The emotion was palpable from every one of the 28 speakers who took the microphone at a historic hearing on racism in the LGBT community Tuesday night.
Some speakers were angry, others visibly upset as they shared stories of being marginalized by local bars, businesses, government entities and nonprofits because of the color of their skin. Each speaker at the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations hearing had a unique story, but many shared a common message: that the time for community action to address racism was long overdue.
Longtime activist Tyrone Smith said he’s recently had to talk about racism with his great-nephew, also a community member.
“This is insane to me,” he said. “I’m old; I’m in my 70s. To have to confront this again in my life when I’ve lived through the dog-biting days, when I’ve lived through the two bathrooms — I’ll be damned if I want to see it again.”
Smith’s address brought many in the standing-room-only crowd of about 200 to their feet. The room was full 20 minutes before the hearing started, prompting organizers to open two overflow rooms where attendees watched the hearing live on projectors. Civil Affairs estimated about 375 people attended overall, said Rue Landau, PCHR executive director.
There was a terse exchange between audience members and PCHR chair Thomas Earle after he told them they should have arrived earlier to not have to contend with police who were stopping attendees from entering after the room reached its occupancy limit. Once the meeting got underway, however, the floor was turned over to the community; only a few of the approximately 35 speakers who registered to speak weren't able to do so due to time constraints.
The hearing was convened following a series of allegations of racist nightlife policies in the Gayborhood, like dress codes and hiring practices — an issue fueled by a video of ICandy owner Darryl DePiano using racist language. DePiano was in attendance at the hearing.
Several speakers directed their comments to ICandy.
“ICandy, you already should pack,” said Asa Khalif, head of the Pennsylvania chapter of Black Lives Matter. “We are going to hit you economically. We’re going to continue to boycott you, we’re going to continue to protest you until you pack your shit and get the hell out of our community.”
Khalif shared a story about his late friend Prince, who in his final months wanted a night out at Woody’s, during which he said their group suffered unequal treatment from staff, such as Prince being made to wait 35 minutes for a non-alcoholic drink.
He opened his remarks with a quote from Malcolm X — “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you're a man, you take it” — in direct response to the suggestion of the speaker before him that activists should emulate the peaceful protests of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. instead of the style of Malcolm X.
That disparity in approach was evident from a number of participants.
Antoine Johnson commended Landau and Office of LGBT Affairs director Nellie Fitzpatrick for their work, urging the community to pursue dialogue with city leaders instead of protest.
Dominique London of Black & Brown Workers Collective, however, urged complete dismantling of white-dominated structures.
“Destruction equals rebirth,” she said. “The rebirth will follow.”
BBWC members have continued to call for Fitzpatrick to step down over what they say has been ineffective leadership.
Sappho Fulton commended all parties involved in bringing the issue to the forefront of the community’s conscience.
She said she doubted Tuesday’s hearing would have happened if “BBWC hadn’t jumped up at City Hall,” referring to the collective’s protest at this month’s rainbow flag-raising ceremony. “And thank God Nellie has the backbone that she can handle that shit.” Earle cautioned at the beginning of the hearing that it was not a forum to address grievances with the Mayor’s Office personnel, a directive with which speakers largely complied.
Nearly all who testified instead shared personal anecdotes about racism in the community — much of which they said is more covert than blatant.
Gianna, a youth involved with Bryson Institute’s Justice League at The Attic Youth Center, detailed how her light-colored skin has encouraged people in nightlife to share their racist views with her.
"Great, now look at this riff-raff,” she said an ICandy bartender once said to her as a group of darker-skinned black patrons entered the club.
Kemar Jewel testified that he was kicked out of Woody’s last month for wearing sweatpants and sneakers. In one of the lighter moments of the night, he said, “Woody’s is not even that fab to have a dress code,” to loud cheers from the audience.
Christopher Kyle detailed the challenges he faced in getting an Afro-queer nightlife event off the ground in the Gayborhood.
Terrell Green recalled ordering a burger at Tabu and being told by the server, “I thought you people like your burgers well-done.”
In advance of the hearing, the owners of all 11 bars in the Gayborhood were subpoenaed to attend and to give to the commission copies of their dress codes and employment and other policies. Landau confirmed that the eight owners of the 11 bars were all present at the hearing.
Freddy Shelley, general manager of Tabu, was the only nightlife representative to speak. He read a letter from Tabu co-owner Jeff Sotland, who could not attend.
The letter advocated for community-wide action on the issue, including from people who aren't of color.
“I believe it is time for everyone to speak out to eradicate this problem and to open the door to dialogue,” Sotland wrote. “Debate and advocacy are stronger when we work together as a whole.”
Many speakers noted that racism in LGBT nightlife is not a new issue, with several pointing to a 1986 report by The Coalition on Lesbian-Gay Bar Policies. The two-year study found that a “pattern of exclusivity exists in almost every bar in the city,” revealing itself in inconsistently enforced ID policies as well as employment practices that “work to exclude members of various groups from openings that occur.”
The PCHR offered information to attendees about how to file a complaint if they believe they have been suffered discrimination (complaints can be filed online at www.phila.gov/humanrelations), but there was also a frequent refrain that the more systemic, covert instances were just as important, yet perhaps even more challenging, to address.
“The next step of this is not necessarily filing something with the Human Relations Commission — though we should — but what do I file about the 100 cuts of subtle racism we have to endure every single day?” asked Malcolm Kenyatta. “What do I file when I go to a bar and the bartender looks at me and goes to someone else? What do I file?”
Kenyatta urged white listeners to take an honest look at their own views, and their own privilege.
“Privilege does not mean everything in your life is right; privilege means you can look on your TV and readily see a representation of yourself. Privilege is the fact that none of the bars in the Gayborhood are owned by a person of color. Not one. That’s privilege,” he said. “I don’t hate you for your privilege but I judge you on how you use it. The real fight is what happens in our living rooms, with our friends and our family who we know say things like was said on that video. For every white person, the next step is on you.”
Racism in nightlife was not the only area addressed, as several participants also charged that local nonprofits do not adequately include and hire people of color, or pay consultants for their input.
Those speakers called out Philadelphia FIGHT and Mazzoni Center. Representatives of both organizations were present.
Hazel Edwards of The Bryson Institute’s Justice League said the community’s youth do not see themselves reflected in the makeup of the leadership of the community’s nonprofit structure.
“Youth in the city of Philadelphia, in particularly in the LGBT community, are being taken for granted,” Edwards said. “Far too many nonprofit structures rely on black and brown youth for funding, yet do not hire us. Black and brown adults given positions in nonprofits are often entry-level, underpaid, tokenized and they’re fired within the first few months. Even as a client, when I walk into these organizations that claim to support me, yet the leadership doesn’t reflect me.”
“Black and brown folks shouldn’t be asked to do your work for you,” added Justice League’s Micah Rodriguez, referring to the claim that nonprofits use or tokenize people of color.
Prentice Bush addressed what he said was the irony of being excluded from nightlife, but relied upon for funding from nonprofits.
“I have been made both a hero and villain of my LGBT story,” he said. “I’m a threat to the bars but a goldmine to the nonprofits.”