Is Tacony's 'sex-positive' club really a fraternal organization?

The second and third floor windows of the Victorian-era Tacony Music Hall are blacked out or blocked from view by tightly drawn white curtains. On a walk around the block Wednesday afternoon, five people were asked about the club upstairs, and each answered with confusion or a blank stare.

No one seemed to know anything about the “sex-positive club.”

The club, called Philly Music Hall, has been holding events, mostly at night, for nine weeks, mostly unnoticed.

The director of the day-care center on the building’s ground floor knows about the club and its mission, but said she’s had no problems with her new neighbors.

“We really don’t see them,” said Monique Roye, who heads the center. “They don’t start whatever they’re doing until an hour after school closes.”

Camera icon Michael Bryant
Monique Roye, director of the Children’s Place preschool underneath the “sex-positive” club, which occupies the top floors of the building.

Roye has toured the club and said it’s not all that mysterious. “It’s really, honestly, small little open spaces,” she said. “I’ve seen massage chairs, that type of equipment, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

That’s not to say the “sex-positive” club hasn’t made a stir. Since its opening in April, the local civic association has been seeking a way to shut it down. The association’s latest strategy is arguing that the city wrongly issued a permit for the Philly Music Hall to operate as a “fraternal organization.”

“They’re comparing themselves to the Sons of Italy and the Knights of Columbus,” said Connie DeLury Schepis, who is on the board of the Tacony Civic Association. “We think that’s a stretch, to put it mildly. Our position is, that permit was issued in error.”

The club, Schepis argues, needs a permit to operate as an “adult entertainment” venue, which, due to more restrictive zoning laws, would require it to move from its current location across from a church and in the same building as the day-care center.

Club leaders say they offer a safe space for sexual programming, discussion and parties so their community’s members don’t have to meet at dangerous or unlicensed spaces like warehouses or underground bars.

Sex in the club is not encouraged, the group’s leader, Deborah Rose Hinchey, has said. But it’s not prohibited.

Schepis said her association objects to the club’s location, not its purpose. “We’re not fighting what they are doing — clearly everybody is an adult and you’re free to do as you please,” she said. “We wouldn’t fight an adult book store on State Road … but we don’t want a nightclub in the middle of our neighborhood.”

But nightclub is not a fair representation of what the club does, Hinchey countered. The club is not a business, nor does it serve alcohol. Hinchey called the civic association’s response “an effort at fearmongering in a hope of creating moral panic,” and evidence of a need for better understanding of the community her club serves.

Since the club has been open, activities have ranged from discussions and workshops on relationships and sexuality to game and crafting nights, she said, adding that she had to turn members away due to occupancy limits.

The club, registered as a nonprofit with the state, falls within the lines of the city’s definition of a fraternal organization: a not-for-profit enterprise for “bona fide, annual dues-paying members and their occasional guests.”

“The First Amendment does not come with a clause to allow exceptions for pearl-clutching,” Hinchey said. “Our members have a right to free assembly and expression. We have all due rights to seek appropriate zoning within the code.”

The group was not required to provide a description of its purpose or activities in its application to become a fraternal organization, which is how it should be, said L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss.

“Do we want to live in a city where L&I gets to ask those kinds of questions, like, ‘Well what are you doing with your friends in your private clubhouse?’” Guss asked.

Councilman Bobby Henon, who represents Tacony, cosigned an  appeal filed by the civic association. He said Wednesday that the club more aptly falls into the adult-entertainment category and does not belong in a residential area.

“I’m sure they’ll have programming, but they also publicly stated that 15 to 20 percent of the use is going to be sex and I think that’s when it’s related to zoning,” Henon said. “I think that’s why the community is opposed to it.”

The Zoning Board is to hear the appeal Sept. 13 and issue a ruling. The decision could be appealed to Commonwealth Court.

Schepis says the civic association is prepared to fight all the way up the legal chain, thus its fundraising page, which seeks $25,000. The group has retained Matthew McClure of Ballard Spahr, who runs the firm’s zoning and land use team.

At a March meeting of the civic association, members voted by 88-31 against the club’s proposal.

Schepis said she fears a decision maintaining the club’s fraternal organization status could have a domino effect, luring other nontraditional clubs to form fraternal organizations in residential areas.

Asked whether she agreed, Guss reiterated that L&I doesn’t regulate a club’s mission, but rather its adherence to the city’s zoning code.

“Like a fight club?” Guss asked. “The first rule of fight club: Get the proper zoning.”