Amber Hikes is the Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs for the City of Philadelphia, which works to foster equal working and living conditions for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people and to advocate for LGBTQ issues in all areas of City government.
Amber is a social worker and community advocate; before she joined Philadelphia’s city government she’d worked as the director of a program serving low-income, first-generation college attendees in Long Beach, California and at the University of Pennsylvania.
In June 2017, Hikes’ office introduced the “More Pride More Color” flag, an update of the LGBT+ Pride flag including black and brown stripes. In 2018, she was named “Community Organizer of the Year” in the OUT 100.
How did you first realize that you were LGBT+, and come out?
I’m queer. And when I talk about that process of realization, it’s not really about when I knew I was queer. It’s more about when I found out other people weren’t.
From a pretty young age, I had always been attracted to, or interested in folks, regardless of their gender identity and I thought that other people experienced fluid attraction in a similar way. I spent time with a lot of people who were very fluid in terms of their self-presentation of their gender. It was only in middle school, or early high school, that I experienced some discrimination and some pushback when I talked about my perspective. I realized that I was the outlier and that other folks were straight. Until that time, I thought we were all walking around in a much more fluid world. I didn’t realize that everyone else was not queer until later.
Finding out that other people expressed their sexual orientation in such a rigid way, and experiencing my first brushes with homophobia, pushed me pretty far into the closet.
As a consequence, I didn’t outwardly express my sexual identity, really, until college. I certainly had attractions to folks across binaries, but I did not really express those attractions, communicate them or articulate them at all until college. Frankly, by the time I came out, everyone around me already knew, which I know is a story that other folks in the community may relate to.
By the time I was ready to come out, my mother actually brought me out of the closet. We were having a conversation and she was the one who said, “Before you get off the phone, I think you have something to tell me.” And she literally walked me through the process. And by literally, I mean she said “I….I am…” and that’s how I came out to my family. It was a positive and welcoming experience.
How has being out at work has affected your leadership approach and style?
It’s really about how I bring all of my identities to the table. Even though I do this job, specifically rooted in the queer community, I bring all the other aspects of my identity to the work. Since I am a member of the black community and I am a woman, I understand the importance of allies and accomplices, in all the work we do, especially when we’re doing social justice, movement, or political work. None of this gets done without allies on our side. And so that has very much informed how I approach this work for the LGBT+ community.
I’m a part of so many different communities and often it’s easier for me to bring those people to the table. I’m able to use my own experience as a queer person, and also as a queer woman of color, to say this is the way that this experience is intersectional. This is the way this queer person’s unique experience also reflects this experience that you’re having, maybe as a straight person. Further, this is how we can use these shared experiences to be allies to each other and move each other forward in our shared goals.
Who are your role models?
I am infinitely led by LGBTQ youth, elders, and our ancestors. The folks on either side of the spectrum. We have a strong population of elders here in Philadelphia, in addition to being one of the very few cities that has LGBTQ elder housing. And these are people who are capable of really giving perspective on the struggles of our community over the years, especially during this challenging time in our country’s history.
I often find myself going to talk the elders for perspective on how to keep up the fight and not become discouraged. Similarly, in young people, I find so much inspiration from their vigor and their commitment to justice and resistance. They have incredibly creative ideas about how to make our world a better place and they know how to approach these topics in innovative ways that adults either have not considered, or have been, frankly, too fearful to implement.
If you could have job other than the one that you have now, what would it be?
I’d be one of Beyoncé’s back up dancers.
I’m not qualified, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d love to sit in for a day.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from a boss?
You have to know how to choose your battles. Know what hills you want to die on. Alternatively, you must be able to identify where there’s room for compromise. I’ve learned that lesson many different times in many different ways. It is a lesson that I think is particularly helpful when working with our community now. Of course, there are some places where we will have to draw lines in the sand, and say, we will not be moved from this spot. However, because we are working with so many different people with different perspectives and priorities, there also has to be room for compromise.
What’s an important thing that you’ve learned from someone you work with?
I’m learning it now. It is a constant lesson and I want to frame this delicately – I’m still learning how not to take things personally, and how to know when to walk away. It’s about knowing when someone else’s pain and trauma are being projected onto you in a way that is going to be hurtful for everyone involved. When you identify that, you must be able to implement that context and know enough to be able to step aside when pain is being projected onto you. You don’t necessarily step away from engaging a person or an issue altogether, but you step aside enough so that you don’t take it personally and be rendered ineffective.
