Amber Hikes, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs for the City of Philadelphia, join the program to discuss her own diversity story of growing up in the South and her experience of coming out as a member of the LGBTQ community. She reveals the changes that were made to Philadelphia’s rainbow pride flag, and the international reaction that resulted from that change. Discover the importance of intersectional allyship, and how to move from symbols to action.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Amber’s diversity story including growing up in the South (3:05)
- The importance of being uncomfortable as a leader (10:00)
- Why we need to connect people to policy (14:00)
- How Amber built relationships with key allies (18:00)
- The “diversity within the diversity” in the LGBTQ community (22:00)
- The change that Amber made to the rainbow flag and the thinking behind it (28:00)
- Why brands are interested in aligning themselves with the inclusive flag (35:00)
- What “intersectional allyship” is and what it looks like (37:30)
- How we can move beyond symbols to create real change (40:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Amber, welcome to The Will to Change.
AMBER HIKES: Thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here with you.
JENNIFER BROWN: I am thrilled to have met you and your position, your work in the world is so unique. I can’t wait to share more about you with our audience. I think they’ll be thrilled to learn that you exist, that the job you have exists, which is really cool for people who live in Philadelphia. They may actually know, but they may not know as well.
I first saw you at Out and Equal this past year, with 6,000 of your friends in the audience.
AMBER HIKES: Closest friends and family members.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Only those, yes. And you handled that giant stage with such grace and bravery, and you gave this five-minute talk that was incredible on intersectionality and allyship and I felt you were my long-lost relative.
I want to know more about you today, your background, diversity story, which we’ll talk about in a moment, and then we’re going to hear about the work you do now and how you’re transforming LGBT equality in a municipal role in a very interesting city with particular challenges, assets, and all that makes Philadelphia what it is. But first, let me start with your diversity story. We always say everyone has a diversity story, even those you don’t expect. And sometimes those stories are unexpected as well. So, what would you share with our audience about yourself?
I would say, initially, being a black, queer woman, I start with those identities because there are so many challenges that come from those different identities. But I say that to say that my diversity story probably started pretty early. It started in the American south.
I was born in Okinawa, Japan, which is a whole other podcast and conversation.
JENNIFER BROWN: Whoa! I did not know that. (Laughter.)
AMBER HIKES: I was raised in the American south. I think my diversity story has been developing. Being raised in the south, but have my more formative adult years being spent up here in the north and coming out as an LGBTQ person. I feel like my diversity story, depending on what context I’m in, is ever evolving.
So, I’ll say for me, not understanding quite the context, my most recent diversity story would probably be I would say on a fairly regular basis. I’m always coming out as LGBTQ, even in the work that I do. There are things about me that people can tell or presume off the bat – I’m a woman, I’m a person of color, but because I’m more femme presenting, that LGBTQ identity is not something that people always assume about me.
I have an interesting experience on a fairly regular basis where I’m still coming out to people. Just a few days ago, I was in a cab coming to City Hall and the cab driver asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was the director of LGBTQ Affairs, and he followed up saying, “Well, don’t you need to be gay to do that job?”
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow. (Laughter.)
AMBER HIKES: And I said, “Well, certainly, it’s not a requirement, but I do believe it helps.” I believe it helps if you’re going to work on behalf of certain identities to hold those identities yourself. And he said, “Well, then, how did you get that job?”
JENNIFER BROWN: He was just going there, whether you liked it or not.
AMBER HIKES: Can I just get to work this morning? (Laughter.) We had an interesting conversation about assumptions that we make about people. But it’s interesting, I’ve been having a diversity story throughout my life, but in terms of that particular identity, we’re always coming out no matter how old we are or what context we’re in.
JENNIFER BROWN: And in the face of what can feel like really unsafe situations.
AMBER HIKES: Absolutely. Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: You just don’t know how it’s going to go. And you and I have that in common as well. In my keynotes, I walk on stage and I always make a point to come out because I don’t want to take advantage of the “passing privilege,” as my friend who works for the Mayor of New York says. Meaning, we can pass. We can go through our lives. And you just mentioned “fem-presenting” as well. I wondered if you could define that for our audience. I think that’s insider language in the LGBTQ community, but I certainly relate to it because I am as well.
AMBER HIKES: Yes. Absolutely. To be totally honest, it depends on the day. I play around with gender expression a lot and it depends on the day what I’m wearing. I would say mostly people see me as pretty feminine presenting. I wear heels, I wear makeup, and the assumptions that we make about folks who have a more feminine expression or people who identify as women or even people who are assigned female at birth who maybe don’t identify as women who have a more feminine expression is that they are straight.
