Divided We Dance: Black Gays Get Their Own Party Started

Philly's queer nightlife scene remains as segregated as ever.

By Gerry Christopher Johnson
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 25 | Posted Apr. 27, 2010

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Sugar, also known as Mother Breakfast

Photo by Jeff Fusco

On the first Friday night of March, with Philadelphia finally defrosting from back-to-back blizzards, Shampoo is both heaven and a fire hazard. Some of the cabin-fever afflicted gay men, hailing from as close as North Philly to as far as Washington, D.C., whine their bodies to Sasha’s “Kill the Bitch” like they’re in Kingston, Jamaica, dubbin’ out to a raunchy reggae set. Thanks to heavy-handed bartenders and a talented DJ, most of the patrons—a few of them shirtless and most of them drunk—are getting their money’s worth.

And almost none of them are white.

Despite living in a time many hail as the post-racial Obama era, Philadelphia’s gay community largely remains separated along color lines. While blacks and whites may not be as overtly polarized as in the past, a peek inside gay bars and clubs reveals that integration isn’t the norm in many gay social spaces.

For the most part, the division boils down to a difference in musical taste and culture. Partygoer Kyle Cuffie-Scott, 26, says that music shapes the racial makeup of events. “The majority of my time going out has been at black parties,” he says. “Music plays a major role in that. Nine times out of 10, I want to hear an eclectic mix of music, whether it be hip-hop, R&B, house music. Whereas at a white establishment, that music isn't really played as much, and you're gonna get more of the electronic house music.”

Party promoter Dan Contarino, known for his popular—now defunct—and predominantly white gay dance party “Shaft Fridays” at Shampoo, says that club owners are often weary about playing so-called gangsta rap and points to the recent shooting at Club Solo on Beanie Sigel's birthday as an example of why. “There are different audiences under the umbrella of an urban crowd, some of which can be great, but there's that element that comes in that can really create a hostile environment.” Contarino adds: “It's a catch 22 when it comes to a big club, you allow the potential of a lawsuit when fights break out.” Last Friday sparked the commencement of Black Gay Pride weekend in Philly, and thousands of queers descended upon Center City to attend workshops, performances, film screenings, speed dating and, of course, parties. Black Pride weekend is the biggest time of the year for queers of color, and a serious indicator of a black GLBT community hungry for events catering specifically to their needs.

“Black gay men prefer a certain type of music, and white gay men prefer a different kind, says Jonathan Silver, who endured back spasms to make it to Saturday night's bash at Shampoo. The 26-year-old reveler says that at Shampoo, “you can always count on your hip-hop ... reggae, and then that side room where they'll play Michael Jackson and Prince.”

The segregation of gay nightlife has a legacy that dates back to at least post-War World II Center City, a playground ever bustling with underground homosexual activity, and unadulterated racism. In City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972, a book of oral history collected by Marc Stein, local gays recount racial tensions during that era with equal clarity. “If you went to bed with a black person, they said you were a dinge queen,” recalls Ray Daniels, a white interview subject.

Facing such racist attitudes, black gays quickly found out where they weren’t wanted—south of Market Street and north of Lombard. “We might like to think that the queer world would do better than the straight world on matters of internal divisions, conflicts, and hostility,” says Stein, a sexuality studies scholar. “But there’s no reason to think that’s the case. American society was racist. The gay world reflected that and contributed to that,” he says, adding that class also played a part.

While some black gays managed to mix in with their white counterparts, others were forced to create their own social gatherings, aka house parties. Eventually, they formed their own nightlife scene in designated areas of Center City or in the black neighborhoods of North and West Philadelphia. Early establishments included Nick’s on South Street. Unified by race, black gays and lesbians often partied together.

By the 1980s, blacks had established a viable underground scene of their own. Gary Hines, host of The Catacombs, a show on Germantown Radio dedicated to house music, remembers a vibrant gay club scene where patrons flocked to hear music that was black like them: “Only You” by Teddy Pendergrass, “Respect” by Adeva, “Hot Shot” by Karen Young. Partygoers were catered to by live DJs who played sweltering underground house one minute and the “Sound of Philadelphia”—usually slowed down or mashed up—the next. “The DJs would do some amazing things on turntables,” Hines says.

The radio jock pulls out a list of several predominantly black clubs where he and his friends would dance all night. “One was called the Smart Place at Ninth and Arch,” he says. “Then there was a place called Allegro II that was up on 20th and Sansom. There was a place called Pentony’s, which is where the Convention Center is now.” He laughs. “That was really a dive, a hustler bar.”

The clubs may have been seedy, but for many black gays, who came from severely homophobic households, it was all they had. Black nightlife provided them a sense of community long before the rise of gay-rights organizations and Gay Pride celebrations.

According to Hines, that scene ended in the 1990s; with the death of a notorious club mogul and the onslaught of AIDS, black gay clubs in Philadelphia perished. Many tried to breathe life back into the scene, but it seemed down for the count. Today, Hines spends much of his time on the radio playing many of the throwback tunes from an era of black-gay nightlife that he doubts Philadelphia will ever see again.

At the opening reception of Beyond Bayard, a new archival exhibit at the William Way Community Center that focuses on the history of Philadelphia’s black gay community, Q, a 39-year-old lesbian, nostalgically looks at a list of 35 black gay clubs, all of them now defunct. She notes that the list is missing the Nile and the Hide Out, clubs she would sneak into just after coming out in 1989. “The scene has really dried up,” she said. “Everybody I know either stays home or goes out of town ... things have changed tremendously,” she says. “People come to Philly and say ‘What happened to all the clubs like Stars and the Smart Place?’”

A few people are staging a comeback. And a new crop of party promoters are attempting to make their mark. The newbies look to Chris Hunter and Mother Breakfast, the gatekeepers of black-gay nightlife in Philadelphia for the past decade. “If the community providers want to see what the black LGBT community is like, they’re going to have to go through those two entities,” says Robert Burns, aka DJ Robbie Rob, the DJ and Interim Executive Director of the House of Blahnik, as well as Deputy Director of the AIDS outreach organization COLOURS.

The 10th time is the charm for Sugar, also known as Mother Breakfast. At least she thinks this is her 10th location; it’s hard to remember every building the Breakfast Club—Sugar’s long-running party that serves as the informal home of Philadelphia’s ballroom scene—has been booted from since 1998. “I’ve been everywhere, North Philly, South Philly, West Philly, everywhere,” she says. “And been kicked out of everywhere. But it was never because of not paying the rent or anything. I was just kicked out because the crowd got so big and they attracted a lot of attention.”

The Breakfast Club was born in the 1980s, when Sugar worked at a lesbian-owned bar in North Philadelphia. Noticing that some patrons weren’t ready to head home after last call, she started inviting them to her house around the corner.

With each passing week, the party grew bigger, until it finally ballooned into a speakeasy. “It was out of control,” Sugar says. “I started charging one dollar at the door, and I would make over three hundred dollars at the end of the night. I put all my furniture in the backyard, had a DJ and we just partied.”

After five strong years as an after-party hostess, Sugar put an end to her bashes because of a relationship. But 12 years later, and single, Sugar was ready to pick up where she left off, only on a grander scale.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 25 of 25
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1. Anonymous said... on Apr 28, 2010 at 06:15AM

“Philadelphia is a racist land. I say because this city is truly a land of it's own close minded. It has great culture but lacks exposure. Everything to the city of brotherly is black and white. Segregation is in the work environments all the way to the gay culture that experience racism often. The question is when will Philadephia raise the standards of tolerance. Stop being afraid to cross the lines of being safe and just be the city we proclaim to be. The city of love...”

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2. Bob Skiba, GLBT Archives William Way Center said... on Apr 28, 2010 at 08:45AM

“Wow - timely. We're presenting an exhibit at the William Way Center called "Beyond Bayard" until June. It tells stories from the black GLBT community here in Philly, with a section on the history of bars and social life. This saturday morning at 11 we're sponsoring a forum at the center in conjunction with the exhibit. Come and talk about racism, homophobia and segregation. Make your voice heard.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Apr 28, 2010 at 04:33PM

“What a positive article. People like to socialize where they are comfortable and listen to the music they enjoy, simply put. This is another example of people creating their own safe spaces and being financially sustained in the process. Variety truly is the spice of life. Philadelphia should continue embracing the diversity and having OPTIONS! Kudos.”

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4. cn2004 said... on Apr 29, 2010 at 01:04PM

“Gee, segregation in the gay community, what a shock. Typical liberals, preaching diversity and tolerance but sure not practicing it.”

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5. Malcolm Bruce said... on May 1, 2010 at 12:28PM

“HAHAHAHAHAHA @cn2004. But I've been discussing this with a friend all week. It was never aobut different music. it was about white folks not wanting blacks around. Homosexuality (of gay) is a sub-culture of the mainstream culture so why are we contiually surprised by racism within the city's homosexual community. As cn2004 might say (sorry for speaking for you) might discuss Bayard Rustin (snow queen, but much respect for the man) but what about some others Tyrone Smith, Clark Thomas, Charles Roberts .. .hell Rashida Hassan that live right here in the city. Example the Equality Forum they are granted money to include "minorities" and they'll trot out the same ole "black" faces who they can deal with. There is a history of black gay people in the city of philadelphia and it has nothing to do with trying to get into a white club”

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6. Marcus said... on May 3, 2010 at 10:55PM

“"typical liberal".
ugh.
a perpetuation of epithets tossed at "other"; the perception of superiority of one idea over another waged in language. I don't actually know shit about the nuances of queer subcultures in Philadelphia, (I arrived here via rod2.0beta). I've hung in the city but don't really know that much about it. Still, I don't understand what is gained by underlining historic divisions between the black/white queer underground.
mostly, by my observation, people (and maybe this is more true of the white race) seem more comfortable being around what they are familiar with. Attitudes will never evolve if you only look at the past with a veiled outrage. The queer-urban-white community is equally rife with exclusionary cliches. Its mass is comprised of a bunch of insecure devotes desperate to partake or at least be accepted.
Still, I know your city is full-up with fucked-up shit, from racist cops to succinct neighborhoods; and I pontificate with a dumb awareness.
Move it forward”

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7. Marcus said... on May 3, 2010 at 11:10PM

“sorry, the comments are character limited. I wanted to add:

"Bayard Rustin, snow queen"?

step into the shoes of a visionary, outspoken queer black civil rights advocate from the fifties and sixties who was pushed into the background because of the threat his sexuality posed to a movement.
conflicts pile atop conflicts.
the man inhabited an entirely different universe, in many respects.
he had the gift of a great brain embattled by the circumstances of his era.”

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8. Anonymous said... on May 7, 2010 at 05:01PM

“"Traditionally in white gay communities, they had social support mechanisms that allowed them to come out and be free and be proud.." REALLY???!! What are those?? The Catholic CHurch. Funny, I don't remember having any social support mechanisms. NOthing wrong with the ballroom community, except that it is just as elitist, exclusionary and "racist" as the supposed mainstream "white" alternatives that are supposed to exist in the gay community. How is a gay bar owned by a white man a social support mechanism for a gay (white) teen ager? It's not unless that bar owner is his sugar daddy. HOw about we stop talking in such sweeping generalizations. The reason there are no white teens at the balls is they are not welcome. There are plenty of youth that would like to be part of that scene but they get just as much shade as the young African American boy that gets shade when going to Woody's on the "wrong" night.”

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9. Anne said... on May 8, 2010 at 03:07PM

“Regarding #6, Marcus, I can do without the small minded name-calling. I was hoping we were past the point of calling people "Snow Queens". I can't believe you brought up Tyrone Smith after he was convicted of embezzling money allocated for preventing AIDS in transgender teens. I see Mr. Smith at all these events like the NAACP acting like nothing happened and he is not a criminal. #8, Anonymous, what do you mean white teens aren't welcome. I found that black gay events are way less likely to discriminate against white people than the reverse. Are you just making an assumption or do you have any personal experience?”

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10. Marcus said... on May 9, 2010 at 10:05PM

“Re: Anne. I think you mistook my attribution of a quote from a couple of posts previous. The point I was making in both my posts was a plea that cogent conversation suffers when you make pejorative comments. Bayard Rustin, as a gay, black man, bore numerous stigmata. "Snow queen" degrades the man. "Typical liberal", another epithet that takes its place alongside a degenerated narrative. State your beliefs absent ad hominen barbs. Show respect for ideas, yours and others, defend them; don't throw stones. Too many out there airborne already.

These are already crazy times. No need to stoke it up.

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11. VJ the DJ said... on May 19, 2010 at 12:04AM

“In response to "Anon", White kids are welcome at balls, as well as any other color or race or whatever...Ive been the DJ for every blk gay spot in phila since 1998 ...trust me there are white kids! Email me and you are in for free First Friday Party and Ball June 4, 2010 .”

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12. VJ the DJ said... on May 19, 2010 at 10:23AM

“djvejai@gmail.com”

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13. Teesoup said... on Dec 2, 2010 at 12:47AM

“This is very informative to read about Philly's gay community. I guess this is an issue in most, if not every large city. San Diego has the exact same issues, as does L.A., ATL, DC, Chicago, and the list goes on. Racism is racism, regardless if the gay community tries to deny it or not. I believe the mature black gays (over 40) have experienced a lot more division and racism in the community than today's gay black/brown youth. I don't think as many young white people are as visibly open with racism than what many of us have grew up with. In San Diego, the black gay community is very hidden and almost non-existence. They don't feel welcome, so many of us just don't go out as there is nowhere to really go because if you're over 35yo, they (young gays) are very cold and rude here in S.D., regardless if you're black or white. I would like to visit Philly sometime this coming spring. I hear a lot about the black gay events there...looking forward to it!”

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14. Anonymous said... on Jan 5, 2011 at 02:39PM

“Who in the hell cares what white folks think. Why are so invested in crying over the fact that some white folks don't want us around. Develop some self love and self esteem and caring for yourself and those who look like u, and stop crying over white people rejecting you. It makes me sick to hear it. Let's develop a space for ourselves, and develop our community economically and demand political self determination, instead of begging white people to like us and include us.”

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15. Sistah in said... on Mar 12, 2011 at 01:48PM

“Ok, I am not from Philly, but am doing some research as I might apply for a job at Temple. As a New Yawka, I have been very much aware of the racism the infects Philly. I was just looking to see if Philly, at least, has a thriving Black Gay and Lesbian community - I just wanted to say at #15 - Your very first sentence got my attention! I agree - Of course, barriers to one's freedom - expression - creativity - etc,. certainly thwart holistic development - it would be nice to live in Utopia where we would not have to worry about how others' lack of evolution oppress others - but we don't. Friere says that the oppress actually covet the power of their oppressors - it is one reason why we can all find someone to subjugate. But at the end of the day, I agree with you - the difficulty is that their ignorance impedes others' progress - but certainly, these are not the people to whom we should look for acceptance! - A Black Woman”

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16. TEASERVER said... on May 25, 2011 at 12:46AM

“Say what you will....I have my doubts about a "renaissance" of Black gay nightlife in Philly. Yeah, maybe the hip-hop heads will have some new places to go, but the real "par-tay" atmosphere of yesterday is goneeeeeeeee. Many young gays tell me they so hate they missed the days when we really went to clubs to dance and sweat and lose our minds for a minute. It is my observation that hip-hop and the "home thug" culture really killed house music and it began to go downhill from there. For some reason the younger generation tends to not know how to socialize..going to the club and standing around in cliques. To have to relegate yourself to only a certain night of the week...or that Friday of the month when a party happens...should tell you how slim your choices are. Gone are the days when you had to figure out which venue was going to serve your needs becasue there were so many to choose from.”

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17. Kira4u2 said... on Jun 20, 2011 at 02:16AM

“Damn im african -amrician in live in New Orleans some friends and myself were planning a vacation in Philly . But after reading this blog im having second thoughts who knew Philly was soo divided im shocked and diappointed.”

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18. curious daytonian said... on Jul 11, 2011 at 12:05PM

“where are the black gay bars in Philly as of July 11th,2011?”

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19. JJDuwey said... on Aug 27, 2011 at 03:44PM

“I am a black gay male and I moved to Philadelphia from Chicago about two years ago for graduate school. I have been to Shampoo, XO Lounge, Heat, Rum Bar, Gayborhood establishments, and even smaller social events catering to the black gay community. I have lived in 8 states and Philadelphia is by far the most cliquey city I have ever lived in. There is indeed segregation between white and black partygoers (with Asians, Latinos, and other minorities mostly excluded from the dominant narrative as was the case with this article), but I have not been welcomed into the black gay community with open arms either. All the people I have met have turned out to be flaky and my sole gay friend in this city is Jewish. This article did not offer any solutions for a pretty serious problem or provide resources (i.e., club locations, social groups, book clubs, etc.) that could be helpful for someone new to the city or contemplating a visit.”

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20. racquel m said... on Sep 26, 2011 at 12:27AM

“hey iam racquel i just moved to philly iam gay but i dont knw ware to start ware to go what to do to party some one please help me i need to get out i party hard in dc so i want to keep that going iam a black 29 yr old woman and i love women”

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21. Anonymous said... on Nov 13, 2011 at 12:54PM

“Hi, new to Philly and of course queer. I lived in Houston and the black gay scene was huge, however here, i don't know where to begin. Please help!!!!”

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22. Anonymous said... on Mar 23, 2013 at 12:05PM

“Dear Sir,

Is there a black gay bar in North Phila that I could visit and make friends? I have never been to a gay bar before.

THANK YOU for your advice!!!”

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23. garry g said... on Jun 11, 2013 at 09:41AM

“One night in the late 80's I decided to try something different and went to Woody's. While I was at the door, the doorman nastily asked me for ID. As I was reaching for my wallet, the doorman let in a partygoer who to me was obviously under eighteen and I was well into my twenty's. I put my wallet back in my pants and I left and went to Smart Place and I never went there again. I don't pay to be insulted.”

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24. scott S. said... on Jun 13, 2013 at 12:49PM

“For me, #16Teaserver spelled it all out. Philadelphia's transformation after the death of Catacombs, Chuck's Recovery Room, The Swan Club, Letters/Phase 3, and the emergence of the hip-hop scene ended an era for the (40 and older) crowd who knew what it took to experience true dance entertainment. The true emphasis from 1976 to 1987 for blacks on the East Coast within the nightclub scene was the quality of the DJ(ing), the music itself, and how it moved you, and to give greater credit to three key venues responsible for this: D.C. 's The Clubhouse, Philadelphia's afformentioned Catacombs (whose fame, along with third venue, New York's Paradise Garage) is noted in Europe. And sadly, many may disagree but, in my view, the only way to restore, permanently, the unity and the spirit of this era is for us to hold these gatherings privately, free from guns and violence, and especially hip-hop.”

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25. garry g said... on Jun 20, 2013 at 03:04PM

“Amen Scott S Amen.”

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