Three seconds into Robyn’s ‘Hang With Me’ and I’m hooked. The electronic beat grabs me by the ears and forces me into alt-pop heaven. 10 seconds later and the distinctive Swedish vocals kick in. I’m melting into a kaleidoscope of juicy sounds that permeate throughout my body, causing the hairs on my arm to stand up. It’s like sucking on the teet of the universe and all I want to do is drink more. I want, nay, I need to dance to this song forever; carelessly throw my arms into the air, close my eyes and let Robyn envelop me. Not many songs have such a visceral effect on my insides but this song is different. It’s a perfectly formed pop-song that takes me on a journey. I’m in a field in Sweden, I’m on a dancefloor in San Francisco, I’m 16 years-old and in my bedroom, I’m having sex with a gorgeous stranger. 3 minutes in and I’m having a full blown ear-ection. Finish me off Robyn. And she does. And the song ends and 3 minutes and 34 seconds later, I’m spent.
I used to believe that there was only one way to find my place in the gay community and that was through hours invested at the gym, nights spent shirtless in gay clubs and holidays booked to follow the ‘circuit’ of summer parties. It seemed like a very easy route to happiness and community inclusion. I started with the gym in my teens and ramped up my training in my early 20s as I realised that I needed to be bigger, smoother and more masculine. I went to gay clubs in the evening and followed the social calendar of gay events in my hometown of Sydney – Stonewall then Arq on a Saturday night, Green Park and then Beresford on a Sunday, Daywash on a bank holiday, Harbour Party during Mardi Gras and I Remember House when I wanted to mix things up. Over time I came to see the same faces and learned about the who’s who of the gay community. That one’s an escort, that one came from a small town and now he’s a party boy, that one’s slept with that one, that one has a drug problem and that one is a social climber – all unsubstantiated rumours that became lore as they were perpetuated at weekly social gatherings.
While I tried my best to enjoy my time in these situations they actually brought on the most unnatural form of anxiety that I rarely experienced in other areas of my life. I’d turn into a completely different person at these parties. In my day-to-day life I was a confident, social and happy person who wasn’t afraid to speak to anyone; throw me into a room with 1,000 other gay men and I would become nervous, uncomfortable and closed-offish. I felt small and invisible. To combat these feelings I would drink copious amounts of alcohol and lambast myself for not being muscley enough, confident enough or attractive enough. ‘Maybe next time it will be different’, I would think to myself, ‘maybe I’ll have more fun at the next party’. But while the parties changed, the feelings always remained. To make matters more confusing, my gay friends seemed so natural in this environment. They would float around chatting to guys, drawing men’s gaze across the dance floor and generally having what appeared to be a wonderful time. Why was it so hard for me?
At the same time that I was becoming a fully fledged member of the mainstream gay scene, I was discovering another side to the gay community, an alternate side that would bring me much more pleasure. It was 3:43am on a Saturday morning in 2005. I was soaked in sweat, jumping up and down on a crammed basement dancefloor on William Street, Sydney, screaming the lyrics to a remix of Annie’s ‘Me Plus One’ in a puddle of equally enthusiastic and sweaty clubgoers. Somewhere between the lyrics ‘Mrs B, Mrs E, Mrs A-U-T’ I realised there was another community out there, one that was much more similar to me and I was standing right in the middle of it. The club was 77 and the night was Bang Gang. The crowd was a merry of skaters, fashion students, surfers, alienesque models, photographers, drug dealers and goths and they were equal parts gay, lesbian, straight and curious. 77 and Bang Gang would come to symbolise for me a place where sexuality and normality were fluid concepts and where a temporary community would come together for a few hours every weekend to escape and surrender to the hedonistic pursuit of indulgent fun. At the same time other nights popped up around the city which drew a ‘queer’ and alternate crowd including Bandits at Phoenix, Healthclub at The Flinders and Gay Bash at The Burdekin. In these club nights I found an alternate community, one that seemed to be at the fringes of the gay scene but one that I related to much more closely than the one in which I had tried so hard to belong. Over the years I would be fortunate enough to be part of similar communities around the world (even if it was just for one night) – Closet in Melbourne, Misshapes at Don Hills in New York, Plastic and Pink is Punk in Milan and Boombox and Sink the Pink in London.
I came to realise that the gay dream that I had been sold by gay magazines, TV and mainstream gay media was not my dream nor was it the only dream out there. There existed a scene beyond ‘the scene’ that embraced the queer side of homosexuality, where bearded ladies danced next to trans boys and muscle Marys were welcome but not worshiped. It was in this scene that I felt most at home, where I was part of something bigger than myself, where I felt like I belonged. Being amongst freaks, geeks, the sexually absurd, those with the confidence to be who and what they want really makes one feel empowered. Surrounded by so much colour and character encourages you to peel back your own pretense and embrace all of yourself.
Now I’m not suggesting that this alternate scene is for everyone nor am I suggesting that there is anything wrong with enjoying the mainstream gay offering, in fact it was only once I had discovered the alternate gay scene that I felt comfortable enough to enjoy those parties that had previously caused me so much anxiety. Knowing that there was a different option, where I felt included, freed me from the pressure of thinking that I needed to conform. The point that I’m trying to make is that there exist ‘scenes’ beyond ‘the scene’. If you’re feeling disenfranchised by what gay society will have you believe is normal then know this – there is an alternative. It may not grace the cover of gay magazines and you may not notice the posters advertising its existence but beyond Beyond, WE, Papa etc. there is a place for you too.