It’s the year 2020. We have an openly gay man winning in the Democratic presidential primaries. Gay marriage is legal. We’ve made it. We’ve assimilated.
But hold on. Gay bars are closing. Trans Americans can’t serve in the military. Our Vice President thinks we’re going to hell.
Yes, it’s 2020. But for many of us, things haven’t changed at all. So as we find ourselves in the comfortable bubbles we’ve created—on instagram, on Grindr, in our gay neighborhoods—maybe we have a duty to leave them. To understand a different stripe on that rainbow.
And to do that, to really know who we are as a family of deviants, we have to look backwards. We have to understand our history to understand ourselves. I’m Eric Cervini, and this is The Deviant’s World.
I grew up in a town called Round Rock, Texas. And, it was hard. I didn’t know anyone who was openly gay, at least my age. And my mom sold Mary Kay cosmetics, so she dropped me off to school every day in a pink car. So when people called me gay or girly, I just said oh no no, it’s just because I was raised by a single mother. And maybe that was why I didn’t like playing football or doing manly things.
But by the time I was 18, I started realizing who I was. I came out two my best friend, and I said the words “I’m gay” out loud for the first time. Two weeks later, I started my first day at Harvard. And since it was the beginning of a new stage in my life––new city, a new social world––I figured: well, this is probably the time to come out to everyone, huh?
And so, I was out. In 2010, I had my first kiss, and slowly but surely, I came out to people back home in Texas.
In college, I started noticing hints that parts of our history–gay history, or queer history, or deviant history–had been erased. In one of my first classes, I learned the name Bayard Rustin for the first time. Here was a man who had organized the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King had famously declared, I have a dream. Here was a man who actually had been responsible for bringing Mahatma Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolence to the Montgomery bus boycott.
Yet, I had never heard his name. He had been erased by history, since not only was Rustin black, he was gay. Today, we know Dr. King’s name, but not Rustin’s.
So, I switched my major from government to history. And around this time, I watched Milk, about Harvey Milk, one of the country’s first openly gay political officals.
I decided I wanted to write a research paper about Milk, but all the archival materials were in San Francisco. I was a financial aid student stuck in Boston with no way of getting to the West Coast.
But on the Harvard library database, I saw a name I didn’t recognize: Dr. Franklin E. Kameny. He was Defense Department astronomer at the height of the space race, but then the government learned he was gay. And unlike the countless other federal employees who had been purged because of their sexual orientation, Kameny fought back. He was the first to take the fight against the gay purges to the Supreme Court, to Congress, and to the White House. He was, as historians had long identified him, the grandfather of the gay rights movement.
Yet nobody had written a book about him. He had passed away only two years before I discovered him, and he had given all of his personal documents–tens of thousands of records–to the Library of Congress.
So I went down to Washington and entered the cold manuscripts room in the giant concrete Madison building, next to the US Capitol. And as I started sifting through Kameny’s letters, his notes, and other documents, I realized I was looking at the secret history of gay rights in America, a history that had started two decades before Stonewall.
For the next seven years, I traveled the country and the world investigating this story. I wrote my Master’s thesis on FBI surveillance of Kameny’s organization, known as the Mattachine Society of Washington. And while researching my PhD dissertation, I interviewed dozens of people who had fought an oppressive government alongside Kameny.
Members of the Daughters of Bilitis, the country’s first lesbian organization. A black revolutionary who had attempted to ally with the homosexual organization. A trans woman who was celebrating her 18th birthday, on June 27,1969 at a bar called the Stonewall Inn.
At last, my book, titled The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America, is nearly ready for publication. I have, finally, my PhD in history. I can tell you anything you want to know about our deviant past.
But at the same time, I”m realizing how little I know about LGBTQ+ culture today. I live in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse, vibrant cities on Earth, but I spend all my time reading and writing about the past–or watching true crime documentaries with my boyfriend.
So that’s why I’ve created this podcast. I want to learn more about the multifaceted deviant world of today and learn where it came from. I want to explore whether the letters that describe us–LGBTQIA–really fall under the same umbrella. I want to figure out whether we might actually be part of a larger family, a family of the oppressed.