That’s not the case. Unfortunately, fem-presenting folks who do identify as LGBTQ will talk to you about feminine visibility. That’s very much connected to people outside of the community and also people within your own community not seeing your LGBTQ identity because they see your fem expression and assume, incorrectly, that you are straight. Yes, there is some privilege that goes along with being fem-presenting, but there are also some significant challenges.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. You can walk through the world and perhaps not trigger people in certain ways, and you can take advantage of that to do your work, to get access into rooms of conversations. It is something you have to daily choose whether or not to divulge and all that comes with that – whether you’re in the mood or not to do that.
I used to go into the clubs when I was first coming out in my 20s and everybody would ignore me in the LGBT clubs.
AMBER HIKES: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Did you have that experience, too?
AMBER HIKES: Absolutely. Or they think you’re there as a straight person with your gay boyfriend or something.
JENNIFER BROWN: Totally! (Laughter.) I would be, like, “Pay attention to me! Ask me to dance!” (Laughter.) It was so funny.
I get on stage now and I think it’s actually so important that people like to present our gender in the way that we do or the way that we’re more comfortable. It took me a long time. I actually fought against it because I thought, “Well, maybe I’m caving to a feminine normative expectation of me. Maybe this is not true for me. Maybe I’m just telling myself the lie that I’m more comfortable in this guise.”
AMBER HIKES: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Did you ever go through a period where you played with that?
AMBER HIKES: Absolutely. I feel like that story that you’re telling is so central to the coming-out experience for so many folks who have presented as fem or do present as fem.
It’s really funny, but there’s this period where folks will refer to their “butch phase” or their “masc phase,” where they put on the tank tops and the backwards caps.
JENNIFER BROWN: Totally, with the combat boots and the baggy jeans. (Laughter.)
AMBER HIKES: Exactly. The baggy jeans. And they did this more studly, masculine thing just to be seen, just to be seen.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
AMBER HIKES: I’m passing as straight in this world, and I cannot get a date to save my life because no one thinks that I’m actually LGBTQ. I feel like the vast majority of my fem-presenting friends have this period in college or in high school or sometimes even in grad school or after that where they took on this more masculine presentation just to be seen in the world. There is something really profound about that I think.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s really interesting. Yes, I find it fascinating. Well, now we own our femininity, whatever that means, and we’re challenging those stereotypes every time we don’t take advantage of that passing privilege. I love that moment, but it terrifies me at the same time when I come out to thousands of people in an audience. It never crossed their mind at all. And it’s this incredible cognitive dissonance that then opens them up to everything I say after that moment – everything.
I love that. That’s the way we change hearts and minds. And then they’ll say, “Wow, I didn’t think I was biased, but this just happened to me and she just challenged me in that way. I wonder what else I’m making assumptions about.”
AMBER HIKES: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s where I try to take them.
AMBER HIKES: That’s a really brilliant way to be able to flip that. That’s a strength-based perspective, and I like that. There is still a lot of fear or trepidation, a mild trepidation every time I have to come out. Now, because my job is so incredibly LGBTQ, when I’m in front of large audiences, there is usually some lead-up before I speak and people know my identity.
JENNIFER BROWN: Totally.
AMBER HIKES: You’re absolutely right. We should use those spaces to be able to challenge those assumptions and help people interrogate their own assumptions.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Many people hide many aspects of their diversity, right? When you can hide it or downplay it, you often do, particularly in the workplace because it has stigma attached to it, and we talk a lot about that. So, the power of vulnerability and storytelling and bringing your full self to work is surfacing those things that we are afraid to show.
AMBER HIKES: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I encourage leaders to be uncomfortable. The definition of leadership is to be regularly uncomfortable. And if you’re not, you’re probably not leading. Part of that discomfort are those things you hide that may shine a light for other people. Your job is to bring those to light, demonstrate, live that, and honor that. That passing privilege is not really being authentic. Those are not the kinds of workplaces we want to build.
I try to go first and I hope that people will follow not just revealing their LGBT identity or straight identity or whatever it is, but all sorts of things like mental illness, addiction issues in families, parenting issues. People hide the fact that they’re grandparents. There’s a lot of age discrimination bubbling up in the talks I give, and people really downplay both being too young for the amount of responsibility they have, and also not wanting to focus on their advanced years.
Amber, this is so interesting. Tell us more about how you moved into this role. Was it not created for you or with your partnership?
