While queer acceptance increasingly comes under fire from the American government, queer culture has never been a bigger part of the mainstream. Switch on the TV and you’ll see America’s sweetheart Ellen Degeneres, the cuddly but sexless Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family, and a bevy of queer characters of all stripes from Ryan Murphy and Lee Daniels. There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to palatable versions of gayness penetrating mainstream American audiences, but queer people still need spaces of their own to be, well, queer as hell.
Luckily, there are still plenty of crews around the country providing that specific atmosphere and nightlife for their fans and followers. These collectives share a similar DNA — extremely sex positive parties rooted in celebrating the blurred lines between techno, house, and disco.For this year’s Red Bull Music Academy, a selection of queer collectives are coming together to DJ the same event for a Brooklyn mega-party they’re calling Trade Show USA. San Francisco’s Honey Soundsystem, Men's Room Chicago, Pittsburgh’s Honcho, Los Angeles’s Spotlight, Washington D.C.’s NeedlExchange, Detroit’s DJ Holographic, and New York City’s WRECKED and The Carry Nation have all joined forces, like a gay version of The Avengers, to throw one really good party altogether.
The FADER spoke with Honey Soundsystem co-founder Jacob Sperber and Honcho co-founder Aaron Clark before this weekend’s event to talk about the diversity and importance of queer spaces in the U.S. Lots of queer party collectives, Honcho included, tip their hats to Honey Soundsystem for starting this modernized scene back in 2006. (Honcho was founded in 2012.) Both Sperber and Clark saw their parties gain insane amount of steam with the advent of social media and SoundCloud, and now regularly tour the world. In conversation with The FADER, the Sperber and Clark assessed inclusivity in gay nightlife and what it means to part in Trump’s U.S.A.
Both of you have created spaces that feel different — in image and design — from a lot of gay nightlife. Was there any purposeful thinking in how the parties came together or was it a natural evolution of an idea?
AARON CLARK: We just wanted to play good music for a gay crowd — that was basically the first objective and the only one that we had in mind. We hit a stumbling block immediately with our party, which was: we had this idea that it would be a big giant warehouse party and it would move around. It [turned out to be] small and weird and we didn't think that is what we'd be doing.
Then, when it was our very first party during Pride, [it] was shut down by police and that kinda like created this weird underground party. They didn't know how to handle it when it was raided and they blamed us. At that point, we didn't even think it was gonna come back again. But we wanted to do it and pull one off so we brought Honey back for the second one. By the third one, we finally accepted our fate as an intimate party.
JACOB SPERBER: I think for Honey there was an intimidating playing field to begin with for us, as opposed to Pittsburgh, there were mega clubs in the city. There was a thriving circuit scene, there still is. There was a lot of gay nightlife here and it still had the San Francisco mecca vibes. When we were coming up with the idea to do our own party, you could go out Monday Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, there was something to do and it could be just around gay men.
We had to be kind of calculated about how we entered into that ecosystem. San Francisco is really forgiving, but it's also fairly sophisticated, like it's an intellectual city. You can, of course, give them the same thing that is already working other places, but we wanted to give something different from the get-go. We knew we were gonna have to either win people's hearts and minds or we were gonna have to trick them into doing something else. So yeah, there's calculation there.
“These are lawless places and in many ways that’s a political statement in itself.”
Could you guys speak on what it means to create an inclusive space?
SPERBER: This is a really difficult time to be a gay party. It's a really exciting time but the worst thing you can do is say that you are something that you're not, and we are a gay party. We're four gay men doing a party that is predominately men that come to the event. What we try to do is hold space and create forms of discussion and respect without having to kind of scold the people that are supporting what we do. There's a very aggressive — and rightfully so — conversation out there right now about not just inclusion but exclusion, like the idea that some spaces are never going to be appropriate and they need to be recognized and maybe called out.
At least on the Honey side of things, what we're just trying to do is be not only aware but make space where we know it's not appropriate for us to be a part of the conversation. That's as impactful as being a part of the conversation.
CLARK: I think we're still evolving on our end on this one. Like Jacob said, we were originally started to bring gay men together with good music and a good party but it goes back to the size of the city again. We have a unique space that allows us to bring all types of people into a traditional gay men bathhouse for one night a week. There's a lot of people and music heads. They need to be a part of it and everyone needs to be a part of it, and at first we were trying to keep it very male-heavy and I think over time we've gotten our confidence about what we were doing. It's been easier to sort of chill and let it be kind of be a wildly queer space versus what we may have thought it should've been in the beginning. That's been a learning experience.
