What does Pride Month mean to me? Courage–as my LGBTQ friends are some of the most authentic and inspirational people I’ve ever met. Gratitude–for EDM and the rave scene that wouldn’t be here today were it not supported in its infancy by queer people of color. Inclusivity–as those who have been marginalized tend to be less judgmental and more open to others whom society labels outsiders.
So often in life, we judge people based on their outward appearance, the way they talk, carry themselves, and their general demeanor. As humans, we’re biologically programmed to do this and we often forget that there’s an entire world, a galaxy even, contained within someone’s shell. Perhaps we “are searching among the branches, for what only appears in the roots.” This applies to people, and one of my passions in life, words. Take the word courage, for example. Its Latin root is cor, meaning heart, and in Old French corage meant your innermost feelings. By the 1400’s, in Old English, it came to mean the ability to “speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Nowadays, this word is more often associated with acts of valor and heroic deeds. But in my opinion, being vulnerable and speaking the truth in your heart is more heroic than any adventures detailed in Greek epic poems. In my own life, I’ve purposely and repeatedly exposed myself to some of my greatest fears, but my own experiences pale in comparison to those of many of my LGBTQ friends.
Though LGBTQ acceptance is growing, it’s still fragile. Eight in 10 reports experiencing verbal abuse and harassment, and one in 10 have been physically assaulted. In speaking the truth within their hearts, many have lost their families and livelihood, face daily ridicule, prejudice, and even bodily harm, and are pressured by society to hide those truths in an effort to fit in and be “normal.” Heaven forbid you challenge the status quo! To voice those feelings in the face of tremendous adversity and simply BE exactly who they are, defines courage to me.
Over the years, there have been many DJ/producers who have gone on public homophobic rants. Not only have they outed themselves as bigots, they’ve also shown their ignorance of the roots of Electronic Dance Music. Take a look around any festival these days and you’ll see plenty of frat bros and Kardashian wannabes, clueless to the gay, Disco history of EDM. The colorful, hedonistic vibes us ravers take for granted in the music and culture of electronica were taken straight from gay discotheques. The non-stop kick-drums found in every genre of EDM were the driving sound of the disco clubs of the 70s. And it was the fabulously queer crowd who introduced the glitz, glam, wigs, body paint, and pasties to the dancefloors. At Studio 54, Gargoyle Club, and Paradise Garage, celebrities mingled with the hoi polloi, no red velvet ropes separating the plebes from musicians, designers, actors, and actresses. Members only after-hours clubs opened for the enthusiastic dance crowd, primarily black, Hispanic and gay, and became free-for-all orgies accompanied by the banging disco sounds of abandon. By the late 70’s, the DJs in New York and London clubs frequented primarily by queer people of color were introducing a range of sounds to those Disco beats.
The openly gay Frankie Knuckles and his flamboyant friend Larry Levan went to discos as teens and began working as DJs, with Knuckles eventually moving to Chicago. By this time, it was normal to hear Hip-Hop, TV themes, Funk, R&B and Euro-pop mixed on new synthesizers that spaced the beats to create a more austere sound. While Larry Levan was introducing drum machines and synthesizers at the Paradise Garage in NYC, Knuckles was perfecting this new sound at the members-only predominantly gay and black Warehouse in Chicago. As Knuckles and his style grew in popularity, it began attracting straight white crowds. Eventually, this new wave of music was dubbed the shortened version of where Knuckles had residency–House.
Another huge contribution to the rave scene was the opening of New York’s The Saint gay superclub in 1980. Great effort was put into its renovation and it became the standard of what we still see today in nightclubs. The spacious circular dance floor was topped by a planetarium dome which hid and supported lighting and speakers, effectively creating surround sound. A disco ball could be lowered into the dome, and lifted through the floor via hydraulic lift was a circular light tree topped with the brightest star projector of the time. The bar was below the dance floor and above the dome was a balcony where clubgoers engaged in sexual activities. On special nights, part of the dome would retract and acts like Gloria Gaynor, Debbie Harry, Chaka Khan, Tim Curry, RuPaul, Tiffany, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Grace Jones, and Tina Turner would take the stage. It was the golden standard of New York clubs and many closed to renovate following The Saint’s opening. Starting out as a membership-only gay club, it eventually began to accept straight patrons as the AIDS epidemic began to take a toll on membership.
Though Knuckles has been called the Godfather of House Music and has a street named after him, and Larry Levan has been considered by some the greatest DJ in history, their names are often forgotten. Much of this is attributed to AIDS decimating this generation of clubbers and changing the face of the dance scene. Former partygoers were nursing their loved ones, and due to the media creating widespread panic, there was an increase in homophobia. Once worried about where to get MDMA, they were now clamoring for AZT. This annihilation of a generation of partiers meant a lack of oral history being passed down and explains how few ravers understand the connection between LGBTQ and EDM. It wasn’t until the late 80’s and into the 90’s that new beats and sounds started coming out again, and due to the increasing availability and popularity of ecstasy, the heteronormative crowd began flocking to the EDM scene. With the rise of phat pants and pixie cuts, there became an androgynous look that defined the dance music scene of the 90’s and was in direct opposition to the acid house, disco-influenced scene of the 70’s and 80’s. By 1997, The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” had effectively eviscerated the gay roots of dance music.
Despite these homophobic outliers, I’ve found raves and EDM to be the most inclusive of any music scene. Born into and raised in a spiritual commune til the age of 17, I knew very little of the LGBTQ community, let alone much of anything about the greater world outside when I eschewed it all for freedom. At 19, I took a month-long road trip around Western Europe. A bit of serendipity found me on a ferry to Ibiza staying with a friend of a friend at her place in the middle of the island. I spent the next few nights at Pacha, Amnesia, and a nameless after party at a local rooftop bar. I’d already been listening to all the techno I could get my hands on, which wasn’t much in Hawaii, so moving to Seattle for college after my summer in Europe launched me into a whole new world of underground warehouse raves.
In the commune, I was taught that there was something wrong with queer people, that they were misguided and to be pitied. Always a stubborn kid who wanted to figure things out on my own, I was resistant to this idea. From my few experiences meeting them, they seemed like the nicest and most self-assured people I’d ever met. But as an adult, in a single rave night, I would meet more LGBTQ people than I’d met my whole life. And not only were they fascinating, but they were also the most inclusive people I’d ever known. I knew nothing of their feelings, lives, inner thoughts, or the traumas they’d been through, and they were more than willing to share their experiences. They were also intrigued by my own childhood and the exchange of life stories with no judgment was instrumental in allowing me to break out of my shell. For as long as I could remember, I’d been an outlier. Whispered about, relentlessly teased and bullied growing up, I didn’t see the value of being unique. Their courage inspired me to begin the long process of embracing my inner weird and letting my freak flag fly. By their example, every new queer person I met showed me the sheer joy of being authentically yourself. That those who judged without understanding were to be pitied. That speaking the truth within your heart is freedom.
Growing up, I was always a tomboy–the knight in shining armor, riding in to save the princess fair from every imagined evil. As I grew older, I rescued every wounded animal I came across. And for many years now, I’ve chosen to work in positions where I can help and do some good in this world that is so often unkind. Before I knew what it was, I was an ally. And I’ll be the first to say that I’m no expert. So please teach me. Open my eyes to every way in which I can be a better ally. The next time you find me on the dance floor, know that at the least, I got your back, and if you’re up to it, take a moment to help me understand how I can do more.