Amber Hikes is not just a party promoter. It’s because of her work on the board of the William Way (she’s chair of the center’s resource development committee), member of the Philadelphia Dyke March planning committee and board member of Mountain Meadow and Identity Kit that the co-founder of Stimulus Productions has been chosen as Philly Gay Pride‘s grand marshall for this year’s parade (June 9). The 28-year-old director of the Upward Bound Program at University of Pennsylvania tells us how she plans on representing the community this year – and how she plans to celebrate not only the 25th anniversary of Philly Pride Day, but also Stimulus’ fifth year of bringing women and allies together for some of the most popular parties and charity events in the region.
What was your reaction when you found out you would be a grand marshall?
Shock. Complete and utter shock. To be honest, when I think of people who are honored in this way, to represent their community, those people don’t look like me. In my head they’re older. They’re white. They’re men. So I don’t think I ever really considered that I could be Grand Marshall of Philly Pride. I never saw a young black lesbian in that role. But boy am I ecstatic that I was wrong. It’s an honor and one I don’t take lightly.
What kind of message do you want to send to young people in the community?
It may sound trite, but what resonates about this honor is that you can make a difference in your community and people will notice. Start where you are, with what you have and what you’re passionate about. Start there and build up. I was an intern at the Attic Youth Center and Equality Advocates (now Equality PA), when I was doing my graduate work at Penn. That was my introduction to the community. Then I got involved with the Dyke March, then soon after, I started throwing a monthly party because lesbians in this city needed more options. That party quickly became a beautiful movement and my involvement in William Way and other organizations in the city spring-boarded from that. But it all started with volunteering in the community with populations that mattered to me.
How do you work with the community?
I work with first-generation, low-income high school students from West Philadelphia and I help get them into college. Many of my students also identify as LGBTQ. I’m always amazed by the impact representation can have on one’s concept of self. What I mean by that is that there is something profoundly inspiring about seeing someone who looks like yourself in a successful position. I can tell my students until I’m blue in the face that even though no one in their family has ever gone to college, ever achieved this dream, they can do it. I can give them stellar teachers, put them through excellent SAT prep courses and pair them with fantastic mentors, but there’s nothing that compares to them stepping on a college campus during a tour and seeing students who look like them, come from their neighborhoods and who are thriving in a postsecondary environment. I say that to emphasize that if there are some young people who feel like the leaders in this community do not look like them or if they feel like young people or women or people of color don’t get things done around here …well, that’s just not true. So, the message to young people is, no more excuses. Get in there, roll up your sleeves and leave your mark.
What does Pride mean to you now?
When you’re younger, Pride is about getting out, seeing other people like you and feeling connected by that common identity, that shared experience. In saying that, I suppose it’s not so different when you get older. For me, Pride is about displaying the full beauty and diversity of our community. The LGBTQ community is unlike any other in that we span every category/classification of human being one can be. There’s such diversity there. It’s astounding. So Pride means representation to me. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone that looked like me when I was coming out and that was difficult. You search everywhere looking for that and come up short. But on that one day a year, you realize that even while those outside messages may make you think different, this community looks like you. You belong here. There’s a lot power in that.
How do you think the community is changing as far as the representations one sees?
Gay bars in the community are literally breaking down their walls: Woodys, Uncles, ICandy – all literally breaking through the boarded-up facades and replacing them with gorgeous open-air designs. It’s a physical manifestation of a larger community ideology. We’re proud, we’re unashamed – not just in the month of June – but every single day of the year. It’s empowering to see people hanging out of the window, being their full authentic selves in a bold, yet perfectly simple way. It’s indicative of not only a changing community tone but of a larger societal perspective as well. We are open. We are proud. We are unafraid.
Why is Pride still important?
Sometimes I talk to people and they argue that events like Pride and establishments like gay bars are no longer necessary. They worry that “exclusionary” events only work against the mission of LGBTQ inclusion. I disagree. I respect and fully appreciate the importance of predominately LGBTQ spaces. There’s real value in being in a space that is filled with people like you, created by people like you, for people like you. So I insist that even with these significant shifts both within the community and society at large, Pride is still a necessity. Starting with the Stonewall riots and continuing with every LGBTQ victory thereafter, we have worked hard for these spaces. We have earned them. As Philadelphians who are blessed to have Gloria Casarez and the Mayor’s office fighting for our rights on a city level and the likes of Brian Sims and countless others fighting on the state level, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has a community, not everyone feels validated in their homes, at their place of employment. Pride serves as that one day a year where you can feel like you’re not so alone. And if that’s not a good enough reason, Pride is unique and meaningful because when else are you going to be surrounded by 10,000 out proud gay folks? Except maybe at a Madonna concert [laughs].
How do you celebrate Pride? What about this year as grand marshall?
The easy answer is work. I’ve been involved with the Philly Dyke March for six years and I’ve been the chair of the performers and speakers committee for four. So Pride as I know it, always includes working the Dyke March. It’s the largest annual celebration of women who love women in this city and it means a lot to me. I’ve got a radical spirit so marching in the streets without a permit, strutting down Broad St with drums and banners and signs proclaiming who we are and demanding our voices be heard is a beautiful thing. So this year, I’ll be spending Saturday at the Dyke March and Saturday night at Voyeur for the Dyke March and Homecoming Afterparty. Sunday will be distinctly different this year because I understand I have some grand marshall duties. I’ll be riding a float (which is a somewhat nerve-wrecking experience) and I’ll be on stage for a bit. Stimulus is also throwing an eight-hour Pride party at Voyeur that day so it suffices to say it’ll be a busy weekend. It all sounds crazy but I’ll enjoy every minute of it and have some profound gratitude along the way. This is a once in a lifetime experience and I recognize that. But make no mistake – I’m sleeping for a week after all that insanity is over.
Since you’ll be in work and party mode, if there was a song to embody the experience for you, what would it be?
It’s going to be a long weekend so I’d have two songs: one silly, somewhat typical song to hype me up and another to calm me down and help me keep perspective: Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and Goapele’s “Closer.”
The Pride Parade kicks off at 13th and Locust (noon) before winding it’s way to Penn’s Landing (gates also open at noon) where events begin after 1:30 p.m. on the main stage with special guests Omarosa from The Celebrity Apprentice and Bob Lawson, known as the “Gay Mentalist.” There’s also the Second Annual Kick-Off Block Party (June 7) in the Gayborhood (6 to 11 p.m.) and the Annual Dyke March and William Way Homecoming (June 8).