Academic paper! Proof that college happened! This is why you need to major in Media Studies, everybody: because a day when you announce to your class that you’re going to write 20 pages on sweaty dancing gays is ANY OTHER DAY.
Separated by a dance floor, two bastions of masculinity are suggestively gyrating to a pulsing bass beat. Towards the go-go cages, one man carelessly tosses away his soaked tee, revealing miles of carefully conditioned muscles. On the other side by the bar, the second man expertly swivels his backside, which is encased in skintight leather. The song changes, glances are exchanged, and the two join in the middle of the floor for a steamy introduction. Apart, they were pillars squarely on one side of the gender divide; together, they become an infinitely more powerful emblem of maleness and yet a pair which exists outside the matrix of masculinity…
Subversion and Cultural Commentary in Gay Dance Clubs
Separated by a dance floor, two bastions of masculinity are suggestively gyrating to a pulsing bass beat. Towards the go-go cages, one man carelessly tosses away his soaked tee, revealing miles of carefully conditioned muscles. On the other side by the bar, the second man expertly swivels his backside, which is encased in skintight leather. The song changes, glances are exchanged, and the two join in the middle of the floor for a steamy introduction. Apart, they were pillars squarely on one side of the gender divide; together, they become an infinitely more powerful emblem of maleness and yet a pair which exists outside the matrix of masculinity. The frequenters of gay men’s dance clubs exalt themselves in their purest physical form; the body is an aesthetic object intended for visual and sexual gratification and not as a cultural marker of patriarchy. Through their deliberate performance of the ideal male, these men build a subculture of critique – but not resistance – of the hegemonic tool of gender roles. They imbue the space of the dance club with contradictory elements of both rebellion and aggressive support of traditional physical masculinity. This elaborate setup serves to highlight the concept of the strong Western male as a means to the end of reinforcing heteronormativity, and subsequently dismantle it. Instead, paragons of masculinity embrace an alternative sexuality and thus expose the representation of the male as a mere cue for constructed socio-cultural behaviors.
The coded practices of this specific group can be analyzed and deconstructed by examining both the space which they occupy and claim (the club) and the actions of the dancers within. It is important to note that men who enter the club have already made the psychological transition into a queer identity – whether or not they are out and proud, they have not only processed the fact that their sexual orientation lies outside the norm, but they are also learned in the language of a recreational space. As Stephen Amico notes in his semi-ethnographic study of the club Aurora, the club environment “makes verbal communication virtually impossible; visual signs and symbols are thus foregrounded” (364). In order to navigate this place, men must be indoctrinated in style, appearance, and physical conduct.
This notion of indoctrination into a secretive opposition necessitates our designation of gay dance clubs as a subculture. We can examine their place alongside mainstream society through the lens of Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: homology, “the symbolic fit between the values and lifestyles of a group, its subjective experience and the…forms it uses to express or reinforce its focal concerns” describes the interconnectedness of the disparate elements of music, dress, etc. in order to form a cohesive articulation of deviance (113). Hebdige also mentions the semiotic idea of polysemy in subcultural style: the use of an object or form in order to illustrate its range of meanings in different contexts. The form, in this case, is the male body adorned with gendered signs, and it is completely re-read in the context of the club. Through its co-optation it becomes a “transformation of ‘reality’” (118). However, Hebdige also implies that subculture is reactionary and critical by nature, and that its reclamation of normative cultural markers is always pointed towards the deconstruction of the mainstream. Subcultures, through coded meaning, “express a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination” (18). This assertion seems to strike a dissonant chord with the clubgoers’ gleeful praise of the exaggerated Western ideal masculine body; their focus on the necessity of preserving that image is not a satirical one. Nor could one say that the club environment is a collective expression of “impotence” alongside empowerment (3). Indeed, the resistant practices of these men transcend Hebdige’s analysis of subculture as a phenomenon which consistently challenges the legitimacy of ingrained cultural artifacts. If the male physique and female dance vocalists did not carry their privileged significance in heteronormative culture, even the power of those signs as mere aesthetic pleasures would be diminished. Hebdige falls short in addressing the subculture’s recognition and use of the sign’s form, claiming that re-interpreting function is the cornerstone of underground style. In fact, far from “impotent” in the face of heterosexual maleness, the gay clubbers simply direct the strength of that representation towards sexual and not political ends.
In order to amplify that goal of celebrating pure sexuality, we return to Amico’s observation that, as a result of both the club ambience and the gay men’s unique ideological deconstruction, the club privileges the image as opposed to verbal discourse. Spaces like Aurora are jam-packed with muscles on display. Men tirelessly work out in order to fit in with the crowd (360), about half of whom adhere to the rigid standards of the male physical ideal. Hallmarks of that ideal include completely hairless bodies (often through expensive procedures like electrolysis), and sparse clothing which most often takes the form of jeans and not much else. Despite the impeccable attention to grooming and the flashy distractions (i.e. tribal tattoos), the most desirable men in the club more closely fit a classic cowboy archetype than any other incarnation of manhood (360). The historical consumption of the “manly renegade” icon by the gay male community helps to explain: firstly, the cowboy (as opposed to “the dandy” or the businessman) is a physical force, uncivilized and untamable. Gay men seek to capitalize on the raw brutishness of the cowboy, who rebels against those who abide by social regulations. Perhaps most importantly, “This ideal also encompasses…the presence of body and mind over strict gender roles, as well as phallicism and potency” (Servo and Johannson, 294). Although the myth of the American cowboy – or tough guy in general – is firmly rooted in heterosexual narratives, gay clubgoers bypass that context by simply appropriating the physical markers of the cowboy rather than his cultural purpose.
Once one is properly oiled and attired, the act of dancing is integral to the almost oppressively masculine club vibe of constant motion and sweat. Dancing most often takes the form of thumping huddles: as one man describes it, “a big African war dance…a gay tribe” (Amico, 360). There are not, in fact, many moves besides stomping and violent spinning and pumping motions. Gathering in large, damp huddles, engaging in a dance that more closely resembles a workout (362), the men engender masculinity through dance by exploiting the sheer stamina and force of the healthy male body. Although the “renegade” figure that is echoed in physical appearance is traditionally strong, dancing in huddles amplifies feelings of superhuman strength and dominance. This hyperconfidence (a trait long associated with American men) is represented even in the common stance when at rest: chest puffed out, groin prominent (363).
Perhaps the most outright element of subversion that gay clubbers build into their performance is the choice of music. Deep drum ‘n bass beats layered with female vocalists, often African-American, comprise the entire playlist at a club like Aurora (362, 365). The pounding beat “is representative of masculinity in its potency…and dominant in a visceral form unmediated by thought.” The arrangements are riddled with “dissonance, deconstruction, and abstraction” as well as “lush instrumentals” and a virtuosic, sensual female powerhouse voice on top of it all (364). This choice of music is not an incidental offshoot of straight club counterparts (house music, electronica, and the like) but a deliberate additive to the club’s environment of rampant male-on-male sexual tension and high-energy visual pronouncements of power. While the beat retains a focus on unrelenting, bestial manliness, the vocals imbue the club space with a strange dissidence which draws from evocations of female empowerment and feminine sexuality as well as the historical oppression of black voices in popular music. At the same time, many song lyrics reflect the club’s theme of over-the-top exaltation of the trappings of heterosexuality. One erotic club hit features a breathy woman in an exchange with a forceful male: “Come on Mr. Fantasy, you know you make me scream…I wanna feel your body next to mine.” (367). The constant use of the lusty, brazen female in club music has an odd double effect of highlighting male same-sex interactions which have long been saddled with feminine overtones as well as reinforcing the privileged place of the male as listener, reader, and responder to a woman’s excited come-ons. Additionally, the purposeful inclusion of black singers makes overt reference to the minority status of the American gay population and the enduring belief in the queer community that empowerment can be found in the right context.
