Entertainers cancel shows at Tabu and plan protest after Palestinian performer is censored

Leila Delicious, a burlesque artist, stands mostly nude during a recent performance at an unnamed venue, holding a sign that reads, “Our generation will free Palestine.” Her face and hair are covered by a scarf.
Leila Delicious, a burlesque artist, stands mostly nude during a recent performance at an unnamed venue, holding a sign that reads, “Our generation will free Palestine.”

Leila Delicious, a local burlesque artist, has performed at Tabu — a Philadelphia nightlife bar and venue in the Gayborhood — multiple times in the past. Her previous shows have reflected her queer identity and Palestinian culture, and she has never shied away from political commentary in her acts.

In June, she told Al-Bustan News Service that anytime she makes art, she has to consider the juxtaposition of personal expression and exoticism. “How much information does the audience have about Palestine? What are they expecting to see? How much of that do I want to give them?,” she said. “My performance art brain asks: What does it mean for a Palestinian to be indulgent and taking up so much space?“

But when the artist attempted to enter Tabu for a scheduled performance on Friday, Dec. 8, she was barred entry based on a sign she was carrying. The sign reads, “Our generation will free Palestine” with “Biden, demand a ceasefire. If you support genocide, you Isreal dumb! @joebiden @potus do the right thing” on the back.

After a week of attempts made by employees, entertainers, and community members to find a resolution with Tabu management over their decision to both censor the artist and make additional statements the community deemed problematic, many remain dissatisfied with Tabu’s response.

A protest organized by performers and community members is planned for Saturday, Dec. 16, at 5 p.m. A march will start in Khan Park (at the corner of 11th and Pine streets) and continue to Tabu.

Here’s what sparked the community’s outrage:

Immediately following the incident, Leila Delicious posted a video to her Instagram story, saying, “So I’m outside of Tabu right now, and they’re not letting me in because I have this sign for my act — and they said, ‘We don’t allow political shit in Tabu.’”

Fans and community members criticized Tabu on social media, and Tabu initially responded on Saturday, Dec. 9 by defending the decision. Their initial response, which was posted to Tabu’s official Instagram account, has since been deleted. It condemned hate speech and also accused the artist of having a sign that contained text targeting and promoting genocide against the Jewish community.

The post read: “Tabu strongly condemns all forms of hate speech, including the recent display of a sign promoting genocide against Jews. The circulating image on social media lacks full context, as the other side contains text targeting the Jewish community. Such despicable behavior has no rightful place here.”

Manager and co-owner Phil Sobleski, emailed Tabu employees on Sunday Dec. 10 “to clear the air about what really happened on Friday night.” He described his perspective of the incident, writing, “Security alerted me about a performer’s sign which was to be used in the show that night. Upon reading the sign, I decided that the sign was inappropriate and something we did not want shown in our building.” He clarified in that email that Leila Delicious is not banned from future performances.

“Some are saying that our censorship has gone too far,” he added. “Would they say the same if we turned away signs with racist or anti trans rhetoric? Ultimately, we will continue striving to be a safe space for everyone, including those who may have been offended by the sign brought in Friday night.”

Tabu bartender, Kevin Guckin, replied to the email thread, writing, “As a queer bartender, I value that Tabu aims to provide a safe space for all marginalized folks — this is why I work here. And our emphasis as a space for drag performances means that we also offer a stage for folks to use their voice to advance the fight against all forms of oppression.”

Guckin expressed empathy for management’s intention to create a safer environment by addressing any potentially offensive materials, but added, “When the impact of our actions do not match the intent, that is when it is time to make amends.”

Guckin expressed confusion over Tabu’s accusations that Leila Delicious supports the genocide of Jews, noting that they do not believe the sign conveys that message. Then they urged Tabu to release a new statement that would clarify the company’s stance. They even included a draft for a potential post, hoping Tabu would acknowledge that a hasty decision was made with good intentions, accept responsibility for wrongs, and apologize. Some staff members replied in support of Guckin’s words.

While some employees feared speaking openly about the issue, Guckin expressed similar feelings on social media. Performers and community members continued to share their concerns there too. One drag queen, Tiffany Uma Mascara, shared an Instagram story that read, “Queer spaces are inherently political. If you don’t recognize that, you’re in the wrong business.”

On Sunday evening, Tabu deleted its initial response. A new post was made without comments enabled, which shared sentiments that reflected more sensitivity to the raised concerns and included some of the language Guckin suggested.

