But the most remarkable thing was the soundtrack, a potent mixture of house, disco and techno played by DJs whom the organizers referred to as "the ambassadors of the gay techno underground." A relatively new phenomenon, this gay techno underground is bringing queer people in North America back to dance music and making gay parties relevant again. It's changing the face of gay culture in the US. "Honey Soundsystem changed my life," a guy told me on the dance floor that night.
Along with the four-strong Honey Soundsystem crew, who have been throwing forward-thinking queer events for years now, the New Year's Eve party featured gay DJs from across the US: Aaron Clark from Pittsburgh's Honcho, Ryan Smith of Wrecked in New York, Jacob Meehan and Harry Cross of Men's Room in Chicago, and Carlos Souffront, a Detroit native who lives in SF. All of them are steeped in the art of mixing and digging, and they help deliver something quite different from the classic gay party scenario—that is, a meat market with cheesy top 40 remixes.
That doesn't mean the parties aren't sexy—they're just different. These are parties built on the principles that defined the halcyon days of the gay party scene, conceived with a modern and inclusive approach. These are parties where you can hear the best in techno, house and disco, old and new, from DJs who know what they're doing. These are parties that take world-renowned artists to some of the wildest, seediest scenes they'll see outside of Berlin. This is America's new gay underground.
It wasn't always like this. Gay bars have long been the glue holding queer communities together, providing a safe space for people to gather and socialize. They're still important, but they've been co-opted by hookup apps like Grindr and Scruff, and otherwise corrupted by commercialism, epitomized by the rise and dominance of circuit parties, which are both the precursor to and antithesis of this new underground. Initially held as benefit events for HIV research during the AIDS crisis, over the years circuit parties grew into something bigger and more commercial, marked by corporate sponsorship, hefty ticket prices and bad commercial music.
"I go to Minneapolis to The Saloon or something, and I'll hear circuit music," said Ryan Smith, a booking agent for Liaison and one half of Wrecked, a gay party and DJ duo. "It's really dug deep, but it hasn't changed in so long. We just didn't want to hear that. What we wanted to hear was more underground—sexier, darker, deeper, happier, whatever. And there wasn't really a safe place to go to hear more adventurous music."
For a long time, if you wanted to hear interesting electronic music in the US, you'd probably have to go to a straight event. There have always been exceptions: LA had Mustache Mondays and A Club Called Rhonda, parties that focus on the more outlandish aspects of queer culture, while New York had the post-everything GHE20G0TH1K. But until recently, the days of gifted DJs playing cutting-edge music to throngs of queer dancers was a distant memory.
Even in San Francisco, one of the country's hubs for queer culture, the situation was dire. But it was out of that "wasteland," as Honey Soundsystem's Jacob Sperber put it, that one of the country's best parties was born.
Sperber, who was once known as DJ P-Play but now goes by the name Jackie House, started DJing at a cafe in The Castro neighborhood around 2005, when he was still underage. It was an odd gig—the DJ booth sat next to a display case for cakes—but it got him noticed. There he met Ken Woodard, AKA Ken Vulsion, who shared his passions for dance music and art. Sperber was a designer, Woodard made zines, and they wanted to bring that kind of creativity to a scene they felt was missing it.
"The reason we called it Honey is because we were trying to get a Sunday at this bear bar in The Castro," he said. "We were like.. Sunday... bears... honey! And then we made this awesome, incredible package that we gave to the club—that was almost like BUTT Magazine-level art—and they were like... 'Uh, we don't know about this.'"
The bar's hesitance to go for an artier concept reflects a broader cultural problem. Wary of their bottom line and determined to reliably lure in weekend crowds, gay bars rarely try new things, which creates the sort of complacency that allows circuit music to flourish.
Going back to the drawing board, Sperber sought power in numbers. He brought in Jason Kendig, who played a party called Fork, along with Robert Yang and Josh Cheon, whose taste in obscure records appealed to Sperber's avant-garde side. Inspired by Horse Meat Disco but intent on a more open music policy, Honey Soundsystem was born as a hot mess of clashing inspirations and styles.
"The music was pretty hodgepodge in the beginning," said Sperber. "Everyone had what they were interested in. It was such a mixed-bag, from hi-NRG disco to house tracks to weird shit. But the people who were coming out were freaks. They were all missing their days when they could go to a gay club."
Each member of Honey Soundsystem had different interests and skills. Sperber was the brains behind the operation, helping with the design and creative direction, and had a more playful DJing style. Jason Kendig was the star DJ, the handsome one known for playing extended sets and jumping between techno and house like a pro. Robert Yang, AKA Robot Hustle or Bézier, loved Italo, hi-NRG and disco, while Cheon was a fan of post-punk and whatever other odd shit he could get his hands on. (Cheon wound up starting Dark Entries, currently one of the most respected new labels in the US.)
With parties as wild as they were musically credible, Honey Soundsystem was proof you could put on a queer event with ambition and an edge. It became one of San Francisco's most notable parties regardless of your sexuality, though it was still rooted in and supported by its core gay crowd. Honey brought relevant musical guests from all over the world, bringing a sense of curation, and a sense of vitality, to the gay scene. It was just the kick in the ass SF's nightlife needed.
"We brought energy into the city that didn't exist here culturally because it was from Italy, or London, or New York," Sperber said. "People just weren't doing that. They weren't taking chances. We brought Todd Terje as one of our first guests, in 2007—one of his first gigs in America was our weird-ass gay party with drag queens doing fairly inappropriate, slightly racist numbers. It was in some weird venue that's no longer open. The owner was actually sleeping in the venue and he had weird sex parties there.
"From that point on it was very much like... even if people don't understand what's going on with the scene, we're going to give them new heroes. Someone new to idolize, someone who doesn't exist here. 'Oh, he's so talented, but he lives down the street from me. I can't idolize him because I see him take out the trash.' Or 'He fucked every one of my ex-boyfriends so I can't idolize him.' We gave them a headlining DJ from somewhere they've never heard of, someone they need to know. Not a circuit party DJ that you've heard a million fucking times."
Around the same time Sperber was getting Honey started, Michael Trombley had his own idea in Philadelphia. He'd moved there from LA in 2005 and started throwing a party with Ron Morelli called Paradise at a "fossilized gay club that no one had touched since '86." The party was a success, and eventually it morphed into Macho City, which started in September of 2008 at another barely on-the-radar gay bar. A few months later, Trombley moved back to his hometown of Detroit, a city that faced that same problem as San Francisco.
"There weren't enough options in terms of queer spaces where you were going to hear good, underground dance music," he said. "It's still the same way to this day, unfortunately. In Detroit, Macho City struck a nerve with queers who didn't want to go to the club and hear commercial pop music."
Even in the birthplace of house music, gay nightlife was lackluster. The streets of Boystown, Chicago's gayborhood, are lined with bars that play the same kind of circuit-oriented top 40 stuff. Though dance music was a little easier to find in Chicago, there were still no spaces with the combination of free-spirited energy and great musical culture that Honey was bringing to its hometown.
"I remember being at this one bar, really big, called Sidetrack, and a bar-back yelled at these guys for really fiercely making out," Jacob Meehan told me. "He was really bitchy and rude, telling them that Steamworks was down the street—directing them to the bath house." Meehan is a former art dealer and gallerist, and one half of the DJ duo Harry+Jpeg, who would go on to start Men's Room.
Meehan wanted a party where guys weren't afraid to touch or kiss each other. He knew a spot called Wang's, just off the main drag in Boystown. Enter Anthony "Ace" Pabey, one of Wang's bartenders. In Pabey, Meehan found just the kind of personality he wanted for Men's Room: even over the phone, his blunt sense of humour was obvious. He has the kind of verve and no-holds-barred vocabulary that might make more conservative guys squirm. Already a hit as a bartender, Ace was quickly placed on the door.
