Top Stories 2017

Top Stories 2017

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This year has presented its fair share of challenges. Since the inauguration, President Donald Trump has attempted to roll back several LGBT rights throughout the country all while Philadelphia experienced its own unique struggles — from leadership shakeups to community protests.

However, with each setback, the community has also taken some positive steps forward. This includes an assortment of LGBT firsts, city initiatives and steps toward racial inclusion.

Let’s take a look back at the highlights of the past year. 

RACE AND INCLUSION

City adds brown, black stripes to Pride flag

Philadelphia made international news last summer when it unveiled its updated LGBT Pride flag, which features black and brown stripes. The design was chosen to reflect the city’s commitment to racial equality. 

The flag debuted at the annual Pride flag-raising ceremony in June at Philadelphia City Hall. The effort was a collaboration between the Office of LGBT Affairs, helmed by director Amber Hikes, and advertising agency Tierney.

A number of local people of color participated in the flag-raising ceremony as performers and speakers.

The development followed several months of community discussions about racism in the LGBT community.

Hikes told PGN that the revamped flag “is a step toward healing for our community and this genuine unity that so many of us are saying we want.” 

PCHR releases findings on Gayborhood racism

Three months after a history-making city hearing on racism in the LGBT community, the host organization released a report addressing the issue and offering recommendations.

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The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations held a press conference Jan. 23 to release its long-awaited findings stemming from the October 2016 hearing. The report identified that LGBT people of color, women and transgender people often feel unsafe in the Gayborhood; that racism and discrimination have been longstanding in the community; that some Gayborhood businesses have operated practices that substantiated reports of racism and discrimination; and that current and former employees of some LGBT social-services agencies have reported patterns of discrimination about their organizations’ employment practices. 

PCHR went on to mandate training for owners and staff at Gayborhood bars, as well as at Mazzoni Center and Philadelphia FIGHT, on the city’s nondiscrimination law and the concept of implicit bias; to recommend such training for other community nonprofits; to recommend leadership-development training by Independence Business Alliance for prospective board members at local LGBT organizations; and to mandate that city-funded nonprofits comply with nondiscrimination policies.

Both Mazzoni Center and FIGHT said in statements to PGN that their organizations were happy to undergo training but suggested the agencies were being singled out, and that their leadership was not contacted during the lead-up to the report’s release. Others suggested the bar training should have been expanded to non-LGBT-focused venues in the area. 

“This was a long process and a lot of work, but in the end, we’ve created a report with additional resources that encompass what we need to do to reduce or eliminate racism and discrimination in the LGBT community,” Landau said. 

Intersectionality addressed at national LGBT conference in Philly  

Thousands of LGBT people converged on Philadelphia in January for the annual Creating Change conference, where the topic of intersectionality was raised in a number of panels, as well as through a protest. 

A daylong Racial Justice Institute opened the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual conference, and more than 250 people later participated in the Latinx Institute

On Jan. 20, about 100 protesters staged a demonstration at the host hotel, saying conference organizers had not done enough to make the event accessible to trans people of color. Protesters urged organizers to donate a portion of conference registration costs to organizations led by trans women of color; implement a low-cost registration fee for students, and low-income and disabled people; and provide free registration for low-income trans people of color.

“If you are not centering the people who are most impacted by state-sanctioned violence, you are sending the message of violence,” said Maxwell Isaac, a co-organizer of the protest.

Task Force Deputy Executive Director Russell Roybal told PGN about half of the participants pay discounted registration fees; those under 18 and over 65 can enter for free; and the organization provides community-housing options for conference attendees.

TRUMP FALLOUT 

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LGBT community sees rights rolled back

Almost as soon as Donald Trump was inaugurated, LGBT rights took a hit.

In February, Trump’s administration dropped its defense of Obama-era guidance that allowed students at federally funded schools to use facilities consistent with their gender identity, later doing away with that order all together. That move threw a case filed by Virginia student Gavin Grimm off course; it had been fast-tracked for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Among the president’s many executive orders at the start of his term was one that repealed a directive that banned LGBT discrimination among federal contractors. Throughout the year, LGBT supporters feared a promised “religious-liberty” order, which came to fruition in May; Trump’s order essentially tasked Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a very vocal opponent of LGBT rights — of prioritizing religious liberty throughout the administration. That move was followed in October with a 20-point memo by Sessions’ Justice Department that essentially grants a “license to discriminate” to both public and private citizens based on their religious beliefs. 

In the summer, Trump took to Twitter to announce he intended to ban military service by transgender individuals, following that pledge with formal guidance; however, courts have shot down that move. 