Even when the party started, like I didn't really have any trans friends, you know? I didn't know anything about that and I was pretty ignorant on it, and I think I have personally grown — we all have, through throwing this party and meeting awesome people that are really into what we're doing in music and the atmosphere. Hearing their stories and exchanging stories and just listening to them and trying to be protective of them now.
I think with The Honcho Campout [the crew’s flagship weekend-long retreat/party] — which is now entering its third year — the first two years of it, we kinda didn't really know what we were doing. We found a perfect venue but it was a male-only space and the thing just grew so fast. It went way beyond what we thought that event would be. There was a breaking point where we said, we can't that as have our crown jewel event and have it be male-only. We're a queer inclusive party in a small city. It's meant for everyone, it’s our biggest event of the year, it had to be inclusive. It’s now an all gender event. It's new territory for us.
SPERBER: I think that's huge too. I think that's something that's exciting to mention in this article — the idea that a crew moves its entire festival because they needed to include as many people as possible apart of it. It's not like we're talking about SONAR here. We're talking about a festival that maybe will get shit from a small group of people, but like Honcho and our crews, we take our community so seriously that even one comment or couple of comments gets addressed in such a drastic way. It may have taken them a year to do it, but can you imagine how long it would take if one of those other festivals with a bigger proportion had to do that? There are no excuses for creating changes.
CLARK: It's not to say there's not room for male-only spaces either. I definitely think there are. It's just not what our DNA of the party has evolved to at this point. So you just have to match it.
SPERBER: I'm afraid that right now the male-only spaces have to be done a little bit quietly. They're always going to exist but I think there was moment when we were all kind of excited about recreating this sexy, maybe sex-positive queer male space. For a couple years of our parties, specifically Men's Room, the imagery was super hot and heavy and it was a sex party. Maybe women might go in there if they're really brave or down for whatever but it was basically like going into a bathhouse and that was really exciting, and still is exciting.
I think there's still, like Aaron said, a place for that. The conversation right now is so rightfully about inclusion.
What do you consider the role of these gay parties to be in the age of Trump?
CLARK: That's a big question. I would say that it's almost a role of protector in a way. look up to Honey Sound System as sort of like the party that birthed the next wave, and hopefully we can do the same.
This is just a small selection of a group of people that just so happen to work tightly together. We're one story amongst many. My role, at least from the way I view it, is to protect this culture and help it keep going for generations. I'm sure it will evolve again and again and again and that's cool, but we've learned a lot. We need to pass these things on. That's kind of how I look at it. They're places of community.
SPERBER: Trade Show ended up becoming the name [for the RBMA event] and the more I think about it, the more I fall in love with it, especially for this particular question, as well, because it is this idea that a lot of these parties are different but the same and they're coming to the table to kind of explain their story but also sell you something about where they came from — and that's what you do at a trade show. Potentially it's the same subject matter, maybe same products in the entire thing, but each booth is gonna try to give you something new.
I think what this event is doing for the first time is bringing all these people together. We've all known each other but we never necessarily had the opportunity to do this and there's a lot of power with all these crews. There's a lot of intellectuals and a lot great music and a lot of organizing. The politics of that is powerful, and to do it in New York City and to be endorsed by what I think is a pretty reputable festival week is pretty huge.
I think one of the things I would like to say is that no matter what, if it's in a club or a warehouse, a party has a bouncer on the outside to keep people from going in and from getting out and that's because what goes on inside of a nightclub is in some way shape or form, illegal. The amount that people are drinking and the kinds of things that are going on in there — even the levels of the sound almost always are against the law somehow. That is special.
These are lawless places and in many ways that's a political statement [in] itself, and when you start adding conversations about sexuality, the history of the people, a history of the people that isn't written or isn't legitimate, then those spaces become even more politically powerful.
Right now, honestly, this country needs as much dissent and communal gathering as possible so hopefully this event is gonna either inspire us to do new things, better things, invigorate us, but also maybe some kids who are working on their own stuff come and take a couple products home with them.