Photograph of the Welcoming Committee from its website.
Less than two months after the launch of Queer Bomb — a Minneapolis-based, grassroots event that invites the LGBTQ community to invade a straight bar for two hours, flash-mob style — a Boston-based organization called the Welcoming Committee announced it would be bringing its own monthly Guerrilla Queer Bar event to Minneapolis beginning on May 1. A group of 29 Twin Cities artists, DJs, promoters, activists and performers fired back at the group in an open letter published today by local arts and culture website l'étoile magazine, of which I was once editor, calling the group “invasive” and questioning its intentions.
The letter states that the Welcoming Committee’s signature Guerrilla Queer Bar event takes its name from a long-running, grassroots event originating in San Francisco in 2000. It reads, "In essence, the Welcoming Committee is corporatizing an event that was initially local and grassroots.” Members of queer communities in other markets are also incensed. Brian McConnell, one of the original founders of the Guerrilla Queer Bar in San Francisco, wrote in an online post, "[The Welcoming Committee] has co-opted the name and is marketing the GQB as a packaged experience."
According to its website, the Welcoming Committee says its aim is “broadening social options for LGBTQs with friendly takeovers of bars, performances, sports games, and travel destinations.” (So far, a Twin Takeover event is slated for June 17 at Target Field.) The membership-based, for-profit startup venture was founded by Harvard Business School grad Daniel Heller in 2012, and has since spread to 10 cities (including Minneapolis) with plans to expand into "destination takeovers," including spring break trips and cruise parties, and has a team of nine employees. Heller's background includes being a founding team member of a social networking platform called Friendfactor, as well as consulting stints in strategy, management, and market research. The website WhoGotFunded.com reports the Welcoming Committe received $990,000 in funding as of September 2014.
Queer Bomb founded Chad Kampe said he reached out to Welcoming Committee CEO Daniel Heller, and that they spoke on the phone about the group’s goals and intentions.
“He said, ‘I think TWC can help you do events you couldn't possibly do,’’” Kampe told us. “I asked him how he could help, but there wasn't an answer. I asked if he wanted to send me a proposal or some ideas of how to tie the local community together, but I didn’t receive anything.”
Whitney Daleiden of fundraising event Queer Cuts for a Cause had a similar reaction.
“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 says. “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.”
Daleiden’s comments refer to the long-running queer-ladies-of-color night Soul Friday, which is held the first-Friday of each month — the same night the Welcoming Committee has chosen to host their monthly parties. But Soul Friday resident DJ Shannon Blowtorch, who also signed the letter, said she doesn’t care that the Welcoming Committee event is the same night because she considers Soul Friday to have a very different demographic than that of the group. Her issue with it is that “it feels more like Clear Channel rolling in and stepping on mom and pop," she says. "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.”
This afternoon, Heller responded with his own open letter, which he sent to me via email. In it, Heller states that he’s “saddened” to see the Twin Cities’ open letter and that the Welcoming Committee’s only intention is “community building first and events second.” The full letter is included below.
While it's clear a portion of the local LGBT community are way of the Welcoming Committee's presence, others are already flocking to it — Heller said in his letter than more than 600 people have already signed up, 300 people have RSVP'd for the first GQB party, and three smaller kickoff events it hosted in Minneapolis sold out "almost immediately."
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org if you have time and would like to chat.
Founder, The Welcoming Committee"