Pre-History of the Circuit
Written by Mickey Weems
You think gay dance parties are a modern invention? Gay men's passion for dancing goes much farther back than White and Black Parties. Our love affair with music and movement is well documented through 300 years of criminal records, when such antics could get a man arrested. Folklorist Mickey Weems takes you back to the days long before there was even a Miami Beach, let alone the Winter Party.
In the early 1700s, England was the home of molly houses, secret establishments where men could congregate, drink, dance together and hook up in back rooms called "wedding chapels." Molly was the slang term popular at the time for queers-the same term for female prostitutes, incidentally.
Molly houses had many of the same characteristics as gay bars and circuit parties today. Cross-dressing was common. One custom that has been lost, however, was the tradition of mock births.
The scene came to a crashing halt when the Society for the Reformation of Manners began to raid the molly houses and shut them down when the parties got too popular. There were cases of men (and at least one woman) being pilloried, imprisoned, and even executed. There was also resistance; but even though the men sometimes fought back, it didn't do any good; mollies were forced to take their culture underground.
Fast-forward 200 years to America in the early 1900s.
A lot of gay history involves men in dresses. In the 1920s and '30s, drag balls took place regularly in major cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis and New Orleans. These events were usually sponsored by African-American organizations, the most famous being in Harlem. They were a favorite of both the black and white straight elite.
Drag balls (also called sissy, fairy, or faggot balls) were spectacles in which a man could present himself publicly as herself. Not just men in drag attended these functions; women also dressed as men. Like the molly house parties, there was music, dancing and plenty of drinking. The popularity of drag balls for both straight and gay audiences eventually led to one being held in Madison Square Garden.
But pansies on parade in the middle of Madison Square Garden made the fags way too visible. The same popularity that undermined molly houses led to the demise of the drag balls. With the approach of World War II, the government cracked down on such "subversive" activities.
Once again, the scene went underground. Gay male festive culture expressed itself in rent parties (parties held in an apartment to help the host pay the month's rent) and orgiastic drugged-out get-togethers called "buffet flats" (as in "all you can eat") that would include live sex shows.
The Beautiful South
Few people know this, but portions of the Bible Belt are covered in rhinestones. In the 1950s and '60s, a circuit of underground parties was the rage in the Southern U.S.
When it comes to decadence, it should come as no surprise that New Orleans led the way. Gay Mardi Gras societies (called krewes) began in the 1950s with the all-gay male Krewe of Yuga, and drag queen contests during the festivities became popular in the 1960s.
As expected, police raided the krewes in the early days, but you can't keep a gay man on his knees for long. Eventually, the queer krewes became tolerated, if not accepted outright. Notably, like other krewes, they were racially segregated: The earliest gay krewes were all white.
A bigger surprise is the Emma Jones parties in Pensacola, Florida. They began in the early '60s when a group of men created an imaginary town resident named Emma Jones so that they could set up a post office box in her name. Emma Jones received homoerotic magazines to keep the men from being arrested for ordering obscene material over the mail.
The Emma Jones Society began celebrating their imaginary patroness at Fourth of July beach parties. Initially, the gatherings were small, less than a hundred people. But word quickly got out. The parties grew to 200 people, then 400, and eventually thousands of revelers would show up. In keeping with tradition going back to jolly old England, there were drag queens, music, dancing and, of course, lots of drinking.
Pensacola is a military base and resort town that largely depends on tourist dollars. For that reason, locals turned a blind eye to the goings-on for years. The police required only that people clean up their trash. These parties peaked in the early '70s and then slowly died, most likely due to local pressure against such a massive gay presence invading the small resort. But the tradition survives in the annual Memorial Day Weekend events, which began in the '80s.
I'll Take Manhattan
After the disturbances at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969, gay men's lives exploded in a celebration of their sexuality and dance clubs. Men were having sex everywhere, from abandoned trucks to the bushes in Central Park. This grand release of horniness generated its own industries: bathhouses like St. Marks and the Continental. Discos such as the Flamingo, Saint, and Paradise Garage gave birth to a new phenomenon, all-night parties in which a DJ kept the beat kept steady and strong by mixing songs together. The sound that came out of the gay clubs took over the world as Disco Music.
Thus was born the Circuit as we know it today. Fondness for creative forms of intoxication that came out of the hippy movement was wedded to the beat as Disco. The flame would just as quickly die in the straight world, but it kept going in the gay clubs, even in the face of the AIDS crisis.
As a community that fervently believes bigger is always better, we made sure our parties kept growing and growing up to present mega events like Gay Disney and the NYC Pride Pier Dance.
thnx for the intereting read~!
By Silvio on 01-11-2011
Hey does anyone remember what year it was at the White Party (or was it Winter?) when the Sphinx blew over on the beach? Crazy fun memory.
By NWA Boys on 05-02-2012