A sea of anti-LGBT officials also joined the administration; besides Sessions, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Health and Human Services head Tom Price are among the highest-ranking LGBT opponents.

Pride rescheduled for National March 

Organizers of Philadelphia Pride pushed this year’s festivities back one week to enable locals to participate in a national event.

The Equality March for Unity and Pride was modeled after the Women’s March, which saw millions of women and allies taking to the streets the weekend after Trump was inaugurated. The LGBT-themed event was slated to be held in Washington, D.C., on June 11, the same day the local Pride festival had been scheduled. 

In February, Philly Pride Presents announced it was going to push its event back one week to enable local participation in the national event. 

“It was a decision that we never wanted to make but it was a decision to save the Philadelphia Pride Parade and Festival and OutFest,” said Franny Price, executive director of Philly Pride Presents, which coordinates the June and October events.

The rescheduled date ended up being on Father’s Day. Price reported that the conflict did not affect attendance, although she said it did impact parade participation.

LGBT issues integral to local protests

LGBTs and allies participated in a sea of local protests this year. 

An impromptu protest erupted outside the Municipal Services Building the day of Trump’s inauguration, with a number of participants carrying rainbow and trans-Pride flags. The next day, there was a strong LGBT presence at the Jan. 21 local Women’s March, which drew about 50,000 to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Trump himself visited Philadelphia for a national Republican gathering the next week and was met with sharp backlash. A huge rainbow flag bearing the inscription “Republican Hate Kills” was among the thousands of banners carried through daylong protests in Center City Jan. 26. That night, LGBTs and allies gathered in the middle of Market Street for a queer dance party; guests at the GOP convention could be seen watching from the windows of the Loews Hotel as thousands converged with rainbow flags, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.” 

The local LGBT community took the lead on a demonstration in February, when news of a potential religious-freedom order broke. About 500 people marched through Center City, led by Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club, to protest the move and other anti-LGBT developments.

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A number of Tuesdays with Toomey demonstrations, which originated to urge Sen. Pat Toomey to meet with his constituents, focused on LGBT equality, including a Valentine’s Day protest that drew 500. Toomey was also the target of a June demonstration organized by ACT UP and other groups to call on the senator to oppose the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

COMMUNITY SHAKE-UPS 

Massive changes afoot at Mazzoni Center

It was a year of allegations and evolutions at Mazzoni Center.

In April, the Mazzoni board placed Medical Director Dr. Robert Winn on leave amid allegations that he had inappropriate sexual contact with patients; he submitted his resignation days later. Almost immediately, calls were renewed for longtime CEO Nurit Shein to step down; she had increasingly come under fire for what critics said were racist policies at the agency, and the timeline surrounding her knowledge of the allegations against Winn was also questioned. 

A few days after Winn’s departure, about 60 Mazzoni employees, organized by its front-line staff, staged a walkout of a staff event, calling for Shein to step down. Mazzoni leadership initially expressed confidence in Shein, but days later the organization issued a statement saying the board had asked for the resignations of Shein and board president Dr. Jimmy Ruiz. In an exclusive interview with PGN, Shein contended she did not resign, but rather was terminated.

The shakeup happened weeks before the agency’s annual Elixir gala, which it cancelled, and its planned springtime move to its new headquarters on Bainbridge Street, which proceeded. The agency appointed Stephen Glassman as its interim CEO in the summer and Dr. Nancy Brisbon as its new medical director. In October, the agency revamped its board leadership and eligibility requirements for board members. The organization continues its search for a permanent CEO. 

At a community forum in August, leaders of the front-line staff announced their intention to explore unionizing; the following month, 60 percent of eligible employees voted to move forward with a union agreement through SEIU Healthcare PA.

Fitzpatrick out, Hikes in at Office of LGBT Affairs

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After several months of protests about her handling of racial tensions in the LGBT community and other issues, Nellie Fitzpatrick was asked to step down as director of the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs in February. Amber Hikes was announced as the new director Feb. 13.

Fitzpatrick told PGN the mayor intended to take the office in a more “outward-facing” direction.

Hikes said she was “eager to serve my community during this pivotal time by increasing the accessibility of the office, listening to community members and implementing initiatives to serve LGBTQ Philadelphians more efficiently and effectively.” Hikes has since overseen the seating of the inaugural Commission on LGBT Affairs, instituted monthly Community Conversations and revamped the city’s Pride flag to address racial diversity.

Fitzpatrick had been in the position for about two years, following the death of inaugural director Gloria Casarez. After departing the city post, Fitzpatrick started her own law firm.

