The Love I Found When I Returned to Queer Nightlife

Like I witnessed in New York's club scene in the 80s and 90s, today's queer parties are a space for the marginalized to gather and resist the evil overtaking our world.

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Aug 16 2017, 8:50am

A photo of the club Limelight in May 1991. Photo courtesy Brooks Osman for SCOTTO.TV copyright 1991

In the New York City I grew up in, in the 80s and 90s, clubs like Limelight's Disco 2000 and the World redefined what nightlife could be—and, by extension, what a community could look like or how it could function.

My friends and I were city kids, drag queens, queers, goths, and punks, which is to say we were club kids—strange outcasts who came together to make New York City nightlife as amazing as it was back then. We'd spend the entirety of our afternoons getting dressed, picking out our clothes and makeup to be as outrageous and radical as possible.

Then we'd dance all night, fucking and laughing, living large right there in the middle of it all. Then we'd go to Florent, a diner in the Meatpacking District owned by Florent Morellet, who would post his T-cell count on the daily menu next to the specials. We'd order escargot and fries served by drag queens, still high, still riding the night.

Some nights we would leave Florent and head to the East Village to keep dancing at Save the Robots, an afterhours spot that went on long into the day. I remember a night I spent with a German boy there with red dreadlocks, making out and fucking on the couches. That German boy would end up moving in with me for a month. One night, standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, he turned to me and said "I fucking love the US. I fucking love New York City. Everything is so fucking wild here!"

And he was right. In those days, everything was wild and full of endless possibility.

But it was also the height of the AIDS crisis. I remember one night at the World, standing with my friends on the dance floor, listening to a drag queen read a list of all the people who'd died that week. I remember being transfixed as she read the names, some of them men we all knew, some strangers you couldn't help but feel a kinship with nonetheless. These were our people. Our community.

Whether in the clubs or the hospitals, we were all we had. Nobody cared about a bunch of faggots in the city dying of AIDS back then. So we cared for one another instead. We showed up every night, and we danced and we partied, and we held vigils for the ones who died. We danced to forget about those who were dying or dead, to remind ourselves we were still alive.

It's strange to think I made it through those years unscathed, only to find out in 2013 that I was HIV positive. I remember the feeling of devastation that overcame me when I found out, how scared and alone I was.

But I made a decision not to sink under the weight of those emotions, and that I'd make having HIV into something meaningful. That's why I tell people I'm positive all the time, to dispel the stigma around the disease. And I think that impulse is part of what drew me back into nightlife over the past few years. I was looking for something familiar—a place that was safe, a place that felt like mine, where I could be the man I wanted to be without restraint or pretense. Nightlife, after all, is where outcasts go to rise above the evil of the world we live in. It's a place where a 49-year-old, gay, HIV positive man can go to dance to remind himself he's still alive.

I spent my 30s and early 40s struggling with a heroin addiction that began back in 1989. I spent 23 years struggling with addictions of all kinds; I would put down heroin and pick up speed, alcohol, pills, and more, which would all eventually lead back to heroin. I began to avoid the nightlife scene I once knew.

I didn't believe partying had anything to do with my drug addiction; the truth is, I was an addict. Whether in the clubs of New York City or on a farm in Idaho, I would have been an addict all the same. I was a drug addict because I was a drug addict. But I needed the time and the space to get clear, away from the clubs and people I had spent most of my life partying with. I needed to find out who I was as a sober man.

I won't lie. When I decided to return to nightlife, I was afraid. I am no longer the man I was in 1989. I am older, sober, and HIV positive. And while I know it's not true, it's still hard not to feel that there is something inherently wrong with me—that I am tainted. I know I am not tainted. I am healthy and undetectable. But sometimes it's hard not to carry the stain of stigma.

I was afraid, in other words, that when I started going out again, everyone would see me as a middle aged, sober, poz dude. As some kind of loser. Someone not welcome.

But what I found as I began my nightlife adventure was something amazing. No one looked at me as some kind of loser. No one cared if I got high or not. No one cared about my age or HIV status. People go out to have fun. And as long as I was having fun, they were happy.

Some 20 years after the peak of the New York club scene, nightlife is seeing a return to that radical individualism I found in my youth. I found a thriving underground queer nightlife that is giving young and older queer people around the country and world a place to explore who they are. It's somewhere they can come together in the face of regimes like the Trump administration, rebelling against a conservative agenda set on destroying the very freedom we experience in these spaces. It's somewhere they can rise against all those larger, systemic ways society aims to judge and hate them. A place that's wholly theirs, just like we once had in New York.

Today's queer nightlife throws its arms open to outcasts and the marginalized, giving those beautiful people at the fringes of our society a place to thrive. DJs are proving that they aren't defined as artists by age, gender, or beliefs. And a slew of promoters and artists from around the world are proving that the best nightlife is diverse nightlife.

I am no longer the man I was in 1989, and the world today is no longer the world it was then, either. The United States is wild in a whole new way, confronted with a president and administration that seems to stand in direct opposition to the ideals of those artists I spoke with. Under the Trump administration, it's easy to think of the "other" as the enemy. Minorities, women, Muslims, queer people, people with HIV: As Trump would have it, they're what threatens the American way of life now.

That's why I decided to leave the States for a few weeks during Trump's inauguration. While in London, I met Noah, a man who would become my boyfriend. Noah is 30 and HIV negative. I remember worrying that my age and HIV status would push him away when I first met him, but instead it's been our differences, those things that make each of us special, that hold us together.

Noah and I spent the night of this June's terrorist attack in London deciding if we should still go out to Savage, a party at a strip club in east London.

But here's the thing: not going out means those whose only goal is to sow the seeds of fear—terrorists and fascists—get to win.

So we went out.

And Noah kissed me and held me on the dance floor at Savage, surrounded by all those dancing kids, and at that moment, all I could think to myself was fuck being afraid, and fuck the terrorists and the conservatives who want to control who and how I love, because there is a strength and power in loving someone, and they can't tamp that down.

There's something radical about showing up in the face of fear and dancing. Just like those men used to do at the Pyramid in New York, dancing in the face of death. Just like we used to do at the World and Disco 2000.

There is a freedom inherent in being OK with who you are, even when you worry about your age or HIV status. There is a freedom in accepting who you are, even when others don't.

I will always choose those dark basements and old warehouses. I will always choose those spaces where DJs rule the night, and the kids dance and I dance with them. Even if I'm the oldest guy in the room. Even if outside their walls, people would judge me for my lifestyle or because I have HIV. Those things don't matter. Not in those rooms, where the music is physical, and all we can do is dance, because those are the places we come to be different, to be ourselves. Those are the places we come to be free.

In the face of evil, we will scream as loud as we can: This is who I am. And nothing you do will tell me that who I am is wrong.

We don't have to be afraid. We are the ones who survived. And this is our world, both inside and outside those clubs. Fuck Donald Trump. Fuck AIDS and Ageism. Fuck anyone who tells us that we are the enemy. Those queens didn't die for us to forget the truth of who we are: We are fucking royalty.

Follow Jeff Leavell on Instagram.

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