Each week on the Deviant’s World, I’ll explore a different aspect of LGBTQ+ culture, asking: what is it, and where did it come from? With the help of other historians, I’ll also tell deviant stories from the past, stories that have, until now, been far too obscure.
Now. Where do I begin? Well, as I sat down to decide what to talk about in my first episode, what confused me most about my own culture, one thing immediately came to mind. It’s a topic that is the source of both eye rolling and ecstasy. It’s the topic…of circuit parties
If you type “Gay party” into Google, you see it: image after image of shirtless gay men, most of whom are white. They’re often wearing harnesses or color coordinated speedos, in crowds of hundreds or thousands. They’re dancing to DJs and lasers and sexual energy.
I’ll be honest: I’ve never quite understood what exactly a circuit party was. I’m a bit of a homebody to begin with, and I certainly couldn’t afford to travel to Miami or Palm Springs or Montreal for the full experience.
But across the world, tens of thousands of men attend circuit parties each year. There are entire cruises devoted to them. But where on earth did they come from?
Before I investigated their history, I wanted to see one for myself. And although there wasn’t a giant, weekend-long circuit party in Los Angeles, I persuaded some friends to come with me to the closest thing I could find: GPS, or gay party saturday, held each month in a giant theater in downtown los angeles. Just like a circuit party, it promised house music, lasers, and men. Lots of men.
ERIC: Alright, Adam: what is a circuit party?
ADAM: A circuit party is a place where people do a lot of G and wear, um, fun outfits.
FRIEND 1: Um, I feel like it’s a place with a dark room. It’s like that’s what qualifies it.
FRIEND 2: A circuit party is a party where pretty much everyone is shirtless, dancing, lots of “unhss-unhss,” and everyone’s fucked up.
FRIEND 3: A circuit party is a safe space where queers can go and dance, have fun, be merry, be themselves, and get a little sexual.
ADAM: A circuit party is a place for queer people to feel safe and dance and have fun and get a little sexual [laugher].
FRIEND 3: Wow, textbook! Who knew! [Laughter]
So it’s 10:30 on a Friday night, and I arrive at the Globe theater in Los Angeles, this gorgeous Beaux-Arts style building that’s over a 100 years old. I had scored early tickets online for only $30, but the price had risen to a steep $50 at the door. And almost immediately, you see the effect that the price has: two of our friends who hadn’t bought tickets decide to skip it and go to another downtown bar instead.
Well, I get inside and it’s pretty quiet. There’s a huge stage and big chandeliers above us, and small groups of men talking to one another. People are about 50% clothed–some wearing underwear, some wearing college letter jackets. Things haven’t started yet. But I’m looking for a guy named Paul, who founded GPS and whom I’m supposed to interview.
Finally, I find Paul, a nice 40-ish white guy who seems to know everyone walking in the door.
Right away, he tells me that he doesn’t consider GPS to be a circuit party. He explains, just like my friends guessed, that it’s a safe space for gay people to dance, in a city where our typical gay bars are either owned by straight people or dominated by straight tourists.
PAUL: It wasn’t what West Hollywood used to be, I’ll leave it at that. There was like a lot of bachelorette parties and stuff going on, and I looked at my friends like, Oh my God, it’s Saturday night. What the fuck do you need to do to find a gay party Saturday? And I was like, Oh my God. Gay party Saturday. That’s GPS. You use your GPS to find things.
ERIC: So even then you felt like WeHo was getting a little too commercialized, straight?
PAUL: I feel like, look, I’m all for that. You know what I mean? And to me, I see gay people, not just as a community but in a culture. And I think every culture deserves to have something that represents their culture. You know what I mean? So I wanted to create a party that celebrates it.
For Paul, GPS may not be an official circuit party itself, but it’s an evolution of one, and his own experience with circuit parties stretched back to the 80s–the height of the AIDS crisis. Gay men were dropping like flies in the face of a government that at best ignored, and at worst laughed at, the concept of a gay plague.
PAUL: And they had these things called viatical settlements, where people would sell their life insurance when they were diagnosed with HIV. And when they would sell their life insurance, they would travel what they called the circuit at the time. Which was a series of HIV fundraisers. That’s actually where the word circuit came from. I had no idea. So it comes from something that was obviously sad in a way, but something that also was liberating in a way. People would quit their job. And get, you know, get a half a million dollar settlement from a $1 million life insurance policy and travel the circuit. And they would try to give all their money to AIDS charities before they died, but they tied that whole thing with a certain lifestyle. But I remember at circuit parties they would have fridges with like coat checks with lots of fridges, and people would put their AIDS medication in the fridges and they’d get a pager and it would page them during the party to come and take their medication, because the early HIV medication, people had to take it every few hours.
ERIC: Holy shit.
And before I even had the chance to ask about it, he brought up my next question about circuit parties: the question of diversity.
PAUL: I want to be a party where everybody’s welcome, you know, all shapes and sizes. I think you’ll see when you see the people that I’m working for me or the dancers that I have on my stage, they really represent a very wide spectrum of the community as far as different races and all sorts of stuff.
ERIC: That’s one reputation I feel like certain parties or gay parties have is they tend to be white or just kind of very expensive and you know, what’s your––.
PAUL: I feel like now it’s at the point where I need to find the token white dancer. I’m like we don’t have any white guys dancing, can we find at least find one? You know, I think, I think when you truly don’t overthink it, especially in California, and hire the best people at what they do for every job without over thinking what people want to see or should be seeing you’ll end up being very diverse. I think the mistake with diversity, diversity is an organic thing. If you do it organically, if you truly hire the best person each job, you’re going to be very diverse. If you overthink it, it kind of defeats the whole purpose of what diversity is all about. We try to do diversity in a very organic way, and we try to have a very organic relationship with our customers.
After I finished talking to him around 11 PM, the theater was getting more crowded, and I looked around. He was right: the crowd was racially diverse, or at least more than I had imagined. Of the four dancers on the stage, only one was white. Almost every ethnicity was in the crowd: maybe not representative of Los Angeles, but I’d guess as representative as the US as a whole.
But what also surprised me was the diversity in age: there were people ranging from their 20s to their 50s or even 60s.
The theme was flower power, and Nina Flowers–one of the contestants on the first season of Rupaul’s drag race–was set to DJ later in the night. Ans slowly but surely, the dance floor fills with shirtless men. Many are wearing harnesses or jock straps. Some are wearing wolf heads and tails.
I’m wearing an NSYNC shirt, which I figure is cheeky enough to keep on, And for the next hour or so, I dance. I went upstairs to the VIP area, where they had free fruit gushers, one of my favorite childhood snacks, which was really exciting.
And as I was dancing, trying to figure out how to categorize this otherwise diverse crowd of men, that’s when I realized what everyone had in common: the muscle.
These guys were big. I also enjoy weightlifting, and even at my gym, I have never seen so many big guys in one place. And not only are they muscled, they seem to exude masculinity: yes, Nina Flowers was there, but you won’t see any drag here, thank you very much. No make up, no femininity–the most I saw were a few flower crowns.
But, people were having a good time. There was good music–Adele and Gaga remixes–and everyone was, I’ll admit, friendly.
That said, I left around midnight and asked my boyfriend, Adam, if he still thought it was a safe space for all queers, as he had put it earlier.
ADAM: I think there’s a priority of the “masc for masc” stereotype, of, you know, it’s men, steroids. Definitely like ripped bro guys, you know, feeling themselves. I think that’s who really thrives.
And, on the sidewalk, I overhear: “ “lets do some g before we go in”
Soi there I was, sober, and confused. I needed to talk to a historian.
Dr. Mickey Weems literally wrote the book on circuit parties. A scholar of cultural studies, he’s the author of The Fierce Tribe: Masculinity and Performance in the Circuit.
It’s a long book, but according to Weems, the history of the circuit parties is long, too.
Weems begins with one basic concept. Gender and masculinity are performances. As theorists like Judith Butler have long described–we aren’t just born acting masculine or feminine. They are performances that are built, layer by layer, over time. We learn to act a certain way, or how not to act, often according to what society tells us.
Second, Paul was right about the importance of the circuit durting the AIDS crisis, but its history goes even further back: all the way to the mid-19th century.
Starting in Europe, a movement began that claimed that to be healthy–to have sound mind and body–you had to be strong. You had to put your body, your physicality, first–a concept bolstered by the rise of Darwinism. This philosophy was called physical culture.
