Family Portraits: Sandi Stabler

Listening to DJ Sandi Stabler’s list of credits is like taking a trip down memory lane: Sneakers, Hepburns, Mamzelle’s, Sisters, the Newport Tavern, the DCA Club, The Cartwheel.

Throughout the years, she’s played them all. And that list doesn’t count the fundraisers and private parties she’s been a part of. Stabler has been making people smile, sweat and groove to her music for three decades. When she stands in the booth at Sisters early Jan. 1, welcoming 2010, she will be celebrating her 30th consecutive New Year’s party for the women’s community.

PGN: Over the years, you’ve had many titles, but I know the one you’re proudest of is “lesbian mom.” It couldn’t have been easy back in the day. SS: Very true. When I first decided that I was going to have children, it was back in the mid-’80s. I wanted to share the process with the people in my life. My family was very supportive, but I was shocked and surprised that so many of my friends were not very receptive — at all. I had gay people tell me that gay people should not have kids. When I started the process in 1990, I was very public about it, which was unheard of. I shared the trials of the insemination, the difficulties of pregnancy and we even filmed the labor and delivery and showed it at Hepburns, which was the big lesbian club at the time.

PGN: It’s amazing how homophobic we can be as a community. SS: Yes, and we had a lot of rules back then. I came out in 1980, when I was 17 years old and, at the time, there was a real butch/femme dichotomy. I was really attracted to feminine women and people would tell me that it was wrong, that two feminine women couldn’t be together. I remember walking into Sneakers and I had long curly hair and had on high-heel shoes. People would flat-out tell me I was in the wrong place, and I’d say, “Oh no, this is where I belong.” But I had to fight for it. It’s so nice now to be in a club and see the younger generation, and they have so much more freedom to express themselves however they want and to date whomever they please. I’m sure they have other struggles now, but there’s so much more open to them — motherhood; in some places, marriage.

PGN: Although at times it seems they’re missing the sense of community that having a common struggle brings. SS: There’s still plenty to fight for, they just need to look harder! One thing that really gives me hope is the children of gay families. I look at my two girls and they’re such wonderful human beings. They’re socially conscious and politically aware, they treasure the earth and they love themselves and respect other people. It’s just amazing. I think LGBT people have the opportunity to raise children who are going to change the world for the better.

PGN: Speaking of families, tell me about yours. SS: Well, I have an older brother and two younger sisters. We were born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia. I’m very close to all of them. My mother was a homemaker and my father has been in the insurance business for 45 years. They’ve always been supportive, even through my rebellious periods or when I wanted to start a family. Of course, I have my two girls and they’re the loves of my life.

PGN: Tell me about work. SS: I founded Futuristic Dee Jays in 1980 and brought my sister Selina in as a partner in 1985. I still spin at the clubs and do weddings, private events, commitment ceremonies, etc. I also run the family insurance company.

PGN: What’s the song you hate for people to request? SS: Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Only because if people are requesting that song, it usually means they’re drunk out of their minds! I’ll tell you what I’ve found fascinating is that lesbians love “It’s Raining Men.” I never quite understood that.

PGN: I know. At karaoke, “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” really gets everyone going. SS: That’s funny. But I have to tell you, there aren’t really any songs that I hate to play, because for me, if a song means something to someone and I’m able to touch them or make them feel good by playing it, I love playing it for them. Maybe it’s someone who only gets out once a year and just wants to hear something that reminds them of a good time. It’s my joy and privilege to do it. PGN: Since you are in the sound business, tell me three sounds you love. SS: The most incredible sound is the sound of girls laughing. When I have a bunch of my kids’ friends in the car and they’re talking and laughing and having fun, it’s the greatest sound in the world. I love to hear my children sing. They both sing in Mt. St. Joseph Academy choir. Mt. St. Joseph’s is an all-girls’ academy that they attend, and [my daughter] Taylor’s there on a vocal scholarship. My last thing would be the sound of tap dancing. The kids do a lot of big tap-dance shows and there’s nothing like the sound of 50 feet tapping. When they’re doing a big number, it does something to the audience. You can feel the energy.

PGN: With the holidays coming up, what’s the best gift you’ve received? SS: The sperm I was given by the girls’ biological father. I mean what a gift that is, the gift of life. The girls’ father’s name is Michael and he’s married to one of my best friends, Christine. He gave my girls life and she donated her eggs to someone else, who then was able to have kids with her eggs. When they were little and our kids would be together at the same party, I would just watch them and think, how incredible Michael and Christine were to give such a gift to me and to the other family. They live in Texas so we don’t see the other kids often, but when they visited last, my kids were dragging them around telling everyone about their half-brother and sister. They were so proud of their family dynamics.

PGN: What’s the best gift you’ve given? SS: I like to give of myself, my time and my home. Right now, I have a girl named Sang Eun Lee living with us. She was an exchange student from South Korea and she’s been with us for three years. I call her my other daughter. I have a dear friend, well, you know how you meet someone and instantly bond? I met this wonderful woman and she and her husband were getting married. They were just going to go to a justice of the peace but I knew she’d love a real wedding. I’d only known her a month but I threw her one in my backyard. It was beautiful. Her entire family came in from Costa Rica and they all stayed at my house. It was a nice moment to be able to do that for someone. In April, I have 15 people from a different family in Central America coming to stay with me. That’s the kind of gift I like to give.

