Led by a group of drag queens in heels, the 116th annual Mummers Parade strutted into Philadelphia Friday — but despite a push to make the parade more accessible for underrepresented communities like Latinos, blacks and gays, the annual folk tradition was mired in a series of racist and homophobic acts along the parade route.
The Mummers Parade, held annually in Philadelphia on New Year’s Day, celebrated its 116th year Friday. One of the oldest folk festivals in the U.S., the parade features string bands, elaborate floats and plenty of colorful outfits in what can be referred to as Philadelphia’s version of Mardi Gras.
"Wenches" from Finnegan New Year's Brigade, a local comic club, centered their act around Caitlyn Jenner's transition to a woman. In the performance for parade judges in the shadow of City Hall, a man dressed as Bruce Jenner dropped into a wheelchair and changed into a woman's costume while Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like a Lady" played.
Behind him, group members held up signs showing Bruce Jenner on a Wheaties cereal box beside Caitlyn Jenner on a Fruit Loops box. The group later marched down Broad Street with the signs — some being held by young children.
Just south of Lombard Street, a Finnegan member was caught on video shouting "F--- the gays! F--- the gays!" at parade spectators. The man also posed for photos with the sign.
NBC10 reached out to Finnegan New Year's Brigade for comment about the act and incident. Responding in a statement Saturday, the group apologized for their member's action and banned him from the club.
"We understand and take full responsibility since we are Finnegan, but this deeply is sickening someone could say that. That's not who we are or ever were," the statement said, in part.
But the city's director of LGBT Affairs, Nellie Fitzpatrick, called the incident "unacceptable."
"There's no place for it in Philadelphia," she said. "We will be working to prevent this disgusting display of bias, hateful behavior in the future."
The Goodtimers Comic Club and Finnegan New Year's Brigade also announced the man in the video would not be allowed to march with any other club and is no longer considered a Mummer. The Brigade also announced they are reaching out to the LGBT community and "offering its services to help with an LGBT fundraiser or equality awareness, and to learn more about LGBT concerns."
On the Jenner mockery, the group said it was a satirical act that was decided upon by its membership.
"We understand that there will be obvious backlash for what we do as a skit but that's all it was is that," the group wrote. "We are sorry for offending people out there, and don't want people to think we are against the gays, transsexuals, etc. We are not."
John Holtz believes it was members from the same brigade who assaulted him a few blocks away, near Broad and South streets.
Holtz, who is gay, said he was walking his parents' Shih Tzu near the parade route when he came upon four Mummers who ventured off Broad Street to pee in an alley. Wearing red, white and blue dresses and face paint, the men began hurling homophobic slurs at him, he said.
"They start giving me some kind of crap, because I'm a big guy and I have this little fluffy dog," he said. "They were calling me faggot, calling me gay, and all this, and I'm right next to Broad Street, I see children playing right at the edge of the street."
Holtz said the comments got to him and when he went over to confront the men, they started attacking him.
"His buddy jumped in, clocked me in the face," he said. The assault left him with a large swollen welt on his cheek. "My friend ended up jumping on him and wrestled him, and before I knew it, they disappeared into the crowd and the cops were asking some questions."
Officers offered to take a report, but Holtz declined because he didn't want to ruin the rest of the day at the police station, he said.
Finnegan New Year's Brigade wasn't the only brigade labeled insensitive by some officials and parade-goers.
Sammar Strutters' "Siesta Fiesta" act had the comics donning brown face and dressed in sombreros and ponchos. Some performers wore taco costumes.
A few Mummers carried signs reading "Mummers Lives Matter" and "Wenches Lives Matter" — a take on the national Black Lives Matter movement protesting police brutality and inequality.
They carried the signs in the parade as about 50 protesters representing the actual movement demonstrated on the sidewalk. Two protesters were arrested as they tried to break onto Broad Street to disrupt the parade.
The controversial incidents came as city officials added a new division this year, called the Philadelphia division, grouping together lesser represented communities like Latinos, blacks and gays to foster openness and diversity.
Latino groups San Mateo Carnavaleros and Los Bomberos de Calle, black drill team Second 2 None and LGBT drag brigade Miss Fancy make up the division.
Responding to a tweet Friday evening, incoming Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney blasted the Jenner act.
"It was bad," he wrote. "Hurtful to many Philadelphians. Our Trans citizens do not deserve this type of satire/insult."
Rue Landau, director of the city's Commission on Human Relations, said the acts had no place in the parade or city.
"While the Commission appreciates that Mummers’ leadership took steps for a more diverse parade, more needs to be done to end these public displays of bigotry," she said.