How do we bring these practices into the outside realm of cultural scholarship, when this subculture resists assimilation by the academic establishment which so regularly reinforces patriarchal hegemony? After all, “improvised social dancing has been relegated to the sidelines in scholarship, not least because of its perceived impossibility – that is, its resistance to discursive description” (Buckland, 2). If we look at the aural and visual (dance) components of the club, it becomes clear that we are examining a moment, an enaction of identificatory processes which is encapsulated in a single nightly excursion. Social club dancing are “productions in the moment” within a culture that is not “bordered cultures with recognizable laws” (Buckland, 4). The subculture and its space, therefore, are created through these moments.
The actual men who dance, wax their chests, and pick other men up are just as unstable in their identities as the system of labels which marginalizes them. They express the instant-to-instant nature of the club as a stage for subversion through the fluid movement of “the dancing body,” which is a constant manipulation of the emblematic gendered male form” (Buckland 4). For clubgoers, “identity is not fixed, but tied to movement and its contexts” (Buckland, 5). Dance is not a corollary of queer performance within the gay club, but in fact its genesis and basis.
Club music selections, too, speak to different methods of performing maleness from moment to moment. The traditional musical palette of strong, oppressive, rigid beats generates a gym-like sensibility in the dance, with “shoulders moving as a yoked unit” as men exaggerate their “Adonis-like” qualities (72). However, those same tracks include emotional lyrics and pop sensibilities, which evoke dancing which “replaces or accentuates [the music] with personal and often queer significance” (75). These two ways of performing, which may appear oppositional, combine seamlessly through the integration of their aural representations within the music. It is also important to note the focus on black female vocalists in most of the musical selections; this goes back to the borrowing of seemingly unrelated or contradictory cultural representations in order to destabilize gender and identity, and also represents a comment upon hegemonic oppression in general. If the ultimate goal of the gay clubber is taking an alternative route to self-identification and subverting hegemonic norms, then black female voices are the perfect vehicle for such reinterpretation and reuse; though they are identified with and emblematic of entirely separate struggles of marginalization and intersectionalities of race and gender, they echo the disadvantaged yet observant perspective of strong gay males just outside the cultural box of masculinity. Again, the music selection is a conscious choice which has been informed by consistent performance practices within the club; at the same time, the music continues to reinforce the straddling of heteronormative support and queer outcry and contributes to the continued construction and reinterpretation of the club as a fluid queer space.
The concepts of queerness and “queering” account for the layering of contradictory symbols and practices within the club. The word “queer” had previously been associated with alternative sexuality before its entrance into the field of cultural studies, and, as a label, is still (erroneously) conflated with gayness and bisexuality. However, queerness as it is now academically utilized can be summarized thusly:
Queer describes those gestures or analytical models which dramatize incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender and sexual desire. Queer locates and exploits the incoherencies in those three terms which stabilize heterosexuality (Jagose).
We cannot name a thing or person as queer; queerness itself focuses on the conflicts that arise when elements, which theoretically should function together to create a hegemonically acceptable being, clash in real-life practice. As Annamarie Jagose goes on to say, “queer is less an identity than a critique of identity.” To discuss a queer individual or space is to recognize that that object operates within a frame of self-awareness and constant critical evaluation – as gay clubgoers demonstrate through their pointedly problematized performance of maleness. Queerness “demonstrates the impossibility of any ‘natural’ sexuality…it calls into question even such apparently unproblematic terms as ‘man’ and ‘woman’.” Indeed, the complex tradition of labeling lies at the heart of queer studies and the application of queerness to the practices of the gay club and the lifestyles of its frequenters:
Queer may be thought of as activating an identity politics so attuned to the constraining effects of naming, of delineating a foundational category which precedes and underwrites political intervention, that it may better be understood as promoting non-identity – or even anti-identity – politics (Jagose).
Here we run into complications when reconciling the idea of a non-identity with the carefully constructed mechanisms of resistance which characterize a subculture. Intuition says that a subculture must have its own fixed ideology, which can attack, critique, or even riff off of popular culture and/or hegemonic structures. However, if we extrapolate on Hebdige’s analysis of subcultural signs as “transformation[s]” – or re-readings – “of reality,” we arrive at the club as a hyper-critical version of Hebdige’s idea. His subculture tacitly acknowledges the transience of societal categories and labels through deliberate manipulation of established cultural materials; the subcultural thought that grouping or privileging groups is an unstable, nebulous act is unspoken and implied through performance and style. However, in the club, we find “a knowledge that identities are fictitious – that is, produced by and productive of material effects but nevertheless arbitrary, contingent and ideologically motivated.” Critique of labels and heteronormative gender performance is placed at the forefront, and clubgoers are required to confront the symbolic nature of both their bodies and styles as well as the heteronormative bodies and styles they re-interpret. In other words, the club is a subculture which is aware of its status, significance, and function as a subculture, and communicates that awareness through the repetition of subversive gender performance.
It is impossible to connect these simultaneous practices without conceptualizing the gay dance club as a space; in other words, these behaviors and this lifestyle are inextricably intertwined with their location, and that location can only be established through the creation and performance of a culture within it. Michel de Certeau asserts that “space is a practiced place” (117). The club environment organically adapts to those who claim it as a safe haven and, like a clubber, is visually marked by the same signs as its occupiers: in Aurora’s case, a “Power Bar” which supplies protein-rich snacks, vegetables, and wheatgrass juice (Amico, 362-363). A space is the localizing of a culture in a specific time and area through the conflation of concrete objects and symbolic actions – a combination of “journeys made in it, the discourses uttered in it, and the languages characterizing it” (Auge, 81). Fiona Buckland characterizes such a space as a “lifeworld” that “overlays, complements, and contradicts official maps (28). The gay dance club can be localized within a historical context of Western club culture, or within the context of LGBT leisure activity and creative expression. The club acknowledges those institutions and the hegemonic mapping of them, replicates that predetermined environment, and then launches a nightly process of renegotiation. By virtue of the performances within the club, the club space also performs as a home base for the gay male subculture and its ideological aims. But how can we account, in the simplest terms, for the visual clashes that routinely and purposefully show up between the queer community and heteronormative hegemony? And how do gay clubgoers mix the two to create a unique approach of resistance?
In discussing architecture, Louis Sullivan famously declared that “form follows function”:
All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other. Unfailingly in nature these shapes express the inner life [of a thing] (Miller).
This same rationale is routinely applied in the enforcement of patriarchy and its corresponding gender roles. A strong masculine exterior distinguishes an individual from one with a frail or “feminine body.” The powerful male body (the form), according to Sullivan, indicates “the inner life” of the man within and his predictable characteristics as culturally determined: rough, aggressive, emotionally distant, attracted to both the female form and its corresponding traits. The social conditioning which reinforces this idea ensures that gender dichotomies and patriarchy continue; this is what we would call a strong male’s function.
By focusing solely on the form within the club space, clubgoers call attention to the impossibility of souls and personalities easily defined by the body within which they are encased. As the queer community has always been a collective of unique and sometimes wildly disparate individuals with a wide range of sexualities and gender expressions, the blanket sameness of appearance which is tacitly enforced by the club is immediately striking. The goal of this visual uniformity is multi-layered: it supports the heteronormative practices of categorizing and separating, of rigid gender role enforcement, of creating “male” or “female” spaces. However, it also critiques this norm by so faithfully reproducing it – and complicating it with alternative sexualities and the resistant spirit of the queer community.
