February 13, 2017
Less than 24 hours before she officially stepped down as the director of the city's Office of LGBT Affairs, Nellie Fitzpatrick had coffee at a busy café on East Passyunk Avenue. The goal? To sort through fact from fiction, and to talk frankly about criticisms that have dogged this former assistant district attorney since joining City Hall two years ago.
It’s been a particularly tumultuous year for the 30-something attorney, during which race relations reignited in Philly’s Gayborhood after a nightclub owner was caught using the n-word on video. While allegations of racism are certainly nothing new to Philadelphia, nor to its diverse LGBT community, frustration on behalf of people of color and allies has led to subsequent protests of nightclubs, nonprofits and Fitzpatrick herself.
Several groups, including the Black and Brown Workers Collective, had called for her resignation, and a first-of-its-kind report on racism in the LGBT community by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR) was issued just last month.
Speaking on the record for the first time since her departure was finalized amid much frenzied speculation this weekend, Fitzpatrick opened up to PhillyVoice about racism in the Gayborhood, what City Hall can do better, and what ultimately needs to happen for the community to heal.
PV: Can you confirm whether you're leaving the Office of LGBT Affairs?
Nellie Fitzpatrick: Yes, I am leaving my position as director of LGBT Affairs.
PV: What precipitated your leaving?
NF: It was not my decision, but I was very happy to move on. My tenure with the office has come to its natural conclusion, and I am excited to return to the practice of law, which was always my intent, and to continue serving the LGBT community through new ventures.
PV: When will you officially be leaving the post?
NF: I believe my last day is today.
PV: Did this have anything to do with the criticism you've faced from several local activist groups over handling of complaints of racism?
"The community needed someone to hold accountable to get the higher levels of government to pay attention. I was happy to be that person." – Nellie Fitzpatrick, former director of Philadelphia's Office of LGBT Affairs
NF: Again, I didn’t initiate this move. I was looking to return to the practice of law, but that had nothing to do with the protests. As a former prosecutor and trial attorney, I am accustomed to being in the center of heated and complicated battles. I was a rape prosecutor. I’ve sat with children as they opened up to me about sexual and physical abuse. I have stood beside women who have suffered unthinkable violence and trauma at the hands of someone they loved and trusted. I’ve sat beside victims through not-guilty verdicts on some of those same cases, having to explain to those families why someone who violated them in the worst possible way gets to walk out the door a free man. These protests were nothing near the most difficult challenges I’ve faced professionally or personally.
I’ve known – and, frankly, I believe the protesters knew and know – that a single person in a government job for two years can’t end racial discrimination. But as I’ve said time and again, I was happy to be a lightning rod on this issue and to help bring it some much-needed attention at higher levels of government. I do view it as a part of my public service and responsibility to shoulder such criticism, and do what I can to move the ball forward and address the community’s needs. I’m confident I’ve done that.
NF: The administration wants a more outward-facing office, and the community has expressed that desire as well. Government needs to be responsive to the needs of the citizens and communities it serves.
PV: Why do you think you personally faced so much criticism in the last year?
NV: I think there were a number of reasons.
First, I am not a conventional fit for this role. That certainly doesn’t mean I wasn’t effective, but I did things my own way. I’m an attorney, so my focus was naturally on legislative action that could protect our community, including the bathroom bill, the charter amendment and the conversion therapy bill. I largely made things happen behind the scenes and leveraged my relationships within government and other institutions to get things done.
I don’t have a background in community organizing, which is much more outward facing and collaborative. And, honestly, because I was the sole face of the LGBT community in the government, so was I the natural person to turn attention to. Like I said, I was happy to serve as a lightning rod to bring attention to these issues within the administration.
PV: What’s been your reaction to the criticism overall?
NF: Again, as a former prosecutor and trial attorney, I am accustomed to being in the center of heated and complicated battles. That’s not to say it hasn’t been a difficult time period, but moreso because it was difficult to combat misinformation circulated within the community about what has been done to combat discrimination, what can be done, and who has the power to do it.
PV: As a former prosecutor, why did you initially decide to accept the role of director of LGBT Affairs?
NF: I stepped in after Gloria [Casarez] passed away to help institutionalize the work that she had done over the prior seven years, and to continue to build on the work I had been doing with the police department and within the criminal justice system while at the D.A.’s office.
"....there’s a reenergized dialogue now, and there’s momentum behind it. Hopefully, that will continue and have material changes on conduct both by private business and by individuals." – Fitzpatrick
PV: What did you hope you could accomplish?
NF: My goals were to bring more attention to the transgender community’s needs, especially trans women of color who are often underrepresented even in our own community, and to provide consistent training on LGBT competency within the police departments, probation and parole, the court system and the prisons.
