Getty Images

The Unsung History of Circuit Parties, Where Gay Men Seek Sex and Freedom

How hedonistic marathon raves became a unique LGBTQ tradition.

|
Jun 21 2017, 5:21pm

Getty Images

This month, THUMP honors Pride with a celebration of LGBTQ nightlife all across America. Follow our coverage here.

Dance music was born in LGBTQ communities, but the circuit party is where it truly lived. The circuit—a loose global network of often weekend-long danceathons, where partygoers (almost all gay men) convene from around the world to bond spiritually, socially, sexually and musically—is one of the most unique phenomena to emerge from queer communities over the past few decades.

Circuit parties can be mild, like at Austin's Splash Days, held at local watering hole Hippie Hollow, or at ski weeks held at resorts in the West and Switzerland, where action on the slopes rivals that of the dance floor.

Or, they can be wild, like at New York's Black Party, with "strange live acts" that have included erotic use of a boa constrictor; or at San Francisco's Magnitude, held the night before the Folsom Street Fair fetish festival.

But they always give attendees a space to shed social expectations, where they can be nobody but themselves.

Since their birth in the 70s, the circuit has grown into an international phenomenon, with parties blossoming throughout Europe, Latin America, and, more recently, the Asian Pacific Rim. But they may be on the wane domestically, and the future of the circuit is in question, thanks to the decline of LGBTQ community strongholds and the rise of new sorts of dance culture.

Back in 2007, I questioned whether circuit parties were dying. Many are asking if there's still a need for these all-male gatherings. Undoubtedly, many younger gay men prefer smaller venues that "bask in the beauty and openness of queer culture." Plenty of older gay men, too, find the whole ethos of circuit parties — glow sticks, remixed diva anthems, color themes, "body fascism"—to be tired anachronisms.

To figure out the state of the circuit in 2017, THUMP spoke with Mickey Weems, a lecturer at the University of Hawai'i Manoa who has extensively studied circuit parties (alongside religious, anthropological and folklore interests). Weems spoke to their past, present and potential future, explaining what role the circuit has played in shaping queer and gay culture, and what its evolution says about the same today.

A gay circuit party (Photo via noiZe.buzz)

THUMP: Can you give me a capsule history of the circuit?

Mickey Weems: It all started after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. When the Gay Activist Alliance was formed—the first gay rights group, born only six months after Stonewall—they had dances in an old firehouse in SoHo. It was so crowded and hot, people began taking off their shirts, and the circuit was born.

After Stonewall, we were allowed to have our own clubs without police interference. Technological advances in sound systems and DJ equipment made it more attractive to open dance spaces. And in New York, thousands of men began gathering at Downtown loft spaces that began cropping up.

Money started pouring in, with places like Flamingo and Twelve West, two of the most prominent gay male dance spaces, full of sweaty men dancing all night.

At the same time, Fire Island became the place for people who could afford it. There, DJs like Roy Thode, who may have invented the EP by looping a song back and forth until it filled one entire side of an album, were experimenting with new ways to play records.

That was the very first circuit. I believe [Andrew Holleran's 1978 novel] Dancer from the Dance marked the first time it was named in a book. The term "circuit" came from it being the "need to know circuit"—not only discos, but "in-in-the-know" places in the gay community that even included barbershops.

Then, in 1980, the Saint opened in the East Village. Three years before, Paradise Garage opened several blocks away. Unlike Studio 54, The Saint and Paradise Garage flew under the radar. The circuit was always underground.

Both were megaclubs that attracted different crowds, but together, they developed the night-into-afternoon musical "journey" that would come to dominate circuit parties. DJ'ing became an art. There was a musical arc to the evening.

If you want to know the hottest circuit party today, it's Electric Daisy Carnival.

In the rest of the US, queer people remained largely closeted. But they would visit New York and bring what they experienced back home.

In Columbus, Ohio, where I was living, Corbett Reynolds, a local nightclub owner, visited Manhattan and Fire Island. He decided he would bring the DJs and party themes to his club, Rudely Elegant. San Francisco began developing its own clubs and nights, separate from New York.

Meanwhile, uptown in New York, the ballroom scene was flourishing in Harlem. That scene informed the circuit in a number of ways: a lot of the terms we commonly use, like "fierceness"; and performers like Power Infiniti, Kitty Meow, Flava and Kevin Aviance, held a large influence.

What was the effect of the AIDS crisis?

When disaster starting rolling in, people were freaking out. On Fire Island, people were suddenly dying. Empty houses dotted the boardwalks.

The Saint and the Garage went through a wobbly existence. Both got going as the first glimmer of AIDS appeared on the horizon. One of the early names for AIDS was "The Saint's Disease," because by the second season, it had already begun decimating the club's membership. As it got worse, they both became legendary. The Garage closed in 1987, and the Saint a year later.

At first, people were traumatized as their friends began to disappear. Then they became defiant. The whole reason for dancing changed.

By the mid-80s, dancing began to rise as form of resistance, as a way to bring the community together collectivity and to raise money. People started circuit benefit parties, like the Fire Island Morning Party, first held in 1985. And there were benefit parties like the Miami White Party and Hotlanta.

Not just benefits, though. Didn't promoter-producers step in?


People like Jeffrey Sanker came in and commercialized the circuit; he started the Palm Springs White Party in 1989. I don't mind it because their parties are beautiful.

By the early 90s, some cities were having a "circuit party" every weekend, in places like the Roxy in New York, Probe in Los Angeles, clubs in San Francisco. Then it began expanding abroad, in places like Montreal and Europe, with the opening of megaclubs like Heaven in London.

By 1992, the Miami White Party had become famous because celebrities discovered South Beach. This is where the Latin influence came in as well. In 1996, arch-conservative Representative Bob Dornan, a Republican from California, condemned on the floor of Congress a party held at a federally-owned ballroom for the main event of the annual Cherry Party.

No question, the 90s were halcyon days for the circuit. Parties spread to mid-sized cities, like Cleveland's Dancing in the Streets; Detroit's Motorball; Louisville's Crystal Ball. Most couldn't sustain themselves. The circuit had reached saturation. People wanted to save up for the really big events—like White Party Palm Springs and the Black Party in New York—that were spectacular. The other parties would come and go.

Still from YouTube/"Circuit Festival 2016 - Pervert Party"

With greater visibility comes more scrutiny. How much did drugs have to do with that?

Ecstasy, of course, was always popular. And speed was always present. But tina and GHB, which began to arrive on the scene in the late 80s, are easy to make and more easily obtained.

GHB had a huge influence. Too many guys were not taking care of themselves. One thing the 2002 documentary When Boys Fly [which followed a group of young gay men attending the Miami White Party] got right was showing someone falling out [passing out from drug use].

It was scandalous. Promoters would have to hire 13, 14 ambulances at a party. When you have to have an ambulance parked in front of your event, it casts a pall on the whole scene. After 9/11, with a recession and travel restrictions, everything got worse.

Parties started dying off. The circuit's nadir hit around 2003. People didn't have as much money. Then you started seeing the rise of the internet, which especially affected the gay dating scene. There were other factors, too, like escalating real estate in cities like Miami Beach, New York and San Francisco.

A lot of negative scrutiny of the circuit came from within our own community, too. A handful of prominent gay pundits saw these parties as a waste of our energy and resources. As the parties got bigger and more elaborate, the [mainstream] media also inevitably took notice, elevating their critics. That must have had a negative impact, right?

Circuit parties involve a lot of preening. People like Michelangelo Signorile, who wrote about his experience at the Palm Springs White Party in Life Outside , a book about gay culture at the time, were positing that the parties were elitist.

Among critics like Signorile, Larry Kramer and Gabriel Rotello, parties were seen as havens for irresponsible behavior, sex and drugs. They were telling us to settle down, be grown-ups, have kids. In 1998, Kramer went to the Morning Party, and his remarks in the New York Times helped get the party shut down. I link it to the movement early in the AIDS epidemic to shut down bathhouses instead of using them for education.

There have been a raft of studies that want to show the parties in a bad light. Most of these kinds of studies look at these areas of gay culture—like the bathhouse scene, club scene, the app scene—because they're supposed hot spots for HIV infection and rampant drug use.

But the question is: do the people doing these studies understand our community at all? Because what they're "studying" is just what goes on in regular gay life.

Except that "regular gay life" has come to mean something very different in 2017. There's no question that for gay men, things have gotten better. We're coming out earlier and are more readily accepted by our families and peers. Laws are on the books protecting us from discrimination on the job on finding a home. We can serve openly in the military. It's far easier to be part of a sports team or head a religious congregation.

This generational divide between gay Boomers and millennials has to influence how they perceive circuit parties—or even if there's still a need for them.

If, as you said, the circuit reached a nadir earlier this century, has that decline been constant, or have they made a comeback? And if so, what's the motivation for younger gay men to attend a circuit party? H ave the parties themselves evolved to meet the challenge of a changed landscape for gay/queer culture in a post-liberation world?

Circuit parties still have a function. They're like a Grindr profile come to life. People who are into that get a real treat when they come to a circuit party. You get to look at all the candidates in one place!

One of the big differences for this generation is that they drink more at these parties. Sanker started marketing the White Party as "Spring Break." For the younger guys going to these parties, it's to be silly and have fun.

Younger people are coming out earlier. They have straight friends, male and female, who are much more integrated into their lives. They go out dancing with them. And young people are establishing "circuit colonies." We create a gay space on the dance floor of mainstream parties. If you want to know the hottest circuit party today, it's Electric Daisy Carnival. EDC encourages it.

One ongoing criticism is that these parties represent only one small segment of gay men. Have circuit parties become more diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, body type?

There's more general acceptance across the board. For economic reasons, they don't turn away anyone.

The average age used to be 33 or 34. It might be 28 now. Near the end of the 90s, most people seemed older. I was 38. I felt real comfortable. In the bar and club scene, once you hit your late 30s, it's easy to feel invisible. The circuit for older guys is still very comfortable.

Do you have to have the body to buy your way in? You did in those days. Now the dance floor is much more diverse.

Black communities have created their own parties, too. Sometimes, they just want to be with their own. The difference between white and black circuit parties is the friendly competition on the dance floor. In a party situation, when somebody catches a vibe, it becomes infectious. They want to have a good time without giving a shit what other people think. Their party, their rules.

Where is the future of circuit parties?

Just after the beginning of the century, parties started springing up all over East Asia. Kuala Lumpur had one, briefly, as did Hong Kong. Once something becomes too visible, the authorities cracked down.

In Thailand, two major parties are thriving: Songkran and White Party Bangkok. Seoul has a its own, smaller, party, I Am Seoul. In Taiwan, there was a clampdown for a while but it's loosened up. Taipei had one in October. A party outside of Tokyo is doing well.

The orientation is Pan-Asian. Although there's a loosening up about attitudes toward gay people, these societies are still very traditional. These parties allow them to openly express not only their sexual orientation but their sexuality.

Around the world, circuit parties have become popular. In Europe, there are several, including Rapido in Amsterdam and circuit in Barcelona. Sydney has its long-running Mardi Gras There are several parties in Mexico and Brazil. There's even been on in Johannesburg.

Here in the States, I predict that, because of the current repressive government, the circuit will start to increase in popularity. A lot of protest involves dancing. Part of that comes from what happened at Pulse. Pulse did something to us.