Level Up in the summer of 2021

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Two bars opened recently in the Gayborhood that are owned and operated by people of color, marking a big culture shift for the LGBTQ enclave in Center City, where racism has been documented for years.

One of the new establishments is Level Up Bar & Lounge, a Black-owned club that took over the old Boxers space at 13th and Walnut. It opened right before the lockdown hit last year, but is now making a name for itself by offering an honestly ridiculous number of performances, meant to cater to a diverse variety of people.

“That’s the main thing,” said proprietor Ken Lowe Jr. “Making sure no matter who you are or how you identify, we at least have something once a month that you can come to and feel safe.”

Just a few blocks away is Cockatoo. The Miami-style cocktail bar, opened in February on 13th Street between Walnut and Locust, is run by Ram Krishnan and Akshay Kamath, who also own Writer’s Block Rehab.

Krishnan believes Level Up and Cockatoo opening within a year of each other is no coincidence.

“When I came out 15 years back, I may have been the only out, brown man in the bars,” Krishnan said. “There’s a subconscious frustration that builds over time, until you say, ‘Hey, you know what, I think I’ll create the space.’”

Racism has been described as prevalent in Philly’s gay nightlife since at least the 1980s. In 2015, many Black bar-goers reported unfair treatment, like being required to show several forms of ID, or being turned away for minor dress code violations. The following year, owner Darryl DiPiano of the now-closed iCandy bar was caught on video saying a racial slur.

Philly drag queen Tina Montgomery has felt the undercurrent of racism in the Gayborhood for her entire career.

Montgomery, who’s Black, said she’s hardened to subtle displays of discrimination. Over the years, she’s complained to Philly bar owners about not hiring people of color — and seen them respond by hiring one “token” Black drag queen. She’s been booked to perform in a group of otherwise white performers, only to get the cold shoulder in the dressing room.

“No white performers spoke to me,” said 55-year-old Montgomery. “That’s how they treated us.”

The Gayborhood is further gentrifying now — it’s often called Midtown Village, and it welcomes just as many straight bachelorette parties as queer customers. Earlier this year, the city’s only lesbian bar closed for good.

Level Up is trying to fight it.

The Walnut Street club hosts events most nights of the week — each one geared toward a different demographic from the LGBTQ community. There are regular parties for lesbians, and shows designed to welcome trans people. “Thick and Sexy Night” is centered around body positivity.

Customers have noticed. Level Up regular Shonda Evans said she makes the trip from her North Philly home to the Center City bar two or three times every week.

“I do appreciate the inclusivity and just the variety,” Evans said. “You literally pick your day and you’re able to have a place to go that you can identify with.” She hopes this is just the start of a diversifying Gayborhood.

“Everybody says 13th Street is not gay anymore,” said Cockatoo owner Krishnan. “But we’re like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this.’ ”

Krishnan purposely stations either himself or his husband, general manager Kamath, at the entrance of Cockatoo. That way, people stopping by for the bar’s fruity drinks, Latin-inspired food and regular drag performances can tell that it’s run by people of color.

“It’s like, ‘Guess what, this is brown-owned,’ ” Krishnan said. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who are shocked.”

Could the diversifying nightlife scene help rid the Gayborhood of racism? Director of Philly’s Office of LGBT Affairs Celena Morrison thinks it’s a step.

“While these new openings represent a small but meaningful level of progress, the fight for a more inclusive and equitable city is something we’ll continue driving long into the future,” Morrison said. “Representation across all areas of public accommodation — including our vibrant social spaces — is critical to ensure our diverse LGBTQ+ communities feel seen, heard and respected.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...