It was 1:15 AM when I woke up from a Roberta's Pizza food coma, scrambling to get my outfit together. It was my last night in New York before going back to Toronto, so I was heading out to meet some friends at SHOCK VALUE, a semi-regular queer-friendly party in Bushwick at now-defunct venue The Spectrum. The lineup featured some of my favorite DJs in the city, and within seconds of being let in by the bouncer, I found myself surrounded by people I'd admired for years online: Chris Udemezue, the visual artist and promoter known as Neon Christina Ladosha; Oscar Nn and Mohammed Fayez of Papi Juice, the Brooklyn party collective responsible for one of the most popular QTPOC monthlies.
A few hours later, DJ, trans model, and activist Juliana Huxtable had the crowd going off with re-edits of twerk team tracks, New Jersey bass, and futuristic tech-house. Dropping Diamond's self-empowerment anthem "Team Pretty Bitches," she orchestrated a moving formation of bodies brown and black, big and small, gender-fluid and genderless. I found myself having long conversations about music and politics with my fellow party-goers while booty-popping next to a monstrous fan, basking in the glory of this shame-free zone.
The night ended at 7 AM, and I sprinted back to my Airbnb in the pouring rain, crying tears of happiness. I'd been to a couple QTPOC parties before, but it wasn't until I attended SHOCK VALUE that I experienced the spiritual unity that comes with being part of a congregation of racialized queers all dancing in the same room. How often do these groups find themselves raging till the wee hours of the morning?
The night was a reminder of my internal struggles as a queer youth of color, trying to find my reflection on dancefloors that were too often filled with whiteness and hate. My struggle with the lack of blackness in live music spaces goes back to my late teens. Back then, I didn't know the importance of my skin, so I bleached my aesthetics to match those of my white peers—straightening my hair, taking cues from The O.C., and doing everything I could just to blend in. Feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide shook me from time to time, but somewhere along that voyage of self-discovery, my experiences in nightclubs taught me more about the relationship between classism, racism, and queerness than I ever thought possible.
I was born in Toronto, but grew up four hours away, in Windsor, Ontario. I spent a large part of my late teens going to punk and ska concerts with my small circle of high school friends. Their presence helped me feel less isolated at those shows, even when random straight-edge kids would point out that I was the only black male there. The feeling of community they afforded me was a far cry from my neighborhood, where guys on the street would tell me that I was "whitewashed" and "too gay" to hang out with them, two concepts I couldn't quite grasp at the time.
My friends were more aware of my queerness than I was, but were always gentle with me about it. One friend in particular, Aaron, was the lone wolf of the group who listened to very little punk, despite playing in bands when we were younger. He liked house, trance, and techno, and when we ended up working at a record store together, he introduced me to artists like DJ Shadow, LCD Soundsystem, and Le Tigre. I was trying to keep up this punk rock purist persona mainly to be cool, but when I started listening to the records he shared with me, I began embracing electronic music more.
As I researched the origins of techno and house, I discovered how many of these genres and subgenres were birthed by queer POC communities. In the summer of 2005, Aaron and I went to see Le Tigre in Detroit, and I met a girl named Lauren. We exchanged stories about being black in majority white spaces. Before I headed back home, she gave me a list of electronic artists for me to check out, and said we'd party again together some day. I cherished that list for years; not only did it spark a growing interest in connecting with other people through music, it marked the first time I'd spoken with another person of colour about music other than rap or R&B.
I didn't want to be the oil in this sea of milky bodies any more, so I always found myself trying to appear off-white at best, a replica of the same whiteness I was fighting against.
Sadly, incidents of classism and racism continued to follow me throughout my early club experiences in Windsor. I got awkward glances from the rich kids who—ignorant to the queer POC origins of the art form—wondered why I danced so hard at venues that played dance music or anything that wasn't "for my people." It didn't help that I was a bit chubby, channeling every white hipster cliché into my personal style, and suffering from a major identity crisis. I didn't want to be the oil in this sea of milky bodies any more, so I always found myself trying to appear off-white at best, a replica of the same whiteness I was fighting against.
When I moved back to Toronto in 2007, the nightlife scene was going through its own identity crisis, trying to copy what was happening in other cities. People idolized cult celebrities like Cory Kennedy, shopped at American Apparel, and formed collectives that that threw half-baked versions of the Misshapes parties in New York. At first I just went with the flow—I was the new kid in town, and wanted to fit in. Local influencers and fashionistas told me they "loved my look." People quickly gravitated towards me at these parties, but I soon realized their true intentions. The thirst for industry elitism and superficial accolades had quickly turned a lot of individuals I knew into vultures who would only hang out with me to appear diverse, portraying the role of the ally for visual purposes.