AMBER HIKES: No, this role has actually existed in the City of Philadelphia in some capacity since 2001.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow, that’s amazing.
AMBER HIKES: It’s really amazing. It’s been around for a long time. We’ve had a liaison to the mayor and a special assistant, an LGBT relations person. The first executive director was my predecessor, the first time they were given that title was my predecessor. I’m really the fourth in the line of succession.
Unfortunately, we are still one of only four similar offices in the entire country.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, that’s what I was thinking of.
AMBER HIKES: Yes. We are so fortunate in Philadelphia to be such an LGBTQ friendly city, and not just to be LGBTQ friendly, right? There are a lot of cities that are queer friendly, but really to be so friendly that we’re also making sure that there is a seat for LGBTQ folks in government, I think that’s particularly progressive. We’ve been fortunate to have this around since 2001.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s amazing.
AMBER HIKES: Yes, that’s a real privilege.
JENNIFER BROWN: What makes you different in terms of what you’re bringing and the thinking about the position and who would need to be in the position? How did that evolve and end up with you in it? I’m curious.
AMBER HIKES: That’s a fantastic question with a fairly long answer, but I’ll try to keep it fairly brief.
I’m the first black woman to do the job. I am the youngest person to ever do this job. So when you talk about ageism on the other side, there has certainly been quite a bit of that. On this end as well, people think that younger folks don’t really have as much to contribute to policy conversations or advocacy conversations.
The most important piece has been this time in our country’s history, in our city’s history, and in our community’s history. In Philadelphia, we’ve been having conversations about diversity, about racism and discrimination for quite a while, but we’ve specifically been having conversations about racism in the LGBT community for several decades. Those conversations really bubbled up to the surface at the end of 2016. There were a lot of different issues that we focused on then.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, that time. The end of 2016.
AMBER HIKES: There was a lot that was happening.
JENNIFER BROWN: Say no more. (Laughter.)
AMBER HIKES: The national context that you’re thinking of is important to think about. We had all of that happening, and in addition to that, there was a “gayborhood” bar owner who was caught on tape saying the “N” word over and over again. This made local news and a little bit of national news as well. This led to some protests and boycotts and hearings and community conversations – a lot of unrest in the community, addressing an issue that people of color had been talking about for quite a while.
The response from our local government, local agencies, was deemed as entirely too passive and in certain ways, it was deemed to just be ignoring the issue and not addressing it in an intentional way.
There were some calls for resignations and some leadership changes that happened. The mayor at the time really wanted the next person to come into the position to have a very outward-facing approach. He wanted the person to be very rooted in community and advocacy. And he said, “We’re really kicking butt in terms of policy, but if people in the community don’t feel connected to that policy, then what good is it?” What good is it if people don’t feel like this office is hearing their daily needs, their daily challenges?
We took a leap. Instead of having a lawyer or a bureaucrat take this position, he had a social worker come and do it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Awesome.
AMBER HIKES: I am of the strong opinion that social workers and therapists and folks rooted in mental health work, especially during this time in our country’s history, should really be helping lead a lot of our work – especially in government.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yes. Yes.
AMBER HIKES: That’s how that came to be. I have a lot of background in activism and advocacy. So I thought, “I don’t know if government is the right thing for me. We’ll give it a go.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Were you hesitant?
AMBER HIKES: Very much so.
JENNIFER BROWN: What stereotypes did you have and have they been proven wrong since you’ve gotten into government?
AMBER HIKES: Yes and no. Yes and no. Absolutely, I was hesitant for a few reasons. At the time, even though I’m a Philadelphian, I was living out in California in Long Beach and had been there for about a year and a half. I was really enjoying my time there.
JENNIFER BROWN: I was born there. I know.
AMBER HIKES: Oh, you get it. It’s a tough place to leave. I didn’t think I was ready for the winters at all. Yes, I was concerned. I was concerned. I struggle biting my tongue when I see injustices happen. And what I understood about government, especially on a local level, was that it was going to be very political, for lack of a better word. I was concerned that I would at times be asked to vouch for things or put my weight and my reputation behind initiatives or decisions that I had no hand in and didn’t stand behind. That was a conversation I had to have with the mayor at the time. He was very clear with me that he was asking me to come do this job because he needed help and he needed to be guided in the right direction on it and that he was going to trust me. He was going to trust me as long as I promised not to lead him in the wrong direction.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s amazing. Jim Kenney, right?
AMBER HIKES: That’s right. That’s his name.
JENNIFER BROWN: Tell us about the Philly context. What are the demographics of the city? How have those been changing? What are things that people don’t know about Philly? How does that, then, call for the role that you’re playing and what you’re bringing in particular?