PV: How would you rate your job performance?
NF: That’s a tough question! I accomplished most of what I set out to do in my first year. I stayed on to transition the role into the new administration at the request of Mayor Kenney and I hope the new director will be able to continue to improve government services for LGBT people
PV: How would you respond to critics who say you have ignored issues of racism in the LGBT community?
NF: I think there’s some conflation between ignoring racism in the community and ending racism in the community. I have never ignored the issues of racism in the community, which are deeply important to our community and our city and country at large. In terms of my ability to end it, my office has no legislative power and cannot issue sanctions or other punishments, as was initially suggested. I think it’s now well established that this is the role of the PCHR. However, my job was to be responsive to these issues.
PV: Do you feel you responded aptly?
NF: I spoke at length to every person who contacted me about discrimination, directed them to PCHR and personally reached out to the bar owners. Again, these were behind-the-scenes efforts. That’s my style, but it may not have been what some in the community wanted. Some wanted more visible communication on the issue. Government is often complicated and opaque and communication decisions weren’t left up to me. But I was working to address these critical issues, and I will continue to do so moving forward.
PV: One ongoing criticism is that you didn't respond to concerns that nightclubs were discriminating against people of color.
NF: Like I said, my work often happens behind the scenes. But I really think it came down to a communications issue, which wasn’t fully in my control. Things might have transpired differently, but they may not have. The community needed someone to hold accountable to get the higher levels of government to pay attention. I was happy to be that person.
PV: Are there limitations when it comes to sanctioning a private business over accusations of racial discrimination? What can be done from a legal standpoint?
NF: Racial discrimination in places of public accommodation, like a bar or nightclub, violates local, state and federal laws. Racism, unfortunately, is not illegal. The government can only act on discriminatory conduct.
PV: How can someone report an incident?
NF: On the local level, discrimination must be reported to the PCHR. Once a complaint is filed with PCHR, they conduct an investigation there is a hearing where the accused can respond and then PCHR determines if the fair practices ordinance has been violated. If a violation is found, then the PCHR has the power to deliver a remedy, including sanctions against the party found in violation of our local anti-discrimination laws.
There is also a private cause of action available if local agencies fail to address the issue to a citizen’s satisfaction. The Office of LGBT Affairs is not involved in that process, and never has been.
PV: What ultimately can people really do?
NF: Report them. Get witness contact information. Write down what happened. Create a record to assist the PCHR in its investigation. And keep organizing and working to tear down systems of racism and racial discrimination. The government will never keep pace with the people.
PV: By most accounts, the people helped push forward a report on allegations of racism in the Gayborhood by the PCHR thanks, in part, to testimonials. How do you expect the results of the report could impact the Gayborhood?
NF: Honestly, it depends on the compliance. The report did not make any findings that the Fair Practices Ordinance was violated on the basis of a filed complaint against a named party. As such, the recommended trainings are not necessarily mandatory, but critically important.
If the bars comply, then hopefully there will be more transparent policies and enforcement and things will improve. If the bars don’t comply, it’s likely to become more complicated both in terms of the message that sends to the community, and what power the PCHR has to act at that point.
Again, individually filed complaints with PCHR and legal action are tools that remain ready to be used by anyone who believes they have experienced discrimination going forward.
PV: You weren't directly involved in the report. This surprised and even upset some people in the community who looked to you and the Office of LGBT Affairs to take action.
"My life as a public servant has always been about serving the most vulnerable citizens: abused women and children, members of the LGBT community and especially trans women of color, and now the criminally accused. I look forward to continuing to serve the LGBT community in this [new] role." – Fitzpatrick
NF: There could have been better communication from the administration about whether my office would be involved. Neither I nor anyone else removed myself from the process. The Office of LGBT Affairs – or any other office in the city – has no role in this process by design. Investigations of potential violations of the Fair Practices Ordinance is the primary function of the PCHR and they act independently to ensure the integrity of their process.
PV: How would you describe the state of race relations in Philly’s LGBT community right now?
NF: I think there’s a reenergized dialogue now, and there’s momentum behind it. Hopefully, that will continue and have material changes on conduct both by private business and by individuals.
PV: What are the biggest challenges you faced when dealing with these complex issues? What will it ultimately take to bring the community together in a meaningful way?
NF: The biggest challenge is that these issues have persisted (not only in our community) but in our city and country for decades. That doesn’t alleviate the government of the responsibility to do all it can, but it also points to the fact that change – both in the government and in the community – is much slower than we’d like. It’s also a challenge when you’re dealing with the legal complexities of discrimination enforcement.
