This month, THUMP honors Pride with a celebration of LGBTQ nightlife all across America. Follow our coverage here.
Last week, I was asked by a gay magazine to contribute to a list of parties in New York that provide safe spaces for LGBTQ people. Despite being a self-proclaimed international party girl—one who has been DJing and producing "queer" parties for the past five years—I was stumped. While LGBTQ nightlife is having something of a renaissance in New York, with a number of parties that center queer women—such as Ladyfag's Battle Hymn, Casa Diva's infamous house parties, Susanne Bartsch's On Top, and monthly lesbian night Dagger—I realized that there were very few events where I actually feel safe as a trans woman. Which led me to a larger question: why are there so few "queer" parties that actually embody the full spectrum of queerness?
I get a lot of flack for being vocally opposed to this kind of femme and trans erasure in nightlife. But as a trans woman, I often feel like if I don't speak up, who else will? Sometimes, when I vocalize some kind of criticism about a supposedly "queer" party being too male-centered, I even face a backlash from members of the LGBTQ community. Often, someone will say, "Well, two years ago, you were a gay man, so who are you to talk?"
It's almost as if queer nightlife hasn't caught up to the cultural dialogue surrounding trans issues at large. Increasing mainstream trans visibility—which began with Time's "Transgender Tipping Point" cover in 2014, and Caitlyn Jenner's Diane Sawyer interview the following year—has resulted in a new generation of trans women who see themselves depicted in the media, can access a like-minded community through the internet, and are exposed to not just the tools of gender transition, but the very idea of it, from an earlier age.
Why are there so few "queer" parties that actually embody the full spectrum of queerness?
Yet, for decades, a majority of trans women like myself have actualized their identities through gay communities, often within the space of LGBTQ nightclubs. For many of us who first identify as gay men and then go on to transition, our gay and queer social circles function as family, social group, and dating pool all at once. Once we transition, those bonds are the same, but the way we experience them is irrevocably altered. We still want to go dance with our sisters, but we don't always feel welcome in the same way.
Recently, I went to a gay male-centered sex party at a queer after-hours spot to celebrate a friend's birthday, and within an hour, my friends had abandoned me to play in the darkroom—a space where I felt not only unnecessary, but unwelcome. Going from being a fag to a fag hag is a fucking trip, man.
This feeling of disjunction may be a matter of language. The meaning of queer has evolved over time, resulting in a generational divide in how people perceive its meaning. Starting in the early 1900s, "queer" was used as a synonym—and slur—for "gay." In the 70s, the word was reclaimed by LGBTQ activists and intellectuals in their fight for gay rights—hence, the still-popular chant, "We're here, we're queer, get used to it."
Queer club kids (Photo by Erez Avissar)
In a 2016 New York Times Magazine article called "When Everyone Can Be 'Queer,' Is Anyone?", writer Jenna Wortham detangled the nebulous definitions and political connotations surrounding the term, explaining how it came to be reclaimed by the LGBTQ community from a pejorative to its current status as a self-applied term of empowerment. Queerness, she wrote, derives its radical power from its inclusivity. "But that inclusivity," she continued, "offers a false promise of equality that does not translate to the lived reality of most queer people."
Part of what's driving the term's adoption by the LGBTQ community is a pushback against the rigid ideas and definitions of sexuality that were prominent in the gay rights movement for so long. Essentially, "queer" has transcended sexual orientations like "gay" or "straight," and become a self-identifier for those who choose to live in opposition to social norms of sex and gender.
You don't choose to be gay, but I believe that you do choose to be queer. That choice—to reject heteronormative, patriarchal standards—is the root of queerness. Not all gay people are queer, and the inverse is just as true. Queerness is the intersection of the political and personal, a way to quantify how the personal becomes political. It informs who we vote for, who we socialize with, the music we listen to, and the art and media we consume.
But when you apply the idea of queerness to nightlife, things can get dicey. You can't simply call a party "queer"; there's actual work you have to do make a space welcoming, inclusive, and safe for queer people. Calling something "queer"—or using any number of queer buzzwords or aesthetic identifiers in your party promo—comes with a certain level of responsibility to live up to what the term encompasses. And there is no place where that tension is more visible than in nightlife.
Queerness is a way to quantify how the personal becomes political.
How can a party claim to be "queer" if the lineup isn't diverse, the cover is too high, there isn't accessibility for those who are differently abled, or it takes place in a club where the staff and security might antagonize people of color or gender non-conforming individuals? LGBTQ nightlife is still primarily dominated by white cisgender gay men, so how can a party be queer when it's exclusive of the whole rainbow?
Today, there are vibrant queer party scenes in every major city in the US, as well as smaller pockets in less-populated areas. But the fact remains that gay parties still get most of the attention from mainstream culture, which means that the most capital is poured back into them, resulting in less nightlife produced by and for more marginalized queer people . And when it comes to nightlife, the major difference between a party being "gay" or "queer" comes down to choices as well.
It's easy to pack a bill with talented cis gay male DJs who play house and techno. It's riskier to diversify your lineup and take a chance that some Chelsea queen who ventured into Brooklyn will look up after taking a hit of poppers and see— gasp!—a woman on the decks, and still feel comfortable enough to let themselves go.
Femme erasure in nightlife isn't limited to trans women. There are only a handful of lesbian bars in New York City—namely Henrietta Hudson and Cubbyhole in the West Village, and Ginger's in Brooklyn—and even having those is a boon. Moreover, while there is a crossover of lesbian DJs into more male-centered gay nightlife, these women often don't get the same kind of recognition and opportunities as their male counterparts. Similarly, while there are spaces in New York that try to center trans and gender nonconforming people, those individuals are still woefully underrepresented in most LGBTQ nightlife.
If we're going to expect the world outside of our small pockets of community to see the importance in diversity and inclusiveness, we need to keep doing the work to celebrate and champion those for whom visibility matters. That means that if you're a promoter or a producer, put in the effort to book more diverse lineups—not to meet some kind of quota, but because those artists are an essential part of your scene.
The bottom line is that queer women, trans people, people of color, people with disabilities, people who are neurodivergent, and people without access to capital or privilege—we're at these parties. We're paying the cover—OK, I'm not, I'm always on the list—we're buying drinks, and we're in the party photos. We're not tokens or aberrations; we're part of the community. That means we should be represented on the lineup, too—otherwise, nightlife will never be "queer."
Follow Rose Dommu on Twitter