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June 09, 2023

As anti-drag and trans legislation rises nationally, Philly's LGBTQ community fights for its safe haven

News from Florida, Texas and other red states is stirring anxiety. But during Pride in Philadelphia, the drag shows go on

Entertainment LGBTQ
fat lady brewing @fatladybrewing/Facebook

Stefani Steel and Lucy Moth host a queer dance party at Fat Lady Brewing Co. on Friday night. The brewery's owner, Jane Lipton, initially worried about booking drag performers for Pride Month amid the national wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation.

Jane Lipton couldn't wait to bring Pride events to Fat Lady Brewing Co. 

The circus-themed Manayunk brewery, represented by a fictional, 19th-century, lesbian performer named Janie Jones, had hosted drag brunches and productions of "The Laramie Project" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" for the neighborhood's Out & About in MNYK festival. But in her two years in business, Lipton had never done anything "full on" for Pride Month in June, and she was ready to change that.

Yet as Lipton began scheduling, she found herself pausing and worrying. Was it a good idea to book another drag show? Or would she be inviting "negative attention" from people emboldened by a spike in anti-LGBTQ legislation across the country?

"I grew up with a term called 'Kinehora,'" she explained. "It's a Yiddish word (meaning) don't jinx it. Let's not ask for anything."

Even as she contemplated bringing on some sort of curse — "Kinehora" literally means "no evil eye" — Lipton swung back in the other direction. Fat Lady Brewing now has a queer dance party hosted by drag queens Stefani Steel and Lucy Moth scheduled for Friday night, and a drag bingo hosted by the same duo on Thursday, June 15. Those events follow a ballroom competition emceed by Steel and Moth last weekend, as well as a full schedule of movie nights, comedy sets, quizzos and burlesque shows.

"Any hesitation I had around that, as soon as I kind of thought on it more than a couple of minutes, I thought, 'no, no, no,'" Lipton said. "This is not the time to stop. This is the time to continue on as usual being the way we've always been. I'm not saying we have to double down, I'm just saying we have to be how we are."

Leaders in Philly's LGBTQ community have expressed the same anxieties Lipton described roughly a week into Pride festivities across the city. Even though Pennsylvania does not prohibit trans health care, Republican-controlled governments in 20 states have outlawed gender-affirming care for anyone under age 18, pointing to a wider tide of anti-LGBTQ legislation. So-called bathroom bills and "don't say gay" laws are gaining momentum across the country, popularized by political figures like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will visit Philadelphia at the end of the month for the Moms for Liberty national summit.

For health care providers like Dr. Billie Swiggard, a staff physician at the Mazzoni Center, it's hard not to worry about her patients — particularly the ones traveling to Philadelphia from states where trans health care is illegal.

"I think it is fair to say that something like 90% of my trans and non-binary patients have brought this up with increasing levels of alarm and concern for the future," she said. "And they're right, in my opinion."

Swiggard points to sobering statistics about the rate of violence against the trans community. Studies have shown the number of trans people killed between 2017 and 2021 nearly doubled, and that trans people are more than four times more likely to be victims of violent crime than cisgender people.

The vitriol has touched drag queens and kings as well, as the legislation push has often included anti-drag bills. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is currently considering one such bill, which would classify drag performances as adult entertainment and ban them from public property.

Icon Ebony-Fierce, a drag performer who manages a youth program for the queer organization Galaei, said they have received death threats and violent messages after getting attention on social media. 

"I had to lock my pages," they said. "It's not really easy. Therapy is a good tool. Talking to other people in your community is also helpful as well. 'Cause to be really honest, all that stuff can be very taxing to your mental health."

Ebony-Fierce's inbox was particularly bad when news broke that they were hosting a youth Pride celebration sponsored by the School District of Philadelphia in 2021. Some threatened to protest the event. The School District offered to hire more security. But when Ebony-Fierce showed up to the celebration, the scene was not quite what they expected.

"The funny part is when I eventually got to the location, there was no one there," Ebony-Fierce recalled with a laugh. "There was no outside. It was quiet, and I just went along my merry way."

This incident reaffirms a feeling Ebony-Fierce and others express: Philadelphia, while imperfect, is still a fairly welcoming city. All month long, Visit Philadelphia has been airing an ad featuring a drag queen story hour, encouraging LGBTQ tourists to check out the city. And Pride events have continued without interruption, with the Mazzoni Center, Galaei and Fat Lady Brewing Co. all in participation.

Lipton, who remembers replacing her brewery's Pride flag when she first opened because someone tore it down, said people are much more receptive now than when she came out or began dating her now wife 35 years ago. 

"It's really easy for an idiot to act out late at night on a sidewalk with only their friends around them, right?" she said, recalling her torn flag. "That's a different thing than walking up to somebody and saying something to them. I feel pleased that I have not heard anything like that in a long, long time."

And the people who built that environment aren't willing to give it up.

"I feel like Philly is a pretty safe haven," Ebony-Fierce said. "Philadelphia has always been the kind of city where we pushed back and we're not afraid of those kind of people.

"So, you know, I'm always apprehensive because you kind of have to be. It's a survival tactic that queer people have to have. But knowing that Philly has always been a pretty tough city and we know how to fight back, at least we have that."

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