Judith Butler further probes cultural consumption and interpretation of the body as form. In interpreting Butler’s work, Phen Cheah asserts that “the form/matter distinction originating from Greek philosophy is always articulated through a gendered matrix where the productive or creative agency of form is associated with a masculine principle while matter, which is passively shaped, is coded as feminine” (110). Her mention of Greek philosophy is particularly striking as gay clubbers utilize the image of the Greek male physical ideal in their performances; further examining the historical patriarchal tradition from which our modern perceptions of gender arise, the club space also critiques that dichotomy between the male as productive energy – the soul which acts and looks – and the female as matter which simply is, and is looked upon. Clubbers collapse the two. They distill themselves to pure form, feminizing their bodies, but they also dance and thus comment upon the arbitrary social categories mentioned earlier. This results in a destabilization of both the identity of the individual men and that form/matter distinction: are the bodies no longer feminized, because they embody the conscious performance? Are the men no longer “productive or creative agen[ts]”, because they look at themselves and each other as mere physical pieces of matter?
In discussing the imprinting of queer ideologies and practices on the body itself, Butler helps to create a new schema of cultural evaluation which covers these sorts of inconsistencies and contradictions. Gay clubbers construct new spaces and combinations of gendered characteristics on a constant basis; in this vein, Butler comments that “Construction not only takes place in time, but is itself a temporal process which operates through a reiteration of norms; sex is both produced and destabilized in the course of this reiteration” (9-10). This reiteration takes the form of the learned dances and long-term physical conditioning on the part of the clubgoers. Moreover, the club itself encapsulates the practice of reiteration, as the same critiques and rituals are performed by a collective of individuals every night. Every night that clubbers gather, they reaffirm their status as beings whose perceptions of hegemony and sexual identity lie outside the mainstream, thus destabilizing their sex; at the same time, their concentration on the pure form which designates them as “men” produces and confirms them as such.
As a subculture which recognizes dominant cultural determinations and its signifiers, gay dance clubs take the aforementioned form/matter distinction and both “produce and destabilize” it. The clubgoers, while exalting the male body, also imbue it with critical force and direction. Butler elucidates this process:
[T]he soul is taken as an instrument of power through which the body is cultivated and formed. In a sense, it acts as a power-laden schema that produces and actualizes the body itself. . . .the soul described by Foucault as an instrument of power, forms and frames the body, stamps it, and in stamping it, brings it into being (33-34).
Gay clubgoers balance upon a tangent of Butler’s point; they see their bodies as objects to be consumed, but they also take ownership of that consumption and use their bodies to comment upon the system which encourages such image-based interactions. In doing so through reiteration, they lay bare the fallacies of the heteronormative hegemony which legitimizes maleness as power, gayness as pure raw sexual encounters, and so on. As Cheah states, “instabilities of reiteration offer the possibility of counterhegemonic rematerializations through the resignification of those alternative ideals of sex previously repressed as abject bodies deprived of symbolic value” (118). Indeed, gay clubgoers declare that their bodies and practices are laden with symbolic value which, contrary to the hegemonic point of view, contains valuable observations and evaluations of individuals who lie within and outside the boundaries of mainstream culture – and especially those who straddle those two worlds.
The tireless manipulation of traditional masculinity and femininity within the club indicates the clubbers’ knowledge that “everything is discursively constructed” (Butler, 8). This includes the self, the “I,” and the club subculture acknowledges this through aggressive homogenization of appearance and an emphasis on representation and performance rather than individuality. The “I” cannot exist outside the constraints of gender norms or even the critique of the structure which enforces those stratifications.
As the club space is obviously recreational and founded on a movement of alternative sexuality, it is also a popularized space. Pierre Bourdieu contends that such spaces place special emphasis on “direct experience and pure delight” rather than an examination of discourse or larger historical context (2). This assertion certainly falls in harmony with the tone of the gay dance club, in which the masculine form is literally placed on a pedestal (go-go boys surround the dance floor [Amico, 363]). However, Bourdeiu goes on to theorize that concepts lose their legitimacy once they are popularized, and that gut responses to form rather than function are an inevitability of lower education and the bastardizing of high culture. In this case, high culture could be no better epitomized than as a glowing, half-naked man in peak physical condition – the original Classical Greek ideal.
The obsessive rapture attached to the male body in the dance club is not an unintentional dumbing-down of a cultural tool, but in fact a deliberate detonation of the schema used to evaluate men in the outside world (controlled by the straight gaze). The clubbers are not launching a clear visual attack on heteronormative methods of categorization through, for instance, dressing only in women’s clothing. Instead, they are effectively rejecting the importance of the body as a social signifier and instead distilling it to its most basic element: aesthetics.
