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Dance Pride: Queer Culture is Driving a New Underground Dance Music Scene

Pride month may be over, but from Berlin to San Francisco, the real parties are just getting started.

by Joshua Glazer
Jul 2 2014, 1:30am

Fans of raver-shaming worldwide are likely familiar with the Fashion Disasters of DEMF group on Facebook, an annual collection of photographs from Detroit's yearly techno festival, Movement, that chuckles at the expense of those who choose to wear too-tight fishnets and neon pasties in public. However, caught in the net of this year's collection were several images of sizable, shirtless men, packed snuggly into sequin shorts.

This group of gays, though more visible than sizable in numbers compared to the overwhelming heterosexual presence at Movement, is nevertheless indicative of a new trend in underground house and techno. One that finds the gay community, at least a clued-up niche of it, looking for something more sophisticated than the pop-driven world of mainstream gay dance clubs. Partiers who, like their independently-minded straight peers, want to dance to a more sophisticated strain of 4/4 beats that can undoubtedly trace its roots to the gay-driven disco scene of the late 70s and early 80s.

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A supposed "fashion disaster" from Movement Detroit. We found it fetching.

A new gay underground is on the rise in America, driven no doubt by the distinct lack of homosexual stars in the mainstream EDM scene, along with a long-running dearth of quality underground dance music in gay quarters. This has proven to be the perfect climate for brewing up a nationwide circuit of queer-identified parties and performers who are taking the blueprint of legendary gay clubs like the Paradise Garage and The Warehouse, and updating it with decades of deep house and techno innovations that have evolved largely outside the gay POV, in New York's hipster disco clubs and Berlin's weekend-long party sessions.

From long-standing gay centers like New York and San Francisco to much more conservative cities across America, gay and mixed parties have become prevalent throughout the country, offering the sort of uninhibited dance floor freedom that delivers on dance music's original inclusive promise. It is also shining a spotlight on a new generation of gay DJs who, mainly coming from the straight-oriented techno and house scenes, are finally able to operate in a social climate that is as inviting to their gay peers as it is to their breeder friends.

"Coming from something like nine years of throwing regular 'straight' techno parties—things were getting stale," admits Aaron Clark, whose monthly Honcho parties, which take place in the basement of a bath house in Pittsburgh, are the epitome of a thriving gay underground found in an unexpected locale. "I think standard techno crowds were getting a bit too jaded about the music at times, and the queer parties are pulling things back away from that ledge a bit. It's a much-needed injection of fresh weirdoes into the dance scene, and I think the straight techno heads appreciate it too."

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Pittsburgh's Honcho party

The best example of that appreciation is occurring at The Bunker in New York, a decade-plus running techno party that has pivoted in recent years to offer nights of exclusively gay DJs, along with gay-oriented second rooms to augment its more traditional line-ups of superb underground techno from across the U.S. and Europe. Regulars have taken to calling these night "Gay Bunker," despite the protest of promoter Bryan Kasenic, who decided not to differentiate the parties because, "The kind of music we're presenting really doesn't vary all that much based on the sexual orientation of the artists."

Whatever you call them, this new vibe is largely the result of Detroit-bred, New York-based DJ Mike Servito becoming a Bunker resident in 2012. A veteran of the Detroit 90s warehouse scene, with impeccable taste in techno, house and disco, Servito is having one of those moments in 2014, after years behind the decks. He clearly sees the taste for gay-oriented dance events widening along with his own appeal. However, he is quick to put aside the assumption that the recent acceptance is strictly one-sided, with straight techno crowds suddenly deciding gay is ok.

"The days of a musically narrow-minded gay are over," Servito asserts, expressing the frustration many gay underground DJs and fans have felt over the past two decades, when the decision to go hear good music and go to a gay party were mutually exclusive. Ryan Smith, a DJ and booking agent who frequently appears alongside Servito at The Bunker under the name Wrecked, echoes that same sentiment.

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Mike Servito

"I think that the modern movement is a response to circuit culture and the images it conveys to people who don't prescribe to the gay stereotypes, as well as the mainstreaming of gay culture," he explains. "The circuit scene hasn't developed in many years, and a new crop of DJs—some who have been playing more to straight audiences for some time—felt the influence of gays was getting lost. By connecting the dots between modern times and celebrating gay heritage, there is a budding underground and these guys are creating raucous parties fueled by some of the most talented DJs I've heard."

The "raucousness" of these events has frequently been mischaracterized as "sex-fueled" by a media eager to cash in on salacious clicks. Rumors of shocking acts on the dance floor at gay underground parties are generally overstated, unless one still considers two men dancing together to be shocking. In fact, a major part of the appeal to the straight crowd attending these events is the absence of the aggressive sexual behavior towards females that is so often seen at heterosexual clubs.

