One of the things people are missing during this pandemic is the chance to dress up. Our fancy wardrobes are sitting in our closets, and the term “all dressed up with nowhere to go” feels like it rings true except that it should be “half dressed up.” One of my favorite commercials currently running shows a guy walking into his living room wearing a dress shirt and underwear, his wife is there with two other people who look at him in shock as he stammers, “I thought this was a zoom meeting…”

If you’re feeling like putting on some fancy duds from head to toe (providing they still fit…), this weekend gives you the perfect opportunity to get your Gucci on. Soirée in the Park is an annual affair where folks gather to show their finest outfits and dine on gourmet food. This year the event will be virtual but that’s not stopping guests from gearing up for another blockbuster event. I spoke this week to the lovely and fabulous Jeremy Taylor, one of the event’s founders and a host for the festivities. 

So Mr. Taylor, I know that you’re not a Philly fellow, where are you originally from?

St. Louis, Missouri, via the islands, via the Caribbeans. My family is of Caribbean descent. They were raised in Mississippi, but Jamaican, Dominican, African, and Native American are all part of my mix, so basically I’m a mutt. 

[Laughing] If you notice, there’s a giant picture on the wall behind me of several zebras. It’s representing my mixed background, so we’re in the same boat. In fact, my paternal grandfather was born in Jamaica. 

Wah gwaan! Don’t let me start doing my Jamaican accent!

I love it. So tell me your story?

They were mostly descendants of slaves from the Caribbean who were dropped off first. They somehow found their way up to the South, to Mississippi and then later a little further north which is how my family got to St. Louis. My grandparents were pretty established, especially for black people at the time. My grandfather did construction and ended up becoming a big-time name. He was a foreman, which at that time that was unheard of for a person of color. But he was really good at his job. My grandmother was a nurse and later became a social worker. Both my mom and dad worked in social service. I went from elementary school through high school and college in St. Louis. As a professional, I’m a respiratory therapist. I’ve done that for about 20 years but decided this year to go into the entertainment realm full time. I’ve been doing it on the side for about 5 years and I love it. 

That’s tough during a pandemic. 

Well, I was definitely nervous about leaving such a stable job but I prepared. I paid off any debts and put money aside so that I could do this at some point. 2020 just happened to be the year and it’s been great. I almost feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone because I feel like I’m fulfilling all of my dreams and desires. 

So clarify what it is that you do.

The name of my company is Jaylatay Entertainment, LLC. We specialize in the production and curation of events. For instance, my age bracket is 30-40 or so, we have the X-gens and Y’s in there and we all listen to that era’s music. It might just be me, but it seems like a lot of us really had a great time in the ‘80s and ’90s. The music especially was good and we really knew how to party. So I started doing parties every other week and they were called, “Bi-Sundays”. [Laughing] A lot of people thought they were for “bi” people only, but it was a party for absolutely everyone, just held bi-weekly. It’s been spiritually and emotionally rewarding, I got my degree in the medical field so I could help people and I feel this is an extension of that. The parties help people re-find their joy, to replenish and recharge. When I thought of it, I said, “I can’t be the only one who is like, ‘What the fuck are we going to do on a Sunday?’”  So I decided that instead of complaining about it, I should do something about it and that’s what we did. The very first event had almost 200 people show up, so I knew we were onto something. And we’ve been going ever since. Covid-19 has thrown us a little curve, but we’re pushing on with events like the Soirée on Saturday. My ultimate goal would be to open a new style of bar. They make it difficult to open a bar in Philly, so it might have to be outside the city but that’s my goal. 

Tell me about growing up in St. Louis. 

Even though I loved St. Louis, I never really fit in. I’ve always been a little different. I didn’t talk like anyone else. People in St. Louis have a little bit of a drawl and they thought that I talked funny because I said Missouri instead of Missour’a. But it was a great place to grow up, it had both a country and an urban feel. I was pretty popular in school, I played several sports, some football and baseball, but track was the main focus. And at the same time I wasn’t afraid to go double dutch (skip rope) with the girls. I mean, there were guys that talked about me, but I like to think that’s because they wanted me! 

Double Dutch and track and field, well rounded!

Yes, and it was an integrated school so like, my best friend was a white kid from an Italian family. I’d go to his house and his grandmother would make homemade Italian food. It was a good childhood. 

Siblings? 

Yes, I have 5 siblings. I was in the middle with two older brothers and two younger sisters. 

What’s a favorite family tradition?

[Takes a moment to think] Wow, that just pulled on my heartstrings a little. My mother passed on Christmas day about 9 years ago. It was sudden, I’d spoken to her a few times that day and out of the blue she was gone. But before that, she used to make breakfast for the whole family on Christmas morning. My mother didn’t cook often but when she did, she cooked well so it was a real treat. One thing that was nice about it was that it allowed me to have family time and then I could go out and visit friends. 

How did you end up in Philadelphia?

As a kid I was a part of an organization called, “Top Teens of America” which was an academic and social organization. We did a lot of traveling so I got to go all over the country. It gave me the bug to travel and realize that I wanted more than St. Louis, as much as I liked it. Ironically, we came to Philadelphia and I DIDN’T like it. But after working at home in the medical field I decided it was time to make a move. I wanted to move to Houston, but then I met a guy from Philly at a convention and he really talked up Philadelphia. We dated for a while and he wanted me to move here. For my job we have to get licensed in each state we want to work in so I applied in PA and Texas at the same time and said, whichever comes back first is the place I’ll move to and PA won. And that’s how I got here, and I’m so glad I did. I couldn’t imagine myself living anywhere else in the states. 

