Has Philadelphia’s William Way LGBT Community Center taken a sharp turn into our militarized cancel-culture waters?

According to Philadelphia Log Cabin Republicans Club President Rob Jordan, the answer to that question is a resounding yes.

Jordan’s story begins in the spring of 2020, when William Way archivist Bob Skiba invited him to be a guest on the podcast, Queering the Quarantine, a show devoted to LGBT arts, history and entertainment that began broadcasting in the early days of the pandemic. Jordan was to speak and answer questions about the Log Cabin Club and what it means to be a gay Republican (after being a Democrat for 20 years) in today’s toxic political environment. On the day that the show was to go live, it was abruptly cancelled.

The cancellation, Jordan maintains, was nothing less than censorship and suppression of unpopular ideas.

Jordan’s banishment is ironic considering that the idea for a citywide LGBT community center came into being because of censorship and oppression. The first of such centers, The Gay Community Center, opened in 1974 at 376 Kater Street, where its popular gay coffeehouse became a meeting hotspot for musicians like Anthony Louis, multiple early activists and for people who wanted an alternative to the bars.

This was an era when sexual minority communities suffered various forms of harassment and arrest simply for being “themselves.”

“We are everywhere”

In 1985, the center was renamed Penguin Place (“The Community Center Without Walls”). This name aptly describes the diversity of groups that would gather at the Kater Street address. Gay atheists, Episcopalians, Catholics, radical queens, pagans, poets, athletes and anarchists of all stripes found a safe place to share common beliefs and establish personal ties. The center was really a kind of cosmic mother with her arms open to all. That openness was highlighted as a feature of the center in a city that was intensely divided on the issue of gay rights. This was a time when popular politicians were calling gay and lesbians foul names in public, when petition drives against the city’s first gay rights bills were mounted near City Hall (with the most horrendous epithets being shouted through hand-held megaphones).

The cancellation, Jordan maintains, was nothing less than censorship and suppression of unpopular ideas.

The openness of these early gay community centers reflected the notion that “we are everywhere” — meaning that “we” could be found in the social register classes of Chestnut Hill, or in the most radical collectives in West Philadelphia.  The LGBT community, like Walt Whitman himself, contained multitudes. 

When the newly minted William Way Community Center purchased its own building at 1315 Spruce Street in 1997, one could still find the “open” legacy of Penguin Place within its walls. 

But after Donald Trump’s rise to the Presidency in 2016, the option of agreeing to disagree within the LGBT community was vanishing fast. Politics was now dividing the nation, splitting families and ending friendships. People who heretofore had no interest in politics now regarded themselves as passionate activists.

The LGBT community had always shown a benign tolerance towards Log Cabin Republicans, an organization founded by Len Olds in 1977 in California. Though gay Republicans were often criticized for “cavorting with the enemy,” there was never a call to censor or silence vocal Republicans within “the LGBT family.” After all, “we are everywhere” meant just that. It represented the direct opposite of a robotic monochrome think-alike army.

Gay Republicans became a talking point in the LGBT world in 1992 when Marvin Liebman’s autobiography, Coming Out Conservative, hit the bookstores. 

At the large memorial event for Donald Carter (the so-called “Mayor of the Gayborhood”) at the WWC in March of 2019, the comments from friends and acquaintances at the open mic–the vast majority of whom identified as left, progressive Democrats–were gracious and welcoming of Carter’s Republican identity. The words “gay Republican” in reference to Carter were always delivered with an affectionate wink and nod.

A cancelled invitation

There are no affectionate winks in Rob Jordan’s story, however.   

Jordan says that Bob Skiba wanted him to appear on Queering the Quarantine as early as May 2020. “It was Skiba’s idea to have me on as a guest,” he says. “I did not approach the center about being on the show.”

The show was scheduled to go live on September 14, but one hour before it was supposed to air, Jordan got an email from WWC Executive Director Christopher Bartlett informing him that the show was canceled. Jordan says that Bartlett offered a cursory apology but gave no reason for the cancellation, though he suggested that Jordan contact him if he had questions. According to Jordan, he followed up on Bartlett’s invitation, but his calls were not returned.

Jordan attributes the show’s 11th-hour cancellation to advertising about the show’s content. This was confirmed by mutual acquaintances. 

“I’m told that the center had threats,” Jordan said. “Some people were saying that they were going to shut down the WWC and they’ll make sure the center never gets another dollar. I was also informed that they were threatening Christopher Bartlett. Then the center announced on its webpage something about canceling me because ‘we don’t want to be hurtful to our people and what the LCR stands for is hurtful.’”   

“It was as if [Bartlett] was implying that the Log Cabin Club was ideologically insane or hurtful to the gay community,” Jordan said. This is an organization that has created change on the right to expand tolerance of LGBT people across the spectrum.

Long-time activist Hal Tarr, a WWC donor and former member of the Philadelphia Gay Liberation Front, contacted Chris Bartlett by phone when he heard about the cancellation.

“I was calling to express my concern at this turn of events. I think it was then that [Bartlett] told me there would be an online meeting regarding the cancellation.” The center committed to setting up a vetting system for events, says Tarr. “I was concerned that such a committee might refuse to approve of events in which I’d be interested. I don’t know of any ban on gay Republicans but I would say that decisions of the sort that resulted in the cancellation make me less interested in the center and its future.”

Tarr said that he expected the online meeting to be an open discussion, but was surprised at what turned out to be “a carefully scripted event in which the attendees were presented” with an already-drafted center policy.

Tarr reiterated his doubts about the future of the center: ‘I used to feel as though William Way was my community center. I have doubts about that now.’

