The Rebirth of the Queer Dance Floor
Promoters at the forefront of New York's queer dance music scene discuss its present and future.
On November 12th—four days after Donald Trump became our president-elect, and exactly five months after a gunman committed the worst mass shooting in American history at Orlando's Pulse nightclub—VICE and THUMP brought together four of New York's most promising young queer nightlife promoters to discuss the state of their scene, beginning with whether they agreed with veteran gossip reporter Michael Musto's assertion that "Gay Dance Clubs [Are] on the Wane in the Age of Grindr," as read the headline of an article he wrote for The New York Times this spring.
Depending on your perspective, his assertion was either a no-brainer—gay bars have been closing around the world at a steady pace for years—or evidence that Musto has fallen out of touch. While some gay dance parties have certainly lost their footing as of late, a new breed of pan-sexual, pan-gender, inclusivity-above-all events have taken hold in their stead, where the sexual tension that dominated an earlier generation of gay clubbing is a happy coincidence, rather than a focus, and marginalized communities are given space to thrive.
Panel participants included pioneers of this new ethos: Tyler Pridgen, co-founder of the party Techno Queers; Dion Mac, aka Tygapaw, co-founder of the queer artist and event collective Fake Accent; Oscar Nuñez, resident DJ and co-founder of the regular queer POC party Papi Juice; and Christine Tran, co-founder of Discwoman, a gender-inclusive booking agency and event collective. Led by THUMP features editor Michelle Lhooq, the panelists proceeded to break down what's possible and what's not within queer nightlife today, and what promoters and producers can do to ensure all aspects of their events remain safe for all, a mandate that has taken on renewed significance in light of Oakland's recent Ghost Ship tragedy.
Michelle Lhooq: First, let's talk about the idea that gay nightlife spaces are closing. There was a New York Times article by Michael Musto earlier this year about how a preponderance of gay clubs have closed recently. I'm curious if you guys think that queer nightlife is facing the same decline, or if it's thriving and bubbling up—and if it is, what's driving that momentum, and why is it different from what's going on in the gay scene?
Tyler Pridgen: Queer nightlife is thriving, it's extremely interesting to experience right now. And it's becoming more and more apparent that there's not just straight parties and gay parties—people want this mixture of sexualities, experiences, eccentricities and abnormalities that's more encapsulated by a "queer" audience. It's about a mixture of gay, straight, bi, anything. It doesn't have to be parties specifically for gay people, and I think that people are flocking over to this new mentality because it's more comfortable, more accepting, less overly sexualized. It's empowering and exciting.
Oscar Nuñez: I think what was interesting about that article was that most of the places and parties that Musto mentioned were parties for us cisgender gay men. And I don't think there's any more time to be exclusive like that. A party that's providing space for just gay men is just not what everybody's into anymore.
Dion Mac: Overall, the demand has been continuously building—people definitely want these spaces and want to go out—but there's differences between a queer POC party and parties that are for everyone. Ours tend to get shut down more, and we deal with a lot of aggression from authorities. One example was a party I was booked at this summer, and even before I got to the venue I got a call that there was a SWAT team outside, and it's chaos, nobody can give me a straight answer—and, you know, the line-up was 90 percent people of color, so to me, it's an attack on us just trying to do our thing. We want to express ourselves and be free, and we're continuously met with this apprehension. On the other hand, you have Oscar's Papi Juice party, which is an amazing queer POC space that's thriving right now, and that's huge.
Christine Tran: I think it's really telling when you just go into a venue for a walk through and they give you this othering look, and you're just like, okay, I've got to go. People text me asking if I can recommend venues they can throw events in, and I have to think so hard—I don't want to have to do that. I want a space owned by a queer person or a person of color, and I think part of it is about having more doors open for people like us. Hopefully one of us can do that.
Michelle Lhooq: What can queer parties do to remain inclusive and stay accessible while making sure that we're protecting those we invite into these spaces?
Mac: You do your best as a curator to be in command of the night and the party and be aware at all times, but of course you can't be everywhere at once. It has a lot to do with communication—with the venue, security, your team; getting everybody on the same page and making sure they know that the people who attend your party are the number one priority. And when incidents do happen, it's best to address them right away, because when you don't it shows carelessness, and subverts the whole point of having a safe space. If you're not being attentive, if I'm being stalked or harassed in the club and you don't become the authority in that moment and do something immediately, problems arise, so it's best to just be very, very proactive and aware. That's just how I try to implement the idea of a safe space. It's not perfect, but you do your best at any given moment.
Nuñez: I'd like to mention that it's been less than six months since Pulse, and that was a big marker for me—I've actually been against using that language ever since, "safe space," because we as curators and organizers cannot guarantee the behavior of 700 people who come through our doors. The sense of safety someone might feel at our events is due to familiarity and love that they feel, and the culture of love, self-care and community that our parties might give to folks.
You can try to create safer spaces, but I don't think safe spaces are possible anymore, especially in the climate we're in now. As curators and people with platforms, we have to talk about things that are unsafe, or call out dangerous behaviors or things people have let you know happened. Just call it out. And also create the idea of love in the culture and community, and try to build that. That organizing is really hard, and it takes a lot of work, but it can be done.
Tran: Yes, it's a lot of work. I learned the notion of safer spaces from Oscar and Papi Juice, and it's about asking yourself what actions you're proactively taking to make your events a safer space. Are you having debriefings with security teams before you start the event? As an organizer, are you being proactive about the language everyone is using? What about pronoun use?
Familiarity, I think, is key. Who's working your door—do they know your crowd? You can proactively create that control in your space, and you never know what's going to happen, but at least you know what the next step is if something does happen. These are things you need to talk about, and listen to your audience about, and have a no-tolerance policy about from the beginning.
Audience member: Hey guys—my name's Cait, I'm one of the owners of [Brooklyn music venue] House of Yes. Part of the struggle of being a club owner who's queer but not a person of color is when you talk about being inclusive, does that also include heterosexual, white, cis men who come to your parties? And of course it does, in my book, but how do you balance that acceptability with your crowd and be okay with people who might not be? I'm curious about your experiences.
Tran: At Discwoman, we manage that by building diversity into the lineup. It's about working with great venues—House of Yes is amazing—and considering who the decision makers in the venue are, who's the booker, what kind of bookings are they taking, and are they open to, you know, all of us? That's the conversation to be had in your space, and you do have that control.
Pridgen: I think it's a lot about promotion, too, and really working to have a big span of acts, so that you can't immediately assume anything about anyone when you walk in. I think that's related to this larger, expanding understanding of what queerness is—you can be straight and cisgender, but still embody a bit of a queer energy, and we shouldn't bar someone from our party just because of who they are.
Nuñez: For me, it's that this idea of inclusive space is important, but then it's just as important to know your place. And if you're a straight white male at a queer party, it's important for you to realize that rather than have someone be like 'what the fuck are you doing here?' It's fine if you come, but realize the amount of space, both physical and emotional, that you're taking up.
This article is part of the VICE series The New Queer. Read the rest of the package here.