Many moons ago, I did a stint as a bartender at what was then Hepburns, the lesbian bar that morphed into 12th Air Command and is now the new Tabu.
I’d been hosting karaoke and asked the manager, Denise, if I could try my hand at mixology. I was told that the easy part was mixing the drinks; it was handling the public that would be the challenge. So I memorized a book full of cocktails and got ready for my first shift. The bar was empty (it was a weekday afternoon), but soon a woman walked in and ordered a drink. Before I’d even poured it, she began to tell me her life story and asked me if thinking about her best friend when she was having sex with her husband meant she was a lesbian. My first shift! Part of me thought the staff was pranking me, but no, it was my first moment as bartender. Fortunately for those lost souls in the world, this week’s portrait Alaina Hummel is a bartender with a psych degree! No wonder she’s lasted in the biz for so long!
So tell me, where does a Hummel hail from? I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, in a town called Selinsgrove. I moved to Philadelphia after I graduated from Penn State, and I’ve been here ever since!
What did you study at Penn State? I studied psychology and mathematics.
[Laughing] That seems like two different ends of the spectrum! Yes, but I was more interested in the research end of psychology, so the math made sense.
So do you watch Law and Order SVU to get psych tips? [Laughing] I try to avoid any type of analyzing people at this point. I love bartending, but despite what people think, it’s really not a good substitute for therapy!
Tell me a little about growing up in Selinsgrove. Are you from a big family? Small? Blended. My parents got divorced when I was young, so I have two separate families — a brother and sister, dad and stepmom, mom and stepdad. This past Christmas, for the first time ever, both sides of the family came together for a combined celebration. It was great and took a lot of pressure off my siblings and me as to who we were going to spend which part of the day with. It was precious to have everyone together.
Did you have a favorite toy as a kid? I was a reader. Most of my childhood memories are of reading books. I spent a lot of time by myself doing that, though I did like to run around in the cornfields of Central Pennsylvania as well and play with the boys. I was a tomboy at heart!
What was a favorite book? Oh, that’s tough. I loved “The Secret Garden.”
Of course! That was one of my favs too. And I loved “Harriet the Spy,” though I guess those were from when I was a little bit older.
What were the best and worst parts of growing up where you did? It’s hard to say. I’m 45 now and far removed from it, but I have great memories with my family and my grandmother. I guess the worst part was not realizing that there was a bigger world out there outside of where I grew up. It was a very insular community and not very diverse. As I get older, I realize that there are things about myself and my identity that I never thought were possible just because I didn’t see anyone around me who was similar or who I could relate to in that way. In my entire time in school in Selinsgrove, there was only one kid who was brave enough to come out. From kindergarten to high school, just one. Fortunately, things are different now. My sister’s a teacher, and she has gay students and trans students who know who they are — an option I didn’t realize I had.
How do you identify now? Queer, nonbinary. When I was a kid, I always wanted to hang out with the boys and do boy things, even though I looked very feminine. I still express myself as feminine, but working as part of the community, I’ve found and am starting to embrace things that I didn’t know were possible for me.
How did you end up in Philly? I knew I wanted to go to a big city after graduation, but I wanted to be close enough to be able to drive home to see my grandmother. I love Philly, and I love my little place in the gayborhood!
Where did you work first? I was actually an accountant for a long time!
You are putting that math degree to work. Yeah, I think I always felt my parents had certain expectations of me based on how I performed in school and had certain images of what I would be in terms of academics and a career. So I always thought I would be taking a traditional career path. I was a licensed stockbroker before getting into accounting, but I encountered so much sexism every step of the way in the corporate life that I decided to get out. I started bartending, and I’ve been doing that now for 16 years. It’s so much more satisfying, and my family has become super supportive, seeing me so much happier in what I do.
What were some of the things you faced? There were a lot of microaggressions. Working with male bosses who would refer to each other by name but refer to me as “her” and “she” never using my name or constantly hearing the adult women in the department being referred to as “The ‘girls’ in this division…” and many other things I don’t care to revisit.
Which bar did you work at first? Woody’s. I couldn’t believe I got the opportunity, and it was incredible. From there, I also worked at Voyeur and Tabu, and now I do coat check at the Bike Stop on Saturdays, and it’s so much fun. It’s my weekly therapy! I get to chat with friends and check in with the guys; it’s great.
Your first job was at Woody’s? That’s straight into the fire! I worked happy hour, so it was a little bit quieter. It gave me a chance to have conversations with people, and I got to know many of the stalwarts of the community. I learned from people who’ve been in the community for a long time.
Tell me about the group you’re working with? I’m on the board of Folsom Street East. It’s an organization that “celebrates and inspires participation and pride in fetish, kink and LGBTQ communities through the creation of safe spaces for public expression of our sexual identities.” Basically, we are responsible for the Folsom Street East street festival and Fetish Weekend. About half our board is in Philly, and the other half is in New York. We’re looking to get more involved in Philadelphia. We give a lot of grants to various LGBTQ organizations such as The Trevor Project, and we do a lot of micro-grants, specifically for smaller organizations that focus on trans issues, especially those that have Black and Brown initiatives. Our biggest event is the street festival. It’s a place for people to express themselves freely and in public. Last year we closed down two blocks and had 8,000 people attend!