“The overarching tone of the meeting,” Tarr noted, “was that the center had committed a grievous sin by planning the Log Cabin event and that the center would try its best to repent for that sin.” The meeting also brought to light “various expressions of disgust at the thought of a Trump supporter speaking at the center.”

“It was even suggested by one online attendee that the center reject donations from people known to be Republican,” he said. Tarr reiterated his doubts about the future of the center: “I used to feel as though William Way was my community center. I have doubts about that now.” 

The former member of Philadelphia’s Gay Liberation Front also recalled attending a William Way Center symposium presented by lesbian Muslims last year in which he was made to feel as though he “was violating some unspoken rule of the center” when he asked the presenters what they thought of the fact that all of the countries that imposed a death penalty for atheism were Muslim-majority (sharia law) countries.

Jordan says that what really added fuel to the fire was the center’s “apology tour” in response to those who found the program objectionable. “To sum up, it basically said: ‘We realize we hurt your feelings by inviting a conservative voice to speak, and we don’t want to be hurtful to you. We recognize the pain you are in.’”    

“What pain?” he asks. “I didn’t cause anybody pain.”

Log Cabin Republican Club founder Len Olds, a major donor to the William Way Center, opted to cancel his annual gift of $10,000 in response to the cancellation of Jordan’s discussion. Jordan is convinced that other high donors may have followed suit.

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Tali Mayan, a transgender activist from Israel, stated that she heard about the event’s cancellation on the center’s Facebook page.

“I was extremely disappointed, seeing the amount of hate for conservative views in the comments. It was astonishing. The fact that the center immediately ‘apologized’ and treated this as if they had invited ‘their worst enemy’ to speak points to the mob mentality of the LGBT community in general, and to the center in particular,” Mayan wrote. “This is a perfect example of ‘if you don’t think like me, you must be wrong and therefore are the enemy.’ This is very dangerous thinking… All of this is more suitable to a socialist regime and collective thinking than to a marginalized group who claims that acceptance and tolerance are at its core.”

Moving forward

In a September 25 statement posted on the center’s page, “Moving Forward to Heal Together: A Summary of What Went Wrong and Proposed Next Steps,” Bartlett writes: 

On Friday, September 11, 2020, the William Way LGBT communities Center began to publicize an upcoming Queering the Quarantine with Rob Jordan, President of the Philadelphia Log Cabin Republicans. The Log Cabin Republicans were scheduled, along with the Liberty City Democrats, in an attempt to provide an opportunity for discussion from multiple different perspectives within our communities. We failed to fully recognize the impact Rob Jordan would have on our most marginalized communities, specifically Black and Brown LGBTQ people, and trans and nonbinary people. That was a mistake. “

“Moving Forward” also states that:

“We should have immediately recognized that including a group with a track record of attacking other members within our communities would be harmful and that harm would never justify any misguided belief in ‘hearing both sides,’ ‘diversity of opinion,’ or ‘healthy debate.’ For that, we are truly sorry and will make amends.” 

“We can’t reiterate enough how sorry we are, how much we understand the pain this has created, and how committed we are to making amends over whatever period of time that may take. Thank you for raising the issues with us and voicing your concerns. 

Jordan says he was considering legal activity against the center because they are a 501(c)(3) and therefore cannot take a stance for or against a political party or its members, but decided against it because he didn’t want, in lieu of Covid-19, to hurt the community.

“I want dialogue,” Jordan says. He then went on to mention fair and balanced views about Log Cabin Republicans, most notably a recent Philadelphia Gay News article by writer Victoria Brownworth, in which there was no condemnation or censure. 

“The crowd at the William Way Community Center has really changed in the last two years,” Jordan said. “It is unrecognizable to me now.” 

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based author and journalist, who has written fifteen books, including: Out in History, Philadelphia Mansions, Literary Philadelphia, and the recently released From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia. Nickels has written extensively and is currently a regular columnist for City Journal New York, the Philadelphia Irish Edition and the Philadelphia Free Press.  

3 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: Is free thinking still allowed in Philly’s LGBT community?”

  1. I think William Way seems to have forgotten that Trump’s share of the gay vote went from 14% in 2016 to 27% in 2020. William Way has dissed more than 1/4 of its community.

  2. It’s sad to think that this has happened. Both sides are increasingly imposing an orthodoxy that is damaging to the body politic. One would think that the gay community would welcome the fact that there is a voice from its POV within the Republican party and that the voice could have the effect of achieving greater understanding by the party. Likewise the Democrat party could become more welcoming to NRA members. I guess I am a dreamer.

  3. I disagree that both sides are increasingly imposing an orthodoxy. It isn’t both sides. Its one side and that is the Democrats. I am a Trump supporter and have attended numerous rallies. I have never witnessed anyone at the rallies acting disrespectfully or violently. In general, the attendees are
    normal looking Americans who have taken time off from work to come. They support the President’s policies. I have lived in Germantown for 40 years and have never been on board with the overwhelmingly liberal policies of my neighbors. I have invested in my community and volunteered many hours toward community issues. When I put up one Trump sign in my yard before the election a man named Robert Peters drove by my house, took a picture of the sign and part of my house and posted it on two Facebook pages (Living in Germantown and Changing Germantown). He also posted a long entry calling me a white supremacist. This generated approximately 800 posts attacking me. This came from the supposedly “tolerant” left. You know all the same people who have “Hate has no home here” signs in their yards. This was, of course, quite intimidating. I have never agreed with the open borders policy of the democrats but it never occurred to me to try to intimidate any of my neighbors or destroy the signs in their yards. I actually respect free speech and think dialogue about issues should be encouraged. The situation in our country right now is frightening.

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