Once upon a time, the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs was a force to be reckoned with. Those who remember its earliest years will likely recall images of then-director and firebrand activist Gloria Casarez standing under a rainbow flag, fist and voice raised high, revving up crowds in the name of LGBTQ equality.
She was an energetic, leading presence at local events and marches, and she helped spearhead some of the most important LGBTQ-centric legislation in Philadelphia — namely the 2014 LGBT Equality Bill, which extended unprecedented protections to lesbian, gay and especially transgender citizens.
Marriage equality passed in Pennsylvania in 2014, which, while it may not have been a direct contribution from her office, lent an undeniable air of victory and accomplishment to the time that she served.
The office hasn’t maintained that kind of momentum since Casarez’s untimely passing in 2014. Since then, at least to the casual spectator, the director’s role seems to be more characterized by strategic photo ops and carefully crafted keynotes than on-the-frontlines rabble-rousing – but that may be more a sign of the times than an indication that the office isn’t performing up to speed.
“Once you [pass legislation like the LGBT Equality Bill], there’s not a whole lot of room for additional ones,” said Amber Hikes, who’s served as the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs since March 2017.
With rights like same-sex marriage and, at least in Philadelphia, antidiscrimination protections secured, she said that the office, under the advice of Mayor Jim Kenney, has shifted focus from one that’s dedicated to policy and advocacy to being more rooted in community and engagement – which, Hikes admitted, isn’t always as sexy or headline-worthy.
“The advocacy for [Mayor Kenney] was very important, but he wanted folks in the community to feel like the office is accessible, to feel like they could come up and communicate their concerns, work with us on the issues that they’re experiencing in their communities.”
The bulk of her day-to-day work “is spent out with groups, meeting with external partners, bringing their concerns back and seeing how we can address them from a city-government perspective,” Hikes explained. “The work is pretty constant, but the vast majority happens behind the scenes and it isn’t something you can blast on a newspaper.”
The primary focus of the office at the moment is the LGBTQ Community Leadership Pipeline, a project that hopes to diversify the leadership in Philly’s LGBTQ community, starting with the boards at 12 local nonprofits.
It stemmed from a 2016 Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations report about racism and discrimination in the city’s queer community, which, among other things, found a lack of diversity and representation in local LGBTQ nonprofits.
“As a queer black woman, I know that representation matters. I know that visibility matters. I know that in this city, which is 44-percent African American, it is important for our leadership, especially in a marginalized community, to reflect the people they are serving. Before I leave here, we are going to make sure we dramatically change the leadership in this city.”
She and the office are working with executive directors at local nonprofits like William Way LGBT Community Center, Delaware Valley Legacy Fund and Independence Business Alliance to essentially train about 20 people on issues like finance and public relations so they can go out, with a stipend in hand, and serve on one of 12 local organizational boards.
“We are doing what we can to help nonprofits move in that direction, understanding that everyone is under-resourced and understaffed and really stretched. We are working to step up and help build these bridges to get us moving in the right direction,” Hikes said. “What we’ll be able to see is an immediate change, and then as the project continues we’ll be able to see the demographics of the leadership in our community change significantly.”
Besides that, she is also working on Pride, which this year is marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Hikes said to expect a big rollout of events, beginning with an LGBTQ State of the Union address at the Kimmel Center on June 3.
Some 15-20 city-sponsored Pride events will happen throughout June, including a flag-raising and block party in LOVE Park, movie screenings, discussion panels, the Philly Family Pride Festival and more.
“Since the office started, it’s never been able to do 20 different events for Pride,” Hikes noted.
In the past she hinted about a Safety Task Force to address rising violence in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood, but said that issue may be larger than the LGBTQ community.
“Folks are feeling like the Gayborhood is not as safe as it once was, and they feel that, because it’s happening in the Gayborhood, that LGBTQ folks are being targeted. Frankly, that’s not what we’ve been seeing from any of our data. What we’ve seen around the country is a rise in violence in general, a rise in anger and animosity toward one another — and frankly we see that playing out in any great number of communities.”
Nevertheless, Hikes said she plans to address community concerns, perhaps planning a forum at William Way to talk about self-defense and other ways to keep the neighborhood safe.
“We live in the fifth-largest city in the country, and some of the experiences — with people getting into altercations, getting assaulted, maybe even being robbed — are experiences people have when they live in very large cities. But what we need to be working on is how we can protect each other to better mitigate those situations from impacting us disproportionately.”
She pointed out a string of other accomplishments she’s been involved with since she took over two years ago, such as the black and brown stripes on the rainbow flag and recent legislation that changes language in the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter to be more gender-neutral. But, she added, a lack of staff (there are only two full-time employees in the Office of LGBT Affairs) and a general feel of division in the country affect the pace.
“I often say that no one has had to do this job during war time. Everyone else got to do the job during peacetime. We have not seen the attacks on our community that we have seen during [the Trump] administration,” she said. “It’s a different time to do this work. Anyone who is working in service to marginalized populations — if they have done it for any amount of time — they’d tell you that these last years, since November 2016, have been war time. They have been very trying times.”
Hikes also has had to deal with a community divided within itself, specifically over racial tensions in the Gayborhood. But she’s optimistic about the way things are moving.
“I know it doesn’t always feel that way for folks. But being on the frontlines of it, what I can see, just in the last two years, is that we have started to understand each other a lot better. I’ve seen people start to get it. I feel like we are starting to come together. We look very different and we move very differently than how we did a couple years ago, but we’re getting there.”
So with limited resources and a bickering community to contend with, one has to wonder: Does she actually enjoy the job?
“I didn’t say that. It is a very fulfilling and rewarding job. It is not an easy job. It is without a doubt the hardest work I’ve ever had to do — especially doing it during this time. I took over in March of 2017 and the feeling in the country was very different two years ago, and certainly the feeling in the community. It is a necessary job — and at times it’s enjoyable — but usually it is fulfilling and it is necessary.”