Philly's queer nightlife scene remains as segregated as ever.
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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PW's Music Issue 2014