The Forgotten LGBT & Racial Roots of Clubbing Culture

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Written by Jenna Dreisenstock

Not long ago, I wrote an article about womxn in history who shaped the ways in which we create, explore and understand electronic music today: and how their names have been erased, their contributions glanced over and the ways in which their work built the foundation for electronic music had stolen by our mainstream knowledge of music history in the face of sexism and patriarchy.

In the article, I mentioned the well known phrase: history is written by the victors – and by that I meant, not just in war – but in culture. Today, I revisit this phrase; which I found to be both incredibly immersive, informative and yet – I found myself tearing up, because I feel as though each day I am constantly learning new information which should be mainstream knowledge – yet it isn’t, and these incredible pioneers in music history have been almost – purposefully, lost. The true roots in which huge cultural changes and the ways in which we know them today came to be: have been distorted in discrimination, in which the mainstream population know little next to nothing about the real history behind the media we consume, and the cultural scenes and experiences we partake in – that we love.

With that being said, today I would like share yet another historical misconception and false understanding – by examining the huge role in which the LGBTQ community, specifically the intersectionality of queerness and race: essentially built the foundation of clubbing culture and electronic music scenes as we know them – and how these communities were pushed underground as the cultural experiences in which they built became the mainstream norm: and with the societal norm being heterosexuality and whiteness, the true roots of these communities warped into alienation, in which suddenly spaces that were created by LGBTQ communities and people of colour have found themselves discarded and forgotten.

As a queer womxn myself, I found it quite shocking that I myself wasn’t aware of a good portion of the information in which I stumbled across and that left me quite shaken: the same way in which I didn’t know about the innovative womxn who changed electronic music. Throughout the years I have realised the true extent to which we have to dig to find the truth in history and culture.

This subject runs so deep with so much unbelievable history that I could write a thesis about it – however in my effort to share this information, I simply cannot condense it all into this article and I urge everyone reading to do their own research too: let me get down to the basics, in which I hope can build a foundation of truth and understand even if it is brief.

The Stonewall Inn

Many people may be aware of the Stonewall Riots and how they impacted the Gay Rights liberation movement. However few know of the riots origins: which all started with an LGBTQ bar called The Stonewall Inn. In 1966 when The Stonewall Inn in New York was bought by three Mafia members and transformed from a heterosexual restaurant and nightclub into a safe space for the LGBTQ community (and specifically, queer people of colour). At this point in history, police riots were extremely common when it came to gay bars. This is what sparked what is probably known as the first major catalyst for LGBTQ protest and the beginning of forms of liberation. Before we continue, the importance of gay bars as a space in which alienated communities facing discrimination and oppression are able to truly be – without fear, with acceptance and love for one another and most specifically a safety in community and music – these spaces are what led us to genres we know and love today, which I will examine further. On June 28th 1969, police raided The Stonewall Inn – and in true police brutality fashion, innocent people were being arrested as the crowd grew larger and the violence increased: when, within the crowd it was eventually proclaimed by butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie – “Why don’t you guys do something?!” And so the community fought back against brutality and homophobia, sparking a protest and bringing the world’s attention to LGBT rights. It is often forgotten that many who were prominent in the Stonewall Riots were people of colour, facing discrimination on top of discrimination – and it was those such as incredible transgender womxn of colour like Marsha P. Johnson who is said to have ‘thrown the first brick at Stonewall.’


In that context, let us briefly examine the evolution of electronic genres and clubbing as the years moved on, and how influential these bars became to music as we know it.

 

Disco

Ah yes, Disco. I know this perhaps sounds ridiculous, as Disco Sucks right? However the true origin of how gay bars introduced Disco, the backlash against the genre and how it eventually set the stage for genres such as House and Techno are unknown in the mainstream. At the beginning of the 1970’s, queer people of colour – specifically African-American and those with Latin-Caribbean ancestry in Lower Manhattan created a space in which, like The Stonewall Inn – they could be themselves without judgement. As the trend of Disco as a club culture and ‘electronic’ music genre hit the mainstream and clubs like Studio 54 opened, a cultural phenomenon began: however, the queer community found themselves pushed back into hiding as Disco began to only cater to straight, white and middle class people. However as the mainstream remembered the sexuality and racial roots of the movement, record sales declined and an ‘anti-disco’ sentiment took place, in which records were burned and the slogan Disco Sucks became the leading slogan for ‘anti-disco’. However, few know that this phrase was directly aimed in homophobia at the gay community, in which it specifically referred, as almost a slur toward Disco’s association with gay men.

House

With the surviving clubs after the decline of Disco in the 80’s, there began an introduction to House – one of the most well-known clubs, Paradise Garage essentially set the stage of what would develop into modern house as we know it. With an audience too consisting mainly of queer people of colour: the clubs resident DJ Larry Levan developed a style in which came to be dubbed as ‘garage’ a sort of sub-genre of house music – and would lead to the development of what was later called Chicago House, which was a much faster form of House music that evolved post-disco era. Clubs like Paradise Garage quite literally brought club-culture booming into the 90’s.

Not only did the emergence of house in the queer community find its feet in the US, but like all of these genres spread across the world. For example, Chicago House found its way to places such as South Africa, in which the traditional sounds of Kwaito could be found in many elements of the club scene – especially at a time where oppression was ripe within the apartheid; this spread of electronic music allowed queer, and specifically black communities to experience safe spaces as who they really are, or were.  Speaking out as a queer person, especially as someone of colour was a terrifying prospect for the community, and as these types of genres evolved and turned into house music scenes and specifically raves, this brought a whole new era of music to South Africa and the queer communities of colour.

This same acceptance of the queer community in the electronic scene spread to Paris in the 90’s, where clubs specifically dedicated to lesbians and queer womxn became dominant in the sense that – unlike other places, womxn were at the forefront as producers, DJs, event organisers and so on. Not only was this an extremely inclusive place for queer womxn, but also of many LGBTQ folks of different races and ethnic minorities. As we can see today, event organisers and producers have turned into the state of being predominantly white and male: pure evidence of the way in which the electronic scene was taken over and dominated by the mainstream, in which the communities that built its foundations often no longer feel welcome.

Techno

In Detroit, came the rise of underground Techno. While Detroit is known for the role of race and the working class within the scene, an often unknown fact regarding the rise of the Techno scene in Detroit is the element of sexuality – it has been said the scene was specifically focused on the large population of middle class black folks; in the 70’s the divide between race and sexuality held the culture at a crossroads, however when venues such as Chessmate began to evolve into after-hours safe spaces for the gay community to enjoy club culture, we saw a split in that divide and the intersectionality of queerness and race.

Rave

With these electronic genres beginning to span the globe, the UK saw the rise of Acid House, which unlike in the US stemmed from the continuation of Disco back in the 70’s; yet the Disco fans consisting mainly of white, straight and middle class people. However this emergence of Acid House became prevalent as the gay nightclub Heaven was one of the very first venues to hold an Acid House event. In the midst of the horrors of the 80’s and early 90’s AIDS crisis, the queer communities found themselves yet again under police pressure and threat of brutality. In response, those involved in the scene began to hold events in places that were as far out of reach from harm as possible – underground events in which clubbing would go all night in abandoned warehouses, or events in secret venues ‘outside of town’. This kind of culture has become synonymous with rave culture, however the LGBTQ roots were lost once again as the culture and genre began to be taken over by the mainstream, and the community was once again essentially kicked out of the space they created.

It was in the 90’s that this kind of electronic music culture began to spread from the UK back to the USA, and around this time that the queer community were even more alienated as the music and culture became more mainstream and accepted; conveniently, with the roots, history and safe spaces of these communities being left out and taken over by ‘the victors’.

I stated at the beginning of this article that I intended it to be brief, and it may not seem as such with the length of what I have written – however, I cannot stress how much information I have actually left out of this article as it simply delves too deep for me to truly explain in one piece. As I researched, I felt a lot of pain within me as I did when I wrote the article about innovative womxn in electronic music history whose names have been erased. The fact that history has been re-written to such a point that the true depth of not only how music history actually developed, spread, evolved and led us to the point we’re at now: those who should be celebrated are still being demonized by people who take part in these cultures that were founded by the people in which they discriminate against, that they too find themselves in – to enjoy the electronic music scene in the space of homophobia and racism – that awful hypocrisy – and how difficult it truly is to even find this information, is upsetting and horribly terrifying to me. However as I said earlier, I implore every reader to delve into these histories and celebrate those who have built these foundations of culture in which we indulge – but continue to alienate. What we know as the mainstream of history is not all it seems – as it has been written by these ‘victors’ we have lost so much truth, truths that need to be brought back to our society in order for us to grow as the human race: to live, to be accomodating, to create spaces that are loving and safe for all and recognise those who did, and continue to, shape our society in the most incredible ways.