A Strong Pulse in Brooklyn: Two Co-Founders of Discwoman Reflect on Orlando
The Discwomen: Hutchinson, Burgess-Olson, and Tran
Luis Nieto Dickens
Beginning at 2 a.m. this past Saturday morning and lasting beyond sunrise, in the still-industrial area west of Bushwick, loud bass thumped through empty streets. Inside a small warehouse, a dense crowd danced under strobe lights and lasers. We were there to celebrate the first birthday of Unter, an after-party known for hosting techno fans who love dancing and are uninterested in the other trappings that usually go along with nightclubs. Courtesy of the booking collective Discwoman, all the DJs were women. As usually happens with Discwoman parties, there was no simple way to describe who was there, no age or gender or color or orientation to point to as predominant. Everyone just wanted to dance until their feet gave out.
When the horrible news out of Orlando hit on Sunday, less than twenty-four hours after the last of us had stumbled out onto Ten Eyck Street, blinking in the daylight, I thought immediately of that Bushwick dancefloor. So did Frankie Hutchinson, a co-founder of Discwoman, for whom the attack hit far too close to home. "It really fucking scared me," she says, "to know that you're powerless to really create safety, even though creating spaces that are safe is what we're about. I went out again on Sunday night, and the feeling in the room was unsettling because we were all thinking, It could have been this space, it could have been any one of us."
Discwoman's parties, unlike the ones at Pulse, are not advertised as specifically queer, although the queer community is always heavily represented. They feel more like the place we should hope we're all headed, creating, for a few hours at a time, a future where we no longer fixate on gender and sexuality. Which isn't to say a future where people's identities are erased — Discwoman parties are a hard-earned and fiercely guarded haven presided over by those who have been marginalized for years. "It's so important and necessary to have these spaces to celebrate and explore our [queer] identities," says Christine Tran, another co-founder of Discwoman.
Hutchinson and Tran are both transplants to New York — Hutchinson is from London, Tran from Virginia. They started Discwoman (along with Emma Burgess-Olson, who DJs as Umfang) because none of the venues they encountered as house and techno fans were ones in which they felt safe just dancing. "It wasn't until I started going out to DIY parties in Bushwick that I was able to enjoy myself," explains Hutchinson. There, she found "people who understand that women's bodies, and queer bodies, are vulnerable in a lot of situations, and we had each other's backs and could support each other."
The lack of safety isn't incidental: The exclusion of women DJs from dance music is well-documented, reinforcing the club as yet another place that's unsafe for women and queer people. So Discwoman promotes only women (both cis and trans) and non-binary DJs. By eschewing men from their lineups, they sent a clear message to fans about what to expect at their parties, and the fans responded. "Women and queer people gravitate[d] toward what we were doing," says Hutchinson. From a single party in 2014 at Bushwick's Bossa Nova Civic Club, Discwoman has grown into a brand whose showcases at techno festivals draw hundreds and whose DJs get booked at world-famous venues like Berghain in Berlin.
Outsiders sometimes treat what Discwoman does — support young DJs and fans, often of color — as something new. But their philosophy is just a more explicit expression of dance music's history; although techno and house music are now associated mostly with the white male DJs and audiences who have popularized highly accessible (some might say bastardized) versions of the genres, it was queer people of color who created dance music, and congregating on the dancefloor has been an essential part of queer life ever since. And that's a tradition Tran is proud to uphold. "Being a visible and accessible queer person of color is important to me," she says of her decision to start parties instead of just attending them. "We are all here to support each other."
In light of Sunday's horror, support now means doubling down on throwing the kinds of parties they already do. "There's no better time than now to resist more, to create more space, to be visible," says Hutchinson. To her, hosting events that center marginalized voices is an act of resistance, a direct action against bigotry. "People are talking a lot about gun control, which is something I definitely support, but we should be focusing on what's breeding homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia and undoing those messages."
Hours after the news broke, when I read that the killer at Pulse began to hate queer people after seeing two men kissing on the street months ago, I thought again of that Discwoman dancefloor. Less than an hour into the first set, there were men kissing each other, women kissing each other, ambiguously gendered people kissing each other. And the mere existence of spaces like these, which normalize queerness, scared one man so much that he decided he had to destroy them.
But as horrific as Omar Mateen's massacre was, it was also pathetic, because places like Pulse exist in too many ways to count. In New York they exist at underground parties like Discwoman, at mainstream gay clubs like Slake, at drag shows across the city. They exist every night in Brooklyn, in Manhattan, in Los Angeles and Berlin and São Paulo. And they will exist again, eventually, in Orlando. Queer DJs turned the music on decades ago. It is far too late for anyone to turn it off.
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