AMBER HIKES: Fantastic. One of the things, we’re the fifth-largest city in the country after New York, LA, Houston, and Chicago – reverse Chicago and then Houston. Sorry, Chicago, three and then Houston is four and then us.
We’re the fifth largest, but things that are distinct and unique to Philadelphia is that we’re actually the poorest large city. We have 25 percent poverty, which is astronomical. If you think of other cities – 13 percent, 15 percent. Even cities that you think of being poorer cities in whatever way, New York is sitting around 15 percent, Seattle is 13, but we’re 25 percent. So, we’re the poorest large city.
I think the most distinct thing about Philadelphia is that we’re 44 percent black. A lot of cities are majority-minority communities and majority-minority spaces, but in Philadelphia, that minority is largely African American. When you think about that in the context of this country and racism and the way that our politics are playing out in this particular day and age, there are some very specific challenges for people of color – black folks specifically – that look different for other cities.
When we’re talking about the issues the LGBT community was facing at that time around the treatment of African-American people specifically, it was really important for this city that is largely and overwhelmingly black to have leaders that represent that community and can speak to that lived experience. Those are some of the challenges and really some of the strengths of Philadelphia.
JENNIFER BROWN: You spoke to me about Jim being a white, straight, cis man.
AMBER HIKES: Right. Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: The Irish guy mayor. What was that relationship-building like when you were evaluating the opportunity? How did you speak back and forth about how you would work together and his own learning and admission to being up to the task of governing Philly in all that you just shared?
I can imagine it’s so difficult to understand things when you are not from them and that’s not your lived experience.
AMBER HIKES: That’s right. Again, with that context, understanding that Philadelphia has been notoriously a “chocolate city,” anybody that’s going to lead this city has had to answer questions about an identity that’s a minority identity in the city in terms of the rest of the population.
In terms of diversity, he’s a guy that he knows his privilege. He’s a guy that understands the challenges around that, but he also recognizes that he’s a 60-year-old, white, Irish guy from South Philly. He has a lot to learn. He surrounds himself with people who don’t hold his identities so that he cannot just learn from those people, but let them lead him in the right direction.
I should also preface by saying he was very rooted in the LGBT community. He has been friendly to LGBTQ issues for decades. He really had no problem getting the LGBTQ vote when he was elected.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so great.
AMBER HIKES: He pushed forth equality bills and whatever. But the people that supported him were the older, white, gay men in the community. That was it. That’s what he knew of the community. So, I’ll tell you, the day we had our first phone conversation when I told him what my concerns were, he said, “Listen, I am well aware that for years these are my connections to the community. I am so well aware now that that is not all of the community. Those guys have gotten their due and we need to be focusing on trans folks, on young people, we need to be focusing on people who are participating in sex work and the street economy. We need to focus on marginalized folks. And I’m really looking to you to help me do that because these guys are good. They’re good.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
AMBER HIKES: Now, let’s focus on other folks.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Let’s go into that a bit. You scratched the surface of the modern LGBTQ movement, and particularly the crusade around gay marriage and that whole fight.
When you’re a woman or a person of color or trans or a gender-nonconforming person, there are divisions within our community that fall along class lines. Certainly, there is white, male privilege in the LGBTQ community.
AMBER HIKES: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: There are some really important nuances of inclusion and exclusion within this community that’s supposed to be the rainbow. Some of us are very aware of that and some are not. I love that he had the awareness of the diversity within the diversity. How critical it is to ensure the movement is representative of all the diversity within it. It hasn’t been, traditionally, because of those means that certain people have, the privileges that certain people have. We, certainly, benefited through the way that the battle for gay marriage was fought and who fought it, I suppose. It’s just one piece of so many other needs that are equally pressing from a day-to-day safety perspective, economic opportunity, racism, absolutely.
I would love to segue a bit into telling people about the rainbow flag story that you were involved in, and the brown and black stripes in the flag. I don’t think a lot of people were following that. I, certainly, was following it very closely because we have these discussions all the time about revisiting the icons of a movement, revisiting the symbols, and how much needs to change and how much should stay the same because you’re honoring the history, et cetera.
Tell us a little bit about what happened with the flag and the addition of some stripes. It seems like a small thing, but I know that it was not. (Laughter.)
AMBER HIKES: That’s so true. And I’ll definitely connect it. I just want to go back to something you were saying about this marriage equality really as a priority for the community. And you were touching on such an important point there, that just that discussion, right? Because let’s be clear, it was a very political decision that was made by the gay powers that be, right? Just that decision really reeks of privilege. And this may not be a terribly popular thing to say, but I’m not necessarily known for saying the most popular things in the world.
