Getting crazy in a time of crisis
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I've got one copy of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace strapped under my right foot, one strapped under my left. The new 1,400-page Penguin Classics translation by Anthony Briggs makes for a great pair of platforms. My fantasy party posse's at my side: Felicia Fellatio rocking a hot red bandito bandanna, a full white tutu, and a number 5 Tim Hardaway jersey; Baby Char Char in an oversize pajama-print homeboy hoodie and a pair of random, paint-spattered Levi's; Nova all angles on her retro-future '80s Nagel dangling neon banana earrings, turquoise ruffled skirt, and shoulder-padded acid-washed cropped jacket trip; and Hunky Beau in Juicy Couture pipe pants and war paint.
Somebody else is in the corner, wearing pink panties on his head and a giant chain, but no one knows his name.
I feel great. I just finished six weeks of Third Street Gym boxing boot camp, and you could bounce a full congressional subpoena off my abs, darling. (OK, that's a lie but I think about going to the gym every time I light up a smoke. That should count for something, no?) We're out the door to my drag idol Juanita More's weekly Saturday all-nighter, Playboy, at the Stud (www.juanitamore.com ), when suddenly it hits me: today is Saturday, right? I better check the Internet.
I put down my flask of Cuervo and log on, and this little box of "gay news" pops up. (How does the Internet know? Oh, that's right: all my online porn accounts.) "UN Confirms Anti-Gay Death Squads in Iraq" the top headline reads. Kidnappings, mutilation, charred bodies found by the road. Hmm. A few clicks later: "Iraqi Leaders OK Gay Pogroms." According to activists, Shiite militias are engaging in one of the "most organized and systematic sexual cleansings in history" with the government's two-cheeked kiss of approval, and the US is refusing asylum to gay Iraqis.
Oh dear. Suddenly the thought of whooping it up while my gay Iraqi rainbow family burns seems kind of, you know, gross.
I'm so fucking sick of feeling powerless against this stupid war. Of always tucking the grief of it somewhere in the back of my mind as I down another shot and hit the dance floor. Not only is it a major buzzkill among other omnipresent buzzkills global warming, fundamentalist terror, constant surveillance, government-sanctioned queer discrimination, bad hair days but, as a citizen of the allegedly participatory democracy that started the whole thing, I feel somehow responsible, no matter whom I voted for however many times. And just admitting that, I feel like a spoiled American. It sucks.
On top of that, I have to watch myself and many of those around me struggle to keep the flame of resistance sparkling. It seems exhaustion has seeped into our consciousness and may actually be taking root. I fondly recall the first exhilarating flush of protest of taking back the streets until my pumps wore through on the first night of "shock and awe," of lying down and blocking traffic in an orange jumpsuit (on purpose for once) as the bombs continued to rain down on civilians half a world away, of wildly dancing with Code Pink and cute Puerto Rican socialists in the NYC streets during the 2004 Republican Convention, hoping the nets the cops threw over us wouldn't snag my weave. Sure, I still bang my pan with a stick at the occasional ANSWER weekend protest, despite my massive hangover. But after four years of war, it often seems I'm banging fruitlessly. If a club freak chants in a vacuum, will the killing please stop now?
Thank goddess I've got the beautiful souls I've met at the clubs around me. The kind of nightlife I love is inherently subversive: when one kind of music, location, or style becomes dominant, a host of alternatives immediately springs up. That energy refuels my rebellious spirit and keeps my fight up during the day. Yes, yes, partying is an escape from reality but it's also a play space, a way to work out the anxieties of the world by fooling with your identity, a place to push the boundaries of society into a personal utopia.
To me, underground nightlife can also be a fascinatingly warped mirror of the problems facing the world, its trends the raw expression of deep-seated angst. As W. consolidated his political power in the early '00s, nightlife fashions and music (and drugs) returned to the tastes of the Reagan and Thatcher '80s, when angular pop and cold synths were a loud rebuke to false sincerity and hubris. The recent explosion of pre-AIDS-era disco and imagery in many gay clubs may be an unconscious wish to transport ourselves to the time before the Republicans' disastrous "morning in America." And the vibrant local hyphy scene is based on auto sideshows: literally wasting gas (use it while you got it!). Now, well into W.'s second term, we're reliving the rococo styles of Bush the Elder without irony. Dance floors are looking like a punk rock Cosby Show, and I'm into it.
But that's all theoretical musing. The most important thing about nightlife is community, whether you're a full-time club kid or just going out for a drink after work with your friends. You want to be around other people, to not feel so alone in this crazy world, to make a connection. You walk into a bar, and suddenly you're in a minisociety, one you hope you can handle better than society at large.
Can this community make a difference? Sure. The nightlife community, gay and straight, was instrumental in the fight against AIDS (and still is). It banded together to defeat the antirave legislation of the early '00s. Tons of parties raise money for good causes. Currently, party-oriented groups such as the League of Pissed Off Voters (sf.indyvoter.org), which reaches out to young people through DJ events, and the SF Party Party (www.sfpartyparty.com ), which influences local politics by combining education with clubbing, are doing their best to change the world.
"People on the left these days seem to think that denying themselves pleasure is the only way to take back the government. The early energy of protest against Bush has turned into a kind of self-punishment. That's so dry and boring and ultimately useless," says Dr. Stephen Duncombe, editor of the Cultural Resistance Reader and author of the new book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. I called him because I wanted to talk about the guilt some of us feel about partying when the world's going to shit. He's been a prime mover in theatrical resistance groups such as Reclaim the Streets, the Lower East Side Collective, and the utterly fabulous Billionaires for Bush. (He's also kind of cute in a young-professor-at-NYU way.)
"We should be using the positive energy of nightlife to show people that politics can be both entertaining and transformational," he continues. "Politics should be a fun, interactive spectacle, like the kind nightlife provides. No one wants to get involved with something if it seems like more work."
Yet still I worry. What would life be like if the war were here? What if I were a gay Iraqi? I trolled the Internet gay hookup sites to find a gay Iraqi to talk to about it. All I could find at first were half-naked American soldiers stationed in the Middle East (we are everywhere!). I eventually came upon a Western-educated gay Iraqi refugee living in Jordan who identified himself as Arje. He said I was being foolish. "Go out and have fun," he replied when I wrote that I didn't feel like partying off the weight of the world. "Have a dance for me."