The Welcoming Committee: Remapping Boston For The LGBTQ Community
By Sarah O’Connor
BU News Service
Boston’s Faneuil Hall neighborhood is most often equated with tourism, not heterosexism. But many LGBTQ—lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer—identifying people say the reality of discrimination in Faneuil Hall leaves some surprised and others choosing to avoid the area altogether.
Elizabeth Gerace, a graduate student visiting Boston from upstate New York, recalled a bartender’s refusal to serve her at a pub on State Street. “He just ignored me,” she said. “I don’t dress very feminine, and identify as queer, so that kind of treatment is unfortunately not an uncommon experience for me—I just never expected it to happen here.”
The problem of what academic observers call “hetero- and cis-normative spaces” — where LGBTQ persons are made to feel unwelcome — in Boston is what Daniel Heller, a graduate of Harvard Business School, saw as an opportunity to address when founding The Welcoming Committee, a social venture that organizes LGBTQ “takeovers” of “typically straight” venues across the city. “When you take a city and you are gay, for instance, or you are black, or you are not wealthy, or there are parts where you just do not feel comfortable, I think that you begin to sort of erase them from the map,” Heller said.
Nonprofit and political activist efforts target legal inequalities for LGBTQ people, but do not usually address disparities in social, cultural, or leisure opportunities.
“We looked at the landscape for two things: how big can this community be?” Heller said. “And how many places do they want to go?” The utilization of a for-profit model allows Heller’s organization to coordinate LGBTQ gatherings at bars, sporting arenas, comedy nights, theater and orchestra performances, as well as destination trips to casinos, ski resorts, or cruises, all while remaining financially solvent.
Working with vendors to provide discounted prices to its members, The Welcoming Committee (TWC) brings hundreds of clientele to a venue—anything less than a 200-person turnout for an event is considered “a failure”—and then gets a cut of ticket profits.
“Part of what is cool about the for-profit social enterprise model done right,” said Heller, “is that the revenue directly benefits the social need. So that the more money we are able to make, the more staff we are able to have, the bigger community we are able to support, the more events we can build for them. There is a sort of synergy between revenue and community.”
The design of TWC encompasses multiple levels of engagement that incorporate grassroots community principles into a broader business scheme. There are corps member volunteers, who are vetted through an application and interview process and trained to foster connections among attendees at events, whether they arrive solo or in groups, as well as full-time, paid employees and partnering organizations and sponsors. “TWC is an entirely new way to look at the community around LGBTQ,” Cristina Liquori, a brand manager for The LEGO Group who attends many of TWC’s events said. “You make an incredible amount of connections very quickly through events—it’s a foundation.”
Brandon Fisher, a marketing and development associate at Goddard House, said he’s a TWC enthusiast. “It’s all inclusive,” he said. “We meet up, network, socialize, and have fun while doing so.”
It’s all about lowering geographical and cultural boundaries, Heller says. “Before we started TWC, Faneuil Hall after 9 PM to me did not exist. It’s too homophobic; simply off the map. Once you go with TWC, I hope that you remember those spaces differently.”
Since its inception in 2012, The Welcoming Committee has expanded to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco. The group has plans to be active in the 20 largest cities in the United States by the end of 2015. On the first Friday of every month, TWC hosts “Guerrilla Queer Bar,” a continuation of the earlier queer activist takeovers that inspired its founding.
On October 3, TWC will celebrate the seventh year anniversary of Guerrilla Queer Bar with simultaneous takeovers in each of its six cities; the precise locations will be revealed on October 2.
“When you start to see more of a city as yours, you as an individual are empowered,” Heller said. “And that is I think a really key feature—not just of TWC but of strong communities in general, that they empower people.”