JENNIFER BROWN: Go for it, Amber! This is a safe space.
AMBER HIKES: Thank you. Thank you. Just to look around and assess that that is the priority, when you have people within your community that can still be fired for being LGBTQ, that can still be kicked out of their homes for being LGBTQ, who can still be kicked out of places of public accommodation because of who they are or who they love. And you still make the calculation that marriage is really the priority, right? And so there are some of us who are a little more radical, a little bit more progressive to say not only does it reek of profound privilege, but you are completely ignoring the legitimate, serious, day-to-day challenges of people who are low income, people who don’t have the same access or privilege that you have. And if you’re not ignoring it, let’s say that you’re ignorant to it, but even then, that speaks deeply to the divisions that we have within the community. And I say this sitting in the state of Pennsylvania, which is really an island of inequality at this point. We are the only northeastern state without statewide protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. So I say that sitting in a state where you can still be fired from your job, you can be kicked out of your home, you can be kicked out of a place of public accommodation because of your sexual orientation or your gender identity.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow.
AMBER HIKES: In 2018. Right? In Pennsylvania. It’s crazy. And so we have municipal protections, right, in 44 municipalities in the state. But outside of those municipalities, you’re done, you’re toast. But sure, honey, you can get married and you can go ahead and get married on a Saturday, you bring in that picture of your spouse, put it on your desk on Monday, and you can be kicked out. That’s it, right?
There is something to be said about the powers that be and the privilege that they have to decide that that needed to be the priority for the whole country and still for the world, right? Still for the world.
JENNIFER BROWN: Sure, absolutely.
AMBER HIKES: Right? So, anyway, that was somewhat tangential, but it was that conversation that led us – and of course the local conversation that were saying about racism and discrimination that led me to work to introduce this flag to our local community here.
In addition to that tape that was released of that “gayborhood” bar owner saying the N word, there, were also some serious conversations about the lack of representation of organizations, about discriminatory dress code policies that were specifically targeting people of color. So, no baggy jeans, no Timberlands, right? Very intentional, racialized dress code that says, “We don’t want you.” But there was nothing about flip-flops, there was nothing about Ugg boots, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
AMBER HIKES: It was very specific. We know that racialized language. So, there were conversations about these discriminatory practices. And we decided when I came in, we decided there were a lot of substantive measures that we are were going to initiate in order to address this, including the hearings and community conversations and anti-discrimination legislation. But in addition to that, we wanted to have a symbol.
And we chose a flag. The LGBT community loves flags.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, this is true. It’s true!
AMBER HIKES: Everybody’s got a flag.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, God.
AMBER HIKES: We took the rainbow flag, and like you said, simple initiative. Two stripes – one black, one brown to stand in solidarity with LGBTQ people of color whose stories and experiences have been so often ignored, whitewashed, and silenced even back in Stonewall. And there was a local initiative to address these conversations that we’ve been having for quite some time. And we launched the flag on a Thursday, and by Friday, it made national and then international news.
JENNIFER BROWN: Then what happened? Then you started getting hate mail. (Laughter.)
AMBER HIKES: I wish it was just e-mails. You’re right. I would say the vast majority of the response was overwhelming. I can see that now in hindsight. For every angry e-mail we had, there were 20, 30, 50 that were so kind and congratulatory and grateful. So grateful.
JENNIFER BROWN: Just to be seen, right?
AMBER HIKES: Right. Exactly. And people all over the place – New Zealand, South Africa –
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m sure.
AMBER HIKES: – The Netherlands. What? The Netherlands? (Laughter.) I’m joking, but so much gratitude. But there were people that were absolutely livid and hateful and angry. And they didn’t just send hate mail, they sent death threats.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh.
AMBER HIKES: Yeah. That was the most difficult. I came into my position in March, and this all happened in June of that year.
JENNIFER BROWN: Welcome to the job.
AMBER HIKES: Right. Welcome to the job! (Laughter.) Yes. And the mayor was receiving the hate mail, too. He was, like, “Wow, kid, you’ve been here for three months.” (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: But he stood by you. How did you adjust? I don’t know if you had a strategy with the flag or not, but the dust has settled, I hope.
