Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gay Businesses Come Out

Philadelphia's impression outside Philadelphia leaves a lot to be desired. That's fine. We're Philadelphians. We're used to it, and we usually get a laugh out of the hate. We might be America's best kept secret. 

You think Philadelphia is that bad? Well, visit, then we can talk.

Nestled between DC and New York, too few bother to see what we're all about. I've had friends back in Virginia ask, "isn't it kind of a big Baltimore?" While I'd prefer "a small New York," Baltimore is nothing to scoff at, kind of like a DC cupcake with more icing and sprinkles.

But this isn't about Baltimore, New York, or DC.

This is about Philadelphia, and how all inclusively awesome we've become. On my way to Home Depot a woman in a burka was tailgating me. As much as her road rage annoyed me, I had an "a ha" moment, realizing she'd likely be profiled in New York, stopped and harassed for more than just a minor traffic violation.

Here, we're free to be. While our grab bag of religious, ethnic, racial, cultural, economic, and societal differences often sparks lively, sometimes offensively charged debates on message boards and blogs, we're free to practice what we want, how we want, and with whom we want.

About a year ago, the Human Rights Campaign placed Philadelphia at the top of its municipal equality index of LGBT equality. With Pennsylvania yet to legalize gay marriage, it says a lot that our municipality received a perfect score, with several bonus points that put us above San Francisco and New York.

This may come as no surprise to us. After all, our city is the only in the United States to brand its Gayborhood with rainbow street signs the way many designate their Chinatowns and Little Italys.

A night out in the Gayborhood might leave visitors wondering why. The "gay scene" in Philadelphia isn't as wild as smaller cities like DC or Portland. With about ten gay bars, some rarely crowded, you might think that Philadelphia is about as gay as least if you base inclusiveness solely on our ability to segregate where we drink.

That is where Philadelphia shines. Unlike conservative cities that isolate their gay bars and use them as defacto community centers, we need neither isolation nor therapy from a pint glass. America no longer calculates a city's gayness by its collection of gay bars, and Philadelphia helped make that happen.

We're integrated into mainstream society. Instead of sending a liaison to Harrisburg to help instruct our local Congress on issues in the community, we elected a gay Congressman, the first openly gay Congressman elected in the country.

While City Hall has embraced the gay community as much as any other, until recently the gay community has been relatively invisible on the street. In fact virtually every gay owned business in Washington Square West is fortressed behind a windowless façade.

As one of the first gay businesses to open its windows to the street, Uncles comes out as U-Bar

Many gay bars are still tucked in narrow alleys hidden from the street. Perhaps we never noticed what message this sent being that many of these establishments are so old.

In fact long before organized gay communities began emerging around the country, Philadelphia had already established an underground community in those same alleys, tucked behind theaters amid art clubs, catering to gay clientele in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. 

It's not surprise that the Venture Inn is purportedly the oldest gay bar in operation in the country.

Venture Inn c.1900

Of course, tolerance waxed and waned throughout history and will likely continue to do so. While most people will always be reasonable, any kind of diversity will never be entirely free from bigotry.

For now, things are looking up. While gay men and women step out from the confines of our rainbow clad Gayborhood, businesses in the Gayborhood are coming out themselves.

Perhaps in an effort to combat, or at least coexist with the city's attempt to rebrand the Gayborhood as the more marketable "Midtown Village," Woody's, Icandy, and U-Bar have all replaced their unbranded walls with large windows showing off their renovations.

Improved menus at Tavern on Camac, The Westbury, and Venture Inn have proven that gay bars are more than just places to drink.

It's unfortunate that Philadelphia's gay owned businesses shrouded themselves for so long, particularly in understanding our trailblazing history.

The Midtown Village marketing campaign created an inadvertent, sometimes veiled prejudice towards long time neighborhood businesses. While not directly pointed at the city's gay community, the neighborhood's prior reputation as a slum paired with the fact that so many preexisting businesses were gay, created an inadvertent and false impression that Philadelphia's gay community was somehow seedier or less pronounced as the cushy enclaves of DuPont Circle or The Castro.

This is a misunderstanding. DC's DuPont Circle always struggled with a community association that never embraced its gay community and most of its nightlife has been pushed to the nether regions of the U Street Corridor, ripe with so much development it will likely continue to be pushed further east. Meanwhile San Francisco has become so expensive that its former gay oases serve tourists while locals play in Oakland.

Much the way our Chinatown remains largely authentic, Philadelphia's gay community has been active around Center City's Washington Square West for so long, we're more integrated into our city's soul, despite how it may look to visitors and new residents.

As more gay owned businesses open up to the street, the community's visible presence will increase. While anyone can enjoy the recent developments brought by the Midtown Village campaign, improving the image portrayed by gay owned businesses will hopefully tell gay visitors and locals alike that there's no reason to hide in Philadelphia.

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