"It was hard for them to deal with what I was giving them at the door," Pabey said. "Number one: I was trying to make sure that their mentality was right. It was nothing about the way a person looked, it had shit to do with if they were shy. They had to be open and a little hungry—hungry for more in their life. If I could smell that in them, then they got in."
Though guys were generally open-minded about the music—a mixture of house, disco, techno, even industrial and post-punk—it took some time to get them warmed up to the sexier aspects of the party. Pabey did whatever he could to loosen up the vibe. He'd pass blunts around the bar, promise people free drinks if they took their clothes off, or get guys to pour shots into their foreskin, so that people would know that "you can have a dick in your mouth and it's gonna be OK."
"I always try to get the line popping," he said. "I go out there and talk a bunch of shit, make people pull out their dicks just to get in. There's a process to get into Men's Room: once you get in, you have to go through another process of taking your clothes off and getting comfortable. My dream is to always make the line already sexy—giving that feeling of like, 'Yeah, just have sex out here already if you want to.'"
Men's Room is meant to be an overwhelming physical experience, though it's not merely a sex party. In spite of the name, people of all sexualities and gender identities are welcome (a spin-off called Femme's Room plays with the party's over-the-top masculine imagery). And for anyone who just wants to have sex, they've taken Men's Room to the Steamworks bath house, coming full circle from when Meehan first had the idea for the party. Though a men-only bath house caters to just a fraction of the queer spectrum, the fact that Harry+Jpeg can bring their style of music to Steamworks is significant in itself.
Over in Pittsburgh, a party called Honcho has reclaimed the gay bath house entirely, making it a space for everyone to dance in. Bath houses, or saunas, are another relic of the pre-AIDS days, and of a time when queer people had to go about their business in secrecy. In younger gay communities they're seen as dated. But it's Club Pittsburgh, a bath house downtown, that now hosts the city's most influential party: Hot Mass.
Hot Mass takes over the bottom half of the bath house. There's a dance floor, a DJ booth, the usual labyrinth of nooks and crannies (leftover from its past life), and that's about it. The minimalist space was originally home to afterparties for Aaron Clark's Humanaut events. They would start at whatever venue he was using at the time and then move into Club Pittsburgh after the 2 AM liquor cutoff. There was no booze, but people could dance all night. Humanaut was mostly straight, though, and Clark had trouble getting his gay friends interested in it, or in the music he was bringing. "It was like pulling teeth," he said.
While all this was going on, Clark was invited to Gays Hate Techno, a private Facebook group created by Matt Fisher as a way to connect queer people who loved dance music—people who lived in places like Pittsburgh, where many felt like there was no real scene or no other like-minded people. Just the idea that there were other queer people around the US who loved techno was powerful.
"Gays Hate Techno took all the pieces of it that were scattered around and connected them all and glued them together," said Clark. "It's still active and it's really huge, but that initial wave of it was like, 'Holy shit! You exist?"
After meeting folks through the Facebook group, Clark decided to spend some time in San Francisco. There, like most people mentioned in this article, he was inspired by Honey Soundsystem. When he got back to Pittsburgh, Clark and cofounders Clark Price and George d'Adhemar began a party called Honcho.
From left: Aaron Clark with crew
Honcho was supposed to hit its peak during Pittsburgh Pride in 2012, as a counterpoint to the official event's corporate sponsorships and antiseptic vibe. He found a two-story warehouse and booked Mike Servito upstairs, along with a drag show and some live acts downstairs. Tickets sold like hot cakes—over 300 of them, with more than 800 RSVP'd. This irritated Pittsburgh's gay establishment—they told the cops about the party and got it shut down before it even started. But Clark had Club Pittsburgh ready as a backup venue, just in case.
"We just let in pre-sale ticket holders and nobody else," Clark said. "It was super makeshift. Servito was playing on a folding card table. We found some booze downstairs, and people showed up with bags of ice that they picked up on the way. It just happened."
