Ed note: This story was born from a reader who filled out our feedback form about reporting on Latino Life in Philly, and said, “I would love to see where alt latinx and queer latinx hang out!” In searching for these spaces, our reporter discovered there aren’t very many — and that residents have strong feelings about the lack.
Naiymah Sanchez remembers dancing on the second floor of Woody’s during the landmark Gayborhood bar’s Latin night. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone following her and eyeing her flirtatiously.
She was interested, but unsure how he’d react to her being a trans woman. A couple of drinks later, she decided to tell him.
As soon as she did, he threw a drink in her face — and the incident resulted in Sanchez being kicked out. It was the last time she ever went to Woody’s.
“As someone who was born and raised in Philadelphia, I [should] have more agency in that club than this person who obviously wasn’t from the community,” said Sanchez, 38.
Discrimination has become a common experience for many queer Latine folks in the city, as the number of spaces made for them dwindles. Aside from Sammy’s Place in North Philly, they’re virtually nonexistent. Most nightlife venues that strive to serve queer non-white folks advertise broadly to people of color, which many Latines feel doesn’t always take into account their needs or identity.
Sanchez, who’s Puerto Rican, said she doesn’t always feel safe in traditionally queer spaces because she feels excluded.
“It’s not just, ‘You can’t come here,'” she told Billy Penn. “It’s about the policies they create, the music they play, or the food that they serve. They’re not food, music, or policies that incorporate who we are and create welcoming spaces for us.”
Gay bars gone ‘the way of the dodo bird’
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Latin queer clubs and bars dotted the city, according to David Acosta, artistic director at social justice art group Casa de Duende, but they slowly kept closing.
When the popular North Philadelphia bar El Bravo closed in the ’80s, there was a huge hole left in the community — big enough that it forced questions about how queer Latines in Philly would socialize, Acosta said.
In 1989, the Colombian-born activist founded GALAEI, the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative, with a mission to address AIDS and specifically how it affected minority communities.
GALAEI first operated in Latin dance clubs in Center City, Acosta recalled, where they’d host salsa nights to reach a large number of people.
Nowadays, however, queer bars “are going the way of the dodo bird,” said Acosta, 63. Philly’s sole lesbian bar closed closed in 2021 due to rising rent prices and fewer patrons, and only 14 are thought to remain across the U.S.
Acosta thinks this is due to a larger trend: the disappearance of queer neighborhoods. Places like Philly’s Gayborhood or the Castro in San Francisco initially offered what felt like sanctuary. But as LGBTQ acceptance and tolerance became more mainstream, many longtime residents decided they could leave, making room for non-queer people to move in.
The queer spaces that still remain, like Woody’s, are starting to have more straight patrons. Some places offer Latine-themed nights, but Acosta feels it’s more to profit off the community, not to provide validation or representation.
“They’re offering something that the community wants and lacks, but it’s a business transaction,” he said. He summarized the attitude: “I’m putting this on so you can come and spend money and feel like we gave you a bona fide space.”
Latine erasure, and fear of calling it out
Even in spaces that were made specifically for queer Latines, it can feel like that identity is getting erased, said Valentina Rosario de Jesus, a program manager at GALAEI.
When she first joined the nonprofit at the age of 14, she fell in love with how the organization encapsulated her multifaceted identity. Now at 24, she told Billy Penn that’s beginning to change.
In 2020, GALAEI’s new leadership rebranded the nonprofit as a “queer trans Black Indigenous people of color” (QTBIPOC) organization. Rosario de Jesus, a Puerto Rican trans woman, believes the new classification wrongly just groups Latines into “people of color,” which erases their Latinidad and contributes to Philly’s overall lack of Latine queer spaces.
Some Latines who don’t feel comfortable with this rebranding say they don’t voice their concerns for fear of being misconstrued.
“When we start talking about this we become ‘angry Latinos’, we become ‘racist Latinos,'” Rosario de Jesus said. “We become everything under the sun, except for Latinos who are just searching for a place that is for us.
“If there is a lack of something, we should create something anew,” she added. “We don’t co-opt a space for marginalized people and switch the narrative so it can fit better with other people’s needs.”
Sanchez, the woman tossed from Woody’s for getting a drink thrown in her face, believes there’s generally a lack of support for queer and trans Latine folk in the nonprofit space. Needs like Spanish language services are either ignored or flat out denied, she said.
“This continues to present a challenge because it increases the trauma and harm that we experience, whether in community, with community-based organizations, in society, with inclusive or affirming clubs, or just anywhere,” Sanchez said.
The last bar standing?
A staple in the community, Sammy’s Place on North 5th Street has been run by Iris Melendez since 1993 — and since then, it’s been one of the only queer Latine spaces in the city.
“It makes me proud that I can cater and open the doors to a family of people that actually don’t have anywhere to go,” said Melendez, a 58-year-old Puerto Rican woman.
But it’s not just a bar, it’s “where friends become family,” Melendez told Billy Penn. A place to host birthday parties or salsa nights, and where straight customers are welcome and mix in seamlessly. While it’s rewarding, it’s been far from easy.
With pandemic habit changes and gentrification of the area, Melendez said the old-school bar began attracting a younger crowd. She turned Wednesdays into free salsa nights, and Thursdays’ oldies became Thursday Latin nights.
While Melendez is excited by these new changes, others are upset about the trend.
Gentrification displaces Latine community members and rebrands neighborhood staples, said Sanchez, citing the former Latino Roots Bar on B and Allegheny. “We can’t even afford to live in our communities, let alone party,” she added.
In 2019, Philly was considered one of the top seven most gentrified cities in the country. But
Melendez said she doesn’t believe “yuppies” are the reason queer Latine businesses rarely exist. She thinks it’s a generational thing, and older Latino bar and club owners in the city are less accepting of queer identity.
Regardless, Melendez wants to give queer Latines a place where they can be themselves and feel accepted.
“We all need a space, we all like to find that one place that we migrate to and call a second home,” Melendez said. “Where every time you walk in the door, they know who you are.”