For time immemorial, Nightlife has always borne a very particular importance to queer people and to queer people of colour in particular. Mainstream narratives of nightlife always account for frivolity of the exercise, without accounting necessarily for its purpose. I would argue that to queer people, nightlife has historically, never simply been an exercise in pure hedonism, but rather we are night creatures—the people in the margins trying to fiercely and hurriedly reclaim the solidarity, personhood, and intimacy so often denied to us by the light of day. Thus Nightclubs, and ‘ballrooms’ become spaces of creation and communion: exercises in liberation.
In a white supremacist, heteronormative society that visits violence upon queer bodies — those bodies that deviate from its own entrenched standard — the mental health of LGBTQ people is necessarily devastated. Recent studies show that nearly 50% of trans people under the age of 26 have attempted suicide. Such are the effects of slurs and physical violence, and the profound effects denial of personhood, medical access, community and representation bear upon the mental health of queer people; it is the inability to envision a future without violence and rejection; a frustrated desire for space in which one’s life, loves, and body are not a thing to be demeaned or ridiculed, but rather normalised, and even celebrated.
Owen Jones, a gay journalist for The Guardian walked out of a live television interview over a guest’s belligerent attempt to deny that the 2016 Orlando massacre (which devastated the LGBTQ Latinx community in Florida) was at it’s very heart, a queerphobic attack. Queer nightlife is resistance; it is a practice of survival. Queer nightclubs are in some manner of speaking culturally sacrosanct. Through a heteronormative lens it might seem paradoxical to hold something so irreverent as nightlife in such reverence, but to see bodies like yours thrive and enjoy themselves is nourishing; to have those thoughts and desires normally demonized by wider society, affirmed and unchallenged is a life-sustaining necessity— all of which and is promised in the dreamland of queer nightlife.
But here I depart from egalitarian fantasy. Queer nightlife might have the potential to be radically and beneficially transformative to those that find themselves encompassed by it— to provide avenues and build communities— but the toxic status quo in which we find ourselves leaves so much to be desired.
LGBTQ nightlife, and the performance of queer identities lend themselves quite naturally to aestheticisation: to the creation of queer aesthetics — there’s the boldness of its fashions, an abundance of colour and pomp and camp ceremony, and a historically entrenched disregard for gender norms — nor is there anything inherently wrong with this aestheticisation. Resistance does not necessarily lose its teeth by virtue of being glamorous, but rather it does so by leaving behind its most vulnerable. The curation of resistance becomes a hindrance to resistance itself when it dictates who may be allowed to have that resistance celebrated, and who having sought refuge and acceptance in queer niche, from the suffocation society, is only further rejected.
What happens when queer counterculture, last bastion and protector of outcast, begins to devour its own most vulnerable? There are numerous widespread examples of how institutions of queer nightlife fail to interrogate their own reproduction of structural violence. So many cool and avant-garde spaces that promise queer revelry and liberation almost always end up replicating the hegemonic standards of beauty and popularity that they should be divesting from. In London there are numerous documented incidents of nightclubs refusing entry to black people on the basis of their race. Queer venues in the capital continue to employ entertainers that count blackface and yellow-face acts among their repertoire, and in multiple cases both performer and venue have demonstrated a lack of genuine remorse when confronted.
Contemporary queer spaces then, seem created primarily for the consumption of, and marketed to conventionally attractive people who possess both the socioeconomic capital to occupy these spaces and the license from wider society. White muscular identikit adonises adorn shop fronts in Soho, and online advertising, and magazine racks — all a conscious, unflinching alienation of everyone who falls outside of its declared boundaries of beauty. Queer people of colour find spaces filled with their appropriated language and aesthetics, co-existing with a genuine antipathy for their presence and even desire for access to these spaces. It is devastating to note the perverse irony that LGBTQ asylum seekers (primarily queer people of colour) who are routinely asked to prove their queerness by reference to their experience of the UK’s queer scene, and homeless youth, who are disproportionately LGBTQ — both the most vulnerable and marginalised of us — are denied access to the ceremony of nightlife, by prohibitive expense and an exclusionary culture.
