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: 26 | Posted Apr. 27, 2010

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Local promoter Chris Hunter

Photo by Jeff Fusco

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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Comments 1 - 26 of 26
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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".
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


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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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26. Akil said... on Mar 20, 2015 at 02:23PM

“I was coming to Philly tonight for a days get a way. After reading this, I'll pass.”


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