Nightlife Is a Safe Haven for Many LGBTs, But It Too Is Fraught With Race Issues and Exclusion
I recently found myself embroiled in a rather toxic Facebook discussion. It centered around a post that a young, white, gay guy had written. It attacked NFL stars as “profiting off hardworking true Americans.” People of color for “bitching about racism” while “getting free services from the government.” (But he has plenty of minority friends!) His overarching message, though: “I’m proud to be an American.”
I’ve written a lot about the idea of whose country this is, what it means to be gay and how we confront these issues in the age of Trump and creeping fascism around the world. But no matter how much I write about this topic and no matter how much I read, I’m never fully prepared for a gay man who supports Trump, let alone a white supremacist agenda.
Maybe I am naïve to believe gay men should be better. That we should know better; that those of us in the LGBTQ community have fought long and hard for our freedoms and basic rights; and that alone should provide us with enough insight and awareness to be on the side of other groups as they fight for the same basic rights.
I’ve spent a lot of my life in nightlife. I was in New York City in the ’80s and ’90s, dancing at clubs like Limelight and The World. I currently live in Los Angeles, which boasts parties like A Club Called Rhonda, Bears in Space and a myriad of after-hours warehouse parties that have taken over the the city’s landscape. And then there are parties in Berlin, London, Paris and Rome.
Nightlife has been a continual backdrop of who I am.
And nightlife saved me. Back in 2013, when I found out I was HIV-positive, I thrived in nightlife’s dark rooms. The music, the colorful dancers, the swirl of humanity — gay, straight, trans, gender-fluid, queer, old and young — everyone came together to create these perfect moments in time where we could all be accepted for who we were. That was what I needed to heal, and to accept myself as a poz man in his 40s.
Now, in 2017, faced with what mirrors a fascist regime in the White House, it’s inside these same nightlife spaces — and the diversity and tolerance they foster — where LGBTQ people feel they can truly be who they are.
But they aren’t perfect, are they? Even as gay men we try to break each other down, to define each other based on our sexual preferences (tops and bottoms, subs, doms, bears, twinks), using race and socio-economic status as ways of limiting each other. Casual racism, internalized homophobia, misogyny, transphobia — these things are often still strong in our community.
But I also see hope. A resilience and desire to move beyond our weaknesses and to come together as a community. Because it is only when we stand together, as a community, that we will be able to confront the attacks against us from the outside.
So I decided to speak to some of queer nightlife’s leading DJs. People who are championing diversity in what they do after dark.
I spoke to Chris Bowen, an L.A.-based DJ and party promoter for local parties Bears in Space, Cub Scout and countless underground and after-hours events. We spoke about the idea of nightlife as a safe space for the queer community.
“Nightlife is a safer space than most, but even within our own community there exists divisiveness where people of color and trans people don’t feel adequately accepted or represented,” he says. “I think many of the parties that are happening now in L.A. are doing an excellent job of creating these safe spaces — spaces that are tolerant of a wide and diverse audience.”
Bowen also mentioned the idea of empathy — of making the attempt to understand where another person is coming from. Understand their feelings is crucial if we’re going to move forward as a community.
I can’t help but think, when looking at the Trump administration’s attacks on LGBTQs and the rise of right-wing groups around the world, that the only thing that’ll save us as a community is coming together, accepting each other for all our differences and celebrating those differences. Trying to break ourselves into neat little categories — creating parties for only one kind of “gay man” while excluding whole segments of our community — feels somehow counterintuitive. Maybe even destructive.
“On occasion we promote our own nights, and part of what drives us to do so is the desire to create the kind of world we would like to occupy outside of our general day-to-day world,” they say. “Being inclusive means that we have women and men, gays, lesbians, transgender people, heterosexuals, people of color, old as well as young people, people with diverse social backgrounds and beyond.”
Visibility is also “extremely important,” they say, “not only on the dance floor but also behind the decks, too. We are both middle-aged lesbians, which is perhaps not the norm as far as DJs go. One of us is black South African and the other German and white. It is important to showcase the immense and diverse talent in our communities.”
The idea that nightlife is a way to recreate the world we live in into something more ideal, something special, is a powerful one. Instead of taking racism, homophobia, transphobia, pozphobia and misogyny and using those things to separate us, we can instead create microcosms of tolerance and acceptance. Nightlife can consist of spaces where all of us can be who we really are without fear of judgment or prejudice.
