Philly LGBTQ activists reflect on Kenney administration, look ahead to the future

Mayor Jim Kenney (Photo by Scott Drake)

Since becoming mayor in 2016, Jim Kenney has been a divisive figure for LGBTQ Philadelphians. While some say his administration made efforts toward diversity and inclusion, others say he did not do enough to address the housing crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic. With about a year left of Kenney’s administration, PGN spoke to LGBTQ activists to reflect on Kenney’s tenure and what they envision for the next mayor.

Did Mayor Kenney do enough to protect LGBTQ people?

Chris Bartlett, the executive director for William Way LGBT Community Center and a member of the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs, has been a longtime advocate for Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community. He said previous mayors dating back to Wilson Goode — whose administration established the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office — have all made steps toward LGBTQ inclusivity, specifically noting Goode, Ed Rendell, John F. Street and Michael Nutter. 

“Each mayor has built upon the work of their predecessor and I think Mayor Kenney has done that: Built upon the great work that predecessors have done to make [Philadelphia] — in my opinion — the friendliest LGBT city in the nation,” Bartlett said.

Some steps Kenney has taken during his administration included signing bills to ban conversion therapy for minors, strengthen the Fair Practices Ordinance, and expand protections for trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming Philadelphians.

“I think it’s clear that the mayor has had a longtime commitment to promoting diversity and acceptance and also working to build a more inclusive city,” said Celena Morrison, the Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs. “That has shown through some of the work he has done even predating my [tenure in] this office.”

However, advocates such as David Fair believe the Kenney administration left a lot to be desired. 

“I think, generally, the Kenney administration has been good for LGBTQ people but I think [his administration is] not as visible or assertive as the other administrations had been,” Fair said.

Fair has worked in numerous city positions, including establishing and directing the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office — the first comprehensive public-health response to HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia — and as assistant managing director for the city. Fair said previous administrations usually promoted “more conscious efforts” to serve the LGBTQ community. In particular, Fair noted how Goode spoke out on LGBTQ issues during his campaign and established the Mayor’s Commission on Sexual Minorities.

Subsequent mayors then made moves to establish the Office of LGBT Affairs. In 2001, Street appointed Michael Hinson as the first LGBT liaison for the mayor. In April 2008, Nutter appointed Gloria Casarez to this role and then in September of that year, he issued an executive order to officially establish the Office of LGBT Affairs. The office then became a permanent unit of city government in 2015 and numerous leaders took helm over the years, including Nellie Fitzpatrick, Amber Hikes and Morrison.

While Fair acknowledged that Kenney has done work to advance the LGBTQ community, he said Kenney was mostly “agreeing with city council” to pass measures without necessarily being proactive.

“Across the board, [Kenney] has not been very aggressive or assertive with an agenda of his own,” Fair said. “He’s been very reactive to what’s going on over his seven years and I think of all those mayors, he’s probably the weakest in terms of general effectualness compared to [Goode, Street and Nutter]. They were all more assertive generally. Kenney has been less visible and a little more circumspect in how he does things. He’s always on the right side, but he’s not necessarily putting effort into moving forward with whatever issue we’re talking about.”

Activists have also been speaking out against the Kenney administration for what they see as inaction toward protecting homeless communities. In 2021, members of HIV/AIDS advocacy group ACT UP Philly and other social-justice organizations staged peaceful protests outside of one of Kenney’s condos in Old City. They demanded that more city funding be allocated toward safe, permanent and affordable housing for unhoused communities.

Max Ray-Riek, a member of ACT UP, noted the disproportionate rates of LGBTQ homeless populations.

“Every week, we talk to someone who is LGBTQ and doesn’t feel safe in the shelter system and is trying their very best to get services from the city,” Ray-Riek said. “But in order to be eligible for housing services, you pretty much have to be homeless and they define that as living in [the Office of Homeless Services] shelters or somewhere uninhabitable by humans.” 

“So if you are finding someone to stay with, you’re not ‘homeless’ anymore,” Ray-Riek said, adding that LGBTQ people often have “chosen families” they will live with as a temporary housing measure — effectively shutting them out of homeless services.

During one of these protests in July 2021, Philadelphia police officers removed protesters from Kenney’s property for allegedly blocking a private driveway. This resulted in the hospitalization of four ACT UP members, two of whom were arrested for assaulting a police officer. At the time, ACT UP disputed those claims.

ACT UP member Jazmyn Henderson noted how Kenney’s administration responded to the group’s protests.

“The only response we got [from Kenney’s administration] was getting assaulted by [the Civil Affairs Unit] one week.”

What can the next mayor do to protect LGBTQ people?

The upcoming 2023 mayoral election currently has ten candidates — Amen Brown, Jeff Brown, Warren Bloom, James DeLeon, Allan Domb, Derek Green, Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Rebecca Rhynhart — vying for the primary. Looking ahead to the election, Bartlett said he hopes the next mayor develops a plan for organizations, services and LGBTQ communities across the board.

“I think the next step [for the mayor is] to develop a strategic plan that really looks at every agency run by the mayor and ask, ‘What’s the baseline we’re starting with and how can it be improved?’”

While Morrison said Kenney has had a longtime commitment to promoting diversity and acceptance, she hopes the next mayor continues the work his administration started, including the training sessions hosted by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“There’s always room to improve the work that we’ve done,” Morrison said. “I would hope the next mayor would continue to build on that work on establishing those mandatory [diversity and inclusion] trainings and continue to support our LGBTQ community and the work that has been done there. I would hope our next mayor would show just as much, if not more, support as Mayor Kenney while building on the work that has already been done.”

Meanwhile, ACT UP member Henderson suggested the next mayor should issue an executive order to turn every health center in the city into an overdose prevention site, which will make individuals more likely to access rehabilitative services.

“Studies have shown that when people are housed, they are more likely to access treatment,” Henderson said. “If they are HIV-positive, they are more likely to access their medicine.”

José de Marco, another ACT UP member suggested the next mayor should implement a community advisory board with quarterly meetings to “make the community feel a part of their administration.”

“The next mayor really needs to start listening to the citizens of Philadelphia,” de Marco said.

Philadelphia Gay News is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. To learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters, visit Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.