Antar Bush says we are so much stronger together than divided

Philadelphia LGBT activist Antar Bush
Philadelphia LGBT activist Antar Bush
Antar Bush is speaking out and helping Philadelphia’s Gayborhood heal

Philadelphia has always been one of the most diverse cities in the nation with a vibrant and active LGBT community. The community has seen some challenges in the past several years. Issues of race have become front-page national news many times. While some choose to continue to use these issues as fodder or click bait, others are advocating ways to bring the community together. Antar Bush is one of those people.

I caught up with this dynamic trailblazer, on the heels of the uber successful Black Gay Pride, and we talked about events in the city that sparked his advocacy. And we discussed racism in the city today.

What makes him love his city and it’s citizens so much

“When my life is on course with it’s purpose I am my most powerful!” — Oprah

Michael Cook: Your advocacy started in 1997 when you started working at the Colours Organization. What drew you to advocacy in Philadelphia to begin with? 

Antar Bush: When I came out of the closet in the summer of 1994, I remember vividly the LGBTQ youth who I surrounded myself around. There were so many displaced LGBTQ youth, including myself, looking for the world to see us. To hear us. We know that we mattered. Fast forward, three years later in 1997, and the same group would be cut in half due to suicide, HIV diagnosis, drug addiction, and homelessness.

Philadelphia LGBT activist Antar Bush
Philadelphia LGBT activist Antar Bush

During this time I had an opportunity to meet three people who would change my life forever: Clay Cane, Louie Ortiz, and Gloria Casarez. These people gave me the tough love I needed in my adolescent development. Although all three of these people were a few years older than me. They literary became my gay parents. Still to this day I call Louis Ortiz “Momma” and Clay Cane gives me all the unsolicited advice like any good Italian dad. Gloria forced me to go to college and find financial aid via the Lax Scholarship. All three of these individual are advocates in their own way. There was no way in hell I was not going to be an advocate for LGBTQ folks.

Advocating for people of color and them having control over their own health is very important to you. What makes it such a passionate cause to you? 

I am often telling folks SPEAK UP!

AB: It all starts and ends with health. However, what is healthy to you, and what is health to me is what I try to get public health officials to see. The way we train doctors and nurses in this country is wrong with a capital “W.”  Doctors and nurses are trained to be the experts in the room, even when they don’t know you, or the lifestyle you have. This creates a disconnect. And as a result people of color stop going to get medical treatment because they don’t want to feel unheard. I am often telling folks SPEAK UP! If the doctors say something you don’t like, say something. You are a customer! Medical professionals need to always remember this about clients. Giving someone a sense of agency over their health is the single best thing you can do as an advocate. I have watched far too many LGBTQ people die because of the lack autonomy they had over their own health treatment. This should never be acceptable.

In 2016, an owner at ICandy was taped without his knowledge using the n-word on tape regarding customers. He has since apologized and worked with the community and the city on being a much more inclusive business. This issue set the tone for several issues with the city of Philadelphia, the LGBT community, and the African American community. Instead of turning it into a negative, you chose to work with both the business and the LGBT people of color? Tell me about that.

AB: When something like what happened at ICandy happens, I know it is going to be a time for change. For so long Gayborhood club owners could simply deny their racist practices. But not anymore! There it was, front and center, for the world to see. I thought the initial boycott was amazing, but the question I had later was, “ok, so now what?” Dr. King said, “Boycotts and riots is the language of the unheard.” The ICandy boycott got everyone’s attention, but there was no real policy as a result of it.

I waited for almost a year. Then something interesting happened. The LGBTQ people of color started to return to ICandy. LGBTQ people of color returned to a space that had not been reformed or made safer for them. Seeing this sparked something in me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Anyone who knows me knows when I start thinking; I cannot stop until I make it happen. And I literary became obsessed with ICandy and making it a safer space for LGBTQ folks. I would talk about it with anyone who would listen, and I would always start with “You know black people are going back to ICandy.” I saw the reaction, and then I would tell them how we need to create a list of demands and present to management.