It is a culture that projects an image centered around unattainability and bourgeois exclusivity, merely masquerading as resistance. Hierarchies in queer spaces are so evident not only in racialised door policies, nor in the demographics of these spaces, but in how these nights are recorded. Queer nightlife photography is a study in the erasure of ‘undesirable’ bodies—fat bodies; black bodies; femme bodies; poor bodies; disabled bodies. We should ask ourselves: Who makes it past the club doors? What bodies get photographed? Who gets to be remembered? The importance of club photography should not be underplayed. If for better, or worse “everything exists to end in a photograph”, then there is a profound injustice in refusing to evidence and preserve the history of the those in our community that society would consider unpretty; a desire and anxiety to be recorded as a member of one’s perceived community and as one’s authentic self, is as valid a desire as any.
These venues create atmospheres that are untenable for those designated undesirable. The true price of admission should not be a forced compromise and forsaking of one’s otherness in order to fit into prescribed boxes of rich, white queer acceptability. There’s something bitterly ironic when queer people who have had their bodies marginalised and policed become gatekeepers and arbiters of what’s chic, beautiful and ultimately worthy of acceptance and celebration.
Counterculture, and specifically queer counterculture, fails to be transgressive if it doesn’t create a sense of community based around empathy—if it does not allow us to imagine other ways that depart from the punishment and rejection society has visited us with; if these spaces do not provide some respite and harbour for all queer peoples—kinder ways of being and occupying space that aren’t exploitative or exclusionary of the queer people such a movement should seek to celebrate.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that in many ways, this is a matter of life or death; Isolation and rejection from wider society profoundly damage the mental health of even the most privileged of queer people; Police brutality and racialised violence in a white supremacist world declines the mental health of many people of colour; the reality for many queer people of colour is often a dispossession of any sense of community on both ends–It is the life and experience the perpetual other; to knock at the door of a queer nightlife that appropriates their culture with the only reward being a merciless alienation. Isolation shortens life expectancy, and increases risks of suicide, and yet we have a status quo that necessitates the isolation of a significant proportion of those most at risk.
This is where we find ourselves now; A queer nightlife scene, that has taken from its people of colour and excluded the most marginalised to which it had a duty; where the necessity for glamour and cool aesthetics has overtaken the primacy of the welfare and emotional wellbeing of its most vulnerable; a scene that appropriates its fashions and its grit and its magic in worship of chicness and bourgeois aesthetic but dislocates its cultural labourers. This is not hopeless, cynical exposition– the status quo is dire, but the situation is not without hope. I do sincerely believe that queer nightlife has the potential to be radically, beneficially transformative; that even the most marginalised of the LGBTQ community can have their personhood reinforced and find safety– but all of this is contingent upon a radical overhaul of existing conditions. Our welfare must retake its primacy above capital gain, and the desire for aesthetic must take its place below the welcomeness of the community. These are not merely lofty ideals; there are already people who have begun to do this essential work. Body Party, founded by Kareem Reid, seeks to create a nightlife experience for queer people of colour that is centered on a narrative of their bodies that seeks not to exploit, but to normalise and affirm. Papi Juice and GHE20G0TH1K are nightlife experiences created for and by queer and trans people of colour, with an explicit mission to “affirm and uplift queer and trans people of color.”
Queer nightlife has a long way to go to reclaim the heart and soul of its transgressive potential: its warmth, its acceptance, its ability to embrace the variety of life, regardless of race, class or ability.
A queer nightlife scene founded upon empathy and openness is true resistance– one that moves beyond assimilation and reproduction of a white heteronormative gaze towards something nobler and kinder.
This article first appeared in the winter ’17 edition of Consented’s quarterly print magazine which you can buy online now.