My Takedown of Gawker’s Takedown of the Black Party
Like swallows returning to Capistrano, you can be sure the vernal equinox will bring with it the Black Party and a young(ish) gay man's Gawker post about it.
Realizing that a snarky gossip blog site's purpose is to generate controversy, thereby grasping that light in a bottle, buzz, and its consequent hits, I still feel a need to respond since I take a personal responsibility in this annual New York mega-dance party's notoriety to the wider world.
For decades, the Black Party flew under the radar of the general public. Without benefit of publicity, advertising or information of any kind save the often-controversial and always-bizarre poster (an illustration of an of a sweet little boy eating raw meat; a Photoshopped portrait of a badly beaten young man; a bound man in torn underwear, his head covered by an A&F shopping bag). As part of the "ritual" aspect of the party (this year called Rites XXXIV), it went out to a select few thousand gay men (and a few even more select with-it raver types or out-and-out freaky straight guys and gals) around the world. Upon seeing the return address, to a man, they eagerly tore open the envelope to discover that year's DJ line-ups.
The party's producing organization, the Saint at Large, happily thrived on the underground vibe. Then, in 2002, I "outed" the party to the general public in a Village Voice article. After I was called on the carpet at the Saint at Large's agreeably cluttered Lafayette Street loft, the producers accepted the inevitable.
They began advertising in gay publications and even hired a publicist. Those steps probably helped ensure the survival of a party that, at 34 (about 95 in gay years), has survived and thrived while other big-room gay dances fell by the wayside.
It also invited in gay outliers who nearly always approached it not as a dance party but as the largest annual gay sex party in the country with the dancing as a side note. One year, Gawker even planted someone with a camera in front of Roseland Ballroom, the venerable giant, frayed dance-and-concert space in Midtown Manhattan. He asked attendees as they were leaving (mostly unsuccessfully) what was going on inside, which isn't so much like catching a deer in the headlights as filming the poor beast while shooting (apt word) it.
This year, the task of detailing his first (and, I strongly suspect, last) Black Party fell to Rich Juzwiak, whose occasional Gawker take on gay life as it is lived -- or, rather, as he interprets it -- is aptly titled Pride & Shame.
In his defense, unlike his predecessors and assorted other newbie essayists, Juzwiak doesn't dismiss "recreational sex" out of hand as an anachronism clung to by the last holdouts of the new normal. Annoying as it might be to read, I give him credit for assigning the men he discusses letters of the alphabet, ending his hot (he says, and I have no reason to doubt him) hook-up, "F." He definitely gets points for not name names, especially the famous. (Door security at Roseland even confiscates cell phones in an attempt at protecting patrons.)
That said, in a long -- I counted more than 3,600 words; by Gawker's standards, "Oxford English Dictionary" length -- article, Juzwiak sticks almost exclusively to the relatively few men carrying on here and there. He mentions music and the dance floor three times: once, to dismiss the music as "percussive, loud, ugly, anti-melodic house (or tribal)"; once, to observe a group dancing "sexually without so much as touching each other"; and finally, when he hears a Whitney Houston song. Oh yeah, he finally "danced a little bit." But that ends abruptly after an incomplete pass.
The whole rest of the piece details his looking at, and very occasionally and always tentatively, joining in various levels of hanky-panky. The overall tone comes down on the sexual energy as half-hearted at best. Typical comments: One encounter is "about as erotic as being bitten by a mosquito"; another, "a pack of rats tweaked each other's exposed nipples and struck curious poses."
it's especially curious -- if telling -- that he puts down the dancers as "about as sex-provoking as five clones of Nicki Minaj half-heartedly jiggling." They're dancing! What does he expect them to be doing? Tea bagging? Pole stripping?
Which brings me to my main beef. Juzwiak admits he came to the party expecting "wild displays of public sex" filled with "back-room black holes," an event so "utterly bleak, so mean in its countenance, that it seemed ready to buckle under the weight of its own gear."
Yes, there was a designated back-room space upstairs, which I left alone. A friend warned me off it as way too hot, crowded, elbow pushing and sticky.
Not that I came seeking sex (not this year, anyway). To paraphrase one of my guiding lights, Tracy Turnblad, I didn't come there to talk (among other things). I came there to dance.
Because, self-consciously insouciant observers like Juzwiak to the contrary, this is a dance party with sex, not a sex party with dancing. Like the "strange live acts" on a side stage that have helped fuel the party's reputation, the sex is more street theater than hard-core action.
If Juzwiak gets a slight whiff of the sex-as-sex-on-display (think more models "fucking" in a Barney's window, less Falcon video), he completely misses the party's deeper, tribal sensibility. Not tribal as in music genre (actually, it was anything but; techno maybe, electronica, definitely), but what I called in my Voice piece "an unexpected camaraderie."
Unfortunately for Juzwiak, you have to be willing to dance -- I mean seriously dance -- to pick it up, because it's on the dance floor that you really get to what writer David Nimmons said was a "primal dark energy that is really rare," a "libidinal commonality." I should probably add that, as a side benefit, that's where you get the serious eye candy, incredibly hot men in fantasy fetish garb. (Juzwiak wears his nerd-in-disguise outfit of jeans and a tee as a badge of honor.)
It's a shame that Juzwiak didn't let himself experience that. His take on the gay world -- or, at least, that part of it limited to urban gay enclaves in cities like New York, Miami and Los Angeles -- seems to be an attempt at a Joan Didionesque ironic detachment: being there while using his observing stance as an excuse not to feel too much.
Or, God forbid, let loose and really have a good time. He gives away his hand early on when he writes, "I can think of fewer things more ridiculous than taking fun so seriously." I can think of few things more life affirming. With that attitude, he'd best steer clear of, say, Rabelais' novels or Charles Ludlam's plays.
I feel sorry for him and other younger gay guys who seem to be simultaneously put off, fascinated, bewildered and intimated by "the scene." I hope someday he really lets himself go and gets the chance before it's too late to let in the "the unbridled celebration of gay male sexuality, in all its creativity and destructiveness."
That was my description of the party in 2002, but it rings as true today. The Black Party attracts men from all over the world not because it offers the opportunity for random hook-ups but for a fellow-feeling with several thousand brethren all too rare in our world.
Hell, good sex is easy to find. Good dancing is hard.