Racism runs deep in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood

Racism is alive in every American city. No place is immune. Despite Philadelphia being one of the most diverse cities in the country, systemic racism has been and continues to be a major issue which affects all communities, including the LGBTQ community and its Gayborhood.

In 2016, Darryl DePiano, former owner of the Gayborhood bar iCandy, was caught on video tape saying a racial slur. After news of the incident spread, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR) held a hearing for LGBTQ community members to discuss issues of racism in Gayborhood nightlife and nonprofit organizations. Many people spoke of the cultures of racism and patterns of racist behavior that they encountered in the community over the years. Following the hearing, the PCHR published a report summarizing the various testimonies and requiring that bar owners and certain nonprofits undergo training on Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance and implicit bias. 

Racism and African American erasure in the Gayborhood has far deeper roots than its 40-year history presented in this article. Tyrone Smith, a Black gay man and long-time community activist in Philadelphia, told PGN that the Gayborhood was built over parts of the Underground Railroad. William Still, a Black abolitionist, lived at 625 South Delhi Street in Philadelphia in the mid 19th-century. He gained prominence as the Father of the Underground Railroad, and helped free many slaves. A historic marker celebrating Still’s life can be found on the 200 block of South 12th Street. 

“They’re the people that were Black folks here in the city of Philadelphia that have been kind of erased,” Smith said. 

In addition to Still, Henry Minton, abolitionist and caterer, lived at 204 South 12th Street in the latter half of the 19th century, where he provided shelter to John Brown before his attack on Harpers Ferry, according to All That Philly Jazz, a public history project directed by Faye M. Anderson. 

In the early 1970s, businesses in the Gayborhood began openly marketing themselves to the LGBTQ+ community. When PGN first published in January 1976, there were advertisements for seven local venues. However, despite the willingness to reach out to LGBTQ+ clientele, not all people in the community were treated equally. 

In December of 1976, PGN published a story which exposed racist practices at the Club Barracks baths at 18th and Sansom. When members of the Barracks complained that the club was becoming “too dark,” management required all prospective members of color to fill out an application, which they were told would take up to a month to process. Exceptions were apparently made for “good looking” Black men, though Barracks staff filtered out older men and men they considered to be ugly. The field manager of the Barracks denied that discrimination was taking place, but said that they were cracking down on membership policies because of an uptick in theft at the establishment. From there, management required that prospective members be sponsored by an existing member or that they provide membership cards from other gay clubs upon entry. 

In the mid-1980s, the Coalition on Lesbian-Gay Bar Policies (CLGBP) published observations and surveys on several Philadelphia gay bars and clubs in an effort to uncover instances and cultures of racism and sexism. The CLGBP was comprised of several community organizations, including Beth Ahava, the Philadelphia iteration of Black and White Men Together, Dignity/Philadelphia, the Mayor’s Commission on Sexual Minorities, and the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force. From the fall of 1984 to the spring of 1986, volunteers for the CLGBP conducted interviews with bar owners to determine entry and member policies, hiring practices and whether the bar received complaints of racism. CLGBP volunteers also posed as patrons to observe the racial and gender composition of the bar on random nights, as well as codes of conduct enforced by bar owners and staff.  

The logo for the Coalition of Lesbian-Gay Bar Policies (1986).

In a 2016 story for Philadelphia Magazine, Sandy Smith, who was part of the CLGBP at the time, wrote that the observations and interviews carried out by the group yielded virtually no concrete instances of racist policies or behavior, but cultures and patterns of racism. The exception was the now-closed bar Kurt’s, described as Philly’s hottest gay club at the time, which did not require patrons with out-of-state drivers licenses to pay the nightly entrance fee. Although Kurt’s displayed a sign requiring all patrons to show two forms of ID at the door, this policy apparently did not apply to everyone seeking entry, one CLGBP observer noted. 

“If I remember right, our surveyors did not state explicitly that it was only people of color who were required to produce that ID,” Smith told PGN. “But it seems that the net effect of the inconsistently enforced policy was to weed out lots of people of color who might have otherwise gone there.”

Kurt’s also drew protests from the community after promoting two events, “Oriental Express” and “Congo Night” using stereotypical imagery on their advertisements. During the latter event in January 1991, 15 protestors, led by Queer Action and Black and White Men Together, shouted “Don’t support Kurt’s,” and “Say no to racism.”

