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How Gay Clubs Changed the Way We Take Drugs

Many of the world's most popular drugs took off in gay clubs, but it looks like the days of gay men being "early adopters" of new psychoactive substances are numbered.

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Nov 30 2015, 3:00pm

A wrap of MDMA. Photo by Michael Segalov, from 'I Walked Around Bestival Asking to Test People's Drugs'

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Gay drug users have long been seen as "early adopters" of new club drugs. The powders, pills, and bottled liquids sniffed and swallowed in the cubicles of gay clubs today will be the substances passed around the straight clubs of tomorrow—or so the thinking goes.

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In reality, as we enter what could be described as a new, post-clubbing era, the days of drug trends trickling down from cutting edge dance floors—gay or straight—to the wider population appear to be numbered.

In June of 2013, VICE published a report on the phenomenon that would later become known as "chemsex"—groups of gay men injecting crystal meth and mephedrone at private orgies arranged on dating apps. Since then, there have been academic studies on the subject, new clinics set up to deal with the fallout, and public health warnings. A VICE documentary film, CHEMSEX, will be released in UK theaters on Friday.

One thing worth noting about Britain's chemsex scene two years down the line is that, fortunately, it's remained a minority sport. It's true these extreme sex parties are now bigger in Manchester than they were in 2013, but as yet chemsex has not rippled out to the wider gay, drug-using community. What's more, there are scant reports of this practice spreading to straight drug users.

That last point is reflective of a broader change in how gay club culture relates to the world outside of it. Neither mephedrone nor GHB—two of the most popular substances on the gay clubbing scene—have become particularly fashionable among mainstream clubbers, who have fallen back in love with MDMA. Crystal meth, a drug with a high prevalence in many parts of the world, remains largely confined to the gay community in the UK. And poppers and viagra, the other mainstays of gay club nights, aren't exactly all the rage at Ministry or the Warehouse Project.

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Yet, there was a time when gay drug users—particularly those on the club scene—set the pace. In fact, nightlife as we know it is owed to a dance revolution invented by gay black men in America. It was in venues such as the Warehouse in Chicago and the Paradise Garage in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s where the cocktail of MDMA-enhanced house and garage music was first brewed. Until then, the use of ecstasy—synthesized by Alexander Shulgin in his backyard lab in California in the late 1970s—had been largely restricted to small cliques of new-agers and psychologists' patients.

These clubs were intense places, sanctuaries where the oppressed could dance, get high, and forget about their worries for 24 hours. They attracted British pop stars such as Marc Almond, Mark Moore, Steve Strange, George Michael, and Boy George, who all spread the love back home. Almond took ecstasy for the first time in New York in the early-80s and loved it; the result was Soft Cell's debut album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, said to be the first British ecstasy record.

Eventually, the drug trickled down to the clubs and football terraces of England, as well as the sandy beaches of Ibiza, and—surfing on a wave of acid house—became fully democratized during the second Summer of Love in 1988. "The biggest gift gays gave to club culture was house and garage 30 years ago, from the black gay clubs in America," says legendary club promoter Patrick Lilley, who ran LGBTQ activist organization Queer Nation.

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Gay clubbers were early adopters of ketamine in the late-1990s, when it was commonly used as a partner to cocaine under the name "CK1," after the Calvin Klein perfume. As the drug filtered into the mainstream it was snorted by straight clubbers to bring them down from the high of MDMA or ecstasy. By 2012, after being virtually unheard of in the UK before the turn of the millennium, ketamine had become more popular than cocaine and a rival to ecstasy on the student and festival scenes.

And it wasn't just drugs and music where gay clubs innovated. The concept of the after-hours club—an inevitable result of the passion for drug-taking and excess that has characterized gay club culture—was pioneered by the iconic gay night Trade at Turnmills in London.

A night at Trade. Photo courtesy of Trade

So why have gay clubbers historically been seen as the early adopters of new psychoactive substances? Partly, it's because they're more prolific drug takers than straight clubbers. According to the British Crime Survey, gay people—and gay men, particularly—are three times more likely to take drugs than straight people. They take them more frequently and from a wider menu of substances, and are also bigger drinkers.

The normal clubbing experience is intensified in gay clubs because of what American therapist Alan Downs calls "velvet rage"—many of those on the dance floor will have escaped to city bars and clubs after suffering years of repression and bigotry. The music and the drugs offer a release and a place of sanctuary almost unimaginable to most clubbers just trying to shake off the working week.

"Gay people are more prolific and adventurous drug takers," says Professor Fiona Measham, who has spent two decades interviewing people in gay clubs in London and Manchester. "There is a work hard, play hard attitude, a willingness to experiment with different drugs and an openness about that."

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There is a strong common bond between people who may have had similar experiences growing up—i.e. coming out and being discriminated against—and the unity around drug taking and dancing in clubs is amplified by these collective emotions. Measham points out that academics have compared the unifying intensity, hedonism, and liberation in gay clubs to the spirituality and escapism of historical "dances of death," rituals used to cope with pain and plague in the medieval era.

The more shit people go through, the more willing they are to take risks and do impulsive things, which in the context of the gay club scene means experimenting with drugs and sex. Gay clubs offer a more important role for their guests than their straight equivalents, because the stakes are higher.

"Gay men, historically, have had their lives, recreation, and sex associated with risk and danger and disentitlement," says David Stuart, head of substance use at 56 Dean Street, a charity helping gay drug users in London's Soho. "Communities do inherit historical and communal trauma, a kind of mass post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The most common symptom of PTSD is experiencing a constant sense of danger and risk."

It's this context in which chemsex grew, being not only a representation of the dark side of this hedonism, but an indicator that gay club culture is dying a death.

"There is spin we are all party animals having a fantastic time, but my experience is many of us are repressed, stressed, and self-medicating with drugs," says Matthew Todd, editor of Attitude magazine. "In my 20s, going to [London venues] Fridge and Astoria seemed more happy. Now, it's more intense, harder, and more sexual."

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The number of nightclubs in the UK has halved in a decade, a trend that started with gay venues. The roll call of iconic but now dead gay bars and clubs is a long one, and it's not just a result of gentrification and stricter licensing; attendances are also down. Why bother going to your local club if you can meet people, buy drugs, and arrange a weekend-long orgy using an app on your phone? As David Stuart says: "The shameless queuing in nightclubs for drugs has become the shameless sharing of them online."

If a new drug—an updated ecstasy, say, or the next ketamine—were to appear tomorrow, would we see it first on the gay clubbing scene? "Five years ago I would say yes, but now it's far less likely," says Professor Measham. "Because of the internet, people don't need to hear about drugs from trendsetters who are part of some fashion and music zeitgeist. Today, a new drug is more likely to rise up from a lab in Amsterdam with some clever internet branding than [from] some uber-subculture scene."

In his 1997 book, Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House, Matthew Collin observed how through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s "black and gay clubs consistently served as breeding grounds for new developments in popular culture, laboratories where music, drugs, and sex are interbred to create stylistic innovations that slowly filter through to straight, white society."

Now, it seems, those days are well and truly over.

Follow Max Daly on Twitter.

CHEMSEX is released in the UK on Friday, December 4. To see a full list of theaters showing the film, click here.

CHEMSEX will be released on DVD and On-Demand in the UK on January 11.

To read the rest of the articles from our Chemsex Week—a series exploring the people, issues, and stories in and around the world of chemsex—click here.

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