Straight black men, America’s favorite scapegoat for homophobia, are campaigning to be the Philadelphia LGBT community’s most important allies.
A candid Q&A with four of Philly’s most visible leaders—Mayor Michael Nutter, D.A. Seth Williams, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Arthur C. Evans, Commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services.
Michael Nutter, Mayor
Do you have any regrets over your past term as it relates to LGBT issues?
We certainly have a controversy right now in regard to the Boy Scouts. It was unfortunate what happened in court in terms of that decision. I’d like a cleaner resolution to that issue and I’d like to get that resolved. I formally created the Office of LGBT Affairs with Gloria Casarez as the director. That kind of position at that level never existed before. I’ve certainly received a significant amount of input and advice on a number of issues affecting the LGBT community from Gloria. I want us as a government to have nothing to do with the Boy Scouts. Our goal here is to get out of that relationship. And that is something I’m not particularly pleased with where it is. Clearly we have to do more with the School District. We’ve worked with the Human Relations Commission in dealing with bullying as it relates to members of the LGBT community. I think we’ve made some gains. I hold myself and our government to very, very high standards so in general, I think we can always do better on virtually anything.
As far as the Boy Scouts issue, people feel let down that you are settling. If you believed in the cause, why not continue to fight?
The first part of this is, we did lose on one significant point in the case. We have to make judgment calls about all these. The argument about our rights to appeal, but if I recall we’re also in a situation with the court where the court is expecting us to move this issue along and seek to settle it. We could either engage with this one way or be potentially directed by the court to do it. We think from where we’re sitting right now, the best way to get out of this relationship and not continue to subsidize discrimination is to get that building out of our inventory at fair market value. At the time it was proposed between now and if the time the Boy Scouts are to buy the building, they would not be able to engage in the discriminatory behavior. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a way for us to get out of this relationship. And I don’t want to be in a relationship with the Boy Scouts because of their discriminatory behavior.
Any initiatives as far as HIV/AIDS you would tackle if you were to be re-elected?
Well, we have a significant housing challenge; it’s another area where we’ve been seeking state and federal funding. At the same time, we just experienced at the same time at 16 percent reduction in CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funding from the federal government and next year we’re expecting additional cuts. The issue here in Philadelphia is no lack of challenges but clearly a lack of financial resources from a couple of the funding sources like the state and federal government. It’s very, very difficult for us as a city to take on many of these challenges without the resources to go with it. We’ll continue through the office of LGBT Affairs to address issues that may be specific to the LGBT community. But in many instances, the LGBT community is concerned about many of the things everyone else is concerned about: public safety, education, jobs, running the government with integrity, improving the business climate. I want more of our LGBT community members, whether citizens or businesses, to feel welcome here in Philadelphia and there are obviously a number of ways to communicate that message.
Is it hard to navigate being a black man in power and openly supportive of gay rights?
It’s not hard at all. The reason I’m involved in politics at all is because of the man on the wall (points to John Anderson), who was a gay man. If anything, I’m extra sensitive to LGBT concerns as a member of the African-American community. If anybody should be sensitive to them, it’s black folks. Where would the black church be without the choir director and minister of song and others? We need to get over that stuff. Maybe some of us in power need to be more vocal about it. The beautiful thing about America is its diversity.
What is your stance on same-sex marriage in Philadelphia?
I think the big issue is that it’s a state issue, not a city issue. I’m more concerned with the state doing something that could hurt the LGBT community. The idea that two people have demonstrated their love for one another and want to be together, I don’t see why we’d put up barriers to that. The opportunity for same-sex couples to be married seems to be a fundamental right.
Would you yourself officiate a gay wedding?
If it’s the law in Pennsylvania, sure. I know quite a few LGBT couples, and quite a few are in better shape than opposite-sex couples.
Seth Williams, District Attorney
In what ways are LGBT people victimized in Philly and how are you addressing it?
For one, same-gender partners sometimes fall through the cracks and don’t get the same kind of service that straight partners get, as far as domestic abuse. People assume that because they are members of the same sex, there might not be a partnership. We have to be cognizant of that. Members of the LGBT community in relationships dealing with domestic violence deserve the same service heterosexual couples receive. I’m also working on being a presence in the community and trying to answer and solve problems earlier on.
What are your personal views on gay rights?
I believe everyone is deserving of our love and respect. I went to Quaker schools that taught me that everyone is equal in God’s eyes. I’m very glad I raise children who believe that.
So you’ve taught your children about tolerance when it comes to the gay community?
Oh, definitely. Last year, I was asked to be an honorary Marshall of the Gay Pride Parade. I took my daughters Taylor and Hope on the float with me. On the way to Independence Hall, some people had signs up saying “Death to the faggots.” My daughters Taylor and Hope got upset about that. Tyler said, “That’s not nice. God loves everyone.” I’m glad I raised children to feel that way. When I got to Penn’s Landing, I gave a speech that said exactly what she said. That’s all anybody could ask.
It’s always easier to talk about things from a distance, but what if one day, they tell you that they, too, are gay?
As long as they are happy and still going to take me to get me some pizza and take me to the mall when I’m 70, I don’t care. There are so many difficulties with being a member of LGBT community that for people to have the courage to come out and tell me, I don’t take it lightly. I love my daughters and would continue to love them and probably respect them even more if they come out and tell me that. I’m sure there’d be challenges, I’ll be honest about that, but we’d take it one day at a time.”
What have you learned over your term so far that you will carry with you in the future, in regard to serving the LGBT community?
How important it is to communicate a vision and to listen to people and see how we can serve every community and help empower communities to help them save themselves. I’m a big proponent of Obama. We have to be the ones who we’ve been waiting for. The answer is not going to come from the Capitol. If we’re going to solve the problems at 12th and Locust, it’s going to be at 12th and Locust. The challenge to government is to make sure that it’s a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Charles Ramsey, Police Commissioner
Has it been hard for you, as a leader of a culture known for its machismo, to be an ally to the LGBT community?
I don’t think so. A lot has happened over the years. A lot of attitudes have changed. I know when I was as a police chief in D.C., we had some issues about the level of police service and we were able to address those at regular meetings with the establishment of the liaison. I think Philadelphia is the same. You can never guarantee 100 percent that an officer is going to interact in a positive way, but I think the vast majority will.
You came from D.C., which has a significant LGBT community. Did you learn anything there that you brought to Philly?
A lot of crimes where a person is a victim because of sexual orientation tend to go unreported for a variety of reasons. For one, in many cases, they feel police are not going to do anything about it if they call. The second thing may be the embarrassment of it. It’s important that we create an atmosphere where if they are a victim of any crime, including crimes where they are a victim based on their orientation, that they feel comfortable contacting the police so we can properly investigate it. These things will not stop on their own. The person will continue to do it until they are arrested and charged. You have to establish trust in the community where people feel something is going to happen once they make a formal complaint.
Do you think you’ve been successful in establishing that trust?
I think we’ve made some progress. I don’t know if you can ever say you’re successful, but certainly I’m open to breaking down those barriers. We have a liaison, Lt. Jacqueline Daley, who’s also an attorney who works in our training division. She’s our liaison, along with Deputy Commissioner Steve Johnson. We have reached out. I’m not aware of specific complaints, but when we do take them in, we take them very seriously. Again, we have to make sure we have very strong connections and ties to the LGBT community so people feel comfortable reporting any kind of hate crime or any crime at all to us.