“The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”- James Baldwin
In my time living as a Black gay male, I have experienced struggles with identity, finding comfort in the environment around me and inclusion. I grew up in Philadelphia when it was much different than it is today.
I moved to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University, and afterward, I would come back to my hometown for good. It has taken me quite a long time to live in my truth as a Black gay male. After I came back from D.C, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming urge to see LGBTQ people of color represented, especially within the famous Philadelphia Gayborhood. I have walked the streets of the Gayborhood from my young teenage years to now in my 50s. The Gayborhood has always been a place I have regarded as a beacon for LGBTQ people within our city. It is where we continue to go to feel safe and where we are able to have fun without fear of danger, ridicule, phobia or discrimination of any type. At least, that is what I feel the Gayborhood should be.
Where was the presence of LGBTQ people of color that I had yearned for when I came home from D.C.? Where were the events and fun that I needed when I was a teenager growing up as a gay Black male? Where were the Black and Brown LGBTQ people that my identity needed? Many years later, after the tragic death of my partner, being diagnosed with bipolar depression and PTSD, I considered suicide. I looked upward in order to center myself and find a purpose to be alive. I believed that purpose was creating a space within the Gayborhood that showcased and celebrated, every day LGBTQ people of color that lived in this very city. In that attempt, I faced many obstacles.
Around 2017, I began to communicate with different clubs and businesses within the Gayborhood to support any initiative that could be a small spark of support for LGBTQ people of color. From Boxers, Tabu, and even Toasted Walnut among others, I was not met with support but merely an open ear. I call out an “open ear” because I had conversations with entities in what felt like moments of disqualifying my concern and goal for LGBTQ people of color’s presence — not support or even understanding. I would like to mention that every conversation was not outright negative, and at times I did receive a willingness to support a Black night of fun which would directly support and cater to Black and Brown LGBTQ people. However, that is where it ended, at being willing. There is one conversation that has stuck with me, when someone said, “POC won’t support something on a regular basis” and that “We have countless Black workers here,” which struck me as attempts to not only void my hope and goal but to actually present that this work was not needed within the Gayborhood. This is where I drew the line!
It has been a struggle even in assembling my thoughts in order to create this address now. My goal is not to call out any entity specifically, nor has it ever been. Nor do I intend to speak for the experience of every Black and Brown person within the LGBTQ community here in Philadelphia. But, I do believe that if there is anyone that does not venture to the Gayborhood because they do not feel included or represented, or if there is anyone that finds truth in what I am typing from their personal experience — that alone is a cause for concern, thorough research, and a look at the Gayborhood on a macro and micro level!
While Black and Brown people are able to party with the rest within the Gayborhood, that does not mean we are welcome at all intervals, and it does not mean that we are actively sought after for inclusion within music, employment and celebration. It also does not mean that the Gayborhood is now a representation of LGBTQ people of color. While I understand that these are businesses, is the only concern with a return on investment and not community impact? I believe that we have the opportunity to create safe space from what we already have.
A step in history
As we leave the trail of Black History Month, we must pull Black history into what we do for far more than just a month. As I consider moments in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ people of color history that have resonated with me greatly, I recall Amber Hikes (former executive director of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs) and her work on the municipal level regarding the most vulnerable populations within our city, and ultimately adding Black and Browns stripes to the rainbow flag in a moment that felt amazingly warmhearted and slowly showcased our community. Iin some cases, the addition of the stripes, called out discrimination within the LGBTQ community here. I recall Malcolm Kenyatta’s landslide win as the first openly LGBTQ person of color elected as a state representative in Pennsylvania history in 2018 and the phenomenal work he has done for PA. I recall Le Thomas and the phenomenal work he has accomplished with Philly Black Pride over the last two decades. I also recall Dante Austin, the first openly gay deputy sheriff and our first LGBTQ community liaison and his tragic death. Among countless others, I would like to celebrate and give tribute to them.
Philadelphia is rich in history but we must not stop or slow up. I believe the history of the Gayborhood may have shifted but the essence of it has not. Countless LGBTQ people of color share the same experiences regarding the Gayborhood — that while the businesses and entities value our dollar, it feels that that may be all they value. The atmosphere and audience aren’t reflective of music and events of Black and Brown communities. While there are dozens of successful LGBTQ people of color creating their own events and supporting the LGBTQ community, I simply wonder where do the Gayborhood businesses fit into that support? As monumental as the Philadelphia Gayborhood is, what work is being done to create safe spaces? What work has or is being done to reach diverse audiences? There may be an overarching theme of “inclusion” but is that only in concept and marketing or is this a priority for owners within the Philadelphia Gayborhood?
A Call for Support
As younger LGBTQ people grow up, I believe that the Gayborhood could and should be a beacon of validation, inclusivity and safety for them. I often find that others may regard nightlife as something to cast aside and frown upon, but I disagree wholeheartedly. For many LGBTQ people of color growing up, operating in the dark was and can still be our only way of safety. Venturing to a club within the Gayborhood in order to connect and communicate with other LGBTQ peers, friends and even strangers is where many of us have found solace, and nightlife is the only place we may live our true lives in some cases. I believe the same rainbow streets that support us at night and in the dark can wield great power in supporting us in the day, when the sun is high in the sky shining down brightly upon us and our lives.
My ask of Philadelphia’s Gayborhood is to breathe life into our future, to breathe life into the LGBTQ community by investing in opportunities for Black and Brown people of color, to breathe life in potential events, in mental health events, and in events that promote love, connection and inclusion. My ask of Philadelphia is to create a foundation and scholarship in the name of Dante Austin that will support LGBTQ people of color youth that are embarking on a journey into criminal justice. I have struggled grouping these thoughts, but not speaking has created a feeling that continues to eat away at me and speaking is my only choice. I ask that anyone reading this, find a moment even if only one, to breathe life into our future, into our youth and into the communities with the most vulnerability. We cannot heal what we do not acknowledge.