October 28, 2016
Days after Philadelphia opened a formal investigation into allegations of racism in the Gayborhood, the nightclub at the center of the controversy is empty.
Typically, at 4 p.m. on a Thursday, customers would be streaming into the iCandy nightclub for happy hour drink specials. But not this week, however. The regulars weren’t ordering drinks or watching music videos. They're somewhere else. Loud dance music bounces off the walls as a few employees mill around checking their phones.
It’s been that way since a video surfaced earlier this month of iCandy owner Darryl DePiano using the n-word to criticize black patrons, setting off a firestorm of protests, and putting what many in the community are calling systemic racism on the pyre. On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations heard testimony about the video and yet more complaints about racism and discrimination at white-owned gay bars in the Gayborhood.
The bartender at iCandy, who lives just a few blocks from the club, said he expected customers later on Thursday evening, and that while business has been really bad, it’s starting to pick up again. This reporter was carded by the bouncer and asked if she was from out of town.
Around the corner on Locust Street, however, the story is different. UBar had at least a dozen men at the bar, including Terrell Green, an artist and teacher who testified at the PCHR hearing.
“Everyone is still talking about it,” the 26-year-old says over a pint of beer. “We were heard the way we need to be heard.”
“It can’t just be about education. A zero-tolerance policy can be implemented right now. This is the law." – Shani Akilah, co-founder, the Black and Brown Workers Collective
The question looming large over the Gayborhood is what happens next? Can the LGBT community become more inclusive of its own? And what will it realistically take to make change happen so people can start to heal?
According to Rue Landau, executive director of PCHR, testimonials about racial discrimination in the gay community have been coming into the office daily since the hearing. A formal report, which is expected to include recommendations about how to proceed on the complex issue, will be made public in about 90 days.
“We heard individual stories of mistreatment,” Landau said, “and we heard larger issues of racism.”
The report will strive to ultimately correct “a discriminatory system,” which includes both employment policies and dress codes, according to Landau. It may also include, she said, implicit bias training and possibly even legal action, depending on the conclusions. For the first time in Gayborhood history, the PCHR will consider conducting test cases in bars and other businesses to document any future discrimination.
The Black and Brown Workers Collective (BBWC), an activist group that formed earlier this year to address racial discrimination in the Gayborhood, wants to see a concrete response from the PCHR.
“It can’t just be about education,” sais Shani Akilah, one of the BBWC’s founders. “A zero-tolerance policy can be implemented right now. This is the law. People should not be discriminated against on the basis of race and other protected categories.”
The BBWC, which has been one of the most vocal opponents of current leadership within the community, namely Nellie Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, has a list of demands. The first is Fitzpatrick's resignation and the formation of a community advisory board to monitor the office. “We believe she represents what isn’t working,” Akilah said.
“We want something tangible. We want to send a direct message and make an example. We will shut you down.”– Asa Khalif, organizer, Black Lives Matter
Fitzpatrick, who has admittedly received both harsh criticism and gushing praise from black LGBT leaders, said she will not resign, and that she’s hopeful the PCHR will take needed steps to address accusations of racism at all levels.
“I would hope that people who are experiencing racism and racial discrimination will see and feel that their voices are not unheard, that their experiences are not unseen,” Fitzpatrick said. “There has to be accountability.”
Fitzpatrick, a former prosecutor in the D.A.’s office, doesn’t seem to be taking the BBWC’s criticism personally. “It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about racism. If, by this one group focusing attention on me, it has brought more visibility and attention to a critical problem, I’m OK with that.”
According to Asa Khalif, an organizer with Black Lives Matter (BLM) in Philly, anything short of penalties on businesses that discriminate in the city will be considered a failure. While Khalif had suspended protests for Tuesday’s hearing so that testimonials could be made on record, BLM is mobilized for what could come next.
If the PCHR does anything less than levy fines against bars like iCandy and Woody’s for what he alleges are ongoing discriminatory policies and treatment against people of color, there will be protests, he promised.
“We want something tangible,” Khalif said. “We want to send a direct message and make an example. We will shut you down.”
Jeff Sotland, one of the owners at Tabu, a gay bar on 12th Street, said he intends to keep the conversation going. While Tabu has never had a dress code policy, Sotland is concerned about policies established by the state that could negatively impact the LGBT community, specifically transgender people.
In Pennsylvania, for example, topless women in bars that serve alcohol are required to wear pasties. A conundrum exists for a bar like Tabu, where someone who may be transitioning from female to male may, in fact, be topless. Not only could Tabu be fined for not having a male-identified person wear pasties, but if pasties are required, then someone’s gender identity is not being respected.
Tabu’s owners have requested a free legal opinion on the issue from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PCLB), which is expected in two to three months.
