For Jen Winston, going out and going to church are not so dissimilar. Each has its distinctions, of course: Opposing codes of dress, different hours of operation, contrasting disco ball quotas. But for Winston — whose 2021 essay collection Greedy: Notes From A Bisexual Who Wants Too Much landed her on countless bestseller lists — queer bars and clubs have always been sanctified spaces: safe havens, places of confession, community hubs. “That comparison between nightclubs and churches stems from truth. In terms of worship, and safety, gay dance floors gave me more than any cathedral ever did,” she says.
Winston isn’t referring to the velvet rope, tip-your-promoter, $30-for-a-gin-and-tonic types of clubs you might be envisioning, though. No, she’s referring to the glittering, free-spirited, roving gay clubs, dance parties, and concerts — largely in Los Angeles and New York — that made her feel at home in queer spaces before she’d even settled into her own identity. “I did the ‘models and bottles’ club thing when I first moved from Indiana to L.A. and it just made me miserable. I felt like I wasn’t hot enough to get in anywhere and I hated everyone I spoke to but I also just felt like…this was what you had to do when you were young if you were going to be described as fun,” she says. “I didn’t know there was anything else out there.”
That’s when Winston met the infamous Rhonda — not a person, but rather, the name of a regular monthly dance party held in one of her most beloved Los Angeles queer bars. “Things have changed a lot since I was a regular at ‘A Club Called Rhonda’ almost a decade ago. But there’s a reason a whole essay in my book is dedicated to that particular party,” she says. As she explains it, Rhonda attendees circa 2013 could expect a dance floor packed with bedazzled bralettes, exposed nipples, and size-fifteen stilettos. On the dance floor, crowds were ecstatic and uninhibited, moving with the sort of glee that made even the most staggering hangovers worthwhile. “Rhonda was the first club night I'd ever been to that challenged binary ideas of queerness. At the time I didn't realize why that meant so much to me, but I knew I felt comfortable there. It felt like home,” she says.
By the time Winston moved to New York in 2013, she was championing her bisexuality. She’d come out to her parents, her friends, and her Instagram followers (at the time, a sizeable 80K) — and was adamant about the importance of that particular identifier. “There’s this mentality that being bisexual is like a placeholder for gay people. Like it’s just a weird gateway phase you go through before becoming a lesbian,” she says. “And that might be true for some folks, but for me, it’s not a passing phase. I am bisexual. That’s why I wrote my book — I wanted to talk about the ways people find it threatening for you to occupy more than one bracket.”
For years, Winston grappled with the feeling that she was neither straight enough nor gay enough, but queer bars became her perfect middle ground. “The magic of those spaces has always been — and still is — that they’re so free and creative. Even though it often feels like queer bars are this embedded part of nightlife culture these days, I do still think that a lot of people are scared of them as a culture for the same reasons they’re scared of sex: It’s about freedom and liberation,” she says. “Speaking personally, I can tell you it’s where I learned how to stop fearing hedonism…and to just, ya know, embrace being myself.”
In honor of Pride month, VICE is partnering with Absolut to celebrate the queer bars, clubs, restauraunts, and dance parties that have made nightlife into a critical safehaven for LGBTQ-identidying folks across the globe. Ahead, we sat down with Winston to talk about how queer nightlife helped shape her identity, the safety in these spaces, and the sanctity of late-night dancing.
You mention having spent time at ‘Bottles & Models’ clubs in L.A. Can you put your finger on what made those experiences so off-putting for you?
“Well, for one, that whole scene feels really closely linked to capitalism. Everything is so expensive, your whole prerogative is to get someone to buy you a drink, and if you’re going to even, like, sit down, you have to be paying for bottle service. So I would go, I’d be wearing something I didn’t even like — probably a dress I bought for sorority rush and then recycled when I didn’t get into a sorority. The D.J. would just be some guy and I’d have to stand the whole time in these uncomfortable shoes. I just felt like everything was a wealth display and everyone looked the same…but no one was having fun.”
What prompted you to start frequenting queer clubs and bars?