In the early 1990s, PGN writer James C. Roberts wrote columns about Philly’s Black gay community, including a series of interviews with Black gay men. The men discussed overt and covert instances of racism, such as white gay men objectifying Black gay men in bars, white men only advocating against racism to further their LGBTQ rights agenda, and a shortage of venues geared specifically toward Black gay men. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was only one bar in Philly for Black queer men – BJP’s — and there were no non-alcoholic spaces for Black gay men. To this day, Philly still suffers from a dearth of social spaces designated for queer men of color. 

“Right now, I’d say that we have two quasi-Black bars, both by default not by design,” Smith added. “But word has gotten out that we now have a Black-owned gay bar, that’s the first in the history of the city. I’ve noticed that some of the people who I consider regulars in the bars who are also Black, have started gravitating towards it.” 

The Black-owned bar Smith referred to is Jocks PHL, formerly known as Boxers PHL, and the other “quasi-Black” bar is Tabu. 

While entry policies to Gayborhood bars and clubs has been a source of racism in the community, the performance spaces of those venues are also subject to inequality. VinChelle and Icon Ebony-Fierce, two drag queens of color who live and perform in Philadelphia, held a virtual town hall this past June to address tokenism, producers’ refusal to book performers of color and give them prime performance slots, verbal and sexual harassment, and overall mistreatment of Black and Brown performers by white bar owners and event managers. Following the town hall, VinChelle has since taken over managing events at Woody’s and Voyeur, and Icon is booking events at Tabu as part of John Burd’s events company. Burd was one of the producers at the town hall who took responsibility for past behavior and agreed to book more performers of color as well as provide diversity training to staff.

VinChelle told PGN that when they attended college at the University of the Arts from 2006-2010, they noticed that they were treated differently at the bars than their white male counterparts, a common theme among those who testified in the PCHR hearing. “I did have another person of color gay friend as well,” they said. “We would go out, and I noticed that the white gay guys I was with would get a lot more attention than the people of color would. If you ask Black people, it’s always going to be something, it’s an accumulation of lots of different things.” 

In the PCHR hearings after the iCandy incident, many people discussed cultures of racism in Philly’s LGBTQ communities. 

“The most important part of what happened – people had been feeling acts of bias, feeling general prejudice, racism and frustration with the fact that nothing was changing,” said Rue Landau, executive director of the PCHR. “That’s why we stepped in on the large level that we did, we wanted to address the entire situation.”

Gayborhood bars are only one piece of the problem. Racism has prevailed in Gayborhood nonprofits and HIV/AIDS organizations for a long time. It was largely due to racism in the HIV/AIDS community — with the disease being branded as a white gay man’s disease and the subsequent organizations catering to white gay men — that Tyrone Smith co-founded UNITY, Inc., a grassroots organization created by Black gay men, for Black gay men. Smith has lived in Philadelphia since he was a child, and is now in his late 70s. 

“I think that was the beginning of Black organization starting here in the city of Philadelphia,” Smith said. “It was a time that we really didn’t think that Black folks were going to have AIDS and HIV. I’ll never forget what I saw up on the subway car, that ‘this week we have found X amount of Black folks having to do with AIDS and HIV.’ And I was so damn disgusted, because it was tagged in the beginning as a white gay boy’s disease.” 

In the mid-1980s, some white members of the LGBTQ community helped educate and provide HIV/AIDS resources for gay men of color, Smith said. One of those people was David Fair, who, among other accomplishments, played a large role in helping Black and Brown people fight AIDS in their communities.  

“I got sick and tired of David Fair sitting someplace talking about Black gay men, and he didn’t have that life experience,” Smith said. “But I learned to trust him, and I have a lot of respect for him. [He] was willing to meet with a group of Black gay men to help give us our independence.” 

Smith also spoke of Ernie Jones, a straight Black man who collaborated with Fair to help Black gay men during the AIDS epidemic. “Here we are, Black and white men together –– one is straight, one is gay –– but they’re men working together,” Smith said. “It can be done, it has been done and I think it’s time to repeat.”

Some of Philadelphia’s health organizations have indeed struggled and continue to struggle to provide proper services to people of color. 

“When the HIV epidemic started affecting people of color, I think it was a culture shock for [Mazzoni Center], said José de Marco, ACT UP organizer and Philadelphia resident. “They were so accustomed to dealing with queer, white men. All of a sudden you have another set of folks, people of color. A lot of people were living in poverty, a lot of people maybe had incarceration issues, addiction issues. They were so used to dealing with white people that they didn’t know how to deal with people of color.”