You have a significant event happening on Saturday, what’s going on?

Soirée in the Park is our take on friendship, love, elegance, and empowerment. We’ve taken elements from the world famous Diner en Blanc and added a little spice, a little soul. We’ve been doing it for a few years and in fact were set to expand it this year to other cities, but that will have to wait and see what 2021 brings, though being virtual this year people from everywhere can participate. Visually, it’s just stunning, seeing people with brown tones and red tones and olive tones in white clothes, it is amazing. It celebrates the beauty of all. My partners are Anthony, Jose, and Tamara, and in addition to this we’re going to be starting a company called “Soirées Bespoke.” For this event it’s going to be virtual, and there will be several small, socially distanced satellite events as well. There’s one here, one in Delaware, we even have one going on in Montana! 

Sounds like fun. Give me the deets.

Guests in person or virtually have to dress all in white with yellow accents. Creativity and originality are highly encouraged! It will be a zoomish type of event and we’ll be highlighting people who participate throughout the event, providing they’re adhering to the dress codes! We’ll have live music and a DJ, and some surprise special guests throughout the event.

What is the cost?

It’s free! People are encouraged to donate to the Bail Project’s National Revolving Bail Fund which is a non-profit organization designed to combat mass incarceration by disrupting the bail system. A system that keeps people who can’t afford bail incarcerated for long periods of time without ever having been convicted of a crime. Donating is a suggestion but not mandatory to participate. We know that it’s a tough time for a lot of people and we want everyone to participate and feel the love! 

Cool, going back, when did you come out to the family and how?

I came out at 22. Suzi, I can’t believe you’re getting me to tell this! I was finished with college and I’d moved back with my mom for a year. I was saving money to buy a little place, which I accomplished a year later, but anyway, I was working at the hospital and I’d just had a really bad day. As a respiratory practitioner, I specialize in the lungs and co-dependently, the heart, so in the hospitals I’m always one of the first responders when someone is brought in. We had a super busy night and I was there for 13 hours straight overnight. When I got home, I was exhausted but still wired so I sat down at the computer to check my emails and whatever else I was doing at 22 years old. Out of nowhere, my mother comes down the steps, we exchanged good mornings and a minute later she was in the kitchen washing dishes when suddenly she turned around and asked, “So when are you planning to have some kids? I want some grandbabies!” I was taken aback, it was like, first of all, where did that come from? and secondly, what?!? As I said, I was exhausted, I’d had it, and my reaction was like, you know what? Fuck it. Fuck it. If she’s going to ask me this after I’ve clearly had a long night, I’m just going to bare the bones. Because now that she’s brought it up, she’s going to ask me every day this week, I just know it. It was just the right timing, because if I wasn’t so tired or in that space in my brain I probably wouldn’t have come out. Instead, I got up and walked over and said, “Okay mom, you know how I love you and my sisters, and my grandmother? That’s about the extent of love that I can have for a female.” To which she responded, “What does that mean?” I was still going around in circles, so I said, “Well, you know… it’s like I’m not really into animals, well I’m not into girls either.” And she was like, “Huh? Animals? What does that mean?”

You have me confused! 

I know. Hey, I was 22 and tired! I finally blurted out, “Mom, I’m into guys. I’m gay.” She stopped still with all the water and dirty dishes in the sink and my heart was beating out of my chest. She turned towards me and looked at me and said, “I’m going to bed, I have a headache” and went upstairs.  [Tearing up] Wow, it’s making me emotional just thinking about it, because two seconds after she walked up those steps I felt more free than I’d ever felt in my life. Ever. Now I really couldn’t sleep after all that. Despite her reaction, I was on Cloud 9, and more than that, I was on Cloud 300,000! I thought to myself, there’s nothing to hold me back anymore, nothing’s holding me back. After that, I sent a letter to my sister right under me, we’d been very close but that didn’t go very well. It pretty much curtailed our relationship and we were never really close again after that. She said some really harsh, hurtful things. Things that had nothing to do with her! Which I just don’t get. If you’re not gay, why does it concern you? What does it have to do with you personally to get you so bent out of shape? I guess it was that mentality of family shame, like, why do you feel the need to tell people, what goes on at home should stay at home, but even so. So there was some nasty stuff said, really bad, and our relationship never recovered. My brother’s never really said anything, they were just like, “you’re the same person so whatever.”

Did mom ever come around?

Oh my god, yes! Within the next two weeks everything changed. The conversations, the tone, the energy, the feelings behind the things she said to me. Our relationship truly changed at that point. She became my friend, not just my mom. She was my friend and she loved and cared about me. She respected my decisions, she was just … different from that point on. She wasn’t the tyrant that moms can be when you’re a kid. And as we got closer I realized, “This lady is dope! I looove her. She is so cool!” 

That’s great to hear. 

Yes, I’ll never forget, years later, I was here in Philadelphia and at a Wawa getting gas when my mother called. Again out of the blue she said to me, “Have you considered a life partner?” 

Awww.

[Wiping a tear] Right? I broke down, right there at the gas pump. I was crying so hard, I never would have expected that from her. I expected her to love me and be my parent, but didn’t expect her to try, to just try that way. It was really special. Suzi, you made me cry!

[Smiling] Hey, I’m the LGBT Barbara Walters!