On Sunday, June 28, drag performers VinChelle and Icon Ebony-Fierce teamed up with Amber Hikes, former city director of LGBT Affairs, to host a Facebook forum to address racism in the performance industry in Philadelphia. VinChelle called for the forum on June 24th via an open letter posted on Instagram.
Black queer and burlesque performers met in the same virtual space with various entertainment producers, bar owners, and directors to air their grievances. The producers were given time to address the issues, apologize, and list action items they will take to ensure the behavior does not happen again. Nine moderated conversations were held over three hours, each lasting around twenty minutes, with the goal of providing accountability and steps for change. Over 700 people watched the forum live.
The forum has been archived and is available to view on VinChelle’s Facebook page.
“We will be creating a space tonight for transparency, honesty, accountability, and deeper understanding,” Hikes said before directly addressing the producers. “Someone who brings harm to your attention is calling you forward. If someone gives you the gift and the labor of calling you in, you thank them for that labor and you commit to doing better. Tonight you will be listening, taking direction, and redistributing power, throughout our community…Please do not expect marginalized folks to continue to do this labor they are doing tonight.”
The people attending the forum who VinChelle described as “holding a place of power and/or privilege,” in the nightlife community included Aloe Vera, Bev, Brandon Roberts, Brittany Lynn, Brooklyn Ford, Carly Susan, Fanci Dismount Stratton, John Burd, Josh Schönewolf, Honeytree EvilEye, Lelu Lenore, Mimi Imfurst, Onyx Ondyx, Satine Harlow, the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus (PGMC), and Philly Pride Presents. In addition to the hosts and moderator, the performers of color on the call that night included Marcha Pisces, Sapphira Cristal, Miayanna Brooks, Foxworth Vorn, Nickihanna, Marcus G and Zephyra Rivers.
Some of the issues brought forth to producers were underpaying performers of color, racism in hiring, tokenism and cultural appropriation.
“We gave them this opportunity to really apologize for a lot of the things that they had done, and a lot of the racist acts that they have displayed,” VinChelle told PGN. “I don’t expect anyone to change in a day, but I definitely do expect change.”
A constant theme of the night was the ways in which some producers apologized. Several times, those called in to address grievances started their apologies by saying “I apologize if…” or “I apologize but…”
“Saying ‘I’m sorry if,’ is not an actual apology,” Hikes said during one of the conversations.
Similarly, several of the people called forth expressed regret for their actions, citing personal trauma as a reason for the behavior. Hikes responded, saying in part “Do not center yourself. It is enough to apologize fully, clearly, explicitly, and to come with actionable steps. You do not need to tell us about your mental health journey, you don’t need to tell us about your gender identity journey, you don’t need to tell us about any of your childhood trauma. You can apologize, give actionable steps, and we can move forward as a community.”
VinChelle echoed Hikes’ statement. “Everyone has problems, everyone has issues. That can’t be an excuse. Just like Amber said, please apologize.”
In a conversation with Mimi Imfurst, fairly well-known in the local and national scene, Miayanna Brooks, a trans woman and performer of color, called Mimi out for verbally degrading remarks and sporadic booking of queer and trans performers of color purely for the sake of tokenism.
“As a person and a performer,” Brooks told PGN, “[I] understand that not every bar or every show is going to book every girl. But I do agree with the fact that there needs to be diversity. With the community as a whole, the problem is that when it comes to these shows and the producers, if you’re not kissing ass, you’re not getting booked. There’s enough good performers with great talent and individuality in this city for a producer to go out and see someone at a different show, and [offer them a chance], whether [they] feel like they might fit the crowd or not.” In further discussion of the exclusion of trans performers of color in the drag scene, Brooks said, “We come, we work twice as hard, we give a great show, we do our best to make sure we are pleasing everybody, and yet we get scraps. I think it’s time for us to really get to a place where it’s equality for all.”
When VinChelle, Icon Ebony-Fierce and Amber spoke with Franny Price, director of Philly Pride Presents, VinChelle requested that she include more people of color on the organization’s board, as well as more performers of color on stage at OutFest. Although Price replied by saying that her board and her stages are diverse and that she would offer VinChelle a slot to book her own performers, Hikes intercepted by saying, “I would push back and say it’s not VinChelle’s labor to book your stage.” Hikes also asked Price to ensure that her board members prioritize booking performers of color for at least half of the slots at Pride and OutFest.
