*This story has been updated to include the location and time of the Pride Kick-Off.
More than 200 community members were in attendance at the Office of LGBT Affairs’ first LGBTQ Community Conversation Thursday. The event, held at the William Way LGBT Community Center, included remarks from newly appointed director Amber Hikes, a Q&A session with community members and presentations from the Commission on LGBT Affairs’ eight committees.
“I know the conversations we are going to have tonight are coming from a place of trauma, coming from a place of oppression and they’re coming from pain,” Hikes said. “I recognize it because I see it. I feel it. I know it deeply. This is our opportunity to come from behind those computer screens, come from behind those picket lines and sit in the room with our community members.”
Hikes also addressed recent controversies that have hit the commission in its first months.
“We were very fortunate to already have a Community Conversation planned and then we had some events and we said, ‘We are going on exactly as intended and we’re going to put ourselves in front of the community in the same way that we will be requiring others to do,’” Hikes added. “It’s time for accountability. It’s time for transparency. We have to do better as a community and it’s going to start tonight.”
On the recent ousting of Sharron Cooks as chair
“I never run away from difficult conversations so I’m going to address the elephant in the room,” Hikes said, referring to the recent ousting of Sharron Cooks as chair of the commission.
In a 13-3 vote, the commission removed Cooks from her position after online attacks about another commissioner.
Hikes said Cooks was “not just a commissioner” and referred to her as a “colleague” and a “friend.”
“The decision the commission had to make last week was not one that was taken lightly. It was not work that was done hastily. It was done with so much pain and so much hurt and I want to be clear about that.”
She said that while commissioners asked Cooks to step down from her leadership role, it was never the intention for her to no longer serve on the commission as a general member.
“We are heartbroken but we are prepared to move forward,” Hikes said. “We are prepared to get to the work of this community. It’s very important. I will answer your questions openly and honestly. I promise that. I will not ever speak ill of another community member. I will not speak disparagingly about another community member and I sure as hell will not do it of a black woman.”
Naiymah Sanchez, the transgender-advocacy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, kicked off the Q&A portion. Sanchez asked if a black trans woman will fill the seat vacated when Cooks left the commission.
“Without a doubt, 100 percent,” Hikes said, also noting the commission aims to have more trans women of color.
Commissioner Raquel Saraswati recognized Cooks during a presentation by the Race Relations committee.
“We started this committee with Sharron Cooks as the leader of our committee and she is someone who actually pushed me to take a leadership position in this community,” Saraswati said. “ I want to thank you.”
Cooks, who was in attendance, stood up in the audience and turned around to take a bow in response to applause.
Future collaborations, hotlines and support for sex workers
During the Q&A portion, Hikes answered questions from several community members. She noted that there were Spanish-language interpreters in attendance that night, who will continue to attend future meetings. Additionally, she noted a collaboration with the Office of Disability Services and the planning phases of a hotline for LGBT communities of color. For the latter, communities will be able to report anonymously about crimes affecting LGBT people of color.
When one community member addressed seeing sex work taking place in the streets, some audience members murmured in disapproval.
“I want to make sure we are not speaking disparagingly about sex work,” HIkes said, resulting in applause. “I do understand what you were saying but I want to make sure we are honoring all members of this community —again, safe space. And I understand that you are speaking from your experience but understanding that we have all people represented in this room. Sex work is a reality for folks. We don’t look down on people who participate in sex work and in fact, we empower sex work.
“I see you hearing it, taking it in and responding in that way because this is how it happens,” Hikes continued, addressing the audience member. “This is how change happens.”
Hikes said community conversations will take place again in June and July, urging the audience to keep an eye out on the office’s social-media accounts for more information.
Another first-time event Hikes noted was a Pride Month kickoff being held 3:30-5 p.m. June 8 in the North Apron of City Hall, 1401 John F. Kennedy Blvd. She said the event will include performers, speakers and remarks from Mayor Jim Kenney.
“What’s also exciting is that we’re going to be unveiling a new flag,” Hikes said. “I can’t get into it but it’s going to be a game-changer — a game-changer in this community. I’m incredibly excited about it.”
Additionally, Hikes said the office is developing leadership trainings. This includes a workshop series that readies participants to join the boards of nonprofit organizations. Hikes said the office will work with Independence Business Alliance, William Way LGBT Community Center and Independence Blue Cross. The series will place an emphasis on trans people and people of color.
”It hasn’t been done before,” Hikes said of the workshop series. “It needs to be done and it needs to start here.”
Hikes said the office will also offer trainings in LGBT competency, specifically addressing racism, discrimination and anti-oppression.
“Our community needs it desperately and it’s often difficult to get those trainings for free,” Hikes said. “It’s difficult to access them after you’ve left an educational system. I don’t see them often in the community for people who want to show up and get educated about issues they may not have been educated about before. We are going to provide opportunities for that to happen.”
Hikes noted there is no “blueprint” for the Office of LGBT Affairs.
“We always start the conversation,” Hikes said of Philadelphia. “But understand it’s history in the making and the shockwaves from the city are going to reverberate throughout this country. People are watching us do this. Our youth here are watching us do this. So let’s do it right. Let’s do it with compassion for our fellow community members. Let’s do it with care. Let’s do it with love but let’s do it right.”