Amber Hikes moved from Philadelphia to California in 2015. While she found her place as director of the Upward Bound program, Hikes ultimately moved back home to take on a new role: Director of the Office of LGBT Affairs.
Hikes came into the position during a time of racial tension in the city’s LGBT community. This included the owner of ICandy using the N-word in a leaked video the previous October.
The new director spoke at a press conference in March to introduce herself to the community. During the presentation, Hikes said the audience may have felt a range of emotions in regard to the LGBT community’s relationship with city government.
Hikes ensured the crowd that she would stand by their side.
“For those of you who have not felt like you’ve been heard, I hear you,” Hikes said. “For those of you who haven’t been seen, I see you. For those of you who haven’t had a seat at the table, I say pull up a chair. Because in truth, we need all of the voices in this conversation. We need all of us.”
The new director noted the importance of uniting during these circumstances.
“We owe it to ourselves to come together and to fight for a better tomorrow for all LGBTQ Philadelphians. So let’s get to work.”
And then she got to work.
A more “outward-facing” office
“Amber’s impact to the city and our LGBT community has proven to be invaluable and immense,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement to PGN. “Amber returned to our city during challenging times and took up the mantle of leadership with equal parts grace and grit. She’s a superstar and the city is blessed to have her on our team.”
After the Mayor’s Office announced Hikes would take on the post, city spokesperson Ajeenah Amir told PGN that “there was a very vocal need for someone to be more outward-facing and more community-engagement-based.”
One of Hikes’ first forays into creating this type of office was through a “Pop-Up Love Party.” The Office of LGBT Affairs, along with several other community organizations, hosted a demonstration in March to counteract the messages of an anti-trans bus tour. Three conservative groups — The National Organization for Marriage, the International Organization for the Family and CitizenGo — sponsored an orange bus painted with male and female stickers along with the message: “Boys are boys.. and always will be. Girls are girls.. and always will be. You can’t change sex. Respect all.”
“We feel it is principally important to center the voices, experiences and narratives of trans people at this event,” Hikes told PGN prior to the event. “Too often, cisgender people take front stage when it comes to trans issues. While it is essential to support the trans community, we encourage people to be intentional about their efforts. At this event, we ask cisgender people to show their support and solidarity with our trans siblings with signs and their physical presence.”
Hikes also demonstrated allyship for the trans community after President Donald Trump unleashed a tweetstorm with his intent to ban transgender people from serving in the military. The Office of LGBT Affairs hosted a demonstration in front of City Hall, featuring speeches and presentations from LGBT veterans.
“We are here for one purpose only and that’s to wrap our loving arms around our trans brothers, sisters and siblings,” Hikes said at the August demonstration. “I ask that we take the time to lift each other up, show all the love that we can and listen to the voices of our servicemembers and our veterans. Today, we need to make sure that love is louder than hate.”
Hikes also demonstrated her outward-facing approach through Community Conversations. So far, the Office of LGBT Affairs has hosted three of these forums. In the first event, held in May, Hikes demonstrated to more than 200 attendees that she is not afraid of difficult conversations.
Prior to the event, the commission removed Sharron Cooks from her chair position due to her unwelcome social-media posts. While the decision was met with controversy, that did not stop Hikes from going on with the event as scheduled.
“It’s time for accountability,” she said during her presentation. “It’s time for transparency. We have to do better as a community and it’s going to start tonight.”
Hikes did not waste time addressing what she called “the elephant in the room.” She said the decision to remove Cooks the previous week was not “taken lightly,” adding that “it was done with so much pain and so much hurt.”
“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.”
Barrett Marshall, a co-chair for the Commission on LGBT Affairs, noted Hikes’ ability to discuss challenging topics.
“People appreciate how direct she is and that she is willing to discuss difficult topics in a generous way,” Marshall said. “She holds a very important position, but is down-to-earth, approachable and gracious.”
Later on at the event, a community member spoke about seeing “prostitution” taking place in the Gayborhood. After audience members murmured in disapproval of his comments, Hikes responded to his concerns while also addressing the comment.
“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. And I understand that you are speaking from your experience but understand 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.”
Afterward, she pointed out the individual nodding in agreement.
“I see you hearing it, taking it in and responding in that way because this is how it happens,” Hikes said. “This is how change happens.”
Race and inclusion
A subsequent Community Conversation focused on controversies within the Mazzoni Center. While she did attend and provide brief remarks, Hikes took a backseat during this forum as it allowed former and current Mazzoni staff to voice their frustrations.
