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A few weeks ago, The Welcoming Committee opened up shop in Minneapolis and it’s getting a not-so-welcome response from the Twin Cities’ LGBT entertainment sector.

The Welcoming Committee (TWC) moved into Minneapolis earlier this year promising to expand LGBT entertainment options beyond LGBT bars. The group has so far hosted Walker Art Center tour, a beer tasting, and a doughnut sampling, and plans a Guerrilla Queer Bar of a downtown bar and an outing to the Minnesota Twins in the next few weeks.

On Monday, a open letter signed by almost 30 LGBT entertainers, party throwers, DJs, and artists questioned the intentions of TWC. The letter states:

“We don’t understand how the Welcoming Committee, a for-profit corporate-funded business, will help us on our journey. It lacks local presence or knowledge, and we fear a disconnect while trying to meaningfully connect with the community.” [The full letter is reprinted below]

TWC exists in half a dozen cities and organizes LGBT events in traditionally non-LGBT spaces. It exists as a for-profit enterprise, and Guerrilla Queer Bar — taking over straight bars for a night — have been its signature events.

The open letter from Twin Cities entertainers is not the first time TWC has come under criticism. The company opened up shop in San Francisco last fall and the Guerrilla Queer Bar events didn’t sit well with the original organizers of those events which took place in the late-1990s and early 2000s.

Brian McConnell, who helped found the iconic events, told SFist that the for-profit angle was disappointing, and criticized the lack of organic, local event organizing. “Apparently they have investors and are organizing events where they get a cut from the bars. It’s about as polar opposite to what we do as you can get.”

In an email to The Column, Jonathan Lee, head of Marketing/Communications for the The Welcoming Committee addressed the criticism of TWC’s for-profit operations:

“Local” is a nuanced concept in the LGBTQ world. The fight for equal rights is taking place in small towns, at the state level, and nationwide. I’ve lived in Illinois, Indiana, California, and Massachusetts, and been part of their local LGBTQ communities. Each is unique. What unites us is a common desire for LGBTQ acceptance and quality of life.

That’s why I joined TWC as an employee. I love the idea of helping to fill perceived LGBTQ social gaps. We don’t pretend to be the only ones doing it, or the first ones to think of it—we just want to add to the spectrum of LGBTQ life. We do so by planning events locally and coordinating a team of local volunteers to help people feel comfortable at our events.

“For profit” is another nuanced concept in the LGBTQ world. TWC is structured as a startup and operating like a small business for two reasons: so we don’t divert funds from LGBTQ causes, and so we can work with vendors to bring discounted entertainment to our members. Very few entertainment providers are nonprofit, and I don’t know of any that have a community volunteer program.

There are nine of us here at the office—in charge of event planning, marketing, and community in 10 cities. We come from a variety of backgrounds in the business and nonprofit worlds. I’m thrilled to be working at an LGBTQ small business. This story isn’t about me, but I took nearly a 60% pay cut when I left the legal profession to work at TWC. It was worth it.

The Welcoming Committee founder Daniel Heller also released a letter to the media on Monday addressing the concerns of Twin Cities LGBT entertainment leaders.

“It goes without saying that I was saddened to see a letter from some in the Twin Cities who are wary of our arrival,” he wrote. “I am proud of The Welcoming Committee and what our incredible staff and volunteers have built. One of the reasons why we thrive in the communities in which we operate is that people make close friends at our gatherings and, in turn, go out more frequently. While we add a small number of events to a city’s calendar every month, the total number of people going out to all events rises.” [The full letter is reprinted below]

Whitney Daleiden of fundraising event Queer Cuts for Cause told Vita.mn, the Star Tribune’s arts and entertainment weekly, that TWC appears to be more about building a brand than local organizing:

“After doing research, reading articles and talking with the Welcoming Committee staff at headquarters in Boston, I am convinced they do not have the Twin Cities nor our queer community members’ best interests in mind,” she said. “Their goal is to build the TWC brand at whatever cost, even repackaging already existing local events as their own and stepping on current Twin City organizer toes to do it.”

DJ Shannon Blowtorch told Vita.mn that “it feels more like Clear Channel rolling in and stepping on mom and pop. I want to embrace new promoters throwing parties, but we all try to community and spread the parties out so we’re not dividing the community. I don’t feel like they’ve done their research very well.”

[Full disclosure: I attended a TWC event several weeks ago at Surly Brewing Company.]

Here’s the open letter sent by Twin Cities entertainment leaders:

To: The Twin cities LGBTQAI communities
From: Local Queer Twin Cities Artists / DJs / Performers / Activists / Party Throwers
Re: Entertainment options with you in mind

April 23, 2015

We represent an extended family of entertainers, event promoters, artists and activists. Each of us works in our own way to provide you – the members of our community – with parties, shows, events and activities that reflect who we are and how we like to spend our leisure time. Many of us have been doing this for years. We provide you with creative outlets and entertainment opportunities at our local gay as well as predominantly straight bars. You enjoy our events at clubs, restaurants, theaters and sports venues. We thoroughly enjoy the work we do in the Twin Cities.