“The law hasn’t caught up with the community,” said Sotland, who plans to hand over the PCLB’s decision – whatever it may be – to the PCHR for further investigation. “Whereas Woody’s is worried about track pants and iCandy Timberlands, we are trying to make sure we do what’s right in terms of the state law and the patrons and the community. If the state ... comes in and fines us, I would have to fight that.”
“It’s not just about calling someone an offensive word. It’s about an offensive ideology.” – Malcolm Kenyatta
Fighting – everything from door policies and what many are calling systemic racism in a community that, at least publicly, might seem progressive – has become the norm for activists like Prentice Bush. At 41, he’s tired of fighting and is looking for the law to take up the issue in a formidable way.
“The reality is there is no way possible for me to change the hearts and minds of men,” he said, “but what we can do is change the policies and procedures by law.”
Malcolm Kenyatta, a Drexel student and membership coordinator for the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, also wants something better for the LGBT community, a community he credits for rising up against homophobia after the attack on Matthew Shepard, for facing the darkest days of the early AIDS crisis, and more recently for overcoming opposition to same-sex marriage.
If LGBT people are looking for the next frontier, he said, it’s racism, homelessness and violence against transgender people. It’s about changing the entire conversation.
“It’s not just about calling someone an offensive word,” Kenyatta said. “It’s about an offensive ideology.”
The racism that persists in the LGBT community extends well beyond door policies and who gets served drinks faster, though these issues have become painful reminders to people that inequities persist, even within places that purport to be safe.
Shanel Sharese, a performer in LGBT nightlife, said she’s been charged more than white friends for drinks at bars like Tabu and Voyeur. “That’s why it hurts,” she said. “I think the only way to heal and move forward is to call out racism, injustice and actually see repercussions.”
“The most important thing is for the commission and administration to not walk away from the outpouring [on Tuesday] and do nothing. That would be the worst-case scenario.”– Michael Hinson, founder of COLOURS
Subtle and not-so-subtle racism can also be found in gay dating apps where “no blacks, no fats and no fems” is a shockingly accepted form of preference. It’s also about who gets to be in the room where decisions are made, and how many businesses employ non-white people, and in what capacity of leadership.
Of course, a lot of questions being asked among Philly’s LGBT community could just as easily be asked of society at large. Christopher Barlett, the executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center in the Gayborhood, said credit should be given to the community for taking the lead on a complex issue.
“The community has awakened to the painful experiences of people of color,” he said. “I think everyone wants this to succeed.”
For that to happen, the anxiety, anger, fear and hopefulness that punctuated Tuesday’s hearing will need to sustain itself in a society that can sometimes have a very short attention span, eager for the next scandal.
“Seeing so many people show up,” Bartlett said, “gave me greater hope.”
One of the next steps that Abdul-Aliy Muhammad would like to see is new ownership at iCandy. “[DePiano] shouldn’t be privileged to own a business in the Gayborhood,” said Muhammad, a co-founder of BBWC.
According to Gary Hines of the Mayor’s Commission on African-American Males, many actions can and should be taken to create change and bring the LGBT community closer to healing.
Sensitivity training for business owners by the Independence Business Alliance (IBA), Philly’s LGBT chamber of commerce, as well as more outreach to black LGBT organizations from bars willing to host socials and other special events throughout the year would be a good start, Hines said. He also recommends diversifying boards of nonprofits and holding open meetings that allow for more transparency, in addition to learning how other cities are responding to issues of diversity.
“This can’t just be a Philly problem,” Hines said.
The Mazzoni Center, an LGBT healthcare facility singled out by a former employee who claims it exploits people of color, has been working for the past few weeks with an outside consultant to evaluate workplace practices.
The center’s executive director, Nurit Shein, said Mazzoni is also reaching out to communities of color on a variety of new programs – from HIV testing clinics to trans health initiatives.
“What we’ve been doing internally is we have been talking with management and staff, and looking at our policies,” Shein said. “Do we always get it right? Of course not. Could we do better? Yes.”
Shein has also reached out to the former employee who complained in testimony on Tuesday night. He had not yet returned her call, she said.
“We need to understand that this is an ongoing thing,” she said. “You don’t put a checkmark on these things.”
Ultimately how the LGBT community responds to the accusations – there are many, ranging from denial of service at bars to tokenism at nonprofits like Philly FIGHT – will dictate how the community moves forward and heals. (Philly FIGHT refused to comment for this story.)
“The most important thing is for the commission and administration to not walk away from the outpouring [on Tuesday] and do nothing,” said Michael Hinson, founder of COLOURS and former assistant managing director of the city. “That would be the worst-case scenario.”
The best case, he said, is for businesses to reengage with the community. Otherwise, Philadelphia risks damaging its reputation as one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in the country – and with the accolades to prove it from national organizations like the Human Rights Campaign.
“We could be the role model that we’ve always been on these issues,” Hinson noted. “We’ve been ahead of so many large cities. For us to continue to do that would be a really great thing.”