Photo courtesy Elicia Gonzales
Nearly 400 people filled a meeting room in the Chinatown section of the city – and then two overflow rooms – for a hearing hosted by The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR) to address issues of racial discrimination in the gayborhood.
“There’s a few more people than we expected,” acknowledged Rue Landau, Executive Director of the PCHR, and she asked for patience and cooperation as the room was rearranged and overflow rooms were set-up to accommodate the crowd.
PCHR reached out to individuals, stakeholders, and community activists and groups to attend and submit testimony, and many complied, giving emotional recounts of their experiences as queer black and brown members of the community. Government officials, including Mayor Jim Kenney and Nellie Fitzpatrick, Director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, were also in attendance. Gayborhood bar owners were subpoenaed by PCHR to be in attendance, as well.
The hearing got off to a rocky start, as Landau acknowledged that the police were not allowing some people upstairs to the meeting, some of whom were supposed to testify. Asa Khalif, head of the Pennsylvania chapter of Black Lives Matter, echoed this message, stating that the police were keeping black and brown people out.
When Thomas Earle, chair of the Commission of Human Relations, took the mic to call the meeting to order, he stated that he wished to clear the record that the police were not keeping black and brown people out, it was simply a matter of capacity, and those who weren’t able to get upstairs should “try to get here a little earlier.” He was met with boos and demands to respect those in attendance.
Earle proceeded to read a written statement about the Commission, their purpose, and the purpose of this hearing and then turned it back over to Landau to begin to call the various community members up to testify.
Over the next two hours, community activists and members of all ages—mostly Black and Latin@—testified regarding their emotionally (and sometimes physically) jarring experiences of being discriminated against in the gayborhood by police, bouncers, bartenders, businesses, organizations, and other community members because of their race.
The second speaker called to testify, Sandy Smith, an LGBT elder in the community, recounted his experience of putting together a task force more than 30 years ago to tackle these same allegations of racism in gayborhood bars, and throughout the evening, other more senior members of the LGBTQ community expressed their hurt and anger that we are still having these same conversations in 2016.
Though a large focus of the evening was on racism in bars, non-profits who serve the LGBTQ community were also called out for racially discriminatory practices:
“For far too long, we’ve been silent about non-profit structures built to support us, that actually diminish us,” said Hazel Edwards, the city’s transgender youth commissioner and member of the Justice League at the Attic’s Bryson Institute. “Even as a client, I walk into these nonprofits that claim to support me, and yet the leadership doesn’t reflect me. The programming options only reflect the parts of me that are well-funded though the city.”
Only one bar in the gayborhood read a statement, and that was Tabu Lounge & Sports Bar. A message from bar owner Jeffrey Sotland was read by the bar’s general manager, as Sotland could not attend in person. “What I promise for myself on behalf of Tabu – we will always stand by our commitment to the community to provide a safe and fun space welcoming to everyone,” the statement read in part.
While one community member thanked the bar owners for attending last night’s hearing, Asa Khalif reminded the audience that they didn’t have much of a choice in being there:
“First of all, the bar owners didn’t do us any justice by coming – they were subpoenaed to come,” said Khalif. “So let’s not have a kumbaya moment – let’s just keep it the f*ck real. I know half of you racist mothaf*ckers don’t even want to be here, and we will call you out for what it is.”
Another speaker, Malcolm Kenyatta—member engagement coordinator for the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, a Clinton delegate for the 2nd District, and community activist—stated that he’s tired of going to these types of forums, though he made an exception for last night: “Black people don’t need a forum – I don’t need bias training – it’s for my white friends,” said Kenyatta. “The next step of this isn’t necessarily filing something with the Human Relations Commission – though we should. But what do I file about the hundred cuts of subtle racism that we have to endure every single day? What do I file when I go to the bar, and the bartender looks at me, and then goes to someone else? What do I file?”
He went on to implore white people to use their white privilege to enact change since not a single bar in the gayborhood is actually owned by a person of color:
“If you are here, and you have privilege – I don’t hate you for your privilege, but I judge you for how you use it.”
Sappho Fulton, who runs Thug Divaz Entertainment (TDzE), expressed feeling invisible in the gayborhood as a lesbian-identified woman of color . “We’ve become afraid to speak up in these spaces,” she said, but is speaking out because “my silence will not protect me.”
Over the coming days, PCHR will accept submissions related to last night’s hearing. Testimonials about racism in the gayborhood will be used to create a full report for the city, and people with complaints are encouraged to submit their stories via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, in person at 601 Walnut St., Ste. 300, or by phone at 215-686-4670.
For those who couldn’t attend, PhillyGayCalendar.com provided a live stream of the event, which is available to re-watch below: