During that same week, similar Promote Diversity fundraisers were held in Munich (Harry Klein), Paris (Rex Club), New York (Output/The Panther Room), Tel Aviv (The Block), San Francisco (Holy Cow/Honey Soundsystem) and Zurich (Heaven Club). The ticket proceeds from these events were to be donated to All Out, a LGBT-rights organization that is active in several countries around the world. This was in response to Russia's recently passed legislation against "homosexual propaganda," which included wording that criminalized virtually any public statement in support of "non-traditional sexual relations." But why would the global nightclub community take action to support sexual minorities? What relevance do they have to today's club culture, anyway?
The press release for the Promote Diversity fundraiser says, "Equality on all levels and tolerance are basic values that the club and music scene has always supported." Why is that so? Well, presumably because most of the music scenes that founded today's dance music genres—disco, garage, house, etc—were closely connected with marginalized groups, including gays and lesbians, transpeople, racial and ethnic minorities.
Maybe we need to flip the opening question on its head: if the roots of electronic music are so sexually diverse, why do today's audiences need to be reminded of it? Have we forgotten about the queer nightlife worlds of the '70s and '80s? That's the problem according to Loren Granic, AKA Goddollars, co-founder and resident of A Club Called Rhonda in Los Angeles, who doesn't mince words:
"We're currently experiencing a total mainstreaming of dance music in America," he says. "Many of these newcomers are straight/white kids who are very far removed from the LGBT community, despite fist-pumping by the millions to a music that was born from gay people of color sweating their asses off at 5 AM in a Chicago warehouse. It's easy for us to dismiss this as a corruption of the music we hold so dear by charlatans and assholes, but many of the newcomers will be drawn into the music for life, and I think it's important that we highlight the role that the gay community played and that we educate new fans of dance music to the ideals of community, equality and diversity that were so crucial to dance music's DNA from the beginning.
Loren Granic, Gregory Alexander of A Club Called Rhonda
"And if sexual minorities were historically central to the emergence of dance music culture, where are they now? If you take a look at who is running the clubs, managing the labels, booking the artists, and playing the records, the demographics are starkly different from the crowds that got this music started. Considering how big a role the gay community played in the genesis of the music, it's strange to see that the majority of the stakeholders nowadays are of the straight male variety. It would be great to see promoters, artists, producers and club owners take a stronger stand to be more inclusive of the culture from which they take and profit so liberally."
Despite this, queer dance music scenes continue to thrive today, even if they're mostly off the radar of mainstream dance music media. Why and how did that happen? Part of this might have to do with the scale of today's club culture: it's easier for minorities to remain central to a music scene when it's small, local and personal. Once it becomes a massive global phenomenon, it's much harder for marginalized people to stay inside the frame of attention. But another reason for this absence is that history is written by victors: as dance music became more mainstream and had more crossover success, the people writing its history followed the "more relevant" threads into primarily straight, white, middle class environments, quickly forgetting about the more queer and colorful scenes that were still dancing and making music.
These days, it's clear that there is not one history but many histories. Everyone has an idea of how things happened and, as more people have access to writing, publishing, the internet, etc., more and more alternative histories crop up to contest the "official" version of events. Those who want to uncover the history of marginalized peoples have to search through the archives of historical documents—mostly written by the powerful about the powerful for the powerful—to find traces of what the less powerful were doing. The idea behind this feature is not to set the record "straight," but rather to re-examine club culture's queer roots, and then dig up the stories of the scene's queer undergrounds.
New York disco and garage /
In New York City at the beginning of the 1970s, queers of color (primarily of African-American and Latin-Caribbean ancestry) and many straight-but-not-narrow allies came together to create small pockets of space in the city's harsh urban landscape—spaces where they could be safe, be themselves, be someone else for a while, and be with others in ways not permitted in the "normal" everyday world. Music was an essential part of these gatherings, and the sound of these events would eventually develop into the style called disco. The sound was a mix of soul, funk and Latin music with a driving, four-four kick drum pattern. It took its name from discotheque, the French word given to nightlife venues that featured recorded music instead of live performances.
But disco didn't start in discotheques; most histories of disco start with The Loft, David Mancuso's series of private parties held in his apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Mancuso was DJ, promoter and master of ceremonies from the beginning to the end of the night, presiding over a crowd of mixed sexualities, gender expressions, ethnicities and social classes. As word got around about Mancuso's parties, discotheques in Lower and Midtown Manhattan began to cater to this emerging sound, such as Nicky Siano's The Gallery. By 1973, this sound had become prominent enough for music journalist Vince Aletti to pen the first article on disco ("Discotheque Rock '72: Paaaaarty!"), for Rolling Stone magazine. In it he described the local disco scene as a thriving underground of "juice bars, after-hours clubs, private lofts open on weekends to members only," populated by a "hardcore dance crowd—blacks, Latins, gays."
Later in the '70s, disco gained in popularity and developed a larger presence in the above-ground nightlife economy, spilling over into mainstream discotheques, being broadcast on national and international radio, and gradually attracting a larger audience of white, straight, middle class people. This was the time when many purpose-built disco clubs started opening, such as Studio 54 (1977) and the Paradise Garage (1976) in New York, as well as the EndUp (1973) and the Trocadero Transfer (1977) in San Francisco. And this was also the period when many of disco's best-known artists launched their careers—Donna Summer, Chic, The Bee Gees, KC And The Sunshine Band.
As disco recordings began to saturate the music markets, disco itself increasingly lost its connection to its queer, black and Latin roots. But these roots weren't completely forgotten: when the disco market collapsed at the end of the '70s and the anti-disco backlash began to take over in America, disco's critics suddenly remembered its sexualized and racialized origins. The anti-disco slogan, "Disco Sucks"—available on t-shirts, bumper stickers, buttons and more—wasn't just a metaphor in the '70s: it was a direct reference to cock-sucking, aiming a half-spoken homophobic slur at disco and its fans.
But disco's downfall didn't happen overnight. Sales had been falling for some time beforehand, and they would continue to taper off into the '80s. Outside of the US, disco stuck around and dovetailed with '80s dance-pop, new wave and industrial music. Nonetheless, some of the changes were shockingly abrupt. Most of the major record labels closed down their entire disco divisions, laying off their employees and canceling artists' contracts with almost no notice. The disco collapse hit nightclubs especially hard, and the few clubs that managed to stay open went on to form the "underground" of the post-disco era.
In New York, Paradise Garage was the most well-known of these surviving clubs, which catered to an audience that was primarily queer, black and/or Latin-Caribbean. Larry Levan, the club's resident DJ, maintained a loyal following of dancers by developing a distinctive sound that would later be dubbed "garage." Depending on who (and how) you ask, garage was either a precursor, a parallel or a sub-style of house music. Generally slower in tempo than Chicago house, it featured a mix of disco, R&B, soul and funk with a focus on gospel-inflected vocals. Clubs like Paradise Garage, The Saint and Zanzibar kept the post-disco tradition alive in New York and New Jersey throughout the '80s, while newer clubs like Sound Factory and Twilo brought club culture into the '90s.
Chicago house /
Most histories of Chicago house begin with Frankie Knuckles, a disco DJ from NYC who played records with Larry Levan at the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse in downtown Manhattan. Levan had been offered a job as the resident DJ of a new nightclub that Chicago promoter Robert Williams was opening in the city's West Loop in 1977, but Levan was already committed to a permanent residency at the Paradise Garage. Levan recommended Knuckles, who relocated to Chicago and took charge of the music at The Warehouse, a dance club that would cater primarily to gay black and Latino men. When the club doubled its entry fee and went upmarket in 1982, Knuckles left The Warehouse and started his own club, The Power Plant. Not to be outdone, The Warehouse responded by renaming itself The Music Box and hiring DJ Ron Hardy as its new resident.
Knuckles, Hardy and numerous other producers and DJs in Chicago at that time would go on to become the founders of Chicago house. Chicago's house sound was developed for and in the city's primarily queer and black clubs, mixing older disco with Italo disco, funk, hip-hop and European electro pop. In contrast to NY garage's heavier gospel and soul influences, Chicago house drew deeply from funk music, with a more high-energy "jacking" sound that featured driving percussion and higher tempos. In the late '80s, house music took a harder and darker turn, as DJs and producers began to experiment with the overdriven, squelching sounds of the Roland TR-303 synthesizer. This gritty, psychedelic sub-style came to be known as "acid house," and it would later provide the initial soundtrack for the UK's acid house party scene at the end of the decade.
The growing popularity of house and acid house in the UK brought not only record sales but also gigs for Chicago's DJs, who found themselves traveling frequently to Europe to play for primarily white and straight crowds, while the music scene they came from continued to be largely ignored by the local American music market. And so, despite what happened at the Disco Demolition Night in 1979, disco didn't die in Chicago. It just went back underground into the queer dance scene and returned as stripped-down, jacking, raw house music.
Detroit techno /
Sexual diversity is much less visible in the stories of Detroit techno's origins. Race is more often cited as an important factor for the scene, but sexuality and gender are rarely mentioned in techno's "official" history. If you flip through books like Simon Reynolds' Energy Flash or Dan Sicko's Techno Rebels, you'll read that Detroit was the straight, middle class, "serious," sober and sexually-restrained counterpart to Chicago's queer, working class, druggy, messy, excessive and horny crowd. This comparison stems from a focus on Detroit's significant middle class black population in the 1980s—mostly associated with the city's car manufacturing industry—out of which came a network of exclusive "social clubs," usually named after European fashion houses, who organized a circuit of competing dance parties. Into this scene entered the Belleville Three—Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson—who were high-school classmates in the suburban town of Belleville. Out of their shared passion for European synth pop, electronic rock, electro funk and futurism, they developed a futuristic-sounding style of dance music that drew heavily from electronic funk, relied more heavily on synthesizers instead of acoustic samples, and stripped away the warmer textures and gospel/soul vocal samples of house music.
But was Detroit such a straight scene? "Compared to Chicago, I guess it kind of makes sense," says Carleton Gholz, a Detroit-based scholar, writer and music historian, "but it's just not true." In his forthcoming book, Out Come The Freaks: Electronic Dance Music And The Making Of Detroit After Motown, Gholz argues that sexuality has played an important role in the development of Detroit's post-Motown musical landscape. Instead of starting with May, Atkins and Saunderson, Gholz starts with Morris Mitchell, a DJ who was spinning disco in Detroit as early as 1971. Along with Ken Collier and Renaldo White, Mitchell formed True Disco Productions, a party outfit that organized disco events. For years, they would spin at the Chessmate, a coffeehouse from the beatnik era that turned into an after-hours gay club on the weekends.
They were part of a generation of primarily black and gay DJs that brought new DJ techniques and sounds from places like NYC and Chicago. Throughout the '70s, Detroit's dance scene was divided along sexual and racial lines: Ken Collier used to play at the Downstairs Pub, in the basement of the upscale disco club L'Esprit, but it was the set lists of the white DJ upstairs that appeared in Vince Aletti's "Disco Files" column. Collier would later go on to hold a Saturday night residency at the gay after-hours club Heaven until his death in the mid-'90s. Gholz reports that many of Detroit's "techno pioneers" saw Collier as a mentor and "godfather" of DJ culture in the city, but he gets little more than a passing mention in the history books (see Energy Flash and Techno Rebels).
And yet, this generation of disco and post-disco DJs—playing mostly in queer venues and participating in that community—played a pivotal role in the development of Detroit techno, bringing new sounds from places like NYC and Chicago. "When Derrick May and Eddie Flashin' Fowlkes wanted to go to Chicago to see the house scene, the people they got in the car with were an older crew that went to Chessmate, a crew that had been part of that primarily gay disco community," says Gholz.
In the '80s, as the sexual segregation of nightlife in Detroit began to loosen up, mostly-queer venues like Heaven and Todd's were important points of contact and mentorship between different generations of musicians. Many of Detroit's techno legends got their start frequenting (and often sneaking into) venues where an older generation of gay, black DJs were combining disco with the new sounds of house and garage. But these encounters are almost entirely missing from the story of Detroit techno. Gholz points out that these venues and their social networks remained mostly "off the grid." Indeed, most of the material for this section is based on oral histories collected by Gholz; almost none of it exists in print.
And Detroit's LGBTQ-history didn't end in the '80s, either. This older generation of primarily gay DJs continued to play at local parties well into the early 2000s—although most of them have either retired or passed on by now. A younger generation of queer-of-color dancers, producers, DJs, event promoters, label managers and venue staff have also come up in the scene, such as Curtis Lipscomb and Adriel Thornton. Lipscomb runs Kick, stemming from a magazine running since 1994, which organizes programs and events serving the Detroit LGBT community; Lipscomb also had a hand in founding the annual Hotter Than July festival, "the nation's third oldest celebration of African American lesbian, gay, bi and transgender culture." Thornton is a local promoter of both electronic music and queer culture, founding the Fresh Media Group and engaging in community activism with Detroit's Allied Media Projects.
Acid house and rave /
In contrast to the US, disco in the UK had a substantial straight, white, working class following back in the '70s, which left fertile ground for acid house to take root and become a national (and then international) phenomenon. Starting around 1985, Chicago house began to appear in the UK, at northern soul as well as all-night warehouse parties in Manchester. Acid house quickly became popular in London. The gay nightclub Heaven was one of the first venues to host acid house nights. In 1987, Danny Rampling's Shoom became the first club with exclusive acid house programming, opening in the city after Rampling returned from holidays in Ibiza with Paul Oakenfold and Nicky Holloway. A year later, Holloway would open another acid house club, Trip.
Neither of these clubs explicitly catered to a gay clientele, although both were described as open or gay-friendly. In fact, Sarah Thornton claims in her book Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital, that the segregation of gay and straight nightlife was especially sharp between 1988 and 1992, when the AIDS crisis was at its peak and anti-gay legislation was being passed by the conservative government (such as Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988, which bears a close resemblance to Russia's anti-gay legislation of 2013)
Things were almost too successful for Shoom and Trip, and both venues soon found themselves on the wrong side of London's authorities. In order to avoid police pressure, many promoters began organizing underground events in warehouses and other out-of-town locations. This would form the basis of the Second Summer Of Love, the period starting in 1988 when the UK's rave scene blossomed and soon went international. And, much like the first Summer Of Love, rave culture touted "love" and "freedom" as core values, but tended to leave traditional gender roles and sexualities undisturbed. Although rooted in queer, black and Latino nightlife—and while certainly different from "mainstream" club culture at the time—rave in the UK at the end of the '80s had become a primarily straight, white, middle- and working-class affair.
By the beginning of the '90s, the first rave events were being organized in New York (Storm Rave) and Toronto (Exodus). With Chicago house's sudden success in Europe, the city's first generation of house DJs were constantly busy with overseas bookings, and so a younger generation of Chi-town DJs carried the torch into the Midwest rave scene.
But the divisions that had developed in the UK's acid house scene also carried over into North America: by the time electronic dance music became a global phenomenon, rave events were attracting a crowd that was mostly young, white, middle class, suburban and predominantly straight. In Mireille Silcott's Rave America, Tommie Sunshine, a well-known personality in the early Chicago rave scene, admitted that, "The way I found out about house—I think the way most white kids in Chicago found out about it—was by reading about what was going on in our city in the British [magazines] Melody Maker and NME."
There's something ironic about Chicago's mostly-white and heterosexual raver community finding out about their own city's queer, black musical heritage through a magazine printed on the other side of the Atlantic. But it's also not entirely surprising: Chicago's urban landscape has been racially divided for decades, and it still divides its music scenes. That said, there were some points of overlap between the original Chicago house scene and the newer rave scene during the '90s, such as the weekly Boom Boom Room party or the all-ages club Medusa's. More recently Smart Bar, Chicago's longest-running dance music club, has inaugurated a gay night (Queen!) and a classics-oriented, vinyl-only night (Hugo Ball), both of which have been attracting crowds from different generations, sexualities and ethnicities.
Queer undergrounds /
This revised history of the disco and early post-disco era only scratches the surface, and it admittedly leaves out a whole range of other scenes and genres that are usually part of the history of electronic music. But there are also many other histories that need to be told, too. If the stories of marginalized peoples tend to disappear from the "official record" of history, then we need to look closely at those historical fragments that don't easily fit into this dominant narrative.
Drag balls /
One of these is the history of ballroom culture, a mixture of music, dance, performance art, fashion and personal reinvention. At the heart of it is the drag ball, a combination of beauty pageant, fashion runway and dance competition rooted in historically-marginalized transgender communities. Ball culture of some sort can be traced at least as far back as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s, when costume balls provided the opportunity for partygoers to circumvent New York's strict laws against cross-dressing and same-sex dancing. In the 1970s, people in the drag ball scene began to organize themselves into "houses," families-by-choice that would compete as a team at balls, share resources, practice their routines together and often live under the same roof. This scene came to public attention at the beginning of the 1990s, thanks to three things: the release of Jennie Livingston's poignant documentary on New York's ballroom scene, Paris Is Burning; gender scholar Judith Butler's analysis of this documentary and other drag events as part of her influential theory of gender performativity; and Madonna's hit dance single "Vogue," named after vogueing, ballroom culture's emblematic dance style.
Drag balls have been both a living archive of the post-disco era and a crucible for new styles of music and dancing, which has gone on to influence dance culture far beyond the usual circuit of nightclubs. Most—perhaps nearly all—of the dance moves you see in R&B and pop videos today come from choreographers who have been involved in ballroom culture. In the '90s, the ballroom scene even developed its own sub-style of high-intensity house music, such as Tronco Traxx's "Walk For Me," Kevin Aviance's "Cunty," E.G. Fullalove's "Didn't I Know (Divas To The Dancefloor...Please)," and Masters At Work's classic "The Ha Dance," which went on to form the basis of an entire genre of vogueing track, called "ha tracks."
Drag balls have historically been the domain of queers of color, although there has always been a minority of white, straight and/or cisgendered participants. In particular, these scenes give transgendered people spaces where they can enjoy a degree of social prominence and cultural authority. They're not only central as performers and bearers of a living tradition, but many also hold positions of power within these scenes. And drag balls play an important role as places of recognition for the socially-marginalized: all of the competitive elements taken from beauty pageants—from trophies to tiaras—can be understood as a response to the rejection and humiliation queer folks endure in daily life.
Circuit parties /
In many ways, circuit parties seem to be the polar opposite of drag balls. Instead of small-scale, community-organized events held after-hours in old banquet halls and attended mostly by poor, underprivileged, gender-queer people of color, circuit parties are large-scale, corporate-sponsored mega-events held in massive locations and populated mostly by affluent, predominantly white gay men. They grew out of the tea dances and seasonal parties that had been taking place at Fire Island, Provincetown, and other gay resort areas that had developed along the East Coast, after New York's Stonewall riots in 1969 made sexuality a publicly-debated civil-rights issue in the US. Over the 1980s, these parties developed into a circuit of massive, all-night dance music events spread across gay tourism destinations and certain cities (Montréal, New York, Miami, New Orleans, San Francisco, Toronto). The sound of "the circuit" was originally hi-NRG and early house, but across the '90s it turned towards hard house, tribal house and trance.
Some writers have described circuit parties as "gay raves" (for example, see the last chapter of Silcott's Rave America), which is neither entirely false nor entirely true. On the one hand, raves and circuit parties have a few things in common: all-night running hours, a focus on sample-based dance music, the prominence of club drugs like ecstasy, and overpriced energy drinks. On the other hand, circuit parties distinguish themselves from raves by their exclusive focus on particular sexual identities, and their levels of professionalization and commercialization. Very early in their development, circuit parties became large-scale, lucrative, commercialized affairs run by professional teams (of mostly white and/or gay men), often with corporate sponsorship—alcohol and tobacco companies being the biggest, although companies that produced condoms, gay porn and sex toys were often sponsors.
For many queer people, circuit parties came to symbolize "mainstream white gay male culture," especially in the way their size and prominence helped to create a dominant, "normal" gay identity that excluded a lot of other identities. But for all of its commercialization, many of the most well-known circuit parties also donate a portion of their ticket sales to charities devoted to HIV/AIDS research and treatment, community support for sexual health, and other LGBTQ-related causes. In this sense, circuit parties have something in common with drag balls, serving as important places for community-building, sex education and political activism—especially at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis, when US national health policy seemed to be both woefully unprepared and willfully ignorant.
Deep house in Midtown Manhattan /
Back in 2009, Terre Thaemlitz released the album Midtown 120 Blues, under the name DJ Sprinkles. The album's title conveys at least three layers of meaning: the red light district along 42nd street in Midtown Manhattan, which offered gathering places for sexual outcasts, especially transpeople and sex workers; 120 beats per minute, the relatively slow tempo of New York's deep house sound in the '90s; and the blues, another African-American musical tradition that focuses on melancholia instead of euphoria to engage with everyday problems. Thaemlitz worked as a DJ for a few years during the early '90s at one of the transgender clubs along the Midtown strip, Sally's II. Clubs along this strip were doubly marginal, as other queer scenes disapproved of the sex work that often went on there. "Sally's II and Edelweiss were the two main trans-worker clubs I knew of," says Thaemlitz. "Performers at East and West Village clubs often considered themselves 'artists,' and I heard more than a few rants against the Midtown 'whores' by stage queens at The Pyramid—which gave rise to the Deee-Lite and RuPaul scene."
Thaemlitz is a multi-genre composer-producer, essayist, transperson, political activist and educator, who grew up in Missouri, moved to NYC during the late '80s and early '90s, and eventually relocated to Tokyo as Manhattan's underground queer music scenes dissolved under gentrification. She got her start in music as a fan of disco and "techno pop" in Missouri, which left her feeling isolated from her peers, who were more focused on guitar-based rock. By the end of the '80s, he left the violent homophobia and genderphobia of his hometown to move to NYC, although he soon found the city's techno clubs to be "oppressively white and straight," and male-dominated as well. "In contrast to New York's techno scenes," says Thaemlitz, "its house scenes were where disco, queerness, racial diversity and gender diversity were more blatant. Not always peaceably, but openly. A lot of the deep house from NY and NJ that came out at the end of the '80s was a kind of bridge between those two sensibilities of disco and techno pop that I grew up with." She got into DJing by making mixtapes and spinning at benefits for political activism groups like ACT-UP, who were central to the public debate about HIV/AIDS in the '80s.
But Thaemlitz began producing at a time of personal crisis. In 1992, she lost her DJ residency at Sally's II for refusing to play major label records, many of the political activism groups she had been involved in were falling apart, and her social connections were crumbling around issues of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and so on. "So everything in my life just fucking imploded. And it was in that period that I began producing my own tracks, as a pretty jaded and cynical person."
The '90s was a time of crisis for many of the city's outcasts. Under the mayorship of Rudolph Giuliani, Midtown Manhattan underwent a program of "Disneyfication": a wave of inner-city gentrification, often aggressively enforced by police violence and bureaucratic pressure.
"It was so bizarre," reflects Thaemlitz. "Around 1997, Disney just came in and bought 42nd Street. Literally. The sex district was gone within just a few months. I remember Disney had one of their fucking electric parades down 42nd, and they had so much political clout that the city actually turned off all the streetlights for them. I mean, that may not sound like a big deal, but to anyone who did activist work and had heard endless bullshit from cops and city officials about safety regulations, fire codes and all kinds of crazy shit to limit the movement of protestors, it really laid bare the relations between commerce, politics and the construction of mobility within 'public spaces.'"
Under pressure from economic forces and police brutality, many of the sex workers Thaemlitz knew from Sally's II began to disappear: "Some moved to Jersey. Others went upstate. Others, nobody knows. It was heartbreaking." You can hear this heartbreak—as well as some anger—in Midtown 120 Blues, a deep house album that speaks of loneliness and hard times, rather than euphoric escapism. Thaemlitz's work as both critic and music-maker reminds us that much of dance music's utopianism comes from a place of struggle, injustice and desperation. As she says during the spoken-word intro to the album, "House isn't so much a sound as a situation."
Lesbian clubbing in Paris /
In most cities, men—especially as organizers and DJs—dominate queer dance music scenes, but Paris has been a significant exception since the late '90s. Queer women have played important roles in electronic music, contributing as DJs, event promoters, bar staff and fans. One of the most prominent artists to come out of this scene is Jennifer Cardini, a DJ, producer and label boss for Correspondant. She got her start as a resident DJ at Le Pulp, a lesbian club that played a key role in promoting women's involvement in electronic music in Paris. When Le Pulp opened in 1997, the club's founder was roommates with the local lesbian DJ icon DJ SexToy (Delphine Palatsi). SexToy had been hanging out with Cardini and Fany Corale from Kill The DJ, Fabrice Desprez from Phunk Promotion and Ivan Smagghe. She brought them together to form Le Pulp's team of DJ residents. "The energy of the Parisian lesbian scene at the time was quite exceptional," Cardini recalls. "In Le Pulp we had created a place that was packed with girls having fun together, who felt sexy being lesbians—and where boys loved to come and would behave themselves!"
Cardini also credits Le Pulp with attracting lesbian clubbers while maintaining an open-door policy that brought in a more mixed crowd: "Everybody came from different cities, had a different sexuality, a different class and educational background. There was a big sense of community, despite all the differences. Black, trans, Arabic, lesbian, lost tourists, gay boys, hipsters, working class—they could all get in." During the ten years it was open, Le Pulp introduced a whole generation of queer women to electronic music, inspiring many of them to become more involved in the scene. Aside from the residents of Le Pulp, many other queer female DJs have since developed a high profile in Paris and beyond: Chloé, Maud Scratch Massive, Fantômette, Léonie Pernet, and Ragnhild Nongrata.
Le Pulp eventually closed in 2007, when its building was bought up by the city for a housing project. But its closure spawned a new generation of women-led promoters and venues. "A lot of lesbian collectives have been created in these past few years, especially since the closure of Le Pulp," says Ragnhild Nongrata, founder and manager of the Barbi(e)turix collective, which includes a fanzine, website and an event series. "Everything from small parties in bars to big club events." Some post-Pulp lesbian "éléctro" venues include Le Troisième Lieu and Rosa Bonheur (with former members of Le Pulp's management team), and there's a much longer list of female-led promotion collectives, such as La Petite Maison Éléctronique, La Babydoll, Corps vs. Machine, Barbi(e)turix, Ladies Room, Kill The DJ, and many others. Many other Parisian clubs also have an important female contingent—Le Rex and Concrete. But, much like the Midtown transgender scene in NYC, Paris's lesbian scene has been under intense pressure from rising property values and operating costs—especially in Le Marais, Paris's historical gay and lesbian district. La Babydoll and Le Troisième Lieu have both stopped operating, while many collectives have been on indefinite hiatus.
House and kwaito in Johannesburg /
There are many stories that come from outside of Europe and North America, but Lerato Khati's perspective from South Africa's largest city can give some insight into how queer dance scenes developed there. Khati manages Uzuri Recordings and Uzuri Artist Bookings & Management, which includes artists like Portable, Tevo Howard, DJ Qu and Levon Vincent in its roster. She also co-manages the label Süd Electronic alongside Tama Sumo and Portable/Bodycode.
Khati grew up in Soweto, a cluster of black townships that were incorporated into Johannesburg in 2002. From the late '80s, she remembers having access to Chicago house music, mostly through tapes that were brought back from cousins and friends studying abroad in the USA. Television was also an important source of new music at the time. "I remember seeing Darryl Pandy's 'Love Can't Turn Around' video and being extremely fascinated by this larger-than-life individual," she says. "The same went for Sylvester."
