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