Exclusive: Amber Hikes, Nellie Fitzpatrick discuss transition

Exclusive: Amber Hikes, Nellie Fitzpatrick discuss transition

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The city announced a new director of LGBT Affairs this week. Amber Hikes will take over the post beginning March 6. Outgoing director Nellie Fitzpatrick, who has been in the position since 2014, will start a law practice expected to open in April.

“There was a very vocal need that was expressed for someone to be more outward-facing and more community-engagement-based,” said Ajeenah Amir, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office about the transition. “That’s the new direction that the office is moving to and we think that Amber is a pretty good fit for that new direction.”

Introducing Amber Hikes

Hikes has resided in California for more than a year, where she worked as the director of the Upward Bound program, a federally funded college-prep program that provides services and education to low-income urban students. However, Hikes said she knew she eventually wanted to return to her home in Philadelphia.

“When I arrived in Philadelphia about 11 years ago, I was a young, black queer woman seeking people who looked like me who loved like me and frankly, the next decade of my life, [I was] just living, studying, working and trying to build that community that I was seeking,” Hikes said. “I noticed these multiple identities that were reflected in the intersections of so many of our underserved citizens.”

Hikes worked with several LGBT organizations in the city, including The Attic Youth Center, William Way LGBT Community Center and the Philadelphia Dyke March. Hikes said her background in community organizing will help her in the new position, as she is interested in engaging the public through community forums and conducting a more “outward-facing office.”

“I’m a person who is very comfortable with conflict,” Hikes said. “I’m very comfortable with being called to the carpet on certain issues. We all have areas that we can grow in and I often side with people even if they call me out and say I’m wrong on a particular issue. I’m very comfortable sitting down and hearing what people have to say, especially if they disagree with me. I really would like to provide more opportunities for the community to have their voices heard and to bring more varied voices to the table.”

The city announced Tuesday the names of the individuals on the 23-person Commission on LGBT Affairs. Hikes said she is “excited” to work with this group, which she says will provide “a direct line to the Office of LGBT Affairs.”

“It’s no secret that I don’t have a staff in the Office of LGBT Affairs but this commission is really going to — almost in a board capacity —  push forward our initiatives and to make the reach of the office more extensive,” Hikes said. “I’ll be looking forward to doing forums and opening up more community conversations.”

Other areas Hikes said she would like to focus on are LGBT youth homelessness and combatting racism in Philadelphia’s LGBT community. She said she will be helping the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations “carry out directives” in regard to the latter.

“It’s really a blessing and an honor to be called to serve at this time,” Hikes said. “I’m excited to get to work.”

Additionally, she’s looking forward to returning to Philadelphia.

“It’s really beautiful to have a homecoming in such a tremendous way,” she said.

What’s next for Nellie Fitzpatrick?

Hikes said she wants to continue the work Fitzpatrick, who officially vacated the post Monday, established.

“I think that Nellie was a tremendous ally for trans women of color and trans folk in general,” Hikes said. “She has really helped to elevate those voices of vulnerable and underserved populations.”

Fitzpatrick, who confirmed she was terminated from the position, said work under her tenure was “largely internal.” This included implicit-bias training for those involved in the 2017 Mummers Parade and the establishment of the Office of LGBT Affairs as a permanent fixture in city government.

“I think all in all, a lot of the work that I have done is not work that can be live-tweeted,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s not work that I can announce on a street corner with a bullhorn. It’s work that, by and large, is behind closed doors and not often disseminated to the public. I will say one of the things that I’m most proud of is having been able to be the one person that, when there’s no one else to call, I am there and able to access parts of our city and parts of our criminal legal system to navigate people through as safely as possible.”

Fitzpatrick became the target of criticism from the Black & Brown Workers Collective for what they saw as a lack of response to racism in the Gayborhood. Due to her background as a former prosecutor and trial attorney, Fitzpatrick said she is “used to being at the center of heated and complicated battles.” She said this criticism is not the reason for her departure, and it is not the most difficult challenge she has faced in the position. However, she noted the need to move forward.

“If the focus of the community is on racism in the bars and on the things that are needing a more public-facing and aggressive stance, this might be a good time for somebody who’s willing to take on that challenge,” Fitzpatrick said.

The former director said she is “excited” to establish her own law practice, where she will focus on criminal defense and civil-rights work. She said she will initially focus on transgender women facing prostitution charges because of the “inequality for transgender women as they navigate the system.”

“As a member of the community, I am really looking forward to being able to organize in a different way as a private citizen,” Fitzpatrick said.

As advice for Hikes, Fitzpatrick noted the need to be “of service” to vulnerable communities.

“It is really important to remember that those who are most marginalized and vulnerable do not always have the highest podium or the loudest voice or the most access to make their needs heard. You must find them, you must protect them and you must lift them up.” 

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