“At that time — like 2011-2014 — I hadn’t come out to myself just yet, so I was always telling myself it was about the music. I would be sitting at my desk at work with all these tabs open in search of tickets to see DJs I was supposedly super into. I did — and still do — love that music scene. But I think at the time, it felt like a way of explaining to myself why showing up to these parties was so supremely important to me.”
How did you relationship to nightlife — and queerness — change when you first found Rhonda?
“Before I identified as queer — even to myself — I loved Rhonda. It felt like being inside a disco ball. My nights there felt so distinctly colorful. Of course, I feel so naive thinking back. It should’ve been obvious to me that I wasn’t exactly straight. But at the time, all I knew was that I felt like myself there in a way that I never had before. I felt freer. Sure, I had the freedom to, like, hook up with whoever I wanted. But I also just…truly felt like myself.
“Throughout my book, I talk about the fact that, when we see bisexuality on TV, it’s shown as a behavior. It makes you think that bisexuality is something that you do rather than something that you are…which made me think that bisexuality was not an identity, but rather, an act that I had to perform in order to earn my label. But Rhonda made me feel like no matter what I did, I was in a safe space. It was about being on the floor and dancing and letting everything else wash away.
“Now, I realize that freedom came from being surrounded by queer people, but at the time, I hadn’t put that together. I just knew that everyone at Rhonda was cool and fashionable and smart and full of intelligence and spirit. And I wanted to drink it all in.”
When you did come out as bisexual, did your relationship with nightlife change?
“I don’t know that it changed as much as that I understood it more. And when I was writing Greedy it also felt like this really valuable moment for me to interact with a lot of the people and spaces that had made me into the sort of person who could write a whole entire book about my bisexuality, and queer theory, and the ways that things like nightlife and dating and bodycon dresses played a major role in my ability to even understand who I was.
“That said, I’m getting old. Like in-my-30s old. I still love to go out when there’s a DJ or a party I’m particularly excited about, but I’m not going out the majority of the nights of the week like I once did. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though. It doesn’t take away from how formative the queer bar scene was for me as a person, and how much joy and safety and exploration it brought me. Sometimes, I think of it like parental guide, ushering me along. I don’t feel so dependent on it as I did when I was still finding myself, but I get so much joy still out of being in those spaces.”
You’ve mentioned the fact that it feels like nightlife is often left out of queer literature. Why do you think that is?
“Well, for one, I think folks are often convinced that it’s not worth talking about. That readers aren’t interested. That it’s for degenerates. Like I said, I do think we have a cultural fear of freedom and openness and hedonism — and for that reason, people can write nightlife off as frivolous. But it’s so much more than that. Sure, maybe the general public wants queer people to be, well, less gay in the daylight. But raves and gritty dance parties can be these places where gay culture really comes alive. And they’re the spaces that really did help shape my identity. They really did offer the refuge of a church.
“I think people can be really afraid of their true selves. Not to say that every homophobe is gay, but that, when folks who aren’t really inhabiting themselves honestly see other people being so freely and unabashedly at home in their own bodies and in their own spaces, it can feel like a threat. But for me, writing about those spaces — like nightclubs — that deserve a stage is my way of honoring them. And in truth, one of the best parts of going out is always the attempt to piece together a story about it the next day.”
It’s true that going out promotes so much nostalgia. Every night is different and unexpected — and for that reason, we’re always looking back fondly on prior nights out. What role do you think nostalgia has played in your relationship with nightlife?
“I can look back on 2013-2015 with awe and jealousy, but even at the time I was nostalgic about it. I was always longing to relive nights that had just passed. If I were to describe any of my perfect nights, they’d be those ones where you feel like you’re in a time capsule, experiencing something that no one else can or will ever experience. Then you spend the next day, week, month trying to put yourself back, straining to remember the way things looked and smelled and sounded. You send pictures to your friends, celebrating the fact that you were THERE. You’ll put on that one LCD Soundsystem song.
“Anticipation may be what gets me out the door, but nostalgia keeps the party going. I may complain about how much things have changed, but if I'm being honest, looking back on nightlife has always been my favorite part.”