AMBER HIKES: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Just like the rest of things in our country these days, we’ve been becoming face to face with racism in so many quarters, including communities that some of us are surprised that it exists in. I don’t think you would have ever been surprised, but I think for all of us, the last couple of years, we’ve just had rude awakening after rude awakening around how it’s literally right under the surface. And the second you are inclusive with a symbol like the flag and adding these stripes to signal inclusion, you get the protection of the symbol.
That is tiny veiled, not your people. You know? You’re not one of us, right?
AMBER HIKES: They didn’t even try to veil it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. How has this whole story aged? I’m curious. As things have calmed down, where has the flag landed? Where is it being adopted? Is it getting credence and credibility? Is it growing in popularity? Is there somehow a greater understanding for why it’s so important?
AMBER HIKES: It’s so fascinating, right? So, we launched this just in June of 2017 and so quickly. Like I told you, literally the very next day it became national news and it spread like wildfire all over the country and then all over the world.
It went so quickly from being the symbol that was in some ways, frankly, polarizing, right? Fox news was calling and The Blaze was writing and where is the white stripe? I mean, literally, I can’t tell you where the white stripe was.
And then Teen Vogue jumps in and they’re like, “You’re a racist.” I mean, Teen Vogue –
JENNIFER BROWN: Teen Vogue did that?
AMBER HIKES: Oh, God, Teen Vogue – not to us, but to The Blaze.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yes.
AMBER HIKES: Right? If you’re looking for a white stripe, you’re the problem. (Laughter.) You know? One of those things. So, yes, everybody was going back and forth about this flag.
I have to be honest, your question about the strategy – frankly, there wasn’t much of a strategy because we never intended for it to be so controversial. In Philadelphia, we’ve been talking about these it is for 30 years. It’s a stripe on a flag. We had no idea that people would be so blatantly racist, frankly.
Very quickly, because of the folks – the way that I saw it is the way that it’s aged, it’s because of the folks on the extreme that jumped up and managed to scream their vitriol and their hatred for this flag. When people that felt mildly uncomfortable about it saw that rhetoric, they immediately said, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, those aren’t my people.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Ah!
AMBER HIKES: “I don’t want to be associated with those folks.”
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s helpful.
AMBER HIKES: “I’m not like that,” right? I’m not like that. They were able to see these parallel arguments. Why do you need another flag? Why do you have to be so loud about it? Why do you need this? Why do you need to be identified in this way? Why do you need to divide yourselves in this way?
They see the same language that people have used against them over and over and over again.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’re just doing it to ourselves now.
AMBER HIKES: We’re just doing it to ourselves. But you’re right, I heard you say it probably wasn’t surprising to you, but I have to be honest with you, Jennifer, it absolutely was. Did I know that there was racism in my community? Yes, absolutely. But did I think that people, my own folks would be so hateful and so resistant to a symbol that really was just working to be inclusive of our diversity within this community? No. I was absolutely gobsmacked about it.
But the narrative so quickly changed. As you know, it’s on the red carpet at the Met Gala, it’s on the HRC headquarters in Washington, D.C.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, fabulous.
AMBER HIKES: I had somebody from Nike me last night to talk about this.
JENNIFER BROWN: Of course!
AMBER HIKES: But I didn’t sign an NDA so I could talk about it. They put out pride sneakers every year. And they said, “We want to do sneakers with the inclusive flag, are we allowed to do that?”
JENNIFER BROWN: How great!
AMBER HIKES: That’s amazing. It’s amazing.
JENNIFER BROWN: So happy.
AMBER HIKES: It’s been incredible. It’s been incredible.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow. I love what you just said, which is that maybe it took something like this for some of us in the community who didn’t think we had these problems, because there is so much denial. Oh, we’re LGBTQ, how could we be racist? I’m a gay man, how could I have male privilege? There is so much work. That work has barely begun in the community. It’s where we need to go next. I am so happy to support that flag and happy that brands are also thinking about how smart it is to align themselves with that. I hope they want to be on the right side of history, and I think some of them are trying. Maybe they start with a symbol like that and sticking it on sneakers. I know Nike has had all sorts of challenges in the last year or two as well in terms of aligning their practices and their workplace behaviors, inclusive and exclusive, with some of their really brilliant campaigns that have spoken to inclusion.
AMBER HIKES: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right? With Kaepernick and others. It’s been really interesting to watch them as a brand in particular wrestle with how they try to walk the talk and align the internal practices with the external message they’re sending. And they’re stepping into the whole sports question, which is a whole other hotbed of this exact conversation. Look, we always say we’re glad – it would have been worse to be in denial about the racism and gender dynamics within the LGBT community and go along our merry way and be in denial. That’s not the point. However painful it might have been, and I’m sure that you all were shocked and dismayed, but wouldn’t we all rather know the truth about our community?
