Written by Christian Hart
From time to time, we at noiZe feature a classic article from Circuit Noize. This one, adapted from 1996, is by Christian Hart, who has studied the sociology of AIDS.
I always tell people if you want to feel God, or the presence of God, you have to go to the most packed Circuit event, or a packed gay bar. Grab your partner and head out until you’ve worked your way to the very center of the dance floor, underneath that big ball. Erase from your mind the decadence around you and feel the vibration in the music coming at you from every direction. Straight people may go to church for their spirituality, but Circuit events are my form of church and the DJs are my priests.
So someone said in an interview back in 1996 in now-defunct Genre magazine. Circuit parties as church? An outrageous statement—which I happen to understand completely. I am beginning to find in conversations with friends and strangers that many other gay men do as well. In discussions where I uneasily mention my sense of spirituality at Circuit events, I have been surprised and relieved to find others who feel exactly the same way, but who thought they were alone in that experience.
How can a Circuit party be spiritual? Something deeply important is wrought collectively and unconsciously by your community. You may have to let go of the idea of spirituality as defined by traditional Judeo-Christian ethics to go where I’d like to take you. Some of us have the sense that the Circuit has a meaning for gay men that involves a community-wide creation of a new—or maybe ancient—form of ritual involving music, dance, sexuality and at times, even drug use.
The Circuit can be seen as both a reaction to and progression from the era of AIDS. To see this, one needs to view the Circuit from a historical perspective. The early party scene centered on the major dance clubs of the ‘70s and early ‘80s: The Saint, Trocadero, Probe and others were places where we created communal bonds. That early party scene focused heavily on affirming our community’s burgeoning sexuality. We rebelled against the lie that our love was wrong or even that sex outside of a relationship was wrong. Then came our Dark Ages.
How AIDS Affected the Scene
The party scene gave way to the massive loss and grief experienced by so many of us. Entire social networks—families of gay men—died out. The mind-numbing number of deaths impacted all of us. Many feared becoming infected or infecting others. Some dreaded any physical contact, let alone sexual. Yet humans require touch by others. Perhaps nowhere is this greater than among gay men, who have been taught that touch between men is taboo. HIV cast a great fear about sex among us but couldn’t lessen our need for contact. That fear, however, expanded to intimacy: How will I cope if I get close to this man and he dies? Is his T-cell count lower than mine? How will I reveal my own serostatus? What if he’s not positive (or negative) like me?
The disease put a major damper on our ability to connect with each other, physically and emotionally. But it also forced us to grow in other ways. We realized the importance of taking care of our own. We expressed courage in the face of death. We achieved success in creating a positive sense of identity for those living with HIV. We created new organizations, movements, and political armies. We explored forms of enlightenment that spoke to our yearnings in ways that traditional religion did not. Our spirituality emerged—in contrast to its general absence previously.
Eventually we began to rediscover the joy of music, dance, and, yes, sex. But this renaissance wasn’t simply a recapitulation of the early party scene. The old joys became enhanced by our growth during those Dark Ages. We were tempered by death and our subsequent search for meaning. I appreciate the importance each moment so much more now. As a community, we have learned how precious life and love really are.
In his book Reviving the Tribe, the late Eric Rofes wrote movingly of his personal renaissance: “It was when Patrick Hernandez’s deep voice boomed over the speakers singing ‘Born to Be Alive’ that I lit up—fully alive for the first time in a dozen years. I could tell myself finally that awful things had happened, the men the music sparked me to remember were now dead, and the dreams I once had had been mutilated beyond recognition. But I was alive, and it was Spring reentering my body and my life, as if returning after being beamed up to a UFO and psychically possessed for a dozen years. It was then that spirit once again filled me, and the legacy available to all survivors of disasters—the return of the possibility of again living and thriving—came to me like a wave of salty seawater wildly washing over me, giving me a moment to catch my breath, then rolling over me again.”
