Walk through downtown Providence on any weekend night and you’re likely to find a line of club-goers wrapped around the corner of Richmond and Friendship, all waiting excitedly to enter EGO Providence. One of the city’s well-known gay bars, EGO was opened in 2013 by club promoters Rafael Sanchez and the late Chris Harris. It has since grown to become a staple of Providence nightlife, featuring various themed nights and becoming home to the drag ensemble EGO Babes.
“(Harris and I) were just producers and club promoters and we always dreamt of having the club,” Sanchez said. “So we just decided back in 2012 to look for a space and just open a club and that’s how EGO was born.”
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Sanchez first entered the club scene in 1998. On what was meant to be a short vacation to New England, he visited Avalon, a nightclub in Boston. The club’s owner saw him dancing and offered him a job as a bartender on the spot. From there, Sanchez began hosting his own events, working his way through the nightlife industry until he met Harris.
“It’s funny, I’ve worked every spectrum of it,” Sanchez said. “I started back in the day when people were allowed to smoke in the clubs, so my job was just literally to make sure the ashtrays were clean. And then I worked as a busboy, and then from there became a runner, then a barback, then a bartender.”
Quickly after they met, Sanchez and Harris realized they shared an aspiration of opening their own venue, particularly one for the queer community. With their background in the industry, they mobilized their connections and experience to bring their vision to Providence.
“We always found that only five or 10 percent of the (queer) community was catered to when we started our business many, many years ago,” Sanchez said. This led Sanchez and Harris to realize that they wanted to support community members whom existing queer spaces tended to overlook.
To create that atmosphere of inclusivity, EGO hosts theme nights, such as Detention Thursdays, Twerk Fridays and Latin Sundays, that represent different parts of the community, according to Sanchez.
“For us, it’s very important, from the staff that we hire to the music that we play to the different theme nights, that we cater to everyone as much as we can as opposed to just one group of the community,” Sanchez said. Prior to EGO’s opening, “we definitely knew that the Latino community, the hip hop community, the African American community, the lesbian community — there was nothing. Nobody (was) catering (to) them.”
Perhaps the most iconic of EGO’s efforts is the creation of the EGO Babes, a group of drag queens who perform regularly and occupy a residency-like role at the club.
“It was very important that I gave a chance to people that had never been given a chance before — very, very new queens,” Sanchez said.
After testing out a series of lineups, the final four queens were chosen: Annie B. Frank, Complete Destruction, YUNG ONYX and Pulp. The group performs every Thursday, drawing crowds and providing raunchy and free-spirited revelry for all.
“I first started as a patron of EGO with the intention of seeking out community,” Pulp wrote in an email to The Herald. “Within a year of first going and successfully finding community, I started to explore drag. I had humble beginnings as a drag artist and made friends with management … I first got into drag as a ‘one-off’ sort of thing without any intention of becoming a professional. I enjoyed myself so much that one time that I decided drag was something I wanted to explore more in depth.”
To choose the EGO Babes, Sanchez scoured the venue night after night until he found queens he felt were the right fit. Forming the EGO Babes was part of Sanchez and Harris’ vision of creating an inclusive club space. Given the role that drag occupies for the queer community, Sanchez and the EGO team knew that having their own group was imperative to making it the best space possible.
After spending years building up its reputation and clientele, the club was forced to shut its doors for the better part of a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nonetheless, with the advent of vaccines earlier in the summer, EGO hosted its grand reopening on June 17. With the class of 2024 and students from other class years on campus for a summer term, EGO was poised to cater to the student demographic in a way it hadn’t before.
“Our year was very separated from the others because we were (on campus) in the summer,” Jordan Cheung ’24 said. “People started just going to wherever they heard about first, and I think EGO having an 18+ night and being a gay club and just a really good spot, people were excited.”
“It’s a place for self-expression for a lot of kids who are figuring themselves out at college or aren’t out at home. I definitely know a lot of kids from Brown who started going to EGO, and that was the place where they started exploring their sexuality and themselves,” Cheung added. “I think sometimes the Providence community can be a little unclear politically. Having a specific spot that’s this safe space for LGBTQ+ folks is pretty important.”
Pulp emphasized that EGO aims to serve as a refuge for the queer community. “It is EGO’s vision to reinforce and celebrate diversity, intersectionality and inclusion by offering a safe space for all QBIPOC and LGBTQIA+ members of the Providence community and beyond,” Pulp wrote. “This is especially important for younger people in the community, as it can be a very vulnerable time to navigate the world as a queer person.”
Now, the club is operating once again in full swing. Despite the challenge of bringing people back to large live events, EGO has managed to successfully get back on its feet, even using the pandemic as a break to remodel the club’s interior. The reopening has allowed EGO to return to its place as a key space for queer folks across Providence, with creating and safeguarding community remaining its number-one goal.
“When I think of the club,” Pulp wrote, “I think of family.”