Image: Pride 2010 Heat
Philadelphia Weekly debuts its annual Pride Issue and the cover story is a history of the City of Brotherly Love's Black gay social scene. "Divided We Dance: Black Gays Get Their Own Party Started" is written by Gerry Christopher Johnson who chronicles the city's Black gay social scene from World War Two to present.
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. ... 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.
The cover story was a two-month labor of love that involved dozens of interviews, Johnson tells Rod 2.0.
"Philadelphia has a rich history of Black gay activism and nightlife that criminally gets overlooked," Johnson tells Rod 2.0. "Many don't realize that before transgenders were rebelling against homophobic police at Stonewall, Black queers in 1965 were staging the first sit-in on record at a downtown Philadelphia lunch counter called Dewey's. Center City black gay clubs like the Nile and the Catacombs were legendary."
Ballroom culture landed in Philly in the 1980s [and 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 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."
The city's black gay social scene is sometimes wrongly compared to New York City, Johnson tells Rod 2.0. "Despite their proximity , Philly is smaller and more homegrown, whereas everything in New York City is on a bigger scale. The clubs are full of transplants. However, " Johnson says. "I think that most who've been around for a while would agree that black gay nightlife in neither New York City nor Philadelphia are what they used to be."
The article coincides with Philadelphia's Black Gay Pride celebration. Club promoter Chris Hunter, who is profiled in the article, threw the 2010 Heat Party and these photos via his gallery. The article also coincides with the William Way Community Center's "Beyond Bayard" forum on Saturday May 1 that explores Philly'sBblack LGBT community and nightlife.
It also goes without saying that cover pieces on Black LGBTs are few and far between in the mainstream, independent and gay media. Bravo to Johnson and the Weekly. Read the full piece HERE.