Jerry Rice: Taking root in the City of Brotherly Love

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This week’s Portrait has a chronology of places in which he’s lived that sounds like a Beach Boys song. With more than 20 years in the hotel and hospitality industry, Jerry Rice has resided in Miami, Seattle, Arlington and Wilmington and Huntersville, N.C., where he was the “Youngest Dual General Manager in Marriott Brand History.”

Now he’s here in the City of Brotherly Love opening a brand-new spot, the Cambria Hotel & Suites on Broad Street. He is also newly elected to the board of the Independence Business Alliance, the city’s gay chamber of commerce. We talked down in the lovely Cambria lobby bar with jazz influences everywhere.

PGN: I get the subtle hint that there’s a music theme here.

JR: Since we’re on the Avenue of the Arts with the Walk of Fame right outside, we have music represented throughout our decor. Our tables are made from drums, our chandelier is made of trumpets and the staircase has music notes incorporated. If you look closely at the pattern in the wallpaper, it’s designed to look like sound waves. It’s subtle, but pretty cool.

PGN: What were you like as a kid?

JR: Very much like I am now — gregarious, outgoing, inquisitive. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a home where that was encouraged. I come from South Carolina — my parents were the first college graduates in their families, so education was very important. I knew in kindergarten who I was and what my trajectory was going to be in life. There was never any question or struggle. Funny though, I did a few genealogy tests several years ago and though I was raised in a 100-percent African-American household and neighborhood, I found that our family is 10-percent Irish and my mom’s family had roots in Russia. We have history in Wales and Spain and Portugal; also in Greece, Italy, Finland and Sweden! Who knew I was Swedish? My father’s side is completely from the western coast of Africa.

PGN: It sounds like instead of “23andme,” you have 46 and counting.

JR: Yes! My grandmother, the late Alice Shelton-Dean — God rest her soul — she had these extremely high cheekbones, and since we’re from the foothills of the Carolinas, we always assumed there was some Cherokee Indian heritage. When the results came back, it said there was zero chance that we had any Native-American heritage. It blew the top off me.

PGN: What’s the family breakdown?

JR: I have two brothers, Christopher and Johnathan, and a sister, Leasonna. I have six nieces and nephews and one on the way. I love being Uncle Jerry and spoiling the kids.

PGN: Big town, small town?

JR: Very small. The city of Wellford was recently ranked the number-two safest city in South Carolina. There were fewer than 700 people, and I think I was related to most of them. I still carry those small-town Southern values and hospitality — do unto others, greet people with a smile and we try not to judge in public (we save that ’til we get home). I come from a long line of Baptist and Pentecostal ministers, so faith was a big part of how I grew up and it influences how I treat people.

PGN: We know the church can be an unfriendly place for LGBT folk. Did you experience that?

JR: Absolutely I experienced that. I experience it to this day. To be perfectly honest with you, there are churches in my hometown that I still will not go to. I’ve sat on those pews singing about the glory of God and heard passages and texts taken out of context. I knew in my soul and in my heart that God made no mistake when he made me. I know that we were made in the image of God, or Goddess. People get mad when I say Goddess but if you look at the Bible, it says that God is spirit, God does not have a gender — we just tend to put masculine pronouns on everything. I grew up Baptist/Pentecostal and yes, I heard things some Sundays that made me feel real bad about myself. I have a large part of my family that I do not have a relationship with simply because I am gay. I’ve had moments where my partners were not invited into family members’ homes and so I had to step away from those family members. It’s hard to imagine me stepping away from family, but I believe in principles and standing up for yourself and others. As I left my small town and became immersed in the LGBT community — and met my first pansexual, bisexual and transexual friends — it was so much worse than not being invited for dinner. It became even more important for me to stand up for myself and others. Today I personally associate with the Presbyterian Church. PC/USA is a denomination that ordains lesbians and gay individuals and that is important to me.

PGN: That’s great.

JR: Yes, I’ve come to realize that a church is just a building. What’s important is to find the people inside who match your values. There’s a theologian I love, Archbishop Carl Bean. Carl Bean was an R&B singer in the ’70s. He had a song called “Born This Way” years before Lady Gaga. I heard him preach in Charlotte and he said, “I’m a gay man, and we all have a place to occupy in this world. You may lose friends along the way, jobs, family — but stand tall.”  And now I’ve probably lost jobs along the way because I stand in my truth, but at the end of the day, I sleep every night with a clear conscience.

PGN: You’ve worked all over the place. What was a pleasant surprise?

JR: Hands down, Seattle, Washington. I moved there from Washington, D.C., to open a brand-new hotel in Bellevue, a suburb near Seattle. I was coming from a very high-strung, fast-paced city to a crunchy-granola, laid-back Pacific-Northwest environment. I had a very, very rough integration there — and I ended up loving Seattle. I miss and pine for that city on a regular basis. I actually went back there for Thanksgiving last year. I spent half the time with my brother in Colorado and the rest with friends in Seattle. I call it home.

PGN: Talk about your first job.

JR: I was still in college when I took my first big hotel job in Atlanta. I can still remember driving away from my mother’s front door in my Mitsubishi Eclipse — mind you, at the time I was 6-foot-5 and weighed 420 pounds. My mother was on the front porch and my grandfather put his arm around her because she was having a hard time seeing me drive off into the unknown. I was working for the Marriott chain, and at the age of 22, they made me the general manager of a hotel. They just kept offering me bigger hotels and more complex opportunities. I stayed with them for over 20 years and was blessed with other great mentors along the way. These were people who saw me for me, and never made my sexuality an issue. I was smart enough and hopefully humble enough to recognize those who were trying to help me, to take advantage of that help and work hard so I wouldn’t let any of them down. Most of them were women, I might add.

PGN: What are some of the crazier things you’ve encountered?

JR: Oh, I’ve seen lascivious behavior just about everywhere: stairwells and rooftops, supply closets, you name it. A small but funny thing is having to bolt down the door number “420” in all the hotels. Because of the connotation, people are always trying to steal it!

PGN: Something you’ve done to spoil yourself?

JR: Okay, I’m going to confess. I have a shoe problem. I have a very large collection. I do like to indulge myself. I’m someone who gets mani, pedis and massages quite regularly. I get my hair cut once a week, but I also love to spoil other people, especially my family and friends. I’m a great uncle — on birthdays and at Christmastime, the kids get spoiled. I cook and can bake and just enjoy making people happy at work and at home.

PGN: When you think of “LGBT Philadelphia,” what comes to mind?

JR: Wow! And I mean the word “wow.” Just the fact that there is an LGBT culture here and a Gayborhood. We live in a city where the mayor has an Office of LGBT Affairs led by an amazing woman of color. That has not existed in other cities that I’ve lived in. The fact that we have a tight-knit community of people who are passionate and proud and open and supported by the mayor and City Council is a big, big deal. For me personally, Philadelphia has been a community that has wrapped its arms around me and squeezed me and hugged me and made me feel warm. I’ve lived in other places where I haven’t felt that. I’ve been here a year and I’m already a board member of the Independence Business Alliance, which is a great organization. And not just from the LGBT community; I have straight friends here who are just as welcoming and accepting. To walk down Broad Street and have people greet me by name is a wonderful feeling. 

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