AMBER HIKES: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: And we hide it. We don’t want other people to know the dirty laundry, but we are internally oppressed.
AMBER HIKES: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’ve grown up in an oppressive world. Just because you’re LGBTQ or because you’re a person of color or even just because you’re a woman doesn’t necessarily make you the most inclusive human being doing your work, you know? I love hearing about allies like Jim Kenney, the mayor, who acknowledges his demographic and limitations. He says, “I am a white, straight, cisgender man, and I need help. And I want to hire strategically, I want to make sure I’m prioritizing the things that are critical for my city and acknowledging where I need to learn.” It’s such a counter behavior to leadership, of course, because the way that we typically think of leaders is that they somehow have all the answers and it’s powerful and they don’t want to admit mistakes and things like that.
I’m sure your partnership is so unique, and I wish it weren’t so unique, but I’m sure he’s growing by leaps and bounds through learning from you.
AMBER HIKES: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I want to ask you, I don’t want to let you go without defining intersectional allyship for us. It is, in fact, a relationship with him. That is an example of intersectional allyship. Would you describe quickly for our audience, what is intersectionality? We talk about it a lot, but I’d like to hear from you.
AMBER HIKES: Of course.
JENNIFER BROWN: And then why did you put these two concepts together and speak to them on the Out and Equal stage? I loved it because I think this is where we need to go, an understanding of the concept.
AMBER HIKES: Absolutely. Thank you. I wish we could talk forever because I have so much to say about what you said earlier, but I will answer the question.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you! (Laughter.)
AMBER HIKES: Absolutely. For me, obviously, I lean on Dr. Kimberly Crenshaw’s definition, but I have to put things into my own words or at least borrow loosely from her. Intersectionality is not just recognizing the differences in diversity of different identities, that’s where people always start. If you ask people to define intersectionality, it’s just recognizing the world different and having different experiences, right?
But the important part of intersectionality is recognizing systemic oppression and how that affects folks. So if you’re talking about intersectionality and talking about diversity and different experiences and different people without talking about systemic oppression, then you’re missing the most important piece. So, it’s recognizing the systemic oppressions and how those oppressions affect people differently, right? That’s the easiest, least academic way that I can talk about that. And I know that’s particularly important when you’re talking about all the difficult identities that somebody like me holds or the different identities that we are seeing that are under attack in this current climate.
I chose to talk about intersectional allyship at Out and Equal this year because in the past year, and when I’m aspect to speak at other places, people always want me to talk about the flag. And the flag is a wonderful, beautiful symbol of how we should be centering and highlighting and elevating the voices of marginalized folks for sure, and centering that experience in the spaces that we have, right? But it’s a symbol. It’s just a symbol. And we need to be moving beyond the symbol. So, while I appreciate talking about the flag, I really want folks to be challenging, critiquing, examining, analyzing how we are using that symbol in real practice, and how we’re showing up.
And so your point earlier about Kaepernick and Nike is exactly that. So, it’s one thing to put this man’s face on a billboard and say that we stand with Kaepernick. Cool. In the same way you put this flag up and say, “See, black and brown stripes. We stand with LGBT people of color.” But what do your practices look like? Right? If we’re just using symbols without action, it’s all empty, right? Nothing is going to get done. In the same way that if we’re not talking about these issues, if we’re not calling it out, if we’re not addressing it, then nothing is going to change.
So, this idea of intersectional allyship is like how can we show up daily, wherever we are, to show up for each other? And I hear this from people all the time. It’s like, “Well, it’s easy for you. You’re in politics, you’re literally like a paid advocate. It’s easy for you to show up for folks, it’s literally your job.” And it’s the same for you, too, Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
AMBER HIKES: It is your job to talk about these issues and push people to be better. But I don’t know how to do that where I am in the classroom, or I don’t know how to do it in my job as a chemist. I don’t know how to do it in my job at 7-Eleven. Right? My whole thing is that we can do this and show up as intersectional allies to each other wherever we are. We can be political in place. And so that’s where I push.
And so I talk to people about interrogating your surroundings. So, I talk about show up, speak up, stand up. Right? The idea is interrogating your surroundings, looking around, seeing who is there, who’s not there, and then using your voice to create more space at the table for marginalize identities that we’re always talking about, but we’re not letting them speak for themselves or we’re not using our own privilege to create space at the table for them so that they can speak for themselves or advocate for themselves.
