It’s Saturday night during the final days of Industry. Superstar DJ David Morales is on his way, so it’s packed.
The crowd is a curious mix of 905 and 416, although it is early still; the after-hours kids will eventually dominate the dancefloor. The crowd is older than you’d expect; Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino’s concerns about corrupting youth would be misplaced here.
What is most striking about the crowd, however, is the homo factor.
“On some nights at the big parties at Industry, the crowd almost seems more gay than straight,” says regular club goer Josh Molu. “There are queens everywhere when certain DJs are there.”
For many gay men, the days of cruising the village have given way to new forms of nightlife.
Taking off from the particular sexlessness of party drugs like ecstasy and Special K, gay men are following their favourite DJs into unknown, often straight, territory. Poppers have been replaced by a vial of K and a flyer with the address of the eventual destination for dancing, well outside the boundaries of Church St.
“When I go out, it is usually with a group of friends who stick together during the night. We like the music, we like to dance and we like to talk to the people that we came with,” says Darren Lund, a student and regular club goer. “The crowds are usually mixed and the venues are all over the city, both inside and far outside the village.”
The cruising that seemed to embody the club experience for gay men has given way to a friendlier vibe where gayness or straightness has ceased to be an issue.
While meeting for drinks at a gay club in the village might be a typical start to the night, it’s only a start. Then it’s on to parties: at gay clubs that cater to recreational drugs use, at raves and at typically-straight after-hours clubs now full of gay men who are drawn to the drugs, DJs and the atmosphere.
The drugs people are using are partly responsible for some of the changes in social behaviour. Whereas cocaine, arguably the drug of choice in the 1980s, often creates a sexualized response in its user, ecstasy and K do the opposite. The unbridled confidence cocaine provides has been replaced by a more affectionate camaraderie.
Ecstasy, also known by its medical acronym MDMA, facilitates the enjoyment of the atmosphere and the music. Riding home in a cab after a party high on E, my friend heard a song on the radio that he had heard and loved at the party. He twice asked the cabbie to turn it up. Finally the cabbie turned around and said, “Listen, I don’t even have a radio in this cab.”
E typically softens the ego and dissolves fear, leading to personal connections on more of a friendship level, rather than a sexual one. In a club full of people on E, conversations constantly arise between strangers, though they are often silly and trivial chats which come off as mind-blowing revelations.
The acceptance of gay men in straight environments is probably connected to the general acceptance that occurs when people take E. A straight friend of mine met two gay men at a Toronto club the Thursday before Montreal Pride. All were high on E. They spent the entire evening together as though they were old friends. They ended up driving to Montreal, and spending the weekend together on E. My friend has neither seen nor spoken with them again.
While E encourages the emphasis on friendliness, the use of Special K is even more likely to create a desexualized club experience.
Special K creates an internal response – mental fragmentation, a removal of yourself from your body and its surroundings – that can often lead to nights at clubs a casual observer might describe as anti-social. A friend of mine on K spent three hours at an after-party cowering in the corner paralyzed by indecision. He believed he was Juliette Binoche in The English Patient and he knew he was only able to save one of the “wounded” he saw around him and couldn’t decide who to save.
Another friend describes dancing on K: “You’re on the dancefloor, but the dancing is becoming standing and then eventually, sitting down becomes a good idea. You walk to the lounge in baby steps that feel like leaps and bounds. The stairs are nearly unnavigable and the handrails are your friend. The couch is heaven, and as you sit with your cigarette floating between your swollen lips, you try to put your feet on an ottoman 15 feet across the lounge.”
Although interesting for the user, the chance for a real connection to be made with others in this state are slim, and the sex drive is diminished. The sexual experience has now been replaced by the pursuit of a drug experience.
The gap between appearance and reality at K and E-saturated events can be small, but it’s important. On the surface, the half-naked bodies on the dancefloor at, for example, a circuit party might appear to be sexualized. But that may not be the case. While the shirts are usually off by midnight, the drawstrings on the pants tend to remain tied all night.
It’s “more of a show or a performance that comes from experimenting with the drugs,” says Gus Constantinos, a Toronto area promoter and club fixture for decades.
The combination of ecstasy and Viagra has become a popular and dangerous way to get around this sexlessness, though many younger gay men are prepared to let the dancing compensate for the fucking.
Specific promoters are often able to draw gay men off Church. This may mean gay parties in different environments such as the Liquid Dreams parties at Industry, or it may mean parties with mixed crowds where gay men know they won’t be alone, like Gigi’s parties at the Living Room. Certain DJs like Morales, Danny Tenaglia and Victor Calderone often have large gay following; the crowd will be mixed no matter where they play.
Gay men have often been a part of emerging party scenes, dating back to their strong presence at the early warehouse parties of the ’80s. While an after-hours club or party at any venue will have a gay contingent, their gayness is now treated as irrelevant.
“In the ’80s the gay community was somewhat limited,” says Constantinos. “There were the muscle boys, the leather daddies and the freaks.” More and more gay men are now going outside these categories and are seeking different experiences in the club scene. “The community is now like a nation of homosexuals who all express themselves differently.”
This ability to mix, coupled with growing tolerance toward homosexuality by straight society, has led to an increasing number of gay-safe party venues. One reason some gay men see clubs today as a less sexual environment is because they can.
The strength of DJ culture has been a primary force in mixing up the scene. For some, especially recreational drug users, a club is not about interacting with others while music plays in the background; rather, the interaction is with the music. The strength of the sound system coupled with the pounding of the beats becomes the focus of the experience.
With cover charges as high as $40 and DJs often not starting their sets until three or four in the morning, many people are on the dancefloor until seven or eight in the am getting their money’s worth.
“If I go to a club, and pay a bunch of money to get in and hear a certain DJ, then I am going to listen to that DJ,” explains Robbie Perkins, at a recent event featuring Tenaglia.
Constantinos is optimistic about the ultimate result of the new gay experience. He believes the current generation of young gay men are far more open and accepting and attributes this shift in part to the openness and acceptance encouraged in the rave scene.
“The club scene is an outlet for a lot of gay kids. It is a stepping stone to coming out for some,” he says.
Others see the integration of sexless gay men into primarily-straight venues as less than convincing.
“Venues are now promoting gay and straight nights separately,” says John Grundy, cohost of Inversion, a CKLN program on gay issues. “So there’s still an element of segregation at work. The fact that gay night at straight clubs take place during the week essentially puts us at the back of the bus.”
Obviously, to say that the sexual element of the gay nightclubbing experience has been removed is an exaggeration. Grundy says cruising is still an essential part of it. Gay men who tend to avoid gay environments in favour of a straight scene with a less sexual focus may be missing out. Grundy doubts that they will miss out for long.
“Cruising may be seen as somehow passé by the younger generation of fags who were brought up on highly desexualized media representations of gays. But we all know that those who start out at Boots will eventually find The Barn. It just takes a little time.”
In addition to the lingering effects of AIDS on the community, Grundy suggests that external forces have also been responsible for the shift. He points out that it was police coercion that led to the closing of many of the dark rooms that could formerly be found in gay clubs.
“We need the dark rooms that were closed under police coercion in 1997. We were cheated out of a unique cultural tradition.”
Faced with more opportunities to explore their sexuality than in generations past, gay men are now beginning to treat their own clubs as merely one element. The club experience has become an exploration of themselves as individuals, and for many gay men it is an exploration best undertaken among friends.