The government’s power is more limited than people think. The LGBT communities are incredibly diverse. The LGBT communities are never going to have one monolithic voice. Because of our diversity there is always going to be a need to examine privilege and continue to lift up the most marginalized among us.
PV: Given these challenges, what would you like to see happen under new leadership in the Office of LGBT Affairs?
NF: I’d like to see implementation of many of the initiatives I had envisioned for this first term of the administration, which includes the Trans Economic Empowerment Initiative (fondly named “TEAM Philly”) for the Transgender Economic Action Model of Philadelphia get up and running. I’d like to see the city commit to keep it running after the first year.
The city also needs to create a financial plan to have meaningful impact on LGBT youth homelessness informed by LGBT youth with insecure housing and homelessness, and those formerly homeless.
LGBT people should also be included in the diversity count of city employees – we are not included. And there should be LGBT competency training for all current and incoming city employees with an LGBT Employers Resource Group for city employees. LGBT people should be included in minority-owned business programs.
The office should also work with the Department of Human Services to change regulations on child abuse to include reparative and conversion therapies.
Ultimately, the Office of LGBT affairs needs to be given an operating budget and staff.
PV: Is it true that someone has been selected to replace you?
NF: This is true, but I leave it to the administration to make the announcement.
PV: Were you involved in this selection process?
NF: I was not involved in the selection of my successor. I did stress the importance of community involvement in this process, and had hoped that the Commission on LGBT affairs would have a say in the next appointment.
PV: What advice would you give to your successor?
NF: Remember, you will never be able to please everyone and that you must always serve those who are most marginalized and vulnerable. Those most in need often do not have the highest platform or the loudest voice.
PV: What are some of the most important issues the LGBT community will face as your successor takes this job?
NF: Retaining and advancing our basic civil rights during the Trump administration.
PV: What – if anything – do you wish you could have done differently?
NF: I wish I had an operating budget and more staff to work with over the last two years. The very real limitations of being one person in this role can be frustrating.
PV: Do you think you've been treated fairly by the press?
NF: I am very grateful for the many wonderful relationships I have developed with individuals throughout many media outlets. Their willingness to learn and provide accurate and respectful reporting on LGBT people and issues has been a real pleasure and a proud accomplishment of my tenure.
Of course, there remains the need to improve, as we see regularly, by those who report on LGBT issues and we can always do better within LGBT-centered reporting at including more voices.
PV: Could you give me an example?
NF: When I reflect on my interactions with media, it highlights the difference in how I approached this role versus someone with a more community organizing background. When I see a transgender victim mis-gendered, I call the media outlet, the police department and the D.A.’s office, locate the source of the misinformation, educate those involved on the hurtful nature of the reporting and insist a correction be issued. An organizer might call out the error and join in the community’s protest. They are both valid, but very different approaches. I always try to cut to the heart of an issue to get it resolved as efficiently as possible.
PV: What has the office accomplished these past two years?
NF: The bathroom and conversion therapy bills, and the charter amendment. We also worked closely with the police department, probation, parole and the courts regarding LGBT issues. We addressed the police response to transgender violence through coordination with the police, the D.A.’s office and media response. We worked with the community on victim identification.
The office also created the first transgender flag flown at City Hall, as well as a custom-made flag for the Office of LGBT Affairs. We’ve worked with the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau to bring major LGBT conferences and conventions to the city with their attendant economic impact.
We’re bringing greater focus to transgender rights and applied for a Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative via AmeriCorps. The creation of the Commission of LGBT Affairs will also ensure vast representation of LGBT folks in our city.
PV: What's next for you?
NF: I am establishing my own law practice, which will open in April 2017. My primary focus will be criminal defense and civil rights work.
PV: Does this mean you’ll be staying involved with the LGBT community and subsequent issues?
NF: My life as a public servant has always been about serving the most vulnerable citizens: abused women and children, members of the LGBT community and especially trans women of color, and now the criminally accused. I look forward to continuing to serve the LGBT community in this role, and will maintain a set number of pro bono cases for LGBT people, initially focusing solely on transgender women facing prostitution charges.
PV: But now you’ll be a private citizen and not a city employee.
NF: I look forward to being able to organize in a different way as a private citizen, particularly in the legal space, especially at a time when the work of attorneys will be more critical than ever for our community.
PV: The community has drawn a lot of lines in the sand of late that have admittedly fractured some relationships but also brought attention to important issues impacting diversity within a diverse subset of Philly. Exchanges have certainly been heated, especially on social media. And, let’s face it, people have been saying many things about you as a result – most of which we can’t even print here. What’s something that might surprise even your harshest critics?
NF: That even throughout this period of criticism, many of my harshest critics still reached out to me for help, resources and solutions, which I delivered successfully and without reservation. The role of a public servant is first and foremost to serve.