This whole process of quoting and reinforcing hegemony while simultaneously twisting and critiquing it directly illustrates José Muñoz’s concept of “disidentification.” He hypothesizes that minority subjects pursue acts of performance and performativity in order to enact a survival strategy with two sides: the distancing of oneself from normative representations of their “category” in order to more fully develop a unique Self, and the elastic performance of that Self in order to create a identity that usually becomes a pastiche of reworked representations. In this way, gay clubbers locate a place for themselves as both participants in and observers of hegemony; they are in the world but not of it. He posits Good Subjects against Bad Subjects: the Good readily fits into normative culture while the Bad actively imagines itself to be outside and in opposition to that culture. To disidentify is to envision oneself as neither of these, but a person who “works on, with, and against a cultural form” (12). As a way of survival, it is a strong and constantly shifting “response to…apparatuses that employ systems…of subjugation” (161). The clubgoer performs and performs within the club space not only to form a united front of disidentifiers, but to establish a place outside heteronormativity which is safe – safety meaning the unfettered critique of social constructions without the fear of being put back in a disadvantaged slot as a result. It is a way of coping with marginalization and perceived cultural abuses:
[The club space and its contained performances] redress lost places and people in the terms by which subjects want to understand them: as heroic absences, as social-political calamities, as provisional sites of queer pleasure always at risk of closure (Buckland, 31).
Therefore, the gay dance club is both a preservation of collective subcultural ideals as well as a pointedly temporal space; the clubbers acknowledge their own history within the dominant culture but also address the changeability and subjective interpretation of history itself, specifically the history of gender and its insidious invasion of the worlds of dance and desire.
When we read disidentification through the lens of queerness, we come to understand that the gay clubber does not only possess an understanding of patriarchal hegemony and his place in it, but also the concept of a world which is driven by the ephemeral processes and limitations of culture. Queer performances center upon the act of transformation and locate themselves within a “world that is born through performance” (xiv). In other words, gay clubbers are not simply re-imagining a static world and reflecting its perceived injustices or power structures through an alternative filter, but literally re-creating their space, themselves, each other, and the world beyond the club space. They see their own gendered performances, critical or not, as arising from a Western cultural tradition of presentation, routine, and semiotic significance.
In the context of punk subculture, Hebdige draws attention to the transience of consumed objects, as punks constantly disdain both the form and the function of older cultural objects in favor of subverting more contemporary objects through re-using them (117). Gay clubbers do not operate within this matrix of constant reclamation and disposal – their specific practices of subversion can continue and solidify as long as maleness is closely associated with traditional masculinity. Within the club space, they use hegemony as a springboard for prurient sexual and aesthetic pleasures; in a way, they are truly fetishizing the status quo itself, deriving empowerment from the act of stripping patriarchy of its intangible supports and leaving only the bare bums behind. They thrice-hail their queer status – performing themselves, performing as a collective, and performing their very space. By “disidentifying,” gay clubbers are able to pick and choose cultural elements on a momentary basis, mirroring the pastiche-d nature of a postmodern world in which awareness of cultural constructions has made its way into popular thought. As a subjugated population, gay clubbers critique the hegemony which has placed them in a lower social caste using the tools that that cultural matrix has supplied: gendered emotions, gendered bodies, gendered music, et cetera. By taking advantage of heteronormative signs and dissecting them in a celebratory, exaggerated manner, the gay dance club is an incubator for re-appropriation and the slow revolution towards the dismantling of rigid constructions. Just as subcultures are gradually subsumed into the mainstream through small and marginalized interactions with normative culture, the club works with, riffs off of, and breaks down the “outside world” in order to tweak tradition from the bottom up. In this way, the gay dance club is a place for not rebellion, but rejection of popular thought altogether; it is a space of immediate gratification and sly, celebratory critique.
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