“I’m so happy that since this forum,” VinChelle told PGN, “a lot of people have messaged me saying that they are including these different queens in their shows. It doesn’t have to be me and I love that.”
The Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus was called out for their majority-white ensemble performing songs by Maya Angelou and also for having Geno’s steaks as their primary sponsor. In an anonymous letter read by Icon Ebony-Fierce, a former PGMC member called out the chorus for anti-trans bias.
The letter reads in part, “I made a painful decision to leave this organization that I thought would support me, after they failed in multiple ways to support me as a transgender member in the ways that they claim to, and because of my growing discomfort of the many instances of the racial insensitivity I witnessed…” In their letter, the person stated that they and their husband, both former chorus members, are white and do not intend to speak for present or past members of color.
Joe Ehrman-Dupre, President of PGMC, told PGN “Being part of [the town hall] as PGMC, I certainly felt like it was part of a productive and energized period of change… specifically a catalyst for change within the white queer community in Philadelphia. I would say that PGMC feels very motivated to move forward with the hard work that is essential to creating a more diverse, inclusive and equitable chorus and to ensure that that chorus is representative of the city that we call home.”
Ehrman-Dupre said that PGMC would be publishing a letter addressing “both the demands of the original letter from the Black queer and burlesque community as well as the topics that were discussed during our session of the town hall.” PGMC Artistic Director Joe Buches, who wasn’t on the call, also said that PGMC plans to collaborate with a choral educator, musician and clinician of color who specializes in the area of cultural appropriation within musical performance.
During the last conversation of the forum, VinChelle and performer Zephyra Rivers addressed Tabu Lounge and Sports Bar co-owner Jeff Sotland, manager Brandon Roberts, and performer Onyx Ondyx, calling them out for choosing white hosts for large weekend events and for poor treatment in general. Icon Ebony-Fierce also read an anonymous letter calling out Roberts for soliciting nude photos from performers.
In response to VinChelle’s initial comments about the budget disparity for shows and performers of color being skipped over for weekend slots, Tabu co-owner Sotland said, “We are changing the way we are handling the second floor so there will be more available slots, and we will make that a 50% [ratio] at least moving forward on the weekends. As to the budgets, I can’t guarantee on a budget because it depends on [capacity].” As co-owner, Sotland ultimately apologized and took full responsibility for the misconduct that has occurred at his bar.
Regarding Tabu’s poor treatment of Black performers, Rivers referenced among other things the lack of promotional materials and lack of hosting opportunities.
“To say that my treatment as Miss Tabu was sub-par is a generous statement…As a Black entertainer, to be your bar queen, I can say that I can speak a lot for these performers, because if I’m being treated the way I was, how were you treating the other performers?” Rivers said. Ondyx apologized to Rivers later in the discussion.
Roberts responded to the allegations against him by saying in part “I realize now that it is completely wrong for me to talk to a performer like that because of the position that I’m in….I’m absolutely sorry and I absolutely will never do that again.”
Roberts then apologized “to everyone I hurt,” and agreed to step down from his position.
Throughout the forum, users were able to comment on what was being said. One comment read: “It’s really amazing how many people were held accountable in this town hall. It’s historic and extremely important.”
“This [forum] was not used to bash any performer or cancel them, it was a space to call out accountability,” VinChelle told PGN. “If anyone that was called in is feeling that they were attacked or they’re upset about what happened, they have to realize that we’ve been attacked and we’ve been upset by what [has] happened for many, many, many years.”
VinChelle cited a similar town hall that took place in Chicago as the inspiration for this town hall.
“I’m happy that we saw the momentum from Chicago and we took that momentum from Philly and said we were going to apply that to our city,” VinChelle said. “I do hope that other cities do that, because I know that Philadelphia is not the only city with racist bar owners and white drag queens. I feel so relieved that we were able to do something like this. The emotional labor was there, but also it was more so that we [needed] to do this for the change.”