Recently, a for-profit event-planning “start-up” business based in the east coast has arrived to the Twin Cities. The business, called The Welcoming Committee, has promised to “transform nightlife in Minneapolis.” Many of the business’s ideas for transformation already exist in the Twin Cities. This includes LGBTQAI takeovers of Twins games, straight bars and other venues throughout the cities. These events have been happening in the Twin Cities for years thanks to the amazing work of local organizers.

Although many of us have reached out to TWC, it’s clear this business didn’t take any time to research our community before deciding to help us “solve” a problem that doesn’t exist. Together, we have worked hard to carve out open and welcoming spaces throughout our city. Of course, there is still a lot of work to do to ensure that every part of our community is safe for all members of our queer family – especially around issues of access, as well as race, class and trans inclusion. We support and patronize each other’s events, we work together on organizing locally, and we share a mutual desire for abundance and success – new queer events only add to the vibrant color of the Twin Cities. We organize these events, live here, eat here, give to local charities and reinvest in our community. An outside business doesn’t value the same interests as us, the local residents.

We immerse ourselves in the metro’s LGBTQAI culture. We build and support queer events that have existed for years as well as those just getting started. Together we nurture this goal of making the Twin Cities a hub for queer events and camaraderie. So far, we’ve been doing this organically and for the sake of our community, not for financial gain. We don’t understand how the Welcoming Committee, a for-profit corporate-funded business, will help us on our journey. It lacks local presence or knowledge, and we fear a disconnect while trying to meaningfully connect with the community. Will the TWC help us or will they threaten the queer-centric foundations we’ve spent so long to build.

The Welcoming Committee has invasive plans. It touts involvement in 10 cities across the country, and we are not the first to question its intentions. The Welcoming Committee’s introduction to the San Francisco queer community was also recently questioned. The business’s signature event is called the “Guerilla Queer Bar.” This event happens the first Friday of each month. According to Brian McConnell, one of the original founders (2000) of the Guerrilla Queer Bar in San Francisco, “[The Welcoming Committee] has co-opted the name and is marketing the GQB as a packaged experience.” In essence, The Welcoming Committee is corporatizing an event that was initially local and grass-roots.

We support our community’s right to make its own decisions about how to spend time, money, attention and labor. But we would like each of you to be able to do so from an informed position. We certainly hope you will also avail yourself of the diverse, colorful and exciting array of locally organized, produced and sourced activities that we have worked so hard to provide for you, our extended family. Join us at any of our upcoming events listed below, you will have a wonderful time!

#localqueerTC

Sincerely,
Roxanne Anderson, RARE Productions
Scott Artley, Patrick’s Cabaret
Clair Avitabile, 20% Theater Company
Melissae Bee, Sweet LillyBee
Kristen Blekum and Jacqui Boyum, Grrrl Scout
Shannon Blowtorch, Blowtorch Production LLC
Zsuzsi “Xavier” Bork, Dragged Out
Kelly Brazil, Dirty Queer Show
Benjamin Bradley, Delta Mu Productions
Symone Clay, Risqué Dance Productions
Whitney Daleiden, Queer Cuts for a Cause
Lindsay Earney, DJ Shiek
Dave Em, Dave Em Presents
Derek Harley, Producer, Promoter, Social Media Solutions
Chad Kampe and Matthew Felt, Flip Phone
Tawnya “Sweetpea” Konobeck and Shana Gee-Cohen, Velvet
Beck Gee and Denise ‘Seven’ Bailey, Butch Dandy Duo
Rebecca Jean Lawrence, event photographer and Telling Queer History
Jason Little, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2014
Chong Moua, Faded Productions
Sally Nixon and Nicole Smith, Soul Friday
Jessy Oldham, Mad Shaw Menagerie
Lenka Paris, DJ Paris
Steven Patton- Mr. Twin Cities Leather 2015
Rick Perry, Movie Bears
Esmé Rodríguez, Esmé Rodríguez Productions
Becky Smith and Erin Wilkins, Femmes on a Rooftop
Heather Spear and Sarah Gordon, Dykes Do Drag
Seth Viebrock, Château Frémont

Local Queer Events in the Twin Cities (A small sampling)

Grrrl Scout- May 9, Second Saturday of every month

Velvet- May 16, Third Saturday

Drag Queen Game Night –- First Thursday of every month

Soul Friday (Party for Queer Women of Color –- May 1, First Friday of every month

Out in the Stands – Queer takeover of Saint Paul Saint’s – July 25

Flip Phone – May 21 and 24 – Scattered Thursdays every month

Solar Sundays – Every Sunday at Union

Mix – May 24 – Holiday Weekends

Queer Cuts for a Cause – Quarterly (June, September, December, March)

Annual Pride Yacht Part – 3rd weekend of June

Dyke’s Do Drag – June 18, 19 and 20

Patrick’s Cabaret – queer-led venue with regular LGBTQ programming

Telling Queer History – Every other month on 2nd Sunday 2-5pm. June 14th at Minneapolis Movie Bears- A new movie every Tuesday. As well as: monthly game nights, monthly social and seasonal activities.