Philadelphia LGBT activist Antar Bush
Philadelphia LGBT activist Antar Bush

Once things started to evolve, nothing could have prepared me for the backlash I experienced from close friends, and colleagues. I was shocked. I always quoted Jennifer Lewis from Jackie’s Back when she would say, “How could anyone think I am an Uncle Tom? My afro is bigger than Angela Davis!” (Laughs)

I had a very clear goal with ICandy, and it was to make it safer for those LGBTQ people of color who choose to go back to be celebrated and have social engagement. I never went in the ICandy situation thinking I was going to change a club owners mind about black people. If a person has a feeling about something I could care less. What I am more concerned about is — does this person in power use their feelings about another race to create oppressive environments.

We are so much stronger together than divided

What makes you try to enhance the conversation instead of deepening the divide when it comes to issues with race in Philadelphia? 

AB: We are so much stronger together than divided. I wanted more people and organizations to be a part of this initiative. But in the end only three others stood by me. ICandy, Woody’s, Tabu, and Voyeur ain’t going nowhere. There is no black or brown LGBTQ club owner in this city. My question, to nay sayers is “What do you tell the 22 year old LGBTQ college student who is looking for a space to be social? Where should he go?” If you tell them they can’t go to this club, or that club…  I have NEVER gotten an answer to this question to this day. The reason why is because they know there is no place for black and brown people to go in this city. Some people saw tragedy, I saw a teachable moment and opportunity for everyone involve.

Where do you think the issue of race is with the city now? Has it improved?  

AB: I think with the Trump administration, we all realized the importance of being united. I don’t think it has improved as much as I would have liked. However, I will say we are more aware of racial injustice now than ever before. There was a time no one would have cared about what happened at Starbucks, or Meek Mills. Now we are in a political climate that is the perfect incubator for social justice causes. We will get there; together Philadelphians will get there.

Hillary Clinton was was throwing so much shade! 

What do you think can be done with some of the detractors in the city who continue to blow the dog whistle of racism without working towards solutions?  

AB: Last summer I read Hilary Clinton’s What Happened?” It is an amazing read! I think her inner drag queen came out in this book. She was throwing so much shade! Anyway, she pointed out the Black Lives Matters campaign and how she thought it was great initiative. However, there was no policy work behind it at the time. Clinton pointed out that you can never change a person’s mind about how they feel something. But you can create policies to keep those same people from practicing their hateful feelings. I say continue to call people out on racist issues that plague this city. But when the smoke dies down, and all the cameras are gone, have the plan ready. If there is no plan after the jolt of protests, riots, and boycotts, than all that energy was a complete waste.

It can’t be all work and advocacy though. What are your favorite spots to hit the town in Philly? Any plans for the summer?   

AB: My favorite spot in Philadelphia to hit is Maison 208 because I am an older queen now. I cannot stay up for ICandy, Woody’s, Bulldogs, or Tabu. The space is charming, the prices are high enough that I won’t see anyone under 25, and low enough I can still pay my bills at the end of the month. My friends and I call it our Sex in the City spot. I only plan on doing the beach this summer, I’ve bought a ton of swimsuits and I plan on wearing them all.

What inspires you to keep doing such amazing work in the City of Brotherly Love? 

AB: I love Philadelphia! And I don’t care if I go to heaven or hell. I’ll be going from Philadelphia. This city inspires me with it’s resiliency, competitive nature, and don’t give a fuck attitude. How can you not be inspired?! When I listen to the LGBTQ youth of the city, and acknowledge them to feel like THEY MATTER. Also, I ain’t no spring chicken, so it imperative to cultivate the next generation of leaders to fight their causes. A few weeks ago, I saw a group of flamboyant gay and trans youth on the train, without a care in the world. I looked at them and smiled to myself because I know the reason why they are able to be on this train and be in wonderland. It is because people like myself and Louis Ortiz, Clay Cane, Michael Hinson, Daja Alvarez, and Gloria Casarez made it possible. Those young people inspired me and said thank you without even knowing it.

You can follow Antar Bush on Twitter