In this particular climate we are too often at each other’s throats, within this community AND with the communities we should be allied with. We are constantly at each other’s throats. And it makes sense, because we are people managing scores of oppressions. We’ve been through a lot of trauma and pain, but too often, that is enacted upon folks who should be in coalition with us.
I do not often have the privilege of walking away from someone’s issue or concern altogether regardless of how they approach me with it. This means I need to constantly find ways to keep my personal feelings out of the matter, while remaining committed enough to the issue to be able to help the person reach a solution, regardless of how they’re approaching me, or my office, or the community in general.
If you could tell someone who just graduated from college one thing, what would it be?
Find your people. That’s essential. You spend a lot of time in college with like-minded folks, with people who are committed to the things you’re committed to. And when you leave college it is often, frankly, much more difficult to find those support systems. We get so focused on finding our careers, on finding that next step but we do not spend enough time finding our support system and our people. Sometimes those people do exist in your career field, and that’s a blessing when it happens, but we don’t put enough emphasis on finding those people who are going to support us when we hit the inevitable rough patches.
Who is your most important ally?
Frankly, it’s got to be the mayor. I have to give him a shout out. Jim Kenney, Mayor of Philadelphia, is my most important straight ally. He is the person I work with most closely on our initiatives, and he always has my back. He’s had my back since my first day on the job.
I’ve always known it, but he demonstrated it most clearly in June 2017, when we launched the Philly pride flag with black and brown stripes.
He knew that it was a measure likely to be met with resistance – like so many measures that deal with complicated issues around racism, oppression and discrimination. With eyes wide open, he walked into a challenging conversation, and he had my back, and the city’s back, every step of the way.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Like I said earlier, in terms of the advice I use every day, I had a boss who said something along the lines of “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” And that remains relevant. Knowing when to draw a line in the sand and knowing when to compromise.
Okay. What do you think the next big thing for the global LGBT community is?
As LGBTQ people, we know that we need to unite and that’s true of any community that’s under attack. We need to be able to stand in solidarity with one another but we’re finding that our differences feel more pronounced now than ever. I think that’s because folks who haven’t had a seat at the table, who have been historically marginalized, are demanding that spot finally. Simultaneously, other folks who have had access historically, have struggled with making space, or finding out how to make sure their voices are still included while we’re including new voices.
In my opinion, and again this is my opinion, coming from my perspective with my identities, the next big thing is for the community to really stand in solidarity with the folks who have been most marginalized, whose ideas have not been heard for too long. The people whose ideas have been silenced or hushed. Young people, elders, trans folks, and of course people of color. I think we need to elevate their voices to reach equity and inclusion for all of us.
When you look at your career, what do you think your next big step will be?
I love my job a great deal and I’m fully focused on advocating for the rights of youth and LGBTQ people in Philadelphia, but if there is any frustration, it’s that I can’t affect more change on a larger level. For me, I think the next step would be helping to push diversity and inclusion agendas, from an intersectional perspective of course, on a national level.
If were planning a dinner party and you could invite any 5 people from history, living or dead, who would they be and why?
I mean I feel like everybody says Oprah, but I’m going to say Oprah, for all the obvious reasons.
James Baldwin and Audre Lorde as a pair.
Harvey Milk, that would be fantastic. So now I have two women, two men, let me see… lets do Janet Mock.
There we go, do I have five? It’s going to be a fun one. They’re all queer people. Oprah gets a pass. She’s a strong advocate.
What would be the opening song in a movie about your life?
Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.”
It’s one of those songs, it depends on who you talk to, what it means to them.
I had a complicated upbringing and there was a fair amount of poverty, struggle and violence and there were many times… well, it’s pretty common for queer folks who have had more complicated childhoods to just want to go anywhere else, right? You just wanted to get out, and those are the first lines of that song. You know, “You’ve got a fast car, I’ve got a ticket to anywhere” and the song is about getting in a car and going as far away possible, as fast as possible. To start a new life. As queer young people, we do a lot of struggling with seeing ourselves and finding space for our authentic selves. We do spend a lot of time thinking about what it could look like if you could get a ticket to some kind of utopia or paradise, or really anywhere that’s different from where you are. That song speaks to that experience, for me.
What are 6 things you could never live without?
Family, purpose, that sense of having your own internal mission or commitment, community, and Chapstick.
I’ve got to be really honest. The first thing I ever grab is Chapstick. The other stuff I’ll figure out, but Chapstick I know for a fact I can’t go without. Water, food, shelter, we’ll figure that out. Chapstick is just non-negotiable.