In its current issue, HX, the gay nightlife guide, trumpets “the resurgence of back rooms.” If last Saturday night’s Black Party is any indication, that headline reflects reality. For 17 hours, sex was everywhere: on the dancefloor, in the bathroom stalls, onstage. The back room corridor was so packed that a gatekeeper regulated the traffic. For the uninitiated: The Black Party may be the largest annual indoor dance event in New York, a leather-laced marathon that includes three DJs, two lighting designers, and several hours of sex shows by porn professionals and gifted amateurs. At this year’s “Rites XXIII,” nearly 8000 people crammed into Roseland to party like it’s 1979. In fact, the Black Party began that year. It was a signal event at the Saint, the legendary East Village disco on the site of the Fillmore East that now houses NYU classrooms. After the Saint closed in 1988, a victim of the AIDS epidemic that claimed many of its patrons, the party moved to Roseland. The late Bruce Mailman, who founded the Saint, once cited as his inspiration for this party the druidic custom in which men donned animal skins and retreated into the forest to celebrate the vernal equinox. The party is held on the weekend closest to the first day of spring.
The Black Party has always been about sex as much as dancing. But a stranger wandering into this priapic moshpit might be shocked. After all, it’s been so long since that sort of activity was chic, and the party’s promoters have managed to maintain its underground status by discouraging the press. Patrons must check their cameras, if not their costumes, at the door.
There were plenty of rubber bodysuits and butcher smocks to be seen, as well as skintight latex bras and dresses on the smattering of RGs (real girls) and drag queens. Notwithstanding the reverence for fallen heroes of 9-11, fewer police and fire-fighter uniforms were in evidence this year. For most participants, the Black Party is a chance to dig out their leather accessories and play dress-up. From jockstraps, chaps, and codpieces to mere nudity, this party truly celebrates the male posterior. Witness a man rimming while purring in a cat mask.
Who would be drawn to such a thing? Devoted s/m activists, straight and gay. But the vast majority of these neo-druids are well-paid—and in some cases well-known—professionals. Celebrities, academics, and even a few politicians are in the house. The hefty ($90) ticket price could buy a decent seat at the opera, if not a private dancer, but these folks prefer the spectacle. As Addison Scott, one of the porn actors who fly in for the night to perform—and whose specialty is fisting—says, “These people are not afraid to act out their fantasies for one night.”
The crowd, so different from “virtually normal” circuit queens, generates an unexpected camaraderie. Exuberant is not a word you might think of to describe a leather event, but it certainly applies to this gala. Mike Weems, who is writing a doctoral thesis about spirituality on the gay circuit, was struck by the “dignity and elegance” of these leather men. Maybe it’s just what David Nimmons describes as “a revel, a really sexy revel.” Nimmons, at work on a book about the underlying meaning of much maligned gay activities such as working out, circuit parties, drug use, and anonymous sex, cites a “primal, dark energy that is really rare. When people are high and settled in, there’s an extraordinary atmosphere, a libidinal commonality.”
The combination of drugs and omnivorous sex certainly opens up the question of responsibility. One good-looking guy is spread-eagled to all comers in the back room; another man blames too much crystal for his serial tricks in the bathroom; dudes on the dancefloor are blowing, rimming, and, yes, fucking with impunity. A basket of condoms sits outside the upstairs back room, but it doesn’t seem to be emptying very quickly.
As the evening progresses, the tales become more outrageous. One man is said to have burst a blood vessel in his penis, another reportedly suffers rectal bleeding from a prop gun shoved up his ass during one of the sex shows. Drugs take their toll as well. A man falls face forward. Someone frantically breathes into his mouth. Four men carry him toward the nearest exit, where security and paramedics try to revive him. According to a doctor who was volunteering at the party, there were 10 fallouts altogether—a remarkably low number for such a large all-night event—and this was the only person who needed serious medical attention. Last year, in an incident much discussed in the gay community, a well-known doctor fell on the dancefloor; he never revived and died three days later.
Drug overdoses, however, are hardly unique to gay events, and blaming a party for unsafe sex is like blaming bars for alcoholism. Self-destructive behavior always finds an outlet. Rather than “wretched excess,” the word most people here use to summarize this ball is “spiritual.” Weems describes the sweat-drenched back room as “the nearest thing to a baptism since I was born” and relates how “very profoundly stirring” he found it. The “rites” theme is carried through in the sex shows, which feature ritualistic scenes bathed in an eerie pastel glow. In one, a man is mummified in plastic wrap; in another, a toilet is wheeled out for a piss scene. A man slowly plays with a boa constrictor onstage, an echo of one of the original party’s most fabled entertainments, in which such serpents were inserted into certain willing rears.
But this is a dance party, and the music defines the mood. Paulo, the first DJ, made his New York debut with hard, sexy sounds. Victor Calderone, a straight DJ who made his name at gay events, played hard-driving beats. At 10 a.m., Michael Fierman, the original Black Party DJ, turned out Saint classics such as “I Never Can Say Goodbye.” Paulo and Calderone both played mixes of the 25-year-old Donna Summer standard “I Feel Love,” older than many of the dancers.
The adherence to tradition may account for the Black Party’s phenomenal staying power, but it’s the unbridled celebration of gay male sexuality, in all its creativity and destructiveness, that ensures success. Weems cites Michael Warner, author of The Trouble With Normal: “When you strip away all sense of shame, you get the essence of human dignity.”