As my nightlife circles shifted through mood swings of half-hearted inclusivity and decorative blackness, I sank into another spiral of depression. This new world of wannabe socialites had stipulations on how I was allowed to exist amongst my white peers—I was allowed to party with these people, but never able to spark dialogue that challenged the status quo. Disparaging comments about my black identity floated amongst a pack of scenesters who didn't care much about black lives, but still managed to fetishize every aspect of the culture. It wasn't uncommon for my so-called friends to ditch me during secret 4 AM after parties, or throw subtle racist remarks around when partying with trust fund babies they wanted to score coke from.
After years of mistreatment, I put a few relationships to rest and ventured further into "Queer West," Toronto's west end gay scene. After attending Hot Nuts, a house and techno party where most attendees dressed in drag, I fell in love with this cute spot called The Beaver where it was hosted, though it wasn't specifically a QTPOC bar. The crowds came from diverse cultural backgrounds, and it was there that I'd meet Will Munro, a well-known artist, promoter, and figurehead who was vital in the formation of alternate queer spaces and events in the city during the 2000s.
Before he passed away in 2010 from brain cancer, we hung out a few times at his party No T.O., where he'd play post-punk, Italo, and dark disco that I'd never heard before. His taste in obscure records inspired my approach to DJing, and I was flattered that someone so renowned in the city wanted to share music and conversation with me. I'd connected with my first real Toronto ally in an environment that allowed me to build a stronger sense of my queerness amongst like-minded people, a community that felt less toxic than the mostly straight party circles I had found myself in before.
While these experiences were amazing, many other POC I met in the queer scene had stories very similar to my own. This lovely Somali guy I often saw at The Beaver was constantly being bullied and vilified for his radical views about blackness at alterna-queer events claiming to be inclusive. He became the target of verbal abuse by anyone who considered his politics "too intense;" at one party, someone even got up on the mic and horrifyingly called him out about it. Incidents like these made me question the way our community used the term "ally."
Why were white queer people so quick to call their events "inclusive" when they readily dismissed feedback from POC who felt otherwise? Who gave them a free pass to reclaim club culture and sounds inherited from legends like Juan Atkins and Frankie Knuckles while disregarding black bodies—and black voices—on the dancefloor? Was there any way out of the cycle whereby white people rebrand our cultural movements for their own entertainment, only to devalue our ancestry and erase the real stories behind voguing, ballroom, and house music?
There's still a lot of unsettled frustration surrounding the appropriation racialized queers have witnessed within club spaces, but when I started visiting and going out in New York, I found new doors began to open for me. I realized more and more individuals were taking the initiative to connect with each other and to put on events we could actually call our own. Through following the city's nightlife online and connecting with those artists and DJs face-to-face during my travels, I realized there was a lot more visibility for QTPOC curating events for racialized bodies.
For years, I'd been trapped in a nightmarish spiral of internal hatred that triggered notions of body dysmorphia, and at times, suicide. It wasn't until I experienced what it was like to dance alongside other queer bodies in spaces of true love, inclusiveness, and allyship that I began to fully grasp the power of togetherness. Like me, a lot of the promoters running these parties in New York, Toronto, and around the world had learned to reel in their own inner turmoil and take matters into their own hands. There's still a lot of work to be done, but so many of the events happening now—including Yes, Yes, Y'all, a Toronto monthly thrown by close friends and collaborators—give me hope for the continued growth of spaces that celebrate racialized figures of all shapes and sizes.
I battled to have my voice be heard in all-white party spheres, but learned firsthand that some conversations simply can't be had among people with certain levels of privilege. With the click of a button, social media taps you into the lives of QTPOC tastemakers around the world, giving new generations of young queers the incentive to be fearless and do the same. If I may impart some wise words based on experience: in white spaces, don't try to conform or go with the flow—speak your mind! If you're amongst so-called "allies" who don't use their platforms to talk about making spaces more inclusive, they aren't real allies. There's nothing cool about being the "trophy friend," so it's probably best to cut those people loose. On the flip side, you can easily get other like-minded POC folks together and establish communal support networks and events, where oppression and queerness is discussed in an open forum of love and support.
My journey wasn't just about finding myself, it was about relishing in black excellence at its full potential, seeing my people normalized in places where we've come to dance and celebrate ourselves. Now more than ever—especially in the aftermath of Orlando's Pulse shooting—it's important to continue developing sanctuaries that open doors to outsiders on the fringes of white gay nightlife, coloured bodies who share a similar heritage and oppressive scars. Even women like Solange Knowles, who are routinely in the spotlight, are no strangers to the everyday implications of being a visible minority. After she recently experienced racism while with her family at a Kraftwerk show in New Orleans, she wrote a moving personal essay, which ends with the following words:
"We belong. We belong. We belong. We built this."
Max Mohenu is on Twitter.