Several groups, led by the Black & Brown Workers Collective, had been calling for her removal amid ongoing allegations of racism in the community, which critics said Fitzpatrick failed to adequately handle. Prior to asking her to step down in February, Mayor Jim Kenney issued a number of statements expressing confidence in Fitzpatrick.

LGBT commission launches 

After many months of planning, the inaugural Commission on LGBT Affairs was unveiled in March. The initial group included 23 members, 21 of whom were present for a City Hall press conference before their first meeting. 

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“This body represents the diversity of our city, as well as the many voices and experiences in the LGBT community,” Mayor Jim Kenney said at the press conference about the commission. 

In April, the commission elected Sharron Cooks, Jason Evans and Libby Peters as chair, treasurer and secretary, respectively. About six weeks later, the commission voted 13-3 to oust Cooks from the leadership role; Cooks later stepped down from the commission. City officials told PGN they had fielded a number of complaints from commission members that Cooks’ social-media postings created an “unwelcoming environment.” In a statement to G Philly, Cooks contended she was the target of racist attacks. 

Cooks was in attendance at the Office of LGBT Affairs’ first Community Conversation in June, during which her ousting was addressed.

“We are heartbroken but we are prepared to move forward,” director Hikes said.

COURT NEWS

Two guilty pleas in murder of trans woman 

Two people were sentenced to prison this year for the murder of local trans woman Maya Young. 

Young was stabbed to death in February 2016 and authorities charged Tiffany Floyd and Jose Pena with her murder. In a statement after her arrest, Floyd said she believed Young had “cast a spell” on her boyfriend and she asked Pena to help kill her. Pena contended the three smoked crack at a local park and then Floyd stabbed Young, who attempted to escape before Pena delivered the final stab wound, prosecutors said 

In February, Tiffany Floyd pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, conspiracy and a weapons charge. She was sentenced in November to eight-20 years in prison and will also undergo drug rehabilitation, mental-health treatment and educational and vocational training. During sentencing, Judge Kathryn Lewis told Floyd that, once she returned to the community, her “guilt will live with [her] forever.”

Pena initially rejected a plea agreement but, shortly after jury selection for his trial in August, changed course and pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, conspiracy and a weapons charge. Judge Sandy Byrd sentenced him to 40-80 years in prison for Young’s murder and an unrelated murder case.

Cosby case ends in hung jury 

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Norristown was at the center of national attention last summer as actor and comedian Bill Cosby stood trial for allegedly sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, a lesbian former Temple University employee.

Constand took the stand during the June trial at Montgomery County Courthouse and testified that Cosby gave her pills that he told her would relax her during a 2004 visit to his Elkins Park home. Soon after, her vision blurred and she became unable to move. Constand said Cosby groped her genitals and forced her hand onto his penis. 

Her sexual orientation was not addressed at the trial.

More than 50 other women have come forward with similar accusations, and several testified during the six-day trial. However, after 50 hours of deliberations, the jury ultimately wasn’t able to reach a verdict. 

Judge Steven O’Neill declared a mistrial June 17. Montgomery County prosecutors summarily refiled charges, and Cosby is set for a retrial in April. 

Trans-inclusive district sees win

The Boyertown Area School District won a preliminary victory in its efforts to maintain its trans-inclusive student policies.

The district, in Berks County, was sued in March by four cisgender students who contend their privacy rights were violated by having to share a locker room with a trans-male student.

In August, a federal judge allowed the district to keep in place its rule that allows students to use the facilities consistent with their gender identity as the case wends its way through the courts. The plaintiffs — represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom and Independence Law Center, which have histories of litigating antigay cases — appealed the summer ruling and are still seeking to have the policy overturned.

The American Civil Liberties Union is representing the district, along with a trans student who joined the case; Pennsylvania Youth Congress intervened and is representing the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.

STARTS AND STOPS

LGBT youth-housing project gets green light

Project HOME broke ground on an LGBT-friendly youth residence Dec. 6, after legal issues threatened to derail the project earlier this year. 

The homeless-resource nonprofit announced late last year that it intended to construct 30 units of LGBT-inclusive housing for young adults at 1315 N. Eighth St., the site of the defunct Girard Medical Center. However, North Philadelphia Health System, which owned the land slated for development, declared bankruptcy in December 2016.

NPHS sought to halt the sale agreement it had with Project HOME to ensure it was maximizing its assets. A judge in July OK’d a bidding war for the land and, at a bankruptcy hearing the following month, NPHS selected Ironstone Real Estate Partners’ $8-million bid; as part of the deal, Project HOME would pay $1.75 million for two parcels: one for the young-adult residence and the second for a future LGBT-friendly building for adults and youth.

