On the second episode of the new FX series Pose—a dance musical that largely chronicles the ballroom culture of New York City and the transgender and queer people who drive it—Blanca Rodriguez, a trans woman, challenges the racism and transphobia she experiences at Boy Lounge, a gay club largely populated by white gays.
Upon hearing it hailed as “the best gay bar in the city,” Blanca goes there to celebrate her win in a recent ball. However, she is reminded that neither of her dueling identities is welcomed around their vanilla-latte-complected kind.
So she storms the bar on multiple occasions before ultimately finding herself in a jail cell. Elektra, her former house mother-turned-competitor, bails her out but goes on to suggest that she quit fixating on being a “transvestite Norma Rae.”
The show is set in 1987, but the history of racism and transphobia in gay clubs is exhaustive and, contrary to any suspicions otherwise, is still soiled in varying levels of prejudices. It was only last year that Rebar, a club located in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, was accused of having a racist door policy. More recently, a group of trans women in Atlanta confronted a club owner over claims of racism they say resulted in unfair pay.
Whenever I come across stories like these—fictionalized or very much happening in real time—and as frustrated as I get with racism whenever it is brought to my attention, I do sometimes pause and wonder, “Why would any of us want to be in their spaces anyway?” It’s not so much advocacy for separatism as it is exhaustion with asking folks to treat us equally. If they don’t want us there, why not just enjoy ourselves in our own spaces?
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Although I told myself the obvious—“Nigga, you gay”—while interning in New York City, where I got my life at black gay clubs like Luke & Leroy once upon a time, after I left New York, it was the gay black clubs in Washington, D.C., and, more important, in my hometown of Houston where I truly immersed myself in a culture that I had long wanted to avoid.
It wasn’t always perfect. Like, I did wonder if this one club truly had termites as rumored, and questioned why the air conditioning wasn’t cranked all the way up, knowing damn well it was summer in Houston. I also never quite got why the drag shows weren’t timed differently because once Lil’ Boosie was playing, I didn’t want to stop and hear this big queen cover Patti LaBelle’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” because I’d just started to do the ratchet. No shade.
Having said that, these spots allowed me a certain freedom that I realize in hindsight was taken for granted. For once, I had the space not only to be who I was but also to also have some time to figure out exactly who I was supposed to become.
And while I cannot speak for the clubs elsewhere, in Houston, there was no divide between gay/queer men and transgender people. We were largely all at the same parties, united by our blackness and that yearning to be in spaces in which our presence was actually wanted.
So many of those clubs in Houston are gone. The same is true for plenty of spots in New York City, D.C. and other cities in which I’ve lived. Cities like Los Angeles, and clubs such as Jewel’s Catch One.
Unbeknownst to me until very recently, there is a documentary about the legendary club, titled Jewel’s Catch One, and its owner, a black lesbian named Jewel Thais-Williams. The film, currently airing on Netflix, speaks of the pioneering efforts by Thais-Williams and, namely, how she turned a building located on Pico and Crewnshaw ( 4067 W. Pico Blvd., to be exact) in 1973 and transformed it into “the unofficial Studio 54 of the West Coast.”
Jewel’s Catch One was a club Madonna and Sharon Stone frequented, but ultimately, it was a haven for queer people. It was not easy for Thais-Williams. Not only did she have to effectively don numerous hats—bartender, painter, maintenance person, etc.—but she also had to contend with the racism, transphobia and homophobia that fueled much of the backlash against the club.
The vice squad would enter the premises and declare, “I hear you have dope dealers and prostitutes.” There were ordinances passed with the sole purpose of preventing queer and trans folks from congregating and celebrating. There were bar checks every single day, which, for all intents and purposes, were just harassment with an official go-ahead.
But the club was created because in West Hollywood, black people were not welcomed. As one white club owner notes in the film, “I don’t think young people understand what it took to keep a place like this open.” Admittedly, I am one of those people.
Upon watching Jewel’s Catch One and reflecting on my reaction to the aforementioned scene in Pose or my own black, gay club life, I felt a sense of guilt. Here I was thinking, “Why even go to those spots?” when, in fact, for the few years I lived in Los Angeles, I never went to what was referred to by me as “the Catch.”
Granted, I almost went a few times because I kept hearing “that chicken good as shit” and I was intrigued by the beauty of consuming fried chicken in the club, but as that singer who loves Whitney Houston so much she starts beef on Instagram about it once sang, “Almost doesn’t count.”
So, yes, I feel a little guilty about not going, particularly when one woman notes after its closing 40 years later in 2015, “We didn’t back her enough.”
It wasn’t like I was saying, “I ain’t going to no sweaty black box. Let me find them white folks and see if I can bop to techno.” I still went to black gay parties. Even so, until it was brought to my attention, I regrettably didn’t think about this: I was hopping from party to party organized by blacks in spaces not owned by them.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but while there has been national media attention paid to the reality of gay clubs in general dying, not as much as been reflected on how the problem is even worse for black gay clubs. And while watching Jewel’s Catch One, I couldn’t help thinking about all of the clubs I used to go to that were owned by us and catered to us and that are now mostly gone.
It’s sad because we need those spaces, but what’s saddest is that there is a whole history of queer, black nightlife that is being lost.
I had no idea that thanks to the work of Thais-Williams, people like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who appears in the film, were compelled to get more active in combating the HIV/AIDS crisis. That Sylvester used to freely sing about queer love to a room full of people who needed it. That while it was the “unofficial Studio 54 of the West Coast,” it was a community in all forms.
And that a black, queer woman launched and successfully kept it going for four decades. I should have known that sooner, and by extension, I should have known more about the black-owned queer clubs that I used to frequent but are now gone to make sure that history doesn’t die at the let out.
I don’t have an answer to fix the problem. It’s highly unlikely that I will ever become the LGBTQ Chelsea Paige and open my version of Club Chelsea for the thots across the rainbow.
But I will say, moving forward, I’ll be more mindful and appreciative of the spaces that do still exist, and whenever I end up thot-bopping, one of those drops will be for the OGs like Jewel Thais-Williams who created a space where none was previously available.