From this movement, weightlifting was born. Famous weightlifters, and later, bodybuilders, began drawing huge audiences across the world and showing off their strength, their muscles. Meanwhile, magazines dedicated to weightlifting were created. They were purportedly straight publications, but in a world where homosexual magazines were considered obscene and unmailable, gay men often only had access to supposedly wholesome magazines dedicated to the male body–known as physique magazines. These magazines were popular among homosexuals all the way through the first half of the twentieth century, and the money that poured into the more explicit of these magazines actually helped bankroll the pre-Stonewall gay rights movement, known as the homophile movement.
Then, Stonewall happens. Gay Americans who had previously been occupied by the anti-war movement flock to the gay liberation movement. The Gay Liberation front, and then the Gay Activists Alliance, or GAA, begin throwing their own dances, meant to build their own gay spaces for themselves–away from the Mafia-owned gay bars. In 1971, the GAA started throwing dances in an abandoned firehouse, which got extremely hot when packed with so many people. Men took off their shirts.
As Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney described the scene in their book, Out for Good, “On any Saturday night, people would take in the expanse of men, over a thousand of them, shirtless, shoulder to shoulder arms flyin in the air, high on LSD or quaaludes or seconals or black beauties or marijuana. They were pounding sneakers on the cement floor, under flashing colors and strobe lights.” Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, as homosexuality became more visible, and as more people come out, other gay institutions–gay bathhouses, gay barber shops, gay restaurants, and gay theaters–become more and more common.
This network of gay spaces in New York City became known as the circuit. And if you routinely patronized these gay establishments, if you went ot the same fashionable gay places each week, you were considered a circuit queen.
And, if you could afford it, you traveled in another circuit: one that connected the gay world of Manhattan in the winter to the gay world on Fire Island in the summer–the beach resort that had long attracted gay men.
Soon, commercial establishments began catering to gay men, taking the place of the GAA dances. Meanwhile, men from across the country, after visiting New York, brought the mega parties back to their own cities, creating a national network of giant gay parties–promising sex, drugs, and disco. The national circuit was born, which would then be repurposed as a series of AIDS activist and health fundraisers in the 80s, just like Paul described.
And unlike drag balls, which had long celebrated femininity, these parties celebrated masculinity: it was the era of the Village People and Macho Man. For the first time, homosexuals didn’t need straight bodybuilding magazines to see men who looked like Greek gods. As Weems puts it, “gay men made themselves the objects of their own desire rather than wistfully lusting after some Straight masculine ideal.”
This brings us back to physical culture. The circuit party, just like a bodybuilding competition, in Weems’s words, is an “exhibition space, a highly competitive arena for the display of the body and the performance of self for all to see,” Attendees are performing masculinity and desire in a world that consistently tells them that they are feminine and undesirable.
Weems then takes it another step further: in his book, he argues that circuit parties are subversive in another sense. In the straight world, muscles are generally associated with masculinity and violence, but in a cirtcuit party, they’re associated with sex and desire.
“The Circuit generates behaviors, relationships, and ethics that could reduce violence on a global scale if all men learned to adopt them,” concludes Weems. “muscle as overwhelmingly attractive rather than threatening. arrogance and vanity expressed through disdain rather than physical aggression, masculine signifiers of violence as accessories for sexual pleasure, ethical management of sadomasochistic tendencies, informed awareness of certain illegal intoxicants rather than their prohibition, and social bonding through appreciation for shared hilarity.”
So maybe circuit parties provide us a utopic vision of what a new type of man might look like: a masculinity that celebrated sex rather than violence.
It’s a provocative argument, so a few days after attending GPS, I called up Weems to ask him some questions about his theory. One thing that kept bugging me was whether circuit parties, which were expensive and celebrated masculinity, really were diverse.
WEEMS: It’s basically already been solved, uh, and the marketplace did it. The circuit started out mostly among fairly but not necessarily rich but affluent young men, or good looking young men who, um, gathered together to have these parties–and the people that admired them and would pay for them. So that tended to be an upper economic level tier of gay men society. And that tended to be white.
Weems admits that there’s still racism at circuit parties, plus what he calls body fascism:
WEEMS: It’s when you look at the worth of someone purely in terms of their physical attraction
And for Weems, the solution to the diversity problem isn’t the opening up of circuit parties but the spreading of circuit culture to other, generally straight parties.
WEEMS: The solution is the migration of circuit boys outside of the circuit. So far, I mean there might be new stuff that circuits might –the secret party might redefine itself–but right now what you see are ghettos, I guess you’d call them, sections at Electric Daisy Carnival, at the major dance events. And you’ll see like, you know, basically a gang of people that look like circuit boys or party like circuit boys, and they’re not necessarily the most muscular. But they’ve been to the circuit parties. They know them, they love them, but they get tired of them. They go to EDC and they have an even better time.
But what about people who weren’t masculine?
WEEMS: One of the things the circuit can do is, it can make any man or woman who goes to it, if you go and you’re having a blast and you show it and you’re fun, you can become just as popular as any muscle person–any muscular guy–at the right moment. So that’s kind of thing, that kind of energy when it gets transferred to Electric Daisy Carnival and other places, makes queer men look even better. And then they don’t necessarily have to be masculine in the traditional sense. They can be a feminine men. Feminine men have been going to circle parties forever.
Then as I was wrapping up the interview: he caught me. I had done my research: one study found that “nearly all respondents reported use of drugs during circuit party weekends.” 75% used ecstasy, 58% ketamine, 36% crystal meth.
WEEMS: No matter who you are, you want to trade up. The circuit party is extremely competitive. So you could be top tier person, right? You could be A-plus list or whatever. Right? But you’re always going to want to trade up because there’s always somebody that that catches your attention piques your desire. And so there’s anxiety that comes with that. No matter who you are, nobody goes to the circuit party without anxiety. So because of that, drug use and herd mentality, you know, going around in a pack, are ways of being able to handle that.
And, he added, it’s addictive. But his reasoning for why they’re addictive surprised me:
WEEMS: To find a world where you can meet people and make friendships and get acceptance by people simply looking at your body. And if you behave halfway decent, if you act like a decent human being, you can become–you can feel like you’re top of the world, and you may not be able to get that same feeling in other places. Also, the rush of the biggest rush of the circuit party is when the music hits everybody at once. And you can get what I called a transcendent solidarity. Everybody gets lifted to a higher level. You can talk to any DJ, any circuit DJ can tell you about it, when they’ve brought somebody to that moment because it feels almost like telepathy. They feel like they know what the crowd is thinking and the crowd knows what they’re thinking. And that that is irreplaceable. You can find it nowhere else.
And not only are they addictive, they’re spiritual too.
WEEMS: People do to go into trance in the circuit and they come away from it feeling that they’ve had a spiritual experience. It’s unique to that particular setting, but there are parallels. For example, I draw parallels between it and a gospel choir or an African or Brazilian ritual, African-Cuban rituals.
So, with the history of circuit parties in mind, they don’t sound so bad. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that they really were meant for everyone. What if you wanted to listen to listen to Nina Flowers DJ, but you were femme, or trans, or non-binary? Would you really feel comfortable in a sea of muscle?
Well, as I was standing outside GPS, the night was still young. There was still one other party I wanted to see that night, one with a very different philosophy, and one that promised to be the exact opposite of a circuit party.
Every month in Los Angeles, there is a party called Ostbahnhof. It means East Train Station in German, and it’s inspired by the underground deviant world of Weimar Germany,
As it says on its website: Ostbahnof “is an international event series that bridges the gap between queer: music, art, and political communities.”
It claims to be led by what the founders, three Los Angeles-based people of color called Black Charmed, call “the torch of intersectional justice.” The Party by Ostbahnhof, as they write, “puts queer people, people of color, trans/non-binary people, underprivileged people, disabled people, and our trusted family and friends first.” Trans people get entrance for free.
One Friday a month, their online RSVP form opens. You submit a link to your social media, where you’re vetted. As long as you’re arguably part of the community–maybe you don’t advertise “masc 4 masc” or Trump 2020 on your profile–the next day, around 8 PM, you receive an email with a secret address. It’s at a different warehouse each month, usually downtown, and just down the road from the Globe theater and GPS.