Wow! How did you get involved in the fetish community? I guess from going to the Bike Stop. In 2016, I decided to compete for Ms. Philadelphia Leather. I won the title, and it allowed me to participate in other competitions around the country and even internationally! I don’t even know why I decided to compete. I’m kind of shy speaking in public, and I get really nervous, but I looked at it as a chance to represent and do things for the community. And I got to hang out with my sash husband, Rudy Flesher. We did a monthly bar event and raised money for different organizations.
What was your favorite competition outfit? I had a full leather corset with tiny garters attached and a tulle skirt behind me. I like to wear gloves, so I had leather opera gloves to complete the outfit.
Nice! What were some of the most interesting things you got to do as Ms. Leather? I got to go to Dublin, Ireland, where they made me the Tally Master in their leather competition. That’s the person who records the scores. European events don’t usually have much involvement from female-identified people, and the person who invited me said that I was the first woman ever to come to one of their events. They hoped it would open the door to more women participating in the future. It was pretty cool. We all went out in our fetish attire, leather for me, into the streets and rang the bells at Christ Church. I think it was Christ Church, one of the Irish churches! One of the things we want to do with Folsom Street East is to have more fetish and kink visibility, so we’re going to do a walk on the High Line in New York. We’ll probably go from one of the museums across the High Line to one of the leather bars.
What’s the farthest you’ve traveled as Ms. Philadelphia Leather? In the U.S., San Francisco, abroad, I’ve been to Amsterdam, Belgium a few times, Dublin.
What do you like to do in your spare time? I still love to read. I like to garden and cook, and I enjoy entertaining. I have an apartment in the gayborhood with a yard that’s pretty large for the city. I’d probably be a spinster cat lady right now, but I’m allergic to cats!
What would we find you reading now? I just bought “Dead Men’s Trousers” by Irvine Welsh, but one of my favorites is “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie. I like a lot of magical realism, some contemporary fiction and the occasional murder mystery. And I keep a subscription to the New Yorker.
What do you find rewarding as a bartender? You meet so many great people in different stages of their lives. I do my best to make everyone feel welcome. I’ve had people come to me and say, “You’re the first bartender who served me, and you made it such a pleasant experience.” A lot of people in the community call me mom, which really makes me feel good.
Do you use your psych degree much? I usually use my psychology skills to keep myself sane, especially when I’ve worked in non-LGBT spaces!
What’s your craziest experience at the bar? [Laughing] Oh, I don’t think I can tell it.
It’s PGN, try us. OK then, well, I saw someone sit on a Heineken bottle, and then bend over and let it spray out! I was like, “I don’t care what you get off on, but guy, you’re 10 feet from the buffet!”
Oh my! What was a heartwarming story? Lots of lovely things — a couple asking me to bartend at their wedding, the people who’ve said, “I was a kid, and you made me feel welcome my first time in an LGBTQ space.”
Ever face any homophobia? Not really, in part because I’ve lived in this neighborhood for so long. I’m kind of insulated, and if I go out of that area, most people see me as a heterosexual woman. So I have a privilege that a lot of others don’t as I move in the world. I did have an interesting experience being photographed at the Lincoln Memorial for a magazine wearing full leather regalia with tourists all around.
I also come across as straight and white when I’m gay and mixed, so I hear a lot from people not realizing it. True, yes, even working in our community, you hear things. I remember once hearing someone say some offensive racial things at the bar. I was the manager at the time, and I asked her to leave. Months later, I ended up working with the person she’d directed the comments to, and he said, “I couldn’t believe you rejected someone like that because of what they said to me. I’ve loved you from the beginning because of it. Thank you.”
Nice! OK, random question: who would you like to have over for a dinner party? I don’t want to curate this too much, but I had a dream about it recently. I had my friend Girl Complex, who was Miss International Leather 2017, her partner the current Mr. San Francisco Leather, the current Mr. International leather, I love Tom Waites, so I’d invite him … and my mother. Just to give her an experience!
Any pets? The family dogs, Weiner Dog and Brother Love, they’re both yellow labs. I wear a lot of black, so whenever I go home, I come back covered in yellow hair. But I love them very much.
What’s the most exotic thing you’e eaten? My friend buys dried grasshoppers as a snack, and I’ve partaken. I’m a pretty adventurous eater. And I’ve had a bite of a python hotdog at Destination Dogs. It’s very welcoming, so a lot of leather people go there.
Worst fashion faux pas? When I was a teen, I tried to have really big ’80s hair. I used enough hairspray to make a hole in the ozone layer. But I only tried it once.
What’s the biggest conversation piece in your house? I’m not much a performer, but I did try once and decided to go as Divine. A costume maker friend made me this huge headpiece with Divine eyebrows and a wig. I have it on a styrofoam head at home.
If people want to get involved with Folsom Street, how do they go about it? We only have 10 people on the board for an event that brings in 8,000 people. We love and need volunteers. If they go to the website, www.folsomstreeteast.com, there’s a tab for volunteers and all sorts of info about the group.
Will you bring the street fair to Philly someday? That’s in our five-year plan. We have to get Philly ready for scantily clad people wearing all sorts of expressions of kink in the street. But in the meantime, we’re starting to do smaller events here. So get ready Philly!