Rare Productions: Power to the People Pride, May Day LakeStage, TransJam, RARE House QTPOC events, Artist Residency and Management

Full response from founder of The Welcoming Committee:

My name is Daniel Heller, and I’m the founder of The Welcoming Committee. Growing up, I experienced the entire world through a religious community lens. When I came out, I entered a new community—one with an enviably festive layer, a political backbone, and an opportunity for me to connect with new people with stories and backgrounds different from my own. I found the parties and politics easy to sink my teeth into, but I struggled to find the community I was looking for.

When we launched The Welcoming Committee in 2012, we had already spent five years in Boston upholding a tradition known as Guerrilla Queer Bar, a monthly roaming straight bar takeover. Many cities have similar versions of this tradition. The events were as empowering as they were fun. You could show up alone or with company. It was easy to talk to strangers and meet new people, because we weren’t just going out, we were accomplishing something together. Every first Friday of the month we built a temporary safe (and fun) zone, and partied within it. Critical mass was, and still is, our theory of change. With crowds in the 800-1,000 range showing up on a monthly basis, we faced a series of problems and requests:

As the takeovers grew larger, it got harder for people showing up alone to access the “house party” vibe of the original smaller events
While our members were enjoying taking over straight bars, they wanted to experience the rest of the city with the people who they met at our events, but also within a critical mass of LGBTQ people
1 in 5 people in Boston are students, and every year around graduation time we would get dozens of emails from people moving to other cities, including Minneapolis, asking if we would consider opening up there.

In 2012, before the launch of TWC, we were the largest nightlife event in Boston, and we didn’t know anything about nightlife. Our thing was building community, and we relied on our incredible city to provide the places to take it to. We looked at what we had built, the way we had become a victim of our own success, and the opportunities that growth could provide. The version of GQB we built gave LGBTQ Bostonians the opportunity to experience every straight bar in complete comfort, but The Welcoming Committee was going to be about community building first and events second. We set out to build the world’s largest community of LGBTQ people and take them, not just to nightclubs, but to every iconic venue and destination we wanted to go. As our members’ interests changed, we wanted to help them experience new places with people who reflected their interests. As our members moved from city to city, they would be welcomed in by their local TWC chapters, making moving less intimidating and more exciting. Building new events in Boston and elsewhere would be the easy part. The hard work, and the thing we were most excited about, was building a national network of leaders dedicated to experiential equality.

Today, TWC operates one of the largest leadership development volunteer programs for LGBTQ people. In cities across the country, TWC trains hundreds of volunteers to build truly inclusive spaces that are welcoming to all who choose to enter. Our most senior leaders come together at twice-annual conferences to discuss how we can raise the bar on building better and more inclusive environments. And our general volunteers become part of a community within TWC that is about friendship, service, and a non-political approach to change within the LGBTQ community. (If you haven’t met them, get to know some of our volunteers: Boston, Philadelphia, DC, Chicago).

It goes without saying that I was saddened to see a letter from some in the Twin Cities who are wary of our arrival. I am proud of The Welcoming Committee and what our incredible staff and volunteers have built. One of the reasons why we thrive in the communities in which we operate is that people make close friends at our gatherings and, in turn, go out more frequently. While we add a small number of events to a city’s calendar every month, the total number of people going out to all events rises. We have never been told the opposite, and have no reason to believe that the Twin Cities will be any different. We announced that we were launching in the Twin Cities a few short months ago. Since then, over 600 people have signed up to become members, 35 people have raised their hands to join our community building volunteer program, three small events sold out almost immediately, and our first GQB, happening this Friday, has 300 people RSVP’d.

We’ve spoken to dozens of people about our launch, some of whom signed the letter and many more of whom did not. Every member of the LGBTQ community is important to us, and therefore we want to earn the trust and partnership of every person on that list. We sincerely hope that their doors are open to us as well. Next week, one of our lead community organizers and one of our DC-based volunteer leaders (originally from St. Cloud) will be in the Twin Cities to support our local organizers and meet with groups we’re excited to partner with. Feel free to send us an email at msp@thewelcomingcommittee.com if you have time and would like to chat.

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