PGN: A memorable incident while DJing? SS: It’s actually really sad: I’ve had two people drop dead on the dance floor: a groom’s father and a bride’s aunt. I’ve killed two people! PGN: Wow, you must be spinning some serious dance music. SS: Yeah, I really kill ’em. Wait, let me think of something good to counteract that. I remember a time when I got a job in Atlantic City working for the World Boxing Association. I walked into the facility and the entire crowd, about 2,000 people, was all African-American people. I could tell the people were looking at me like, “What’s this girl doing here? What’s she going to play for us?” But I really take pride in being able to accommodate all crowds regardless of age, background, orientation, ethnicity, whatever. It’s really important to me. The different people I get to work with is one of the things I love about my job. It only takes about 10 or 15 minutes of my playing to gain an audience’s respect and I’m proud to say that they brought me back to do that gig for several years after that.

PGN: So how did you become such an open person? SS: Well, my parents were very accepting people, but I think I truly blossomed when I went to Temple University. I’d gone to an all-girls’ Catholic high school and I remember sitting in class and thinking, There’s got to be more. More people to meet, more experiences to have. At Temple, it was like being a kid in a candy store. There were people from all over. I think I was always trying to define myself and buck the system. When I was about 12, I wanted to be an altar boy because they got to do all sorts of cool stuff during service. I was told that females were not allowed to serve. I was really mad, so I went home, got a chain from our swing set and padlocked myself to the doors of the church. I called the local papers first, so I could really air my grievances. The Philadelphia Inquirer took my picture and I did some interviews. So, in order to appease me, the church let me be a lector. I was the first female lector at Christ The King Parish.

PGN: And what was coming out like? SS: I remember when I first fell in love with a woman, I was like, “I can’t be gay, I just really like this particular woman.” Then I started DJing at Sneakers, which was a women’s bar down at Third and Market and, as the women would come in, I realized that, no, it wasn’t just her: I loved all women! I didn’t share it with my family until my mother came to me and said, “I know you like women, and I want you to know it’s OK. Your father and I will always love you.” I have to tell you, back then, that was pretty unusual. I know a lot of women whose families disowned them, who lost everyone dear to them. Every Mother’s Day, we’d go to Hepburns for brunch and she was so good and so kind to the women whose families had turned their backs on them. She was a great example of unconditional acceptance. As for me, once my family knew, there was no stopping me: I was out everywhere and to everyone. Even now, at my kids’ school, everyone knows that I’m gay and it’s not a problem. I’ve been a volunteer there for 14 years and I’ve never hidden who I am. Being open and honest about who I am is not only important for me and my own kids, but it could be important for some kid who’s just discovering their sexuality, who might say, this is scary, but I know Ms. Stabler and everyone likes her, so I guess it’s not all that bad.

PGN: Backtracking, did you go straight into DJing after graduating from Temple? SS: No, I was in television production for a while. I did sound engineering, I did camera work for a lot of football games and other sports. One of my favorite jobs was shooting boxing matches. Because I was a woman and lighter than the guys, I got to be in the cherry picker right above the fights. It sounds gross, but I was right there filming all the action, blood splattering and all. It was pretty thrilling. I still love boxing. I was living and working in New York during the week and coming back to Philly on the weekends. I finally had to leave New York and come run the DJ company exclusively. I had a full-time staff running Futuristic Dee Jays and had 60 people working for me and it was still growing. Other work I’ve done: I produced an album for Doreen Montalvo featuring legendary Cuban singer/songwriter Meme Solis. It came very close to winning a Grammy for New Spanish Album.

PGN: You’ve had a lot of protégés along the way. SS: Well, years ago, when I got started, there weren’t any mobile female disc jockeys. There were some on the radio like Laney Goodman and Lyn Kratz, but no one doing the parties like I was. I got so much business I couldn’t handle it, so I started hiring and teaching all of my girl friends from high school. We became known as the all-female disc-jockey company. It was an incredible ride, incredible.

PGN: By the way, you filmed sports. Ever play any? SS: Sure, I played basketball in high school, I played softball. I was a pretty good tennis player until I broke my hip playing volleyball. I was diving for a ball during a championship game and hit the steel plate that holds the poles up and shattered my pelvis. It ended my tennis career.

PGN: A celebrity encounter? SS: Taylor is also an actress and she got real close to being cast in “Gypsy” with Bernadette Peters. For years I used to carry an old vinyl 7-inch single of Bernadette’s rendition of “Gee Wiz” and “Dedicated to the One I Love.” We got to go to the cast party and got to meet her. I told her that I used to play her records and she was absolutely floored by it. She wanted to know where I played and if I still had the records. It was exciting that she was so excited.

PGN: What’s one of the best things about your work? SS: I get to work with some wonderful charities. Over the years, I’ve helped raise money for AIDS, for cancer, for children. Over the years, I’ve invited different political figures to come into the clubs so we could ask them what they planned to do for our community. It’s nice when you can do something that helps make a difference.

PGN: So after 30 years in the business, what do you think? SS: Well, there’s a lot of cynicism in the world — and especially in our community — and that saddens me. People will ask me how I’ve been able to do it for 30 years. I think it’s really important that we express what an incredible community we have. Part of what has made working in the women’s community enjoyable for me is reaching out, building relationships, unifying the generations and trying to close the gap between us, appealing across the board to young and old, city to suburbs. I love our community and cherish being a part of it. I can’t believe it’s been 30 years: It seems like I just started yesterday. But there’s always something new to do. This spring, I’ll be running the Spring Fling, which is a formal event that was run by a group of fabulous women who recently stepped down, so I’ve been nominated to take over. And, of course, I hope everyone will come out for my Back in the Day holiday party at Sisters on the 20th. Ho ho ho!

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].