And, incidentally, there was an Ostbahnhof happening at the exact same time as GPS. So, after leaving the theater around midnight, I got in a car and headed to the secret address.
We get to a non-descript gate outside a warehouse, where a security guard looks at our IDs. Then, we enter another line where we pay $20 bucks cash under a tent.
We enter a large outside area that is unlike any other party’s smoking area I had seen before. There’s a big table that serves as a makeshift bar, and a tent with some older women making tacos.
And all around us: wigs, makeup, glitter. It’s a bit chilly, and most people are wearing clothes, mostly black. But that night’s theme was Hair. So half the people congregating outside were wearing wigs of all colors.
One guy is dressed like Alexander Hamilton, including the powdered wig, so of course I had to talk to him.
ATTENDEE: I’m a founding daddy.
ERIC: And any inspirations in particular?
ATTENDEE: It’s president’s day weekend––and definitely some Hamilton. History’s got it’s eyes on me for sure.
ATTENDEE 2: I’m more like a hundred dollar bill kind of gal. [Laughter]
You can hear deep house playing from the warehouse, which also has a dark room, where you can feel yourself–and feel other people–through other means.
But before I go into the warehouse, I also see a table where a guy is handing out free popcorn next to a giant Bernie Sanders sign. This party is political.
ATTENDEE 3: The reason is because he has a lot of support here. Even if he’s not somebody’s first choice, he’s their second or third, and then showing all the queers that Bernie’s been here for longer than Pete’s been out of the closet. [Laugher] It inspires them and it shows them that we’re all part of this together.
I also found a couple members of Black Charmed, both wearing wigs, and I asked them about their philosophy for the party.
FOUNDER: I think there are a lot of spaces that are–people don’t go out and see themselves. And I think Ostbahnhof is a place where people can explore themselves, be fully creative, be fully out there and not feel nervous about being judged, experiment, and get to know themselves, you know? In a way where they’re not nervous. I’ve seen the evolution of people where they started coming and getting to know who they are, getting in touch, stuff like that. I also think Ostbahnhof is a place where every kind of gay is there, from every part of LA, every part of the world, everyone’s coming together. And it’s important to be on the dance floor and look at somebody that they would have never thought they would be dancing next to and get the opportunity to be exposed to so many kinds of people.
No, Ostbahnhof was NOT a circuit party, but they wanted to provide house music, dancing, and collective exuberance for everyone–not just the muscle queens.
And there is a difference in the demographic. It’s not necessarily more racially diverse, but as I looked around me, masculinity is not the performance here. People are performing gender in a more complicated sense: bending masculinity and femininity, maybe wearing men’s clothes but also wearing makeup and wigs. Then there was me, a white guy without a wig in an NSYNC t-shirt. And I felt comfortable, as I usually do, but so did everyone else.
Finally, I went inside the warehouse to dance, and as the hours wore on, something happened.
I looked around, and everyone had their shirt off. Muscles, again, were everywhere. People were eying one another. I was standing in, as Weems put it, an “exhibition space, a highly competitive arena for the display of the body and the performance of self for all to see.” I was standing in a circuit party.
Maybe there’s something about us that needs to feel desired, that needs to feel displayed and on a pedestal, after we spend so much of our lives feeling invisible. Maybe that’s what a circuit party accomplishes, and maybe that’s why they’re inevitable.
The question is, as the lines of gender and sexuality become more and more blurred–as the closet itself becomes a thing of the past–will circuit parties still exist? Will people still feel compelled to perform or redefine masculinity if the concept itself becomes passé?
Or, will our sex drives–the root cause of body fascism–always create a place for a spectacle of muscle, and the pursuit of others along with some courage in the form of powder or pills?
I wasn’t sure. So I left to go back outside, holding my boyfriend’s hand, headed for the popcorn and the tacos. The night had been illuminating and exhausting, but above all, it had been a great show.
Hi everyone it’s me, Eric. If you enjoyed this episode, and if you want more episodes of the deviant’s world, please do me a favor: hit the “subscribe” button on itunes. Then, please, please rate it five stars and write a review. This tells other people that it’s worth listening, and it will help me continue to make some great content.
Next week, we’ll be examining a historical mystery: whether America has already had a gay president.
Thanks for joining, and see you next week.
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