Philadelphia’s Black queer and burlesque performers call out white producers and club owners

VinChelle, Icon Ebony-Fierce and Amber Hikes hosted a forum where members of Philadelphia’s Black and queer community addressed racism and tokenism in the LGBTQ nightlife industry (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Jamyra Perry

PHILADELPHIA — On Sunday night, almost 800 people tuned in via Facebook Live as dozens of Philadelphia’s Black queer and burlesque performers held white producers, club owners, DJs and fellow performers to the fire at a town-hall style meeting.

The two-and-a-half-hour meeting addressed allegations of racial bias in hiring, firing and pay, as well as tokenism, transphobia and unwanted sexual advances.

The performers listed the allegations in an open letter published on Facebook early last week, along with a several demands that included training in race-related and transgender-related issues, better representation for Black performers in programming, a call for abusive producers to step down and a safe space from producers and club owners for performers to address concerns.

Performers Icon Ebony Fierce and VinChelle (who goes by one name) hosted the meeting, and Amber Hikes, former executive director of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs, moderated the discussion.

At the start of the meeting, VinChelle outlined what the Black queer and burlesque performers were hoping to get from the white industry leaders invited to the live event: “We’re looking for a lot of solid concrete answers and owning up to what you have done and seeing what you can do for the future.”

Hikes challenged the white producers and club owners to do the work to fix things with Philadelphia’s Black queer and burlesque performers.

“When someone gives you the gift in the labor of calling you out, you thank them for that and you commit to doing better. So tonight, I ask the white folk who were called in to do more than being an ally, it’s time for you to be an accomplice,” she said.

Hikes said she herself has experienced some of the same problems faced by performers here in Philadelphia.

“As a queer Black woman who’s been hosting events throughout Philly since 2009, I know firsthand about the racism and the harm experienced by the Black nightlife community,” Hikes said, adding that she’s optimistic that things can get better.

Some producers, like John Burd of Burd Events, were quick to offer an apology. Burd said he plans to diversify the casts of his upcoming shows and begin staff diversity training.

The Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus (PGMC) responded to criticism of cultural appropriation by singing songs like “We Shall Overcome” and Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” with mostly white membership.

“I apologize for my complicity as a leader in the organization and not bringing those conversations more to the forefront about song choice. I think that’s something that the chorus is taking into consideration far more right now,” PGMC President Joe Ehrman-Dupre said.

He also apologized for taking money from Geno’s Steaks. The restaurant has been a longtime supporter of the Philadelphia Police Department and has been accused of racism. The flagship restaurant used to have a sign that said: “This is AMERICA. When ordering, speak English.”

Ehrman-Dupre said they would speak to Geno Vento of Geno’s Steaks about the discomfort that still surrounds the sign and address the concerns over cultural appropriation.

VinChelle called on Brandon Roberts, social media and events manager at Tabu Lounge and Sports Bar, to step down from his position at Tabu in light of allegations that he sent and asked performers for nude photos.

“I will absolutely step down. I absolutely apologize to everyone that I may have hurt,” Roberts said. “I wish I would have known about this earlier I would have done things to correct it.”

The discussion wrapped up with a promise to have another meeting soon to further address issues in the Philadelphia nightlife community.

VinChelle said that the most important thing to come out of Sunday’s meeting was that it gave Philadelphia’s Black, queer and transgender performers a voice.

“A lot of times, we are silenced. We are told to move aside,” VinChelle said. “I hope that these people understand and hear what we’re saying and not just think that we are coming for them. I hope they understand that their actions have consequences, and they need to take steps to becoming better people, better producers, better queens and better entertainers in this community.”

Jamyra Perry is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared