Philly's queer nightlife scene remains as segregated as ever.
The Breakfast Club’s first modern location was in a Brandywine Street building in 1998. Within a few weeks, however, the building swelled with 180 partygoers and became the first of many illegal properties that the police or the Department of Licenses and Inspections would raid. “I never gave the officers any trouble,” she says. “I shut it right down. And sometimes would be back up and running somewhere else two days later.”
Because of its illegitimate venues, the Breakfast Club operated like an unintentional circuit party for years. “They were just big places—either warehouses or storage places people had that I would move into and fix up,” she says. “I have fixed up so many raggedy buildings in Philadelphia … a lot of times they owe taxes on them or whatever. But I need such a big place because I have a big crowd.”
Sugar expects her current location at Eighth and Dauphin streets to be permanent. After all, it’s as legal to serve liquor and her “almost famous” fried chicken there as it is to stay open until 6 a.m. It’s everything she could hope for in a club that caters to a hungry ballroom community that never sleeps.
The ballroom scene, popularized by the cult classic Paris is Burning and Madonna’s video for “Vogue”—is an underground GLBT subculture consisting of lavish fantasies, makeshift families and fierce competition. It centers around balls, where fashion show meets Fight Club in the wee hours of the night.
“For people who face that rejection for their sexuality, the ballroom scene is really that place where it’s OK to be you,” says Jerome Wright, a 24-year-old member of the House of Prestige. “It’s not just OK to be LGBT, it’s the norm. For you not to be queer is what’s abnormal in this space.”
The only people seeking such a space, however, are those of color. “Traditionally in white gay communities, they had social support mechanisms that allowed them to come out and be free and be proud, whereas in black and Latino communities it was shunned,” says Burns, the DJ. “Ballroom culture became a place where we could be ourselves, as we still maintain some kind of ties to our biological origins.”
It is the first Friday of every month that the Breakfast Club becomes the most electrified, when young black battle cats come in droves for the Mini Ball. At 11 p.m., it has all the markings of a normal 18-to-get-in hip-hop party, but by 2 a.m.—the most fashionable time to arrive—the DJ puts on a sparse house beat and the commentator, the legendary Jay Blahnik, takes the mic.
Instinctively, hundreds of people form a circle in preparation for Stars and Statements, when the icons, legends and judges in attendance will be introduced. Blahnik announces China, and a male-to-female transgender woman with high cheek bones and skin-tight jeans struts into the center of the makeshift runway. “Prestige!” several people from her house repeatedly chant on beat. Her children are riled up. The show is about to start.
While ballroom culture landed in Philly in the 1980s, its roots are in the Harlem Renaissance, when drag performers would perform for prizes at glamorous celebrations called “Faggots Balls,” held at spots like Rockland Palace on West 155th St.
Black drag queens kept the balls alive in Harlem through the 1970s, and included such icons as Pepper Labeija, Dorian Corey and Paris Dupree. Balls eventually evolved to include nondrag men, and soon gay men started competing in, or “walking,” such gender-performance categories as Butch Queen Realness, in which the most masculine-appearing participant wins.
One of the most popular categories at balls is Vogue, which 19-year-old Tyrone Prestige, a West Chester University sophomore in the House of Prestige, walks. It’s a dramatic dance-off that blends fashion spread-influenced posing and seemingly limb-snapping acrobatics. “I think for anyone seeing a ball for the first time, their jaw would drop at how creative we are,” he says.
Theodore Taylor, a 23-year old House of Blahnik member from the Philly suburbs, also is astonishingly crafty. A competitor in European Runway, he recalls his favorite costume: an elaborate creation of military couture. “I had a Navy suit and I made it into a cat suit,” he says. “And I had an eight-layer ruffle train and added some rhinestones to give it a couture twist.”
The ’70s also saw the creation of “houses” in ballroom culture, the first being the House of Labeija. Taking on a fabricated name or that of a famous fashion designer, each house serves as a surrogate family structure for its GLBT members. At the head of a house are a mother and father, regardless of gender. Under them are the children—butch queens, femme queens, lesbians and trasngenders who walk at balls for cash, trophies and glory.
By 1989, Philadelphia had its first ball, hosted by House of Onyx-founder Michael Gaskins, at the 20th and Chestnut YMCA. Alvernian Prestige—founder of the House of Prestige, then took the reigns. After organizing balls at underground clubs like the Nile during the ’90s, he met Sugar in 1998 and they hit it off. “He’s been doing balls at the Breakfast Club ever since, and I love him to death,” says Sugar.
Although not part of a house herself, Sugar has become as legendary in Philadelphia’s ballroom community as Alvernian and other house leaders. “The Breakfast Club has been a refuge point for the ballroom scene,” says Burns. “Without Mother Breakfast, the scene would have been much more diminished, because you don’t see the wider acceptance of ballroom culture in the larger LGBT of color clubs.”
The mother of six, four of whom are boys from the neighborhood who she’s raised as her own, Sugar’s maternal generosity is evident. She earned her nickname “Mother Breakfast” for the grits, eggs and bacon she used to serve the club kids at the end of the night. “I didn’t want them to go home hungry and broke,” she says.
Nor does Sugar want them to get hurt. The Breakfast Club is situated in a gritty area of North Philadelphia that’s equidistant from the projects and public transportation. It takes 10 minutes to get to the Broad Street Subway—a long, late-night walk for GLBT young adults weary of muggings and gay bashings.
“The Breakfast Club is the only club in the world where, at the end of the night, they can ask ‘Can I get a ride to Broad Street?’ and a car will fill up and take ’em,” she says. “All they gotta do is ask.”
Clubgoers also ask for other special favors, and like many mothers, Sugar has a hard time saying no.
“They call me mother, and I try to help them as much as I can,” she says. “They show up at the door saying, ‘I’m a dollar short, five short. I ain’t got my ID.’ I’m there for them. I almost never turn anybody away.”
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