Later, he writes of our community: “To see men embrace and love each other in response to neither loss nor terror revives my dreams from a life long ago. To watch masses of men dance together, celebrating raw life-giving powers of music and desire forces me to acknowledge that the human spirit is not easily subdued. When once again two men can kiss hard on the mouth as neither victims nor survivors nor captives of stealth terror, then peace and order will settle over the tribe and life will again move forward.”
This rebirth from AIDS Rofes refers to is epitomized in the Circuit. It’s no coincidence that so many Circuit parties are fundraisers. They have become an escape from the plague and a way to meet the needs of those who require our care.
Circuit parties: Events held around the world by large groups of shirtless, sweaty, handsome men celebrating our love, sexuality and tribal connection. Certainly, different people attend for different reasons. For many, they provide a place to regain a sense of joy about life, to experience the rapture of dancing and free expression. For some others, they’re a rite of passage, where young gay men can experience the joy of openly reveling in their sexuality. For me, such experiences include a sense of spiritual connection with the universe.
I remember being at a party on Fire Island with friends. During dance breaks, we discussed our weaknesses and fears and the unwavering support we both gave and received. I remember discussing philosophy and playing silly games to the beat of the music. I remember meeting and lusting after incredibly handsome men. I remember feeling a connection binding all of us on that dance floor. And at a certain moment, I realized something as I was basking in that glow, bobbing in the ocean of men, music and sheer physicality of the dance.
My realization surprised me, but at that moment, the combination of love, grief, play, intellectual challenge, dance, music and the sensuality of so many handsome men brought about the happiest moment of my life. My sense of integration with myself, my friends and the other dancers at the dance, and to whatever force binds the universe together was complete, perfect and according to plan.
Immediately following that party, my companions and I held a farewell ceremony at the water’s edge for our dead friends. We found we could fully express joy for life one moment and acknowledge our utter finality the next—and do so with grace, style and humor.
Confronting the Circuit’s Dark Side
The idea that music, dancing, sexuality and altered states could involve spirituality is not without precedent in other cultures both past and present. Most pre-Judeo-Christian religious events included music, dance and sexuality. Circuit parties evoke comparisons to Native American powwows—ritualistic tribal gatherings with music, dance and psychotropic plants. Recent archeological work suggests that primitive rock and cave art paintings depict shamanic drug trips. Many criticize the Circuit and our community in general for drugs. It’s true that extreme measures like drug use are not necessary to experience the kind of spirituality I’ve described here.
But what about the dark side of the Circuit? When do we cross the line from recreational use to abuse? When does joyfully expressing our sexuality degenerate into compulsive sexual behavior? When drugs or sex start to be used as primary coping mechanisms or lead to unsafe sex, how do we deal with it as a tribe? We’ve learned to take care of each other in sickness. It is only a short step to caring for each other in health.
The Circuit is often criticized as overemphasizing superficiality. Because of the cult of body worship and beauty, some claim that inner qualities are devalued. But this is not unique to the Circuit—and the claim may involve some insecurity on the part of the person making it. A man who attends a party for the first time, especially if he is alone or with someone who also has not previously attended, might feel unwelcome in that seemingly closed circle of muscular men.
As in any social situation, I feel more comfortable introducing myself to those I’ve seen before at other events. It may be precisely seeing and recognizing the same men at different events that creates a bond even with someone who would otherwise be a stranger. Our eyes meet across the dance floor in the seconds during which all intervening heads have somehow simultaneously parted, and we express our connection.
We have always had to develop our own sense of who we are by questioning assumptions. Despite growing up in a largely hostile world, we have learned that being gay is wonderful. But we still have to deal with internalized homophobia. Who better, then, to question traditional notions of what religion or spirituality entails than ourselves?
The Circuit is a phenomenon in our community. Are these events merely chance occurrences? Are they just men being boys? Or is there something here that bears more thoughtful consideration? We only benefit from discussing our community openly, rather than in hushed conversations, while looking over our shoulder, lest someone hear us blaspheme.
Thank you for sharing this with us.
By Kyle Garner on 07-22-2011