In 1990, she attended her first rave, at an old disused cinema in the district of Yeoville, recalling it as, "a religious experience [that] would profoundly change my life." Before the age of 20, she founded Planet Hendon, a club in a space above a coffee shop where she worked. "We had a long tradition of black women running drinking holes—called shebeens," says Khati, "and the women that ran these illegal boozers were known as The Shebeen Queens." In a way, she was continuing a family tradition by running a club, since her grandmother ran a jazz shebeen in the 1950s.
Although dance music scenes in cities all over the world struggled with racial divisions, the legacy of Apartheid was particularly palpable in Johannesburg. Khati ran with a multicultural group of white, Indian, Chinese and black South Africans, but they were a somewhat exceptional crew. "We were referred to as the United Colours of Benetton at the time by a lot of folks." But a turning point for black queers came when Brenda Fassie, the "Queen Of Kwaito" came out as bisexual. "This was a pivotal moment for a lot of Black queers," says Khati. "You started seeing a lot more visible queers in the downtown Johannesburg area. Every Friday, people would hook up at a bar in the shopping mall there." But there was still a need for some protection and secrecy: the password to get into the bar was abangani, the Zulu word for "friends."
Things have changed a lot in Johannesburg since the '90s. Khati returned to the city in 2012 and found that most of the clubs she knew had disappeared: "Downtown Johannesburg was like a ghost town." On the upside, however, she noted a lot more visibility of gay men on the streets of the city. "Young, pretty and very fashionable black queers. This was great to see, although sadly there is still a lot of brutal violence against black lesbians, which I believe to be connected to patriarchy."
A Club Called Rhonda in Los Angeles /
Some alternate histories are more recent. In Los Angeles, A Club Called Rhonda has been going strong since about 2008, functioning as a sex-positive, queer-friendly, multiethnic monthly event devoted to what its organizers call "polysexual hard partying." Adopting a female persona that communicates with her "Rhondites" through social media, ACCR held her first events at a Guatemalan discotheque, moved to a flamenco dinner theater, and finally ended up at a historical Mexican nightclub, Los Globos. At the helm of ACCR are Gregory Alexander and Loren Granic, two friends who "emerged from very different social circles, [but] enjoyed the same music and the idealized fables of nightlife legend—Paradise Garage, The Loft, Continental Baths, Studio 54, etc.—that accompanied it."
Their friendship-partnership symbolizes the mission of ACCR: Alexander is gay and Granic is straight, and they strive to bring both scenes together at their events. "When we first started, the LA scene was more segregated," explains Alexander. "There were all kinds of social stigmas or barriers keeping people from hanging out with each other." He also felt a deep dissatisfaction with what had become of the mainstream gay dance scene: "We always bristled at the thought of the gay community being a dumping ground for mainstream pop rehashes."
Both of them felt there was a need in LA for what Granic calls, "a safe place for the deviants, a place where gay and straight nightlife wasn't so compartmentalized but instead encouraged to mingle." For Alexander, ACCR is neither a gay club nor a straight club nor even a bisexual club, but rather, "all that and more; it's a place where you can go to shed those labels and break down those walls in the interest of having a good time." There's a real effort to make a mess of neat sexual identities and create something more fluid. "Everybody is an opportunity," Alexander says.
This isn't to say that there weren't challenges in creating an event where partygoers can feel comfortable playing with their sexual identities. "We've had to deal with some issues regarding gender and sexuality in the club before," says Alexander. "When you go into a new venue and start working with a new security team, there always has to be a very clear conversation about the fact that anything goes. There is no dress code, no judgment and absolutely no violence allowed." Another issue they sometimes deal with is a "cultureshock" that some newcomers experience when attending ACCR for the first time. "Which is a great thing to me," Granic points out, "but some people aren't prepared to experience all the activities happening throughout the club while listening to their favorite musician or DJ."
And much more /
When asked for their influences as promoters, the boys behind A Club Called Rhonda listed an international array of promoters and clubs: Mustache Mondays in LA, Abracadabra in New York, Ecstasy in Portland, Honey Soundsystem and Hard French in San Francisco, Fancy Him in Tokyo, Berghain/Panorama Bar in Berlin, and Vogue Fabrics in London. In fact, there are many more stories that could be told about sexuality and dance music culture, both in the past and in the present.
We could revisit Toronto's dance music history and track the waxing and waning of queer involvement, from the early Church Street discos and '90s-era warehouse raves to the legendary (and very mixed) Industry nightclub, the infamously poppers-soaked Barn, the everything-else-soaked Comfort Zone, and many other messy after-hours spaces.
