At first, once a week, and then twice a week, and, eventually, four times a week, I’d head for the gay club in downtown Pittsburgh. It was small, located below street level, dark, leaning toward seedy, and, had I bothered to think about it, a death trap. Middle aged white men gazed at white twinks—the economies of desire did not exist for me, and I knew that early on. It was not a place to make friends. I brought my friends along with me, and left with them. I did not find community there, not in the sense I had once found community in the church groups I had belonged to, a sense of mutual care and responsibility. Yet, I found refuge and escape. Those hours I spent there dancing made many other hostile hours in other places possible.
I danced to find the languages my body could never master, to seek unfluencies from Central Africa and West Africa, from Eastern Kenya and Western Kenya, from high school dance festivals and music videos from the U.S. It didn’t matter that I could not master the styles or that I was the only one who could name what I was attempting: my body stretched into the syncretic, finding the languages of refuge and escape and memory.
Friends from Panama and Puerto Rico showed me that dance was possibility, as they shaped their bodies through salsa and merengue and club moves whose names I never mastered. They taught me how to blend where you’re from with where you are, where you dream about with where you live. From them, I learned to take the half-remembered and the never-mastered, and to let my body move into a here that I could inhabit, a now that I could sweat into.
With few exceptions, I danced alone. I could never enjoy the discipline of another body angling into mine, not as I was looking for other selves to inhabit, for geohistories to run through me. This was sacred space.
I did not find community in queer clubs. I found racism and white supremacy and body shaming. I paid a psychic price to be in those spaces—in Pittsburgh, in Chicago, in Seattle. It was the price of the ticket. I also found relief from the anti-queer unhumaning I encountered outside of those spaces, the too-casual ways I could not exist. The “sense of rightness” that is heteronormativity never shares space. It claims all the air in the room, and I found myself gasping.
In the club, I found some air. Tainted, thin, even toxic, but it was breathable.
One night—one of those nights when the world breaks—I said to friends: I need to dance. Watch that I don’t do anything crazy. And I danced. The dancing did not fix the world, but it made the brokenneness a little more bearable.
The queer club was not a church. At best, it was an emergency room. I looked for air to breathe, for bandages to deal with this week’s wounds, for whatever joy dancing would release in my body.
In those spaces where bodies pressed and queers hugged and kissed and strangers simulated sex on the dance floor, worlds were made, affection between queers made quotidian. In working class Pittsburgh, those who ruled those worlds were not the wealthy and the connected, but the fabulous and the daring, those with little social capital outside of these spaces. In these spaces, we college kids from Pitt and Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon ceded some of our privilege, and learned different ways to order society—we didn’t question that we came and left together, and that it was easier for someone from CMU to hook up with someone from Duquesne than it was to hook up with someone who was not a college kid. Class was present, privilege was present, though we might trade blowjobs in the bathroom with cute strangers.
We were generating worlds, learning the kinds of demands we could make, the kinds of lives we desired—this was what Audre Lorde calls the erotic. Having learned the flavor of joy in the club, we could attempt to build worlds that pursued it. In my twenties, I thought this joy came from dancing, and I pledged that I would never stop dancing. Ankles age. Knees age. Bodies grow in ungainly ways. Now, I realize I meant I’d never stop pursuing the kind of joy I found while dancing, that I’d try to build and inhabit a world that made such joy readily available.
I have often sat by myself in queer clubs, looked around, and marvelled at this tribe I claim as my own. Marvelled at our capacity to create beauty, our ability to pursue joy, our willingness to risk pleasure. I have often asked how, having seen these elements, anyone would ever dare to wish us ill. Even as I know that what I see—the joy, the pleasure, the fabulousness, the ordinariness, the loneliness, the ostracism—cannot be seen by those who unhuman.
I celebrate those who find what joy we can. I celebrate those who found what joy they could. May we continue to find joy and to create beauty.