The most recent Conversation centered on race and inclusion, marking one year since the fall 2016 Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations hearing on racism in the city’s LGBT community. Hikes and PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau discussed the progress their offices have made in the past year.
Hikes testified in support of a bill in April to give PCHR more teeth against businesses that discriminate. Councilman Derek S. Green introduced the bill the previous year after the fall hearing, and after hearing informal stories about racism and discrimination in the LGBT community. The bill, which has since been signed by the mayor, gives PCHR authority to issue cease-and-desist orders to organizations with records of discrimination.
Landau said that even though Hikes only started her work in the Office of LGBT Affairs a few weeks before that testimony, the new director proved herself to be an ally nonetheless.
“Even though she was very new to her position, she had already proven to me to be a teammate to help resolve issues of racism and discrimination in the community.”
Asa Khalif, head of the Pennsylvania chapter of Black Lives Matter, also testified in support of Green’s bill. He met Hikes for the first time at this meeting.
“I was pleased that she was very welcoming, very open,” Khalif said. “She actually heard what I was saying. I’ve only known her for a very short time but based on every time we’ve been in each other’s presence, there has always been love and respect and I appreciate it.”
Another initiative Hikes helped spearhead, along with local advertising agency Tierney, gained national attention — the addition of black and brown stripes to the rainbow flag. The new flag expanded on creator Gilbert Baker’s original design to symbolize racial diversity within the LGBT community.
“The new design is a symbolic representation of Philadelphia’s commitment to centering the experiences, contributions, activism and dedication of black and brown members of our community,” Hikes told PGN in an exclusive interview prior to the flag’s unveiling. “To me, this flag says: ‘We see you. We honor you. We celebrate you. You’re not just a part of us. You are us.’”
While some applauded the addition of the new stripes, other community members expressed disapproval. Landau said Hikes was “skillful and adept” at shutting down these conversations.
“Amber received thousands of explicit and implicit racist responses to the addition of the black and brown stripes on Philadelphia’s rainbow flag,” Landau said. “She responded to each email and post in a way that wasn’t antagonistic, but instead highlighted the bias or racism and actually encouraged dialogue.”
While Hikes has proven to be more community-focused, she has also helped coordinate inward-facing policy work. This includes serving on the search committee for Mazzoni’s new medical director.
Back in June, she also testified in support of Councilman Mark Squilla’s bill to ban conversion therapy for minors. She noted research that has found a risk for substance abuse, depression and suicide among individuals exposed to the controversial practice. She also said the “archaic form of treatment is based on the abhorrent ideology that same-sex attraction and behavior is a chosen abnormality and is inherently wrong.”
“After 40 years of this harmful practice, there remains no evidence that efforts to alter sexual orientation are effective, beneficial or necessary,” Hikes said. “There is only evidence to suggest harm.”
The Committee on Public Health and Human Services ultimately approved the legislation, which the mayor has since signed.
She has also done some behind-the-scenes work with Morris Home, a drug and alcohol recovery center for trans and gender-variant individuals. Residents, one employee and unrelated individuals reported attacks in July involving firecrackers, an M-80 and paintball guns. Under Hikes’ leadership, the Office of LGBT Affairs worked closely with the Philadelphia Police Department and Morris Home residents to investigate the incidents and increase safety.
Hikes has a degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania and Landau noted how that is “an incredible gift for all of us.”
“Amber is a great listener and people [feel] that if there is anything she can do for them, she will do it,” Landau said. “She will connect the person to resources. She will help set up appointments. She will take on an issue and bring it to another city department or agency to say, ‘I think we have a problem here, what can we do about it?’”
Khalif said Hikes also created a welcoming environment for others.
“She had an open-door policy, not only to me, but also to other activists. That was really important that we knew we could call upon her with issues of concern.”
Looking to the future
Hikes’ office is developing a leadership pipeline series with Independence Business Alliance and William Way LGBT Community Center to address the lack of representation on boards and organizations. The initiative is tentatively set to launch in the spring, Hikes said at October’s Community Conversation.
“What we will be doing as a community is providing opportunities for historically marginalized groups — people of color, trans folks, youth and elders — and making sure that they have the skills and resources they need to serve on these boards, serve in upper-level management and actually have a voice and a seat at the table in a way that they haven’t before,” Hikes said.
Khalif shared positivity for what would come next for the director.
“Everything that she said she would do coming into this job, she has kept her word.”
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