We could say a lot more about San Francisco's disco and post-disco developments, and its international profile as a city with one of the highest concentrations of prominent female DJs (see Rebekah Farrugia's Beyond The Dancefloor).
There's certainly a lot to say about Berlin's electronic music scene, which is a mess of overlapping party circuits that bring together gay men, lesbians, transpeople, ethnic queers, straight folks and others—albeit rarely all in the same club.
There's also much more to be said about ethnically-oriented events that go beyond dance music's history of black-or-white racial politics, such the queer South Asian and Middle Eastern dance events found in many cities: Gayhane (Berlin); Jai Ho (Chicago); Besharam and Rangeela (Toronto); Urban Desi and Club Kali (London), Sholay and Color Me Queer (New York City). And we never even got to cover the vibrant "sissy bounce" scene in New Orleans, with Big Freedia, Sissy Nobby and a whole new twerking generation of queer, gender-whatever performers.
More urgent than ever /
And so, considering the important roles non-straight people played in the history of dance music (since disco, at least), it's easy to understand why some folks in today's club scenes are motivated to make a statement in support of sexual diversity—such as the Promote Diversity fundraisers. But it's somewhat bewildering that, while these statements are being made and queer nightlife is still thriving, this sexual diversity has been receding from electronic music media. It's even more strange that mostly-straight, -white, middle-class audiences are currently "rediscovering" and obsessing over the "classic house music" made by poor, queer, black/brown people 30 years ago—but they're not likely to be aware of what that same crowd is doing now, in another part of the city. Sure, some of this has to do with what happens when a cultural phenomenon goes mainstream, but there have also been some unsettling shifts in the landscape of sexual politics recently.
In many places around the world, the struggle for sexual equality and diversity seems to have been going backwards. Russia is the most well-known and recent example: in addition to the recent "anti-homosexuality" laws, the Promote Diversity events were organized against a backdrop of increasingly violent attacks and torture of queer people in Russia—most of which has been happening without major consequences for the attackers, which implies at least tacit approval by the authorities.
This makes things difficult for artists who have been invited to play in Russia—especially openly queer ones such as Terre Thaemlitz. "My instinct is always to be most concerned about immediate violence or retribution against local individuals. I would hate to show up, take the money and leave, then find out later that someone had to pay consequences for my actions—or simply for being associated with me."
But this trend is certainly not limited to Russia; there are lots of places in the world where it is becoming increasingly dangerous to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or otherwise sexually different. During her interview, for example, Lerato Khati recalled recent instances of homophobic violence in Paris, Berlin and New York City, as well as systemic violence against lesbians in South Africa. Both Jennifer Cardini and Ragnhild Nongrata reported a surprising rise in homophobia in France during the recent national debate over same-sex marriage. And last fall, India's Supreme Court reinstated an old colonial law banning gay sex, after a lower court had overturned the law in 2009.
So it's perhaps not so surprising that many of the DJs, producers and promoters interviewed for this article also reported sensing a decrease in sexual diversity and openness in club culture. "It is extremely sad to see clubs being less and less open these days," says Khati. "I strongly believe that being an artist or a public figure comes with responsibility. You owe it to your supporters and audience to promote diversity and tolerance for the greater good of the world."
And, while women continue to become more involved in the performance, production and distribution of electronic music, the whole industry remains very tough on them—especially queer women. "The sexuality of women is judged in a terrible, painful way," says Cardini. "For example, check out the chat in the Boiler Room feed, when a lesbian or straight woman is playing." In response to this, Tama Sumo's appearance on Boiler Room was the occasion for a same-sex kiss-in, precisely to raise awareness around this issue. The Knutschenaktion (German for "kiss-in") garnered a lot of positive support from the Boiler Room staff afterwards, who have been increasing their efforts to monitor the chat-room discussion as it happens in real-time.
When talk turns to bigotry, intolerance, violence and exclusion, there's a tendency in dance music culture to take a utopian turn and imagine we will overcome these differences through the magic of music and collective partying. The belief in the power of music to overcome differences can give us a lot of comfort and hope, especially in difficult times. But Thaemlitz warns against allowing this to blind us to the problems happening here and now: "Organizing around hopes and dreams is how we get to absurdly abstract notions like 'love is the answer,' and that dancing or making music is enough to change the world. We end up distracted by our own mechanisms of desire, while violence and murder continues. How many trans-women have been attacked or killed in New York alone this year? How did race and poverty also play into those incidents?"
In this light, there's more to this piece than reminding ourselves that queers were historically important for dance music, or that they're still musically relevant now. With the ongoing mainstreaming of electronic music culture, accompanied by a worldwide conservative turn, the struggle for sexual diversity in dance music is more urgent than ever.