The sun is out, and I’ve been drinking. The music is disco, and I find myself dancing. I’m accidentally enjoying myself at Ty Tea, an ongoing summer Sunday party in Brooklyn. The party takes place in the industrial backyard of the club 3 Dollar Bill and continues a long tradition of gay tea dances and afternoon discos. The music is a mix of pop and disco and club beats, in other words: pretty good, if you ask me. Its host, Ty Sunderland, an upstart of a white gay man, originally from Florida, has quickly risen to become one of New York City’s biggest queer DJs, perhaps because he also hosts his own parties. His It’s Britney, Boat cruise around NYC went viral after he told a story on Twitter about a demon twink attendee trying to ruin his DJ equipment.
I arrive at Ty Tea wearing skinny black jeans, an art fag shirt printed by my friend Photographer Paul and a chunky heel boot. I feel … cute? Inside, there is an orderly queue for drinks, which some people are obviously cheating, without comment from others. I don’t cheat, but do get in the shortest line.
It’s White Claw season and I don’t want to wait in line again, so I order a second can that I put in my bag. But they don’t actually have White Claw, just Truly, and they’re out of Black Cherry—how dare they?—so I order two Mango, $26.65 after tip.
I’m on my way to the outdoor area when I run into my friend who works on Broadway. I tell him I’m here to write about how VIP sections separate us and are ruining nightlife and he tells me about two nights he’s had dancing with actual celebrities.
“In VIP?” I ask.
“Of course not,” he says. “Real celebrities don’t need VIP.”
He laughs. I laugh.
I leave him and walk down the stairs to the backyard, which is maybe half full of people, mainly half dancing. I don’t mind being here alone because today I am here to be a Very Important Journalist. I’m here for a reason (other than to get drunk and dance) and have a perfect icebreaker to chat with people about: “I’m here to write about whether VIP is ruining queer nightlife.”
My thesis: it is.
I started writing this piece last summer after a few experiences in nightlife after COVID-19 lockdown that were less than stellar. VIP isn’t new, I know, but it seems more … pervasive and pernicious than it did before, a hyperactivation of some trends that have always bothered me about nightlife: Exclusivity! Popularity! Mean-Girlification! Experiences-that-price-working-class-sluts-out!
I am a white fag originally from a poor family in a small town, and that comes with me wherever I go, including the club. It’s easier for me to fit into most nightlife than people of colour, of course. And parties like Ladyfag’s (more on that later) and Ty Tea have become increasingly hostile-feeling, even for me; and I know from talking to many other queer friends of colour and trans folks that my experience is much less hostile even than theirs. But it still often sucks!
As I walk into the party, I’m thinking about how whiteness doesn’t actually protect white people from the shitty ramifications of capitalism and atomization, an essential message for white people especially. Atomization, I think, is the key word, meaning that communities become broken down into components, like the nuclear family, or VIP versus general admission at a party. When applied to a dancefloor, this can be akin to gentrification, the displacement of people from their spaces, especially in nightlife, where non-white people so often innovate, and then white people profit and exclude (hello, house music and disco, just two obvious examples). What could be a whole, a collective, dancing all together, gets broken down, and people get separated and isolated from each other (usually for profit).
At Ty Tea, the VIP area is secured behind metal police barricades. This struck me immediately upon my first visit as a symbolically perfect example of using the tools of the oppressor to separate our self-made queer spaces by class. I’m hyperaware of the interactions between police and queer identity, as I’ve been personally accosted with homophobia by NYPD officers and recognize that the first Pride was an anti-cop riot.
“Who needs cops,” I ask myself, “when we’re so willing to police one another and ourselves in and out of space?”
Later in the evening, as the sun begins to set, and I’ve actually had fun bumping into and talking to a couple of friends (The Neighbour Gay and his husband [Married Friend], the Stand-Up Comedian, Broadway Star), I go back to watch VIP for a bit, as a Journalist, of course. All of a sudden, there he is: Ty.
“Oh my god, I’m going to talk to him,” I say to Neighbour Gay.
“What?! No! To say what?”
“I’m going to ask him about having VIP, and having it behind cop barricades, even while he talks all the time about the great community of nightlife.”
“Joe, be serious! You’re going to ask him about VIP?!”
“I’m just going to ask! It’s fair, if I’m going to write about it, to ask? Right?”
I know it is. And I am an Important Journalist. I can do this! I am on assignment! I have an editor!
I lift up all my courage (Truly Hard Seltzer) and go talk to Ty.
When COVID-19 hit, I missed nightlife. I missed the possibility of it, the cute boys all with mouths that—in theory—held the possibility of a kiss, a connection I could give them in turn. The thump of bass that registered simultaneously but differently in the chest and the ears, hitting the brain from two separate organs together.
But, since COVID-19 nightlife moratorium ended, it seems to me that nightlife is more atomized and separated than ever, a space often more about status than pleasure, or maybe about status as pleasure. This bothers me not because I don’t like nightlife, but because I do.
Arguments that my friends who work in nightlife make for having VIP: a place to sit and rest for nightlife workers (fair), but here at Ty Tea there are plenty of places to sit; to give the trans and POC influencers a safer space away from the hordes where they won’t be annoyed; getting gay-famous people to come to your party; making money for the party promoters while still allowing cheap access to the party to those who can’t afford VIP—while giving exclusivity to those who can.
At one Ladyfag party, Battle Hymn, along with my boyfriend Devon and his best friend Seyi, we arrived early to avoid the line, but there was no avoiding the line, and the line was not moving. Devon and I, but not Seyi, even had tickets (but weren’t on the VIP list). Devon and Seyi are thick as thieves and often go out (usually without me), two Black gay queens who love to dance, and who have countless stories of micro- and macro-aggressions when they’re out in majority-white spaces (like Battle Hymn).
Curious and frustrated, I went to the front where I saw that, indeed, no one was getting in from our queue. People were getting inside, though, through the VIP line, a seemingly endless stream of VIPs even as a bouncer shouted at the normal line that the club was “at capacity.” A little drunk, I told him to stop lying, because if the club was “at capacity,” the VIPs wouldn’t be getting inside either. Not long after, I saw an ex get out of an Uber Black, walk to the VIP line and enter. This ex was indeed concerned with being Very Important when we were together, and suddenly I was happy to be a plebian fag, and returned to the line with the rest of us.
An hour later, maybe, two of us made it inside (Seyi, ticketless and still in line around the corner, gave up), paid our $17 for our watery drinks and were making our way to the dancefloor, which did seem to be “at capacity.” It was crowded.
But in nightlife, crowds aren’t necessarily bad, are they? A crowded club is kind of the point. Yes, the boys were shirtless. Yes, many of them were attractive. Were they dancing? Kind of. There was a general movement around and maybe to the beat, but not necessarily a ton of dancing. Devon and I like to dance, and so we went looking for a place with the space to actually move.
It was hard to find.
We ended up in the back of the space, on a small raised area up three steps from the main dancefloor, where there were a few tables and fewer queens. Devon started dancing and I was comfortably two-stepping along next to him, my hand around his waist.
And then a tap on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry, this is a private space, VIP.” A white queen stood shirtless in front of me.
“This is our table.”
He pointed to one of the raised tables about three feet to our right.
“Okay,” I said, continuing to do my lil’ two-step as Devon stopped dancing and gave me a “what’s-going-on?” look.
“You can’t be here, this is VIP.”
“Where is the rope? Where’s the sign?” I asked.
“This is our table!”
“Okay, well, I’m not at your table, I’m dancing right here.”
“I’m going to go get the bouncer!”
“That’s fine with me.”
I whispered into Devon’s ear what was going on and his eyes rolled into the back of his head. The white queen with friends did not, in fact, go get the bouncer, and we did not leave, but they did literally pick up their table and move it to be right next to me, physically against my leg, and they did start dancing, then, in such a way as to routinely hit my arms and legs. But Devon and I are stubborn, and this was not, in fact, VIP; we had a right to be there, dancing, and so we stayed and danced.
We finished our $17 drinks and decided to go get one more. I think we were both relieved to be out of the VIP Cold War, tensions finally falling, the doomsday clock inching a bit further from midnight.
At the bar, we ran into my friend (The Standup Comedian).
“Having fun?” he asked.
“Not really!” I replied. “No one’s dancing and everyone’s a Mean Girl, but not in the fun way, and everyone has a six-pack and dead eyes. It’s giving body dysmorphia.”
“What did you expect?” he responded. “It’s Battle Hymn. It’s basically a luxury gym with a dancefloor.” My mouth fell open. What was I expecting exactly? The Battle Hymn of years ago when it was not so crowded and full of club kids and weirdos is what. That party is gone.
A few days later, talking to a friend who works in nightlife about all this, they said that VIP makes parties like Battle Hymn money, and because of that, they try to get people to pay for it. And how?
By making the non-VIP experience as miserable as possible. I don’t know if this is true for Ladyfag necessarily, but it makes our experience—waiting in line even with tickets so that the people in VIP can see the line they get to skip—actually make sense. A VIP ticket requires a line to bypass or what’s the point? Our miserable hour-plus in line creates the value of their ticket.
Devon and I left shortly after finishing our second and final $17 drinks. I saw my Very Important ex shirtless on the dancefloor. I laughed to myself, thinking that seeing him was not anywhere near the most shitty thing about the night, and glad to have a current boyfriend who also thinks this party pretty much sucks, precisely because it’s more about being Very Important than actually having any fucking fun.
One of my best nights out, and certainly my best with Devon, was at The Eagle in L.A. with my dear white gay friends Dave and Craig. Devon’s college friend Emma, a biracial bisexual woman, and my dear friend Tina, a white bisexual dyke, joined. My friend and collaborator, Photographer Paul, happened to be there, and a boy we met on Grindr, who lived upstairs from our Airbnb, asked to tag along. The conversations ranged from the similarities between self-portrait photography and autotheory in writing to how annoying everyone who goes to Coachella is. At one point, Upstairs Neighbour was sucking my dick near the bar as I motioned to my boyfriend to make out with Photographer Paul while I watched, which he did. Tina did drugs in the bathroom with a bisexual boy—I can report that they do exist—who tried, but failed, to take her home. Devon and I brought Upstairs Neighbour home for what turned out to be a pretty bad attempted threesome. He put on the Transformers movie as background noise, which pretty much killed the vibe for us. When we came back downstairs, laughing, Emma was trying to light a cig on our electric stove and managed only to nearly light her hair on fire—it was smoking, and we helped her put it out with a towel, falling over each other with laughter, while our dog MAX! cowered in absolute terror.
It was a very good night out, full of the pleasures of friendship, intimacy, conversation and sex. It was about unexpected connection.
In his classic essay “Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red,” Samuel R. Delaney mourns the shuttering of sex venues because these spaces were some of the few in that city where queer men of all backgrounds could come and have spontaneous encounters that could surprise and destabilize, in the best ways.
Delaney calls these encounters “contact,” and says, “Contact encounters so dramatic are rare—but real.” Contact could be a “hello” on the street or a blowjob in a club.
Delaney contrasts “contact” with “networking”: “Networking tends to be professional and motive-driven. Contact tends to be more broadly social and appears random. Networking crosses class lines only in the most vigilant manner. Contact regularly crosses class lines in those public spaces in which interclass encounters are at their most frequent.”
VIP renders a public space—the dancefloor—private, only accessible to some. It is poisoning the possibility of contact. VIP turns the dancefloor into a gentrified networking event for influencers, gay celebrities and/or just the already rich.
Spaces that reify difference and atomize bodies and people into different spaces—like VIP—are always going to be more harmful for people with multiple sites of marginalization, like queer trans people, queer people of colour, poor people and those at the intersections of these identities.
At the same time, I find there to be a knowledge, in nightlife promoters, about the language of equity and justice (e.g., “safe space,” “affirming community,” etc.) even as the spaces these same promoters build have felt increasingly hostile.
Parties like Papi Juice (which is explicitly for Black and brown LGBTQ2S+ people) and The Carry Nation (which is not) have an open dancefloor, no VIP spaces and reasonably priced tickets. It can indeed be better than this.
The right ingredients for a great night seem harder to come by, or afford. New York’s recent Pride events cost hundreds of dollars each. Devon also blames social media: everyone is too concerned about performing fun on their Insta stories, being seen in VIP or with the “right” people; everyone thinks they’re a nightlife microcelebrity. In my 20s, I did need to be seen out, and if I stayed home all weekend I felt like a loser. This was certainly a holdover from being a bullied kid who was never invited to anything, pretty much all through college, but it took years to undo that type of thinking.
So I understand the reason, The Velvet Rage style, why homosexuals might enact harm on others (or ourselves!) similar to the bullying done to us.
But Devon is right: there are some real Mean Girls out there. I think they’re best exemplified by a story he tells about a night out he had with his best friend Seyi. As Seyi led Devon up a narrow staircase at Ty Tea, he was waved off and then physically pushed by one of the microcelebrities who is always sitting in VIP. The microcelebrity was just getting to the party and it seemed—to Seyi and Devon—that they had ruined his grand entrance down the staircase, a true crime against humanity.
Yes, being an asshole or a Mean Girl is an individual behaviour, but we can build physical and community spaces that either foment this (like VIP) or discourage it.
Being a VIP or “knowing Ty,” it seems to me, may help give people the entitlement they need to act this way, or to shove a table hard against the leg of someone they perceive as occupying a space that belongs to them. It invites hostility, an ownership of a physical and psychic space that should belong, in my conception of nightlife, to us all.
At Ty Tea, I find myself on that same stairwell, thinking about Devon and Seyi’s story. That story propels me to go talk to him: Ty.
He’s in his signature black-and-white cap (he has 100 of them), and I introduce myself and say that I’m writing this essay for Xtra, and I want to ask him about VIP.
“Can I email you to set up a time to chat?”
He says sure, his email is in his Insta, but I just go ahead and ask.
“I’m just curious, since we’re both here”—as I’m standing just outside of VIP to talk to him within it, one hand on the metal barricades between us—“about why you use police barricades to separate people at a party?”
“Well,” he says, “I never viewed them as that …”
“I do,” I say, “in part because I’ve been corralled by these exact things and arrested at a protest, so I know exactly how they’re used.”
Ty seems taken aback, and I realize that people probably don’t usually talk to him like this at his own party. Even though I am very calm in tone, I am clearly critiquing.
“And what about the VIP in general, how it separates people? Why do you think that’s necessary?”
“Well,” he said, “you might notice most of the trans girls are in VIP.”
“Well, the trans girls who know you are. Because they have that social capital.”
“Well, they say it’s a safe space for them. They feel more comfortable in here,” he says, pointing to VIP, “than out there.”
“Isn’t that a problem?” I ask. “Like, doesn’t that imply that out here isn’t safe for trans people?”
“It’s the same for people of colour,” he adds.
“Couldn’t you recognize that and work on making a whole party that makes everyone feel comfortable, including trans girls or people of colour who you don’t know?
“Like,” I add, “if certain people need to be behind a barricade in VIP to feel safe, what does that mean about the rest of your party?”
He stares at me.
“I don’t mean to attack, I’m just asking, because I love nightlife and I think having people separate from one another sort of makes it worse for everyone.”
“Well email me,” he says. “I’m happy to talk.”
“Thanks, Ty,” I say. He walks away, and my hands shake a bit: adrenaline rush. Who needs to jump out of a plane when you can just confront a nightlife promoter about structures of separation in the spaces they run? I race to write the conversation verbatim in my notes app.
I wish Ty had said, “This is the way it is, and I’m making money, and if you don’t like it, leave,” or “I hadn’t thought about that, let’s talk again.” I prefer honesty over the veneer of the language of social justice while privileging the rich and well connected.
My editor asked me, in thinking about this piece, whether it’s specific to New York and other big cities; I can only speak of my experience here, really, and while New York has Ladyfag and Ty Sunderland, I know from my time living in Minnesota that all cities have queer nightlife, and that these community dynamics and Mean Girls exist pretty much everywhere queers have childhood trauma, which is everywhere.
Not having VIP might make promoters reckon with how their spaces might actually be not just safe, but enjoyable for various types or queers, especially if that’s the stated goal of your party. A VIP rope or barricade gets in the way of the spontaneous connections—contact—that could bind us. These connections might do us all some good and build solidarity in this moment of queer and trans moral panics that will require political activation from us, and a pleasure in the midst of it that can keep us (more) sane. I want to believe that nightlife can not be better than neutral; I want to believe nightlife can both be pleasurable and, through the possibilities of connection, also build something more.
Nightlife after COVID is something everyone whispers about, but people are afraid to talk about it publicly, myself included. No one wants to hurt Ty or Ladyfag’s feelings– myself included here again too—and we’re all afraid of pissing off the people who make The List, or getting ostracized out of nightlife altogether.
Devon says I can use his real name because, as a femme Black gay man, he’s never going back to another Ty event. He’s tired of the attitude.
Broadway Star, Neighbour Gay and his husband all enjoy Ty Tea, regardless of the issues, and don’t mind being a part of this whole thing, but would rather not have their real names used.
The Standup Comedian would prefer I not use his name as well, even though his line about Battle Hymn as a luxury gym is funnier and truer than anything I’ve written, because he “doesn’t want to do a discourse with the nightlife girlies,” which is also funnier than anything I’ve written and probably advice I should take.
I text Seyi, and he says, “Yes, you have my consent to use any/everything, plaster a pic of me if you have to lol.”
In a Buzzfeed interview from only days ago with a headline calling Ty’s parties a “Safe Space for Everyone,” (emphasis mine) Ty says, “I don’t take my shirt off — so, if you’re uncomfortable taking your shirt off, at least you see someone else in the room that isn’t completely butt-ass naked.” A shirt-wearing (but notably still skinny) hero of body positivity!
“Even when I started,” Ty continued, “I wanted to bring so many different groups of people together. Because that’s a good party. When everyone already knows each other, it’s like, ‘Why are we doing this?’”
His own VIP seems to me to be the definition of everybody already knowing each other. And so I return his question: why are we doing this?
The Standup Comedian isn’t wrong, but silence won’t make these spaces better, and maybe it’s incumbent on us all to actually say something about how atomization and VIPification hurts us all.
Silence: I emailed Ty Sunderland twice, and DMed on Insta as well, to talk more about “VIP in nightlife and how it acts as a ‘safe space’ versus disconnects those with economic or social capital from ‘the rest of us,’” like he offered when we spoke at his party. At the time of publication, he has not responded to any of these messages.
We can’t all magically build our own nightlife events. We can demand more from those who want to claim they’re interested in “safe spaces” and (especially cis white gay men) who imagine they are already doing the work of making their spaces “safe.” The velvet rope gets in our way. The police barricades can go. Let’s all wait in line and dance and drink and kiss and laugh together.