In the time since, Honcho has earned a reputation as one of America's most unhinged parties. "Nobody cares what you're doing or who you are or what's going on," Clark said. "There's no windows, the room is right and the temperature's right. It's kind of like a time warp in there. The crowd is really reactive, they go crazy. DJs get heavy feedback from the crowd. You can get really adventurous, you can't really throw the crowd. They want you to push them harder and harder."
Clark eventually took over the venue entirely, throwing parties there every weekend and keeping the bath house open and thriving. And aside from that men-only party during Pride, Honcho, like its spiritual sister events, is rooted in inclusivity. You can go downstairs from the bath house but you can't go up, which means no one accidentally wanders into a situation they don't want to be a part of (namely an orgy). Like Men's Room, you can have sex at Honcho, but you can also just dance to great music.
Kevin Kauer is another promoter reclaiming gay spaces in the name of art, music and sex positivity. For five years he's been running a party called Dickslap at the Seattle Eagle, the city's long-running leather bar. It's a party so beloved it's been dubbed the saviour of Seattle's embattled nightlife.
Throwing a party at the Eagle is meaningful in itself. The venue has a rich history in gay culture, with its roots going back to The Eagle's Nest bar in Chelsea in New York, which became a safe haven for gay men after the Stonewall riots and was the breeding ground for gay leather culture. The bar was so influential that almost every major city in North America, and some in Europe, has a gay bar called The Eagle, typically a place you go to pick up or have cheap drinks. They're fun, but art and music are rarely the focus.
Dickslap brought a shot of political energy to the Seattle Eagle. Around 2010, Kauer had been doing low-profile parties on weeknights, slowly wading into the scene at a time when Seattle's municipal government was in the midst of a crackdown. They tried to find every excuse they could to shut down bars, particularly in the traditionally queer and alternative Capitol Hill neighbourhood. Officials from the liquor board enforced ancient ordnances against bodily and sexual contact, which primarily targeted gay bars. It created a repressive climate around sexuality.
Hoping to stay open amidst all the fines and threats, most of the bars played along, going as far as toning down the kind of videos they showed on their TV screens. But when The Eagle was written up and fined for showing a video of a guy jerking off, Kauer decided he'd had enough.
"That sparked Keith, the owner, to call me," Kauer said. "He wanted to just give a big 'fuck you' to them. To throw a party that just did everything wrong, that broke all the rules. We're fucking adults, we can do these things. These are archaic prohibition rules and it's weird for such a progressive city. You can't even show male nipples, you can't show an ass crack—technically, a bar-back bending over to pick something up, if his ass crack comes out, that's illegal. Which is crazy."
Kauer wanted it to have an equally fuck-you name, so he chose Dickslap, and titled the first event "Seattle Eagle vs. The Washington State Liquor Board." The party was an instant success, and Kauer won—he said since he started doing Dickslap, the liquor board and its inspectors "dropped off the map."
Dickslap wasn't just remarkable for its in-your-face attitude. It was also a place to hear interesting music, with guests including people like Prosumer and Tin Man, remarkable for a mainstream gay bar. Seattle has no shortage of queer watering holes, but there aren't many where you'd go to hear great music, primarily because the interest isn't—or wasn't—there.
"If I had just said, 'Oh, it's this party, and there's house and techno and there's this cool DJ,' nobody would've come," Kauer said. "So, you know, obviously the beginning of Dickslap was because we're gonna break all the rules and do all this shit and it's just gonna be ridiculous. But really, all that stuff was bringing people in—then what I was doing was sort of forcing the music upon them later. Now you're here, you're in my world, you're in my bar, now you're gonna get this."
Kauer's efforts beyond Dickslap have also had an impact on Seattle's queer scene. He does another monthly called The Make Out Party, and there's Bottom Forty at Kremwerk, a mixed-use venue that attracts a more diverse but still queer-centric crowd. Bottom Forty has since become a record label, enshrining the West Coast's section of the queer techno underground—their crew includes artists from Portland and LA—into something tangible. Seattle's gay bars are no longer the home of outdated music and bored dance floors—they're where new and interesting shit happens.
"The LA warehouse scene has always had a good mix of people at its events, but there were no disco, house or techno underground parties run completely by homos," Cruse said. "And frankly, I was feeling a little weary of going to parties thrown by straight people for a primarily straight clientele, capitalizing on the music historically created and championed by gays. I know it's not politically correct, but I imagined a space where gays could play gay music for gays to dance and hook up to. Where they could dance and interact with other people, rather than worry about how they appear."
Motivated, musically at least, by the Sarcastic Disco parties (which became rarer after a New York Times article brought the wrong kind of attention), Cruse launched Spotlight in Glassell Park in 2012. It was a typical LA warehouse party, with a twist: a darkroom. The first one was an installation by artist Christopher Kreiling, "a maze of booths and gloryholes outlined in neon light" that initially confused partygoers, who didn't seem to realize what it was for.
"But then this exhibitionist guy pulled his dick out and asked guys to help him put on a cock ring. Then the whole concept made more sense," Cruse said. "Everybody's figured it out now."
In addition to booking killer, and often queer, DJs like Prosumer and Honey Dijon, Spotlight has a conceptual bent, with a different theme every time. Cruse learned that potted plants are returnable so he threw a jungle-themed party. He hauled in a truckload of plants from Home Depot, and lined a camouflage-painted darkroom maze with them. (He managed to return nearly all the plants afterwards, much to the chagrin of the Home Depot employees.) Another party, for Valentine's Day, featured a seedy-looking white van where the seats were replaced by shag carpeting. He put it right on the dance floor, sprayed it with leather-scented cologne and made it so that the back entrance led to the darkroom.
"People were flashing the headlights until it killed the battery, and people were dancing on top of the van all night," he said. "I can't believe they took the van back—we kept digging cigarette butts out of the interior and there were dirty shoe prints all over the roof."
Spotlight, happening in a city with a few established gay parties, is a good example of what separates these underground parties from the rest.
"A few years ago Rhonda and Fade To Mind were really the most interesting gay-adjacent music scenes," Cruse said. "They helped put Los Angeles on the dance music map, and they're still powerhouses today. But at this point, they cater more to mixed crowds. Rhonda is always in a legit venue, so it has to abide by certain rules as well. Fade To Mind draws a younger crowd, and isn't so sexually charged. And then there is West Hollywood, but none of our friends really wanted to go to those clubs to mingle with other gays—those spaces and crowds felt so homogenous and unadventurous, with awful paint-by-numbers music. So there seemed to be a bit of a void between all of those scenes, and we tried to create something to fill it."
Though each of these parties has different origins and their own take on how to do things, there's a communal spirit that joins them all together. You can go to any one of them and expect the same values: good music, good sound, freedom and inclusivity. And if a DJ like Prosumer comes over for a tour, you can bet he'll hit at least one or two of them. In Ryan Smith's words, it's the "anti-circuit circuit."
"It's a movement," he continues. "I think once people figured out that this was happening and this is possible, there was just a dialogue going on between different people like, 'Oh, how did this start? What did you do to make this happen?'"
"The gay community has obviously been an integral thread in the dance music scene since disco," said Kauer. "But I think that correlation was always made in retrospect. And in the past few years it's been a really good time for queer creative people and thinkers in the dance scene to come more to the forefront and be recognized, be respected. Every nook of the country has at least, at the bare minimum, one hard-working homo that's keeping the underground alive."
There are far more gay parties than the ones mentioned here, spreading good music and good vibes in North America. Victor Rodriguez and Chris Bowen have been holding it down in LA with a more accessible alternative to Chris Cruse's warehouse events, hosting parties like Cub Scout, Bears In Space and Father Figure at bars in Silver Lake and East Hollywood. There's Carry Nation in New York, In Training in Cleveland and Midwest Fresh in Columbus, Ohio. Vicki Powell throws killer parties in Atlanta. Up in Canada, a Vancouver party called Backdoor has courted controversy through its decadent events. And there are many others still.
