Pulse: Lessons from the Gay Club toward Collective Liberation

*****Sometimes when we speak about social justice we use language that makes it hard for folks not already active in the movement to understand. After writing this, I recognized that I had used some language that may be unfamiliar to folks. I want everyone reading this to understand it. I have put an asterisk next to the words I thought needed to be explained in addition to the context given. Their definitions are listed at the bottom. Please reach out if there is a concept used that you don’t understand. There is no shame in not knowing. ******

You made the world hate my existence.

You told them that my clothes were wrong.

That my hair was wrong.

That my desire was wrong.

That I was wrong.

You made death seem easier than living.

Just when I thought things could get no worse,

In a dark, cold room, with people like me,

The music helped me find my way back to my heartbeat.

The old heads always called it the “Gay Heartbeat”. I used to think that they were talking about the house beats that were behind most of the songs played at gay clubs in the late 90s. I mean you COULD hear the music as you pulled up to the block that the club was on. We would make friends with other folks standing in line to get in early for five dollars, sometimes for up to an hour. It wouldn’t matter if it was extremely hot or cold. All genders were represented, though we didn’t have the language to identify ourselves the way some of us went on to do in later years. You could feel your own pulse even louder as you walked in the door. I remember all of the smells; perfume, cologne, sweat, weaves, fear, anxiety, excitement, etc. The bass in the music summoned us to the dance floor. When the DJ would build the beat in the background as the chorus repeated, and then just drop it, we would LOSE it! There was no way to be off beat! We always danced the first song before even getting our first drink of the night. We had probably been planning our outfits all week. This was our ritual. Get dressed in your cutest outfit, hair done, smelling good, feeling great, to dance the night away with other folks like us. It was created for us, by us. Yes, there would be fights. Somebody would probably even get arrested. We would have drag shows every time the doors were open, even if there was only ten people there during a weeknight. Folks lip syncing, dressed up in glamorous ballroom gowns and dramatic make up or down to sweat and speedos. This was our tithes and offering. Instead of passing an offering tray, we walked up to the stage as if we were rededicating our lives to something. Perhaps we were. Us just existing in our black, queer, non-binary bodies, was fighting systems that we had not yet named. Even though we didn’t discuss it often, we all felt the weight of homophobia on our necks. But on that stage, you could make people believe whatever story about yourself you wanted them to. Performing a show could be used to squash beefs, to say your clique was the sexiest, to propose to your partner, raise money to get your partners out of jail or whatever you wanted to do.

Most of us didn’t have relationships with our birth families. Family is very important in black and Latinx cultures. During slavery, when they would split up African-descended families, other families would basically adopt nonbiological folks into their families. We still do that in the larger black community too, in the form of “play cousins”. In that same vein, we did that at the club too. The older folks would get adopted as parents or older siblings. We fed each other, we saw each other for who really were, we loved each other and validated one another. We ALWAYS used whatever bathroom we wanted to. I don’t ever remember even knowing if the bathrooms in the club had gender markers. My safe place. It was always deeper than the music. But the music set the pace. Kind of like a pulse. The place where I first felt my gay heartbeat was Club Big Yo’s in Houston, TX from 1998 to around 2007.

When I decided that I would write this, I didn’t expect to spend so much time talking about the club. I wanted to give a strong black, queer, and trans revolutionary analysis. As I have been trying to process my feelings about Orlando, I realize that I never really understood what Audre Lorde meant when she said “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self preservation and that is an act of political warfare” until now. As as an out, black, queer person growing up in Southeast Texas in the late nineties, early 2000s, I was constantly resisting against the “rules” by just existing. I was an easy target for homophobia and anti-blackness. Going to the club and being around my tribe, was a way to refuel myself for the next week. It was my first intentional resilience practice. So there is no way to give a strong political analysis about how I feel about this moment without first establishing that every time any queer folks get up the courage and go to the club and get refueled, it is indeed a political act. This feels important to me, because as we talk about strategy to fight back, Marshall Ganz suggests in Why David Sometimes Wins that we would do our best fighting with tools that we have been using with expertise for a long time, ones we are already good at using. He says that one of the reasons David won was because when the folks asked David to use the sword to fight Goliath, he basically was like “Nah son, I’m good with these 5 rocks, because I’m slick wit’ ‘em”. Goliath wasn’t ready for this little dude to knock him out with one shot to the forehead.

We were attacked at one of our sacred, safe places. A place where we first learned that we could be our whole selves and still be loved. A place where we could finally exhale. But this is not the first time this has happened. The queer liberation movement was born from very similar circumstances. Queer and Trans folks of color have been targets of white supremacy* and heteropatriarchy* since those systems have been in existence. The violence against us manifested in a different way at the Stonewall Riots*, but the theme was the same.The message that white supremacy and heteropatriarchy teaches is that our lives do not matter. That we are somehow different than what dominant culture folks have decided is normal. Our liberation must be collective, because our oppression is collective. What we all have in common is the things that we aren’t. We ain’t rich, straight, white, christian, able-bodied, cis* men.

The feeling we felt in our guts when the pastor’s sermon started to turn homophobic. Or, the times the pastor prayed for you in front of the whole church and everyone knew why but no one said anything. All of those times your friends told you they hated the sin, but loved you. Every single ex-gay camp that we were forced to go to. All of those nights that we wanted to hold our partner’s hand or kiss them and we chose not to because it might not be safe. Even that time when I was raped in college and my mother told me she had been holding my picture in her bible. She said she had been praying to God that he would never let me feel peace until I stopped living a life of sin. Every aggression, intentional or not, big or small, was a terrorist act. In my experience, Christian religious terrorism has been slowly killing me and friends for over two decades — the amount of time that I’ve been out.

This isn’t a story about religion gone wild, though. Whether the shooter, who I refuse to name, is a Muslim or not, is a distraction. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that even in 2016, when you act in a way that serves White Supremacy* and Heteropatriarchy*, you will likely be rewarded. We have watched it happen in cities all across the country when police murder and brutalize black and brown bodies. We see it when folks try to police folks gender expression and identities. We see it when trans women get beat up or killed and their abusers don’t even get charged with any crime. When the cop just says “Well, she is probably a prostitute anyway,” as if sex workers lives and consent don’t also matter. It seems that everyone wants someone/thing to blame. If you need something to blame this act on, blame those systems. White supremacist heteropatriarchy has produced enemies in both dominant political parties. The New confederacy* and Neo-liberal democrats* help keep these ideas dominant in our society through laws, policies, and other strategies. It may be confusing because in the last few days we have heard a lot of these folks say some pretty supportive things. But they have been passing draconian* legislation that hurts queer and trans people of color for decades. We have seen some of it recently with anti-trans and anti-LGB legislation in North Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi. It is the same group of folks who have consistently cut social services like food stamps, social security, medicare, medicaid, public libraries, and any other services that help poor people. These are the same folks who routinely pass anti-immigration laws. When ICE* comes to deport undocumented folks, they use the same methods as police officers do when they raid the homes of US citizens in the name of mass criminalization and incarceration. This is not a coincidence. It is the same group that benefits when all of us hurt.

Since our enemy is consolidated on the idea that we are not worthy of living the kind of life they feel entitled to, combined with the fact that they have way more access to resources including money and institutions than we do, it feels to me that our strategy to fight back and win is simple. We need to build a united front. More than a coalition, a strategic alliance of folks of color and white working class people committed to liberation through an intersectional* lens. If we follow Ganz’s advice and use the tools we already have to develop a way to implement our strategy, what would that look like?

When we think of going to the club as a way that we have been resisting for decades, I feel more confident that we have been building skills that we can now use towards building our alliance. I have thought of a few things that we have already learned to do well. What other things has going to the club taught us to do?

  1. Mobilization: We know how to gather large crowds of folks and get them to come back every week. We created an environment where everyone was comfortable being themselves. This included making the space accessible for folks with different abilities.
  2. Member Engagement and Retention: We know how to keep their energy up and keep them involved in the activities the whole night. We accomplished this through a myriad of different tactics. Dancing, shows, comedy, and other activities that varied in participation.
  3. Cultural Organizing: We became experts at joining the spiritual with the creative and social. How many times did you have an out of body experience at the club? There was a moral code that we all understood. Like no walking across the stage while someone was performing unless you tipped as you walked.
  4. Fundraising: We definitely have mastered the art of raising money through things like drag shows, covers, drinks, selling food, etc.
  5. Motivational Speaking: Our favorite MC’s could go toe to toe with any orator trying to encourage large groups of traumatized hurt people. It’s the same skill that popular leaders of mass movements possess.
  6. Base Building: We were able to develop a shared language and messaging that we all agreed to. We all knew what we meant when someone yelled “FACE!, Slay, bitch!” or “ooohhh that was shade!” way before social media made it so easy for our language to be culturally appropriated* by non-QTPOC.
  7. Community Safety: We formed community accountability councils and would check folks who got out of line, or who were suicidal without involving police.
  8. Co-Operative Economics: Through the “houses” we built strong communities that trusted each other enough to found and operate collective style businesses.

If we use the club as a tool, what could we accomplish? If we could unite our folks outside the club and motivate them to fight in the streets the way we fought in our J-Setting battles, could we be winning more often? If we were as committed to making sure all of our folks understood all of this new language and ways of being freer, how many more of our folks could find their own paths to freedom?

A very wise friend of mine said something really profound in a training I was in a few weeks ago. She said “….free people, free people.” That statement changed my life. I immediately stopped trying to perform masculinity the way I thought was most respected. The way that other folks feel is “real” masculinity. I have found that the most effective way to get my people to liberation is through authentic and compassionate leadership that meets people where they are and helps them find their own interest in liberation. In order to do this, I have been on a journey of learning myself and loving what I find no matter what it is. Some days that looks like eye-liner and mascara combined with a fresh fade. Some days it’s baggy shirts and tight shorts. Some days it’s proclaiming my black queer communist beliefs at the top of my lungs. But every single day, it’s about me being the very best me I can be in that moment. Flaws and all. And I learned how to do just that on a dark floor, in a hot room, in Houston, TX, moving my non-dancing, awkward, nerdy, queer, non-binary body to the beat.

*********In memory of all our family lost in the Orlando tragedy.**********

Definitions

  • New Confederacy — the right-wing political force that is based in anti-Black, racist programs and strategies, exported from the South.
  • Neo-Liberal — an economic policy-making model that relies on rigorous self-interest based platforms, the dismantling of social services, privatization, and deregulation
  • Cultural Appropriation — typically involves members of a dominant group (white, straight, etc.) exploiting the culture of less privileged groups (blacks, latinx, queer, etc.) — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions.
  • Draconian — excessively harsh and severe.
  • ICE ( Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) — a federally funded, militarized force of officers who tear apart families and criminalize people all in the name of invisible borders.
  • Intersectional — is a concept used to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another.
  • White Supremacy — the institution based on the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, and should therefore dominate society.
  • CIS — Latin for “on the same side”. It means you agree with the gender you were assigned at birth. It is a simple way of separating trans people from non trans people without calling non-trans people normal.
  • Heteropatriarchy — The combination of male — patriarchal — and heterosexual dominance used in inherent and coherent ways to oppress those who are not cis, straight men.
  • Stonewall Riots-June 28, 1969, a group of trans and gender non conforming customers at a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village called the Stonewall Inn, who had grown tired of the harassment by police, took a stand and a riot broke out. These riots are often credited with being the beginning of the Queer Liberation Movement in the US.