The summer before freshman year, I ended up in Berlin. Traveling alone in Europe, I didn’t really know anything about the city before I checked into my hostel and started to explore. That night, I went to a classic underground Berlin party called Chantal’s House of Shame—run by the Drag Queen Chantal since 1999—and the young gay boy who grew up going to a private Catholic school in Florida realized what it meant to be queer. I was 18. And I’ll never forget it.
Soon, summer came to an end and NSO began. Like most, I was pretty lost in the chaos of exploring the social scene. Hopping frat parties down Spruce, I walked by a big front porch full of people hanging out.
“Hey, are you guys freshmen?” one of them shouted as we walked by. They proceeded to ask the usual questions like “what are you studying?”, and when I responded that I was an art history major they demanded that I come inside. I wasn’t exactly sure what the place was; the people outside who invited me in were women. Fraternities were exclusively male organizations.
Walls covered with murals, couches in every corner, trays of cigarette butts; everything made it clear that I was in a hub for free expression. Every single person I encountered made me feel welcome, and likewise, I embraced a sense of safety that I hadn’t yet found at Penn.
That place was PiLam.
From that moment until the end of freshman year, the space—a sort–of punk rock “fraternity” well known as a music venue—became an important part of my life at Penn. I was officially initiated in the spring of 2018.
I don’t mean to represent the PiLam brotherhood through this essay—I can only represent myself. The fact remains that I wasn’t really ever into punk rock music, but I found a home in that house. I ended up losing that home I got to know so well in such a short time.
Anyone who knows PiLam knows that it was only a fraternity in name. The house was run by women in so many ways, whether they were the ones organizing shows, running meetings, or simply sharing their artistic skills with the house. This was unrecognized by the fraternity structure, in which only male students attending Penn could hold official positions.
Students from other Philadelphia universities also played a key role in the space, delimiting membership beyond institutional boundaries. The brotherhood was widely queer, offering a stark contrast to Penn’s often heteronormative Greek scene.
As a gay man, this queerness was an essential part of PiLam that helped me escape the heteronormativity I found commonplace at Penn. Some fraternities here have a reputation for being “gay–friendly,” yet are only welcome to gender–normative expressions.
There was no other social scene at Penn as queer as PiLam, I noticed. The LGBT center seemed to provide institutional support, but did not offer an alternative queer milieu. I was fazed by not only the lack of a scene, but also hostilities within the Penn gay community. It felt divided and cliquey, lacking any general sense of how to navigate it. I struggled to understand why a school that self–advertised as all–embracing of the LGBT community critically lacked an LGBT student community at all.
In the spring, I joined the board of QSA and began trying to do some queer organizing of my own. Nightlife, parties, and events are an indispensable part of the queer community as a result of its historical origins in the shadows of society. The lack of a party scene should not be taken as a minor issue. It undermines the presence of LGBT student life.
In my search for a new site for the Penn gay community, PiLam presented itself as a venue, a safe–space, and a hub of artistic expression. As I became close with many active brothers, I was permitted to host events in the house for the Penn queer community.
The first was a Valentine’s Day party where everyone received a candy necklace upon arrival, an idea which I stole from a gay nightclub in Paris. People’s responses were overwhelmingly grateful, attendance was high, and, in all honesty, people were just having a really good time. I had never seen Penn students act or feel so liberated. Queer people were connecting and intermingling in a manner uncharacteristic to any other social arena here.
The rest of the semester became an opportunity for this campus to have a queer space—and I jumped on it. I genuinely believed that what Penn needed was more gay parties. Every now and again, the PiLam basement would transform into a colorful mess of dancing, queer partygoers sporting their flashiest attire.
And a lot of other people agreed with me: seniors would approach me and thank me for putting queer parties back on the map. I realized that the nonexistence of Penn’s queer scene was widely–known, but not much was being done about it. As a freshman, I was unofficially leading Penn’s queer social scene.
The goal was simply to provide a space for people who didn’t have a space. It was a small social revolution in a way, especially considering how radically different the parties were from any others at Penn. It finally seemed like, maybe, there was a new permanent queer space on campus. It was a breath of fresh air.
Then the news came out. We were losing the house. All of the murals were to be painted over. Too much debt.
The loss of PiLam was a loss for Penn. It was a loss for the entire community as much as the queer community. I can’t imagine my freshman year without PiLam, and I worry when I think about the lack of such an open, free space for current and incoming freshmen.
The PiLam house on 39th and Spruce is now occupied by an all–male Drexel chapter of Pi Lambda Phi. The art that was physically embedded into the house is now lost, along with memories and traditions. Penn’s campus lost a pioneering, alternative organization to make room for another traditional fraternity.
To me, the loss has highlighted the structural difficulties in queer organizing on this campus, such as the lack of venues and events. No space has been found for the annual queer Halloween party this year. Proportionally, a university with such a large LGBT community should have a substantial number of social events—just like the straight population.
Philadelphia queer nightlife is widely inaccessible to most undergraduate students, such as those under 21, or those who cannot afford it. This inaccessibility and lack of an on–campus alternative presents a unique issue for many who critically need a space, but are denied one.
It became evident to me that the marginalization of queer social spaces is a phenomenon at Penn. It affects the lives of many students. It affects my life.
This summer, I was able to go back to Berlin. I got to meet Chantal this time—she was delightful. Like so many students had thanked me for my queer organizing, I thanked Chantal. I thanked her for putting a space out in the world meant for me. I’ve seen what a vibrant, active queer community can do. We should bring one back to Penn.
John is a sophomore in the College studying art history. He is on the board of Penn QSA.