And when we do get them to the table, how are we elevating those voices? How are we co-signing what they’re saying? How are we using our privilege and leveraging that privilege to support what they’re saying and what they’re pushing forward and what they’re experience is?
So, for me, that’s what allyship should look like. We should be moving beyond symbolism and especially in this day and time, we should be standing up for immigrants, for young people, for elders, for folks who are living with disabilities. This is really what we have to be doing for each other – for people who are living in poverty, are living with HIV, we have to be allies to each other. If anything, this administration and this current climate has shown that we’re not going to get anywhere if we aren’t standing in solidarity with one another. That’s our only hope forward. That’s why I push that message.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love it. Thank you so much for all of that. You consider that you have levels of privilege that you can use on behalf of others, right?
AMBER HIKES: Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: What are some of those, in a nutshell, when you think about them?
AMBER HIKES: Yeah, absolutely. Certainly, the first thing I think of is there’s an access. Right? So, I work for the mayor of the fifth largest city in the country. He’s a guy that I’ve already seen three times a day and I’ll be going and seeing him in a few minutes again. I have a direct ear to this man who is one of the most powerful folks at a municipal level in the country. So, there’s that access, right? There’s privilege there.
At this point in my life, I have certain economic privilege. I have educational privilege. I have a master’s degree from an Ivy League university. There are these things. But I recognize with those privileges, for instance my educational privilege, I recognize that especially after going to an Ivy League school, I recognize that a lot of that is completely arbitrary. A lot of these degrees are completely arbitrary.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. (Laughter.)
AMBER HIKES: I am doing what I can, for instance, when I had to hire for a deputy director, I got rid of education requirements. I don’t need somebody else that has an MSW.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so good.
AMBER HIKES: I don’t need somebody else that has a JD. I need someone that can work with people, who knows about the community, who can bridge gaps, who can listen. I was looking for skills, not degrees, right? The same thing with the leadership pipeline that were contributing to make sure that folks who have not had access to leadership positions can participate in our boards and our organizations, they can serve on nonprofit boards. I’m looking at ways to remove barriers to accessibility. Right?
I think that’s what we all need to be doing. So, I’m also an able-bodied person, right? I’m a person who was not born in this country, but who is an American citizen, right? I’m thinking about all of those ways that I hold privilege so that I can use that privilege to advocate for folks who don’t have that privilege.
Again, yes, as a black, queer woman, I do have a lot of marginalized identities, but I have a lot of privileges as well. And I constantly need to be interrogating those to find out how I can show up for other folks.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s why I love you, Amber! (Laughter.) I said those exact words on stage before I ever met you.
AMBER HIKES: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: I feel like we are divinely connected. I just love the work you’re doing. I always ask, “How can people support you?” How can people read more or watch you more? You need to have a TED Talk if you don’t. I’m sure you will.
AMBER HIKES: I keep hearing that. Yes, they can follow us social media. The Office of LGBT Affairs has a Facebook page and a Twitter and an Instagram. I have all those social media sites as well. I’m not so great at Twitter, but I’m going to get better, I keep saying that. But they can find me on Facebook and Instagram is a little sillier, fun, light pictures. If they want to follow the work, definitely follow the Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs. It’s the best way to watch what we’re doing.
Yes, we’re going to keep pushing forward this leadership pipeline. I mentioned it’s the next big thing that we’re doing. First of its kind in the country. It’s an intersection between some of our LGBT community organizations and the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs, all working to very literally and intentionally invest in the next generation of leadership in our community, making sure that it is more trans, it is younger, it is also older. We often have elders that have a seat at the table as well, and it is certainly more colorful than it’s ever been. That’s very important to us. We want to promise and commit that the future of the community will look very, very different from the past.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love it. Is that publicly available?
AMBER HIKES: Yes. There is a lot of information on it. We’re having our major press conference today at 5:00.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness! Congratulations!
AMBER HIKES: Yes. Thanks.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’ll look for that and we’ll share it out. For those folks on The Will to Change, I know this always goes without being said, but I want to say it. Amber is an incredible speaker. Invite her to your events and give her the stage and let her bring this beautiful perspective of the blend of all of your identities and the way you speak about it. It means that all of us can be allies, even those of us with some stigmatized identities or challenges.
AMBER HIKES: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: And you have a powerful voice. Each of us can do something. There are never any of us who can afford not to do something. And for many of us, there’s something that’s easier to do than others. That comes with huge responsibility.
Thank you so much for joining me today, Amber. Keep up the good work.
AMBER HIKES: Absolutely. It was a pleasure. Thank you so much.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you so much.