In the fall, Project HOME announced it will name the youth facility the Gloria Casarez Residences in tribute to the late local leader, who was a vocal advocate for LGBT youth and homeless communities.

Trans man runs for Philly judgeship

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Henry Sias sought to become the nation’s first trans-male judge this year. 

The local attorney and first-time candidate threw his hat in the ring for the May primary, vying for one of nine seats on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. At the time, transgender women were serving on the bench in California and Texas, but Sias would have been the first trans-identified man to win a judgeship. He is believed to have been only the second-ever out transgender candidate to seek elected office in Philadelphia, and the first trans man.

“To the trans community, that would mean the world,” Sias told PGN in March of a potential win. “We’re not used to that feeling of people considering us equally.”

Sias received the backing of Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club and other organizations. However, he placed 14th out of 31 candidates, being edged out for one of the top-nine spots by just about 5,000 votes. He received a total of 30,959 votes.

Philly Pride Presents recognized Sias in the summer as one of its Pride grand marshals.

Bridal shop turns away lesbian couple

The owner of a wedding-dress shop, who had come under fire in the past for antigay views, turned away a local lesbian couple in the summer.

Shannon Kennedy and Julie Ann Samanas said the incident happened July 8 at W.W. Bridal Boutique in Bloomsburg, two-and-a-half hours north of Philadelphia. The West Pittston couple visited the shop looking for a dress for Samanas for their March 2018 wedding. 

Once the couple filled out the intake form and corrected the “groom” language to read “bride,” the shop owner inquired if the dress was for a same-sex wedding; when they affirmed, she said her family are Christians and “we don’t believe in that.” 

After the couple went public with their story, the shop posted a Facebook status saying its owners “reserve the rights afforded to them by the First Amendment of the Constitution to live out our lives according to our faith.” The post was quickly taken down. The owners, Victoria Miller and Jeremy Stabler, faced backlash in 2014 for a similar incident, in which they refused to schedule an appointment for a lesbian couple.

Despite the negative encounter, Kennedy and Samanas said they received a lot of support.

“We had about 300 shares of our [Facebook] post, and I think we only saw two negative things,” Kennedy told PGN.

PROGRESS IN PHILLY

City bans conversion therapy for minors

In a unanimous vote in June, Philadelphia City Council moved to ban conversion therapy for minors. Mayor Jim Kenney signed the legislation the following month.

All leading psychological and medical associations have debunked the practice, in which therapists and other mental-health practitioners aim to change a patient’s sexual orientation.

Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes the Gayborhood, introduced the legislation late last year.

“We look at [conversion therapy] as a form of abuse, and I believed that, as a progressive city [like] Philadelphia, we would take the forefront and not permit it to happen,” Squilla told PGN.

The full Council vote came weeks after a committee also unanimously moved the legislation forward. Violators face a potential fine of $2,000 and the revocation of their commercial license; repeat offenders could be subject to a minimum $1,000 fine and/or up to 90 days in prison. 

Allentown also unanimously adopted a ban on conversion therapy a few weeks after Philadelphia. Pittsburgh became the first city in the state to ban conversion therapy in 2016.

Nondiscrimination law strengthened

The city’s nondiscrimination law got some added teeth last spring. 

In May, Philadelphia City Council unanimously approved a bill, introduced by Councilman Derek Green in 2016, to expand the penalties for violating the LGBT-inclusive Fair Practices Ordinance. Mayor Kenney signed the measure shortly after.

The legislation gives the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations the authority to issue cease-and-desist orders to businesses that are found to have violated the ordinance. 

Green told PGN he introduced the legislation after attending the fall 2016 PCHR hearing on racism in the LGBT community.

His legislative director, Frank Iannuzzi, added that the “hope is that the more significant penalty being added on — at a time when attention has returned to this ongoing issue of discrimination — that businesses [will] take the opportunity to be proactive about addressing not just explicit discrimination but also latent and inadvertent discrimination, both among their employees and at the level of their business practices.”

First-time resolution honors trans visibility

The day before International Transgender Day of Visibility, Philadelphia City Council adopted a resolution to honor the occasion; marking the first time the city issued such a formal recognition.

Councilwoman Helen Gym introduced the resolution March 30 and it was swiftly and unanimously adopted.

“The trans community has been very visible and powerful, working on a number of different issues, such as how the community is valued in our city establishments,” Gym told PGN. “I was thinking how we could do something to show more support and this [resolution] came up.”

The measure highlighted a number of pioneering trans leaders like Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major and Marsha P. Johnson, while recognizing that many more trans community members have “bravely overcome significant hardships to build vibrant and thriving communities, often in the face of systemic and interpersonal prejudice, discrimination and violence.”


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