ICandy was Robert Graves’ favorite gay bar in Philadelphia until a video surfaced nearly a year ago of the owner repeatedly saying the N-word.
Graves, like most LGBT people of color, was furious. Eventually, he stopped going out in the Gayborhood altogether.
Now he’s part of an effort to bring LGBT people of color back to ICandy, a plan that has stoked disagreement in the city’s LGBT community, where wounds from the video are still fresh. Some say it’s racist to support the establishment. Others, like Graves, say that owner Darryl DiPiano isn’t going anywhere and that they have a responsibility to protect people of color who go to his bar near 12th and Spruce Streets — and those who still fear it.
“I just want them to feel comfortable,” Graves, 32, said. “If you come in here and if you ever feel threatened or intimidated, come see me. I’ll address it.”
The plan to make ICandy more welcoming to people of color involves the nonprofits Philadelphia Black Pride and the Colours Organization, plus a group called Social Life Entertainment LLC with which Graves is involved. It plans to survey patrons of color at ICandy and online about their treatment at the hands of the bar’s staff.
Beginning next month, Colours will offer training with the bar’s employees about privilege and discrimination . The training is expected to take place quarterly; the frequency of the surveys has not yet been decided. Graves said the bar had agreed to hire new staff so that half its employees are people of color.
ICandy officials did not return requests for comment Thursday. The bar posted parts of its plan on Facebook last week.
Critics have accused the bar of trying to make amends just to save its bottom line. Philadelphia Magazine writer Ernest Owens slammed the plan on Facebook on Tuesday, and several dozen people echoed his feelings that the organizations teaming up with ICandy have betrayed LGBT people of color.
Graves said he respects differing opinions but thinks critics of the plan should not immediately dismiss it or work to turn others against it.
“What’s most devastating or heartbreaking to myself is to see people within this community of color attacking us for tackling this issue,” Graves said. “I don’t think I would have ever expected it to be so drastic.”
Damon Humes, the executive director at Colours, said he understands the frustration.
“I see the value in not wanting to spend money in an establishment that they perceive to be racist,” Humes said. But someone needs to safeguard people of color who go to ICandy, and that means changing the culture there, he said.
Jai T. Lynne, a singer who previously performed at ICandy and also works for Colours, said he supports the efforts to help LGBT people of color, but does not plan to go back to ICandy.
“While I am for change and people do change, I can support your change from a distance,” Lynne said. “I can forgive you, because I’m a forgiving person. But I do not have to continue to utilize your resource.”
The video of DiPiano saying the N-word was released on YouTube last September, leading to boycotts and protests. The city’s Human Relations Commission called the video a “tipping point” in complaints about race relations in the Gayborhood and later acknowledged what people of color had long said: that racism and discrimination were prevalent in the area.
In January, the commission said 11 bars, including ICandy, would have to undergo training on fair business practices and implicit bias within four months. The city last month also added black and brown stripes to its gay pride flag to represent people of color.
Still, most businesses in the Gayborhood are owned by white men.
Those trying to change the culture of ICandy also know it won’t be easy.
“We knew that going into it,” said Le Thomas, president of Philadelphia Black Pride. “But we also have a responsibility to the community to make sure that we support everyone. Not just the people that don’t want to go, but those who do.”