De Marco also told PGN that some of the main Gayborhood health organizations usually positioned a person of color at the forefront to create the illusion that their staff was racially diverse. “But when it came to people of color having power or making decisions, that wasn’t happening at Mazzoni, or FIGHT for that matter,” de Marco said. “I think things are slowly changing now that some of the older queer white men are getting out of the way. I think they need to learn the difference between being an ally and leading people of color. You can’t lead people when you’re not a member of that community.” 

After the resignation of former Mazzoni Medical Director Robert Winn, CEO Nurit Shein and Board President Jimmy Ruiz, Mazzoni employed an interim leadership team consisting of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nancy Brisbon, Chief Operations Officer Alecia Manley and Chief Financial Officer Racquel Assaye. Brisbon and Assaye are women of color. 

Racism has been a consistent issue in other Philadelphia nonprofit organizations, according to many leaders in the queer community of color. Celena Morrison, executive director of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs, told PGN that tokenism and underpaying queer and trans people of color are two main issues that she has seen in the Gayborhood nonprofit sector. 

“I’ve seen Black and Brown folks work really hard for organizations, and those same organizations will pay them the least that they can,” Morrison said. “Then I’ve seen those organizations bring in outside folks from other organizations and pay them tons of money to do some of the training that they already have staff to do. Not only knowing that [trans folks of color] have been doing this work and that they brought lived experience to that work, but then to have white folks come in to do a diversity training and be paid tens of thousands of dollars, that was an eye-opening experience for me.” 

Morrison also commented on how exhausting it is being subjected to bigotry from all angles.

“Especially for trans women of color, when you are not always included in the LGBT community, and then you’re not included in the Black community,” she said. “Often some spaces that are LGBT-friendly aren’t really trans-friendly so you’re left without a place to turn to. Who can you depend on, who do you trust, who are your allies?” 

Sandra Thompson has been involved with multiple service and nonprofit organizations in and around Philadelphia, including Bebashi, the first African-American organization in the United States to address the AIDS crisis, and the LGBT Elder Initiative. During one of her nonprofit tenures, she did a lot of work in the area of racial equity and reached out to LGBTQ people of color. 

“There was some negative feedback that we got from the white gay community, that [this organization] was pushing people of color and issues impacting people of color,” Thompson said. “We’re all fighting a battle here — the same people that don’t like me don’t like you either. There was some pushback.”

Much like Gayborhood health organizations, one of the main methods of dissolving racist behavior in LGBTQ community organizations is to have the leadership accurately reflect the community it serves, leaders said. 

“When you look specifically at the demographics of Philadelphia, with a large number of both African American and Latinx folks in this city, there’s still a need to invest in organizations that are run by and for those folks,” said Chris Bartlett, executive director of William Way LGBT Community Center. 

In light of the need to have organizational leadership reflect the communities they serve, Kendall Stephens, a trans community activist and trans woman of color, and Icon Ebony-Fierce were recently invited to become board members of William Way. 

“My experience as a black trans woman in predominantly white LGBTQ+ spaces, especially on 13th street, I have always felt excluded and systematically shut out,” Stephens said. “There is such pronounced racism that is both explicit and implicit, and you feel it. It really plays into that narrative that you’re invisible and you’re unwanted.”

Kendall Stephens at the 2020 Philly Trans March. (Photo: Kelly Burkhardt)

When it comes to rooting out racism in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ spaces in recent years, even seemingly small efforts, such as recognizing the issues and training people on how to solve them, has been beneficial.

“It’s important to highlight that just ensuring that the institutions all had at least basic training on the city’s anti-discrimination law and implicit bias, helped,” said PCHR director Landau. “Bar owners and employees were able to assess situations through a different lens, and no matter what, that can always lead to a better outcome for everybody.” 

She added that collaboration is key. “We can lead people toward resources to help them do it, but everybody’s got to do the heavy lifting to make sure that we make Philadelphia a more equitable place for everybody.”

Self-education is also essential to moving past racism, VinChelle explained. “From there you must make changes in your life, in your mind and in your thoughts, and you must actually commit to doing that and not just do it because someone told you to do it. You must come to a place where you can do it because it’s the right thing to do.” 

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Michele Zipkin is a staff writer for Philadelphia Gay News, where she reports on issues including LGBTQ youth issues, housing insecurity, healthcare, city government and advocacy organizations, and events. Her work has been recognized by the Keystone Media Awards, Society of Professional Journalists, National Newspaper Association, and more. She received her BA from Goucher College and her MA in journalism from Temple University. She has been on staff with PGN since January 2020 and previously worked as a freelancer.