Performers met with Tabu in hopes that management would hear their concerns:

On Tuesday, Dec. 12, Tabu held a meeting for performers and producers. Some artists hoped to reach a resolution with the venue and gathered at Tabu in hopes that owners and management would be willing to learn and grow from the experience.

Tabu shared a third Instagram post on Wednesday, Dec. 13, which explained that a “constructive dialogue with numerous members of the performer, producer, and host community” took place with owners and management. The post shared details of an action plan — which included contacting Leila Delicious to initiate conversations about future collaboration. It also noted plans to implement diversity and inclusion training for all Tabu employees, owners, and support staff and the appointment of a peer mediator to handle human relations issues.

Entertainers who attended the meeting took to social media to express continued concerns, as they felt Tabu’s newest statement did not accurately reflect the meeting. One performer, Oktober Third — one of many who walked out of the meeting before its intended ending — expressed in an Instagram story that they felt the owners’ tone and language directed toward multiple performers was disrespectful. “It is clear that [Tabu is] unwilling to change,” they added, explaining that their upcoming show now needs a new venue.

Eric Jaffe, who described themself as “one of the most prominent queer Jews in Philly nightlife,” said in their Instagram story, “What you are doing in the name of Judaism is absolutely disgraceful. You bring shame to both queer and Jewish people alike. Queer nightlife will always be political.” Some other Jewish creators shared similar sentiments.

An attendee who recorded audio during the meeting later made a clip available to the public, which has sparked continued criticisms.

Performers cancel shows and seek to define and find safety:

Many entertainers and community members have called for boycotts. One artist, Cash Calamity, posted in an Instagram story urging those concerned to file a complaint with the city and call their representatives.

Some asked for stronger accountability regarding this incident — asking for Tabu and other venues to strengthen budgets to pay performers and for Tabu to make donations to a fund providing emergency assistance to entertainers whose income has been affected by this conflict.

Performers have started canceling upcoming shows at Tabu. Henn House Events, which specializes in producing and performing drag events, told PGN their performers are losing money after cutting ties with the bar. One of the troupe’s members, Yari — a trans person of color — has lost her primary source of income.

The events team — which consists of performers Jenny, Yari and Diego — released a statement which explains that they are dissatisfied with the venue’s handling of the incident, adding, “In order to provide a safe space, we must find a venue that has the best interest of our producers, performers, and community in mind.”

Henn House performers and other entertainers are grappling with the idea of what constitutes safety for all. Given the Gayborhood’s history with racism, violence, and accusations of additional misconduct at Tabu and other event spaces in the past, it’s hard to ensure marginalized community members — especially people of color — can be protected.

Drew Gaver, a drag performer known as Bev, ended a 10-year relationship with Tabu. As an entertainer with close professional ties to one of the business owners, Gaver reached out to two of the owners, Steve and Jeffrey Sotland, urging them to consider that information conveyed to them about the sign could have included misunderstandings. He said the situation has surprised and disappointed him because he’s had a positive experience working with Tabu and hasn’t directly experienced any persecution.

Gaver attended the meeting on Tuesday, explaining, “My hopes were that they were going to see their error and correct it — but instead, it put the nail in the coffin.” He said owners “doubled-down” on their stance that Tabu should remain apolitical but also told the group that “a sign that says ‘free Palestine’ will never make it into their building.”

“A queer bar is seen as a place of safety to make statements of personal expression,” said Gaver. “Policing statements that you don’t agree with removes any and all safety performers feel in that space.”

As soon as the meeting ended, Gaver cut ties by calling the owners at Cockatoo to move his upcoming scheduled events from Tabu to their establishment. He feels that the owners — Ram Krishnan and Akshay Kamath, who are a queer married couple and are people of color, have a more genuine approach to running their bar. “They have said multiple times that it’s not about the money for them,” Gaver told PGN. “It’s about having a place for the community to go.”

He also feels they understand how to prioritize safety. “They’ve dealt with bias and prejudice,” he explained. “They have first-hand experience knowing what a safe space is not — so they know what actions to do and not to do to create a safe space.”

Gaver is from Baltimore — where the only two gay bars in his former neighborhood have closed. He also mentioned the loss of Toasted Walnut in Philadelphia during the pandemic. 

“I don’t want to see another gay bar go away,” he said, explaining that major changes needed to take place at Tabu to regain the trust of the community. “So my hope is that if we can’t appeal to their morality, we’ll appeal to their pockets.”

The owners of Tabu could not be reached for comment.

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