For Pride Month, the city of Philadelphia unveiled a new official pride flag giving the rainbow an inclusive update by adding black and brown stripes. The flag was created by the Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs’ More Color, More Pride campaign and is meant to symbolize the city’s inclusion of people of color in the LGBTQ community.
The city’s new flag reveal the change is not fully embraced by everyone.
In major cities like Philadelphia, the gay-friendly bar scene serves as a safe haven and sanctuary for members of the LGBTQ community. Yet that safety and sanctuary are not always extended to people of color, who can experience discrimination, racism, and exclusion in LGBTQ spaces.
In Philadelphia, for example, the issue received attention when a video surfaced in September showing the white owner of a popular nightclub called iCandy using the N-word repeatedly in reference to the nightclub’s black customers. The event became a tipping point that led to a commission hearing where numerous Philadelphians reported discriminatory policies being applied to patrons of color in Philadelphia’s downtown gay neighborhood, called the Gayborhood by locals.
Gayborhood racism was first officially reported in a May 1986 publication produced by the Coalition on Lesbian-Gay Bar Policies. The report said that “racism and sexism live on in Philadelphia’s lesbian and gay community. A visit to any of our bars will confirm this sad fact.”
Today, local LGBTQ organizations, city officials, and activists are working to address the discrimination that’s persisted through the decades.
Here are three ways these groups are working to make LGBTQ spaces more inclusive in Philadelphia.
Strengthening anti-discrimination laws
On Thursday, Mayor Jim Kenney signed an amendment to a city ordinance that will penalize discriminatory businesses. The legislation will strengthen the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations’ authority to order the temporary closure of a business should the commission find it has been unlawfully discriminating.
“The law needs to fit the severity of the crime.”
It’s the type of ordinance the city can use to order the owners of bars like iCandy to cease operations.
Councilman Derek Green sponsored the amendment.
“We felt this was a stronger piece of legislation offering a bigger penalty if any business happens to be discriminating against members of our city or anyone visiting,” said Green.
Ernest Owens said he believes stronger legislation like the amendment is necessary. Owens is a queer black man who has written about his experience with segregation in the Gayborhood and what he thinks might be done to address it. “Discrimination is a serious event,” he said. “The law needs to fit the severity of the crime and be more than a slap on the wrist.”
A seat at the table
The Gayborhood is more than a home to a vibrant bar scene. It also has a thriving collection of nonprofit organizations working on LGBTQ advocacy issues.
Yet while Philadelphia has a large African American population (43 percent), many nonprofit boards in the Gayborhood are primarily composed of white members. These nonprofits receive funding from the city and outside grants to address issues particular to the LGBTQ community, such as HIV. According to the city’s Department of Health, black Philadelphians are contracting HIV at higher rates than any other racial group.
“Simply put, the Gayborhood nonprofit leadership do not reflect the community it serves.”
“Simply put, the Gayborhood nonprofit leadership do not reflect the community it serves,” said Owens. When asked what can be done about it, Owens said the Gayborhood needs to stop hiring exclusively within white social circles and recruit the qualified and talented black members of the city.
“We cannot expect to represent a diversity of experiences and viewpoints when marginalized populations do not have a seat at the table,” said Amber Hikes, the executive director of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Hikes said her office is working with LGBTQ nonprofits that are interested in restructuring their bylaws to promote representation.
Green said he wasn’t sure that board representation could be addressed using city law.
But he added that one move might be to withhold state and federal allocations of health and human services dollars to Gayborhood nonprofits that work on HIV-related issues but do not make any attempt to racially reflect the community they serve. Green described next year’s budgeting process as an opportune time for city council to address the racial makeup of board leadership in the Gayborhood.
The rainbow gets new colors
The addition of black and brown stripes to Philadelphia’s pride flag is in part the result of the efforts of organizers who pushed for a change in leadership at the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs.
After what they perceived as “a lack of attention” from the Office of LGBT Affairs following the reports of anti-black incidents in LGBTQ spaces, organizers from The Black and Brown Workers Collective demanded the Office address racism.
“At least it’s apparent how much work there remains.”
And in March, the former executive director of the Office of LGBT Affairs resigned and was replaced by Amber Hikes, a queer woman of color. A few months into the job, Hikes unveiled the More Color, More Pride campaign and its symbolic black and brown stripe additions to the pride flag.
Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a member of The Black and Brown Workers Collective, helped push for better leadership from the Office of LGBT Affairs. He said he knew the city’s new flag would be controversial. But he also recalls feeling “the euphoria in the crowd of people [at the unveiling of the More Color, More Pride flag] for the first time seeing themselves represented in a flag they previously did not see themselves in.”
At worst, the city’s pride flag stripe additions have prompted negative comments online. But Muhammad sees the silver lining in these reactions. “At least it’s apparent how much work there remains,” he said.