The gay underground continues to thrive and find new connections. Last year, Spotlight hosted Honcho's Aaron Clark, and now Chris Cruse is set to headline his own edition of Honcho in Pittsburgh. The Bunker New York hosted an "All-American Pride" during New York Pride weekend in 2015. There's the Honey Soundsystem diaspora—the result of the crew splitting time between different cities, touring more and bringing their brand of arty gay parties to other cities around the US. Last year, Macho City came together with Honcho, Spotlight and Wrecked during Movement in Detroit for Club Toilet, a self-described "festival weekend shitfest" that was hailed as one of the most memorable of the week. (There are whispers that it may happen again this year.)
"Before we started Honcho, I never expected to be in a room full of gay men losing their shit to house and techno," said Clark Price, co-founder of Honcho alongside Aaron Clark. "Not in Pittsburgh, anyway. I've seen people with very little exposure to electronic music now posting mixes, buying records, and there's genuine excitement for the DJs we bring in."
"I've had some of my friends who were sort of new to it all when we first started," said Meehan, "and now they're like, 'Oh, who knew—I like disco.' And it's like, 'Yeah, of course you do.' There's kind of a responsibility involved that we all take, teaching people and showing people that this is what it is. Whether that's turning them onto disco or showing them it's OK to get a blow job on the dance floor."
"Parties like Honcho, the parties we've talked about, these were a collective of men in their late 20s and 30s all feeling this need and desire to get something different out of nightlife," Meehan continues. "To bring back a part of sexuality that had disappeared because of the crisis. The crisis attached itself to sexuality in clubs, that was the first big hump, and once that was dealt with in the late '90s, you have the homogenization of the so-called gay community, through the assimilation into straight culture with marriage initiatives."
"There are so many other parts of queer culture that are vibrant and shouldn't get lost in the scramble to be normal," Cruse said. "Being outsiders for so long, we've gotten to invent our own ways of doing things. Straight people should take a cue from that—you don't have to do the same thing as other straights just because you're straight. It's about freedom. You should have the chance to do whatever you want. Get married, have a regular job, or hook up in a darkroom and dance 'till dawn."
"You can't suck a dick on the dance floor at a festival," Sperber observed.
Though these parties are geared towards gay men, they're meant to cater to, and be a safe space for, queer people of all identities—and sympathetic straight people, too. Honey's New Year's Eve party, for example, skewed towards gay men in all manner of dress and undress yet also had pockets of straight couples and queer women. And even the gay men these parties attract tend to vary greatly in look and lifestyle. These events are rooted in the gay scene of yore, but they're also pushing beyond old prejudices into something more modern and welcoming.
"We've made a conscious effort to make Honey a safe space for women," Sperber explains. "When we had DJ Sprinkles, there were so many girls that bought their boyfriends tickets too because their boyfriends wouldn't buy a ticket to go to Honey. It was the most straight couples we've had at one of our parties, and the vibe was amazing. It simmers down the sex energy and it helps with the music. And it makes some queens uncomfortable. They have to really reevaluate their hangups about clubbing and music and life. Gays are not edgy anymore, and that's a good thing. We should be able to keep the edge we need in our own spaces, but it doesn't mean that Honey can't be a space for everyone and still represent our values."
This is the first time in a long while that queer North Americans have been able to find inspiration in their own communities rather than looking abroad to hotspots like London and Berlin. As a recent takeover of Panorama Bar with Honey Soundsystem showed, the reverse is happening, too. Meanwhile, circuit parties like Bearracuda have nudged their way into this world, booking DJs like Sperber, while Output has Horse Meat Disco in for a monthly residency that, according to Smith, has become the club's most consistently successful party. Thanks to Honey Soundsystem, Macho City and the parties they helped inspire, queer people in North America are once again becoming a dominant force in the music they helped to create so many decades ago.
"I think a lot of people went to Berlin and came back to The States and were like, 'Oh I want to party like that,'" said Smith. "They go to Berghain and then they come back here and they're like, 'Why don't we have that here?' And it's like... well, we do! They might not go for 24 hours because of the laws and regulations here are radically different, but we work with what we have. And we have a good time."