When looking at the world outside our queer community, the recent elections in Germany where the far right took a surprising 13% of votes, or the violence against gays in Chechnya, or the rise of fascism in Poland and France, and the devastation of a Trump presidency in the States, it’s hard not to feel like everything is hopeless. Like there’s no longer a way for us to live our lives in any meaningful way and still fight for something better.
Derek Marshall, another L.A.-based party promoter and communications director for the Senate campaign of Pat Harris, is one of those people who is fighting to create more diverse safe spaces for the queer community to party in. He’s also using those spaces to create real change in the outside world.
“My relationship to and thoughts on nightlife have always involved the community aspect of coming together to feel normalized in our collective weirdness,” he says. His latest event series is called Let’s Party Like You Give a Fuck, and it aims to find artist and venues wanting to donate their services to “the movement” — that is, progressive causes and candidates.
“An average nightlife event can bring in $10k, $20k, $50k and sometimes more,” he says. “That’s a decent amount for local organizations or candidates fighting the current administration’s policies regarding immigration and DACA, or raising awareness of new issues like regenerative soil best practices.”
For all the darkness we are experiencing in the world, I can’t help but feel like there is hope. There’s a movement happening, and it’s a radicalizing of the left, as the outcasts and weirdos are stepping out of the shadows. We no longer feel we have to hide on the sidelines; instead we’re beginning to demand that we be heard.
Fascists like Donald Trump and the AFD (Alternative for Germany), plus militia-like police in the States gunning down young African-Americans, have given rise to a powerful liberal backlash. It’s no longer OK to just sit by while the world burns. We must stand up and fight back, and we must be as loud and as queer as possible. And because there is nowhere left to hide, we must be unified.
“These are interesting times,” says DJ Ziúr, also Berlin-based. “There is a rise in fascism, but on the other hand we are so much more forward-thinking in terms of gender, race, age, etc. It feels like there’s this environment growing where outcasts of many kinds have a common ground to unite. Club spaces often provide a bubble where people are allowed to zone out and be themselves, and that can be liberating and empowering.”
“But these are not perfect little worlds,” she says. “There are still times when I’ve encountered misogyny, racist door policies and racism in general. I wish we could get to the point where we aren’t fighting against each other and instead are united against the Big Oppressor, but there are so many micro-layers of prevailing power structures within the oppressed that must be overcome. We will only have a chance to be truly liberated if we are aware of each others’ differences and are able to start truly appreciating them.”
Tearing down those power structures within our community, reaching out to those on the fringes of our community, seeing beyond our differences, accepting each other in all our weirdness, refusing to bow to the constraints of normalization — all this is essential. The most radical thing we can do is embody the world we want to live in, where each person is considered valuable.
“When I started going out in the ’90s, you would go out to be a part of the night, and in return it would offer you safety and a feeling of belonging,” says London and Berlin-based DJ Hanno Hinkelbein. “It’s the same today, if you are willing to contribute and not just stand by. If you look after the night, the night will look after you. The more you make it about your ego, the more you are on your own.”
DJ MikeQ, who has spent the past 10 years championing the ballroom scene and queer culture, isd quick to point out that the divisions we’re dealing with today aren’t new. “Even before Trump, this political climate existed,” he says. “It might not have always been talked about, but the issues were there. We get to come together in this scene and be a family regardless of these issues.”
And on the importance of nightlife safe spaces, he says, “We are loving people, we are human, we are all alike in more ways than not, so how could we not support each other? Nightlife is like a ‘no judge zone’ where it doesn’t matter how others view us. I can for sure say my life started when I found my people, and its important that this remains so that others who may not be so fortunate can come find themselves as well.”
We are a strong, vibrant community that can effect real change in the world, and in our queer nightlife, freedom and tolerance thrive, which is proof of real hope for our future. We get to create the spaces that allow everyone to be free and to express themselves how they want, and it’s often within these spaces that real dialogue can occur.
But we have to fight for these spaces, honor them, cherish them.
We have to celebrate that freedom and each other.
Jeff Leavell is a writer living between Los Angeles and Berlin. He specializes in queer social commentary, relationships, sexuality, art and Nightlife. His novel Accidental Warlocks will be released by Lethe Press in May 2018. You can find him at his website or on Instagram.
Featured image by Alicia Fischmeister