DIY nightlife in New York City is quite an impressive achievement given the high volume of other, more institutional nightlife venues and agendas all through New York’s five boroughs. New York City is known all across the world for its bars, nightclubs, music venues and other social spaces, not only because of the city being a microcosm but also because of the rather lenient limitations of the city’s curfew on alcohol sales, allowing clubs to operate until 4:00 am or later.
Despite New York being known as a city where everyone is welcome and individualities flourish, the reality of this sentiment at club venues is unfortunately not the case. Many bars, nightclubs and music venues have entrance fees that create financial inequities, excluding many demographics in