted to living “on the down low” – came out publicly to say he does not feel welcome at many of the neighborhood' LGBT establishments.

“There are people in this room who are afraid to speak out,” explained Antoine Johnson, a former publicist with the Philadelphia Spinners ultimate frisbee team. But for those who did, like Freddy Shelley, a spokesman for Tabu, it wasn’t a question of if changes should be made, but how.

“We must all come to the table,” Shelley said, reading a statement from Tabu owner Jeff Sotland. “We are stronger together than we are apart.”

'I DON'T HATE YOUR PRIVILEGE'

Tuesday night's hearing, the second forum in just under a month on the subject of race in Philly’s LGBT community, hashed out longtime criticisms of racial inequities while offering a few new solutions to a problem that most people seemed to agree is endemic of a much bigger social ill that extends well beyond 13th and Locust streets.

Malcolm Kenyatta, a member engagement coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia and a Drexel student, put the onus for change on the white community since, as he pointed out, none of the bars in the Gayborhood are actually owned by people of color. Not all people of color feel safe discussing these issues publicly, either, especially trans women of color who, according to recent statistics, are most at risk for experiencing violence in their lifetime.

Julie Chavones, a transgender attorney living in Chestnut Hill who operates the Trans Resource Foundation, said she routinely works with trans women of color afraid to tell their stories.

“The issue is too real for them to step up,” said Chavones, who explained that her clients chronicle incidents of humiliation and harm every single day in the city. “Racism has been rampant for as long as there’s been a Gayborhood.”

She said a Philadelphia Gay News article from 1986 that spotlighted the issue could have been written today.

For many within the black community, the notion of “white privilege” has become a hot-button issue. Defined by a lack of awareness on behalf of white people that can make efforts to achieve full equality that much more challenging, it was clear that more people in leadership positions were being held accountable, not only for obvious things like DiPiano’s flagrant use of the n-word, but for not always stepping up to admit there is, in fact, a problem.

Kenyatta’s message to the many white attendees was sobering: “I don’t hate your privilege,” he said, “but I judge you on how you use it.”

NoneJ. Smith/for Visit Philadelphia™

The Gayborhood, which runs from Chestnut to Pine streets between 11th and Broad streets, is home to a number of gay bars and nightclubs.


'WE'RE GOING TO SHUT YOU DOWN'

Asa Kalif, the head of the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter, called for nothing short of revolution, the stuff of Malcolm X, whom he quoted. He questioned the bar owners in the room, calling them out on the need for subpoenas to even attend the hearing.

“I know half of you racist motherf*****s don’t even want to be here,” he said, calling for boycotts of establishments with discriminatory practices in the Gayborhood. “We’re going to shut you down.”

He vowed to continue protesting iCandy, the site of ongoing controversy since the DiPiano video leaked weeks ago. “We will continue to boycott you until you pack your shit and get the hell out of our community,” he said.

“If we’re going to end discrimination in every form, we’ve got to band together. Until we do that we’re not going to be able to end this.” – Deja Lynn Alvarez, director, LGBTQ Home for Hope

Dominique London, founder of the six-month-old Black and Brown Workers Coalition, offered a list of testimonials of how black people are discriminated against in the LGBT community – everything from being paid less than white people doing the same jobs to what she called “micro forms of aggression,” like white people co-opting black culture.

The coalition was created in response to what the group claims is ongoing racism in the Gayborhood. And while the activists have used social media and protests to draw attention to the problem – at one point, invading iCandy with bullhorns – they have also called for the resignation of Fitzpatrick, accusing the director of LGBT Affairs of being deaf to the black community’s needs.

The group did not reiterate that stance last night. In fact, many speakers noted Fitzpatrick’s work for LGBT rights, like Deja Lynn Alvarez, director of the new LGBTQ Home for Hope, the first and only shelter for homeless LGBT youth in the state.

“We need to stop fighting each other,” said Alvarez, who credited PCHR’s Rue Landau,  Kenney and Fitzpatrick with being “progressive” on issues related to race, gender and sexuality. Do they always get it right? No, she said. But they are on the right track.

“If we’re going to end discrimination in every form, we’ve got to band together,” she said. “Until we do that we’re not going to be able to end this.”

'DEHUMANIZING ENVIRONMENT FOR PEOPLE OF COLOR'

Midway through the evening, the discussion of racism turned from nightlife to nonprofits that serve LGBT people. Several organizations were put on notice for not having people of color in leadership positions. Others were accused of exploiting social ills for gain, in the form of grant money, volunteerism and publicity.

The city’s transgender youth commissioner, Hazel Edwards, said a big problem results when nonprofits that serve people of color lack people of color in leadership positions. “Nonprofit leadership doesn’t reflect me,” she said.

Pedro Santiago also feels left out. The 22-year-old has been navigating the system for many years, first as a homeless youth, and then when he found out he was HIV-positive just three years ago. He has since spent his time educating other young people often as an unpaid volunteer.

“Many organizations are not always there to help us,” said Santiago, who voiced his frustration at not being heard in the upper echelon of administration.

He was one of several people to call out organizations, community members and bar owners for wrongdoings. Philly FIGHT, an AIDS service organization, was accused of using HIV-positive people for political gain. Franny Price, organizer of Outfest and Philly Gay Pride, was accused of not working with an event promoter of color. Bar owners were accused of outright, institutional racism.

It’s clear the younger generation at the hearing wasn’t willing to accept the status quo even if the situation in the Gayborhood seems to reflect society at large, with accusations of discrimination at all levels of government and business. But the problem is much bigger than the Gayborhood. That racism persists in a community that is expected to be tolerant and accepting is even more crushing to marginalized people looking for a safe place who cannot find it anywhere else.

“You cannot unsee what you’ve see here tonight,” said Naomi Leapheart, faith work director for the National LGBTQ Task Force. “None of us are free until all of us are protected.”

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