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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Some, however, criticize Sugar’s lack of tough love. The ballroom scene, for all of its positives (leaders of a house are known to help put their children through college), is rampant with drug use and underage criminal activity. Some black gay men, already turned off by the ballroom scene’s eccentricity, look down on the Breakfast Club as a haven for teenybopper debauchery. “I’ve told her [Sugar] many times that she just needs to draw the line when it comes to her business,” says Taylor. “You’ve got to put the foolishness out the door and not let it back in.”

Sugar admits that the drug use and fighting disturb her; but she can’t help but to care for her children.

“These other clubs only count the money,” she says. “They don’t care that you need a ride to Broad Street, or that you broke your heel, or that you don’t got on enough clothes, or you lost your coat. If you go to one of these club owners and say ‘Excuse me, I lost my money, can I get cab fare?’ you will be put promptly out the door.”

There’s no fear of urban revelry at Chris Hunter’s newest Saturday night hip-hop party at XO Lounge. Men with fitted Yankees caps, H&M hoodies and Sunni beards pack both floors of the South Street club to capacity. While XO doesn’t stay open until dawn, its 3 a.m. closing time is an hour later than most other Philly spots and its popularity illustrates Hunter’s reign as the undisputed heavyweight champion of mainstream black GLBT nightlife.

Hunter’s crowning achievement: his Friday night fetes at Shampoo. “On First Fridays, we haven’t gotten under 1,500 people in a year and a half maybe,” he says of his monthly mega-party. “It’s insane. I dream about it at night. You know how you visualize your life? I used to dream of big parties.”

Hunter started dreaming as a student at West Chester University, where his gregarious personality made him a popular pick to host fashion shows and other events. Although he always wanted to be in entertainment, he didn’t know to make it happen, until, finally, it came to him. “I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t sing or dance, so maybe I should do parties and events,’” he says.

And the rest is history—one that dates back to the late ’90s, when he resuscitated mainstream black gay nightlife in the city with his party at Paradise Alley. The club was literally on Front Street—which, ironically, in the black community refers to revealing one’s business for all to see. While Hunter was sensitive about his patrons’ need for anonymity, his location held metaphorical weight for what he was trying to achieve. “I kinda wanted to come up off the back alleys,” Hunter says. “You know when you turn the radio on and you hear about parties and stuff? I wanted people to be able to come to places they heard on the radio, and not down 13th Street in a back alley.”

Accordingly, all of his gay events have been in prime locations: For 13 years, Hunter held a popular Sunday night party at places like the Five Spot, the same Old City club where acts like Musiq Soulchild and Jill Scott graced the stage during the Black Lily era, until it burned down in 2007.

Then there is his new Sunday night event at Heat, also in the heart of Old City. He’s held several Friday night parties at the mega clubs of Spring Garden Street, first Transit and now Shampoo. And, finally, his new XO Lounge event—the first consistent Saturday night party of its kind that Center City has seen in ages—in the storied South Street neighborhood.

Hunter has not only embraced many of the geographical parameters that black gays have historically been relegated to, but also made them the place to be. “I never ever had any interest in doing any parties in any of those venues,” he says of Gayborhood haunts. “Our culture is just very urban. So they don’t hear Woody’s on the radio. They don’t hear Twelfth Air Command on the radio. They hear Transit, The Five Spot, Shampoo. Clubs like that.”

Hunter also sees black gay parties' continuing importance, as many establishments fail to address minorities' needs. “You know clubs in the Gayborhood are geared toward a particular crowd based on the kind of music they play and the way they socialize,” he says, citing that black GLBT partygoers would rather dance to Jay-Z than to Cher. “I think it's very important to be around people who are like you so that you can let your hair down and feel loved, appreciated and respected.”

While Hunter doesn’t own his own club yet, he’s strategically become a manager at all of his recurring parties’ venues. By revitalizing once ailing clubs through the introduction of black gay—and wildly successful—events to their weekend schedules, he has gained attention from the entire nightclub community. “To have a party with 1,500 or more people once a month is a big deal in any genre, let alone a small segment,” he says. “So now nightclub owners kind of say ‘Hmm, maybe I should do the gay party.’”

By succeeding in his own ventures, Hunter has also knocked down barriers for other black GLBT promoters. “The nightclub scene has always been very segregated and it was very difficult to book a black gay event at a venue,” he says. “You have the black part, and you have the gay part, which are really scary to club owners. But throughout the years, it’s really loosening up.”

Middle-class Zara's-clad men chat over cocktails and the thump of R&B—Teena Marie's "Square Biz" elicits yelps—inside the narrow brick walls of Rum Bar, another establishment that's embraced the GLBT black community in the wake of Hunter's success. This upscale gathering of black gay men is something urban professionals have sorely been missing, says Javontae Williams, a University City-based writer and the organizer of the Thursday night event. He is one of several up-and-coming promoters trying to build upon the gains made by Hunter and Mother Breakfast while adding diversity to the black gay scene. With a recent surge in black GLBT social options over the last six months, including new collaborations by Cuffie-Scott and Williams, and even Chris Hunter and Mother Breakfast looking to expand, many believe that Philadelphia’s gay urban nightlife is due for a renaissance.

“The scene right now is changing,” says Cuffie-Scott, pointing out that there’s finally a black GLBT party from Thursday through Sunday. “I’m not sure how successful the new event planners are going to be, but things are definitely changing for the better.”

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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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