"Girls [feel] comfortable because they aren't necessarily being objectified. They can be on the dance floor and not worry about someone trying to sleaze up on them," confirms Jason Kendig, another Detroit vet who is one-quarter of San Francisco's Honey Soundsystem crew. Kendig is another world-class dance music aficionado who, along with DJing and promoting since the 90s, has been involved in such project as the 2013 release of Patrick Cowley's 1981 gay porn soundtrack School Daze, a reminder of both dance music's deep gay roots, as well as the tragic AIDS epidemic that crippled the community three decades ago.

Kendig can speak extensively about the debate over reissuing obscure disco and house records, "That's been a polarizing issue," he says. But he's just as interested in the dynamic of throwing a good party, including all the non-musical factors that go into it.

"Most of the time, going out is a combination of dancing and hoping that maybe you'll get to hook up with someone," he explains. "It's not just the music, it's how you engage with other people."


Honey Soundsystem

Having taken place as either a weekly party or as a series of one-offs for over eight years, Honey Soundsystem is certainly the longest running of the current crop of queer techno and house events that appeal to all fans of the music. Little surprise, given SFs position as one of the world's most gay-friendly cities. But Kendig admits that even in the Bay Area, trying to promote a techno night to the mid-2000s gay scene was a tough sell. Most gay venues weren't convinced there was an appetite for underground music amongst their pop-loving clientele.

Resistance from the gay businesses was such that the first weekly iteration of Honey Soundsystem took place at a straight venue previously known for a "Coyote Ugly" vibe, according to Kendig. He goes on the explain that, like any non-mainstream movement—gay or straight—the current wave of queer parties grew out of a DIY attitude. "It was like, create your own thing and throw your own parties." Of course, SF, being SF, the history of dark and sexy gay parties was never far from the surface, no matter how many hetro or rainbow coats of paint were applied over it.

"That place actually used to be Febe's, which was SF's first leather bar," Kendig explains. "So it had that gay history that had been buried so to speak. It was a venue that 95% of our gay crowd had never set foot in there because they never had a reason to. But it used to be where the original Stud had started before they found another venue. Sylvester had performed there! It felt like the "Gayngels" were looking out for us."

Kendig recently played his first gig at Panorama Bar, the house-ier upstairs room of Berlin's notorious techno-temple-slash-gay-sex-club Berghain, Berghain is undoubtedly the most famous venue in the world right now, so it's hard not to suspect that the revived interest in gay underground DJs is in part a result of a broader interest in Berghain's stable of residents who have ridden the club's notoriety (and a sizeable degree of talent) to gigs around the world. One Bunker regular references a set by former Panorama Bar resident Prosumer as a turning point in the interest in gay underground DJs in that particular scene. And Kendig also mentions the big bearded jock as an example of a gay DJ who straight fans refuse to miss.

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Berghain's Panorama Bar

"Straight guys would come, and maybe they'd appreciated the attention that they got, like 'This dude's checking me out' but not feeling threatened by it. Also, 'Prosumer is playing a killer set and I don't care where he's playing, I'm going to go dance to him.'"

That sentiment is what ultimately matters most to everyone I spoke with for this article. The idea that, while the new gay underground is worth talking about, it's still the music that matters most. Perhaps that's why a recent feature on Resident Advisor about Servito's newfound popularity failed to even mention his sexuality. Proof that regardless of ones sexual orientation, a DJ has got to make you dance.

"I don't think the RA article was about my sexuality," Servito explains. "I am a private person, but also not shy about homosexuality and queer topics. I may have had second thoughts about not bringing the topic more to the forefront, but it is what it is. I think everyone can read me a little bit, but I am not one to wear it all on my sleeve. I don't think everything needs to be defined so clearly, either."

As is so often the case with an outlier culture, the best moments happen between the lines, whether they are gay or straight or black or white or whatever other arbitrary definition is used to segregate the otherwise likeminded participants. Whether or not the current wave of gay dance events continues to prosper remains to be seen. What can probably be best hoped for is that it will eventually become another permanent segment of the diverse clubbing culture worldwide. Another normal, although one that defines itself with a healthy amount of deviance. As Smith is happy to point out, as he struts around Movement, resplendent in a tight pink t-shirt with the logo from the much-loved now-defunct gay culture magazine, "Butt," printed across his left pec, "When a gay party goes off, there is really nothing like it."

More Dance Pride on THUMP:
Dance Pride: It's Bros Before 'Mos in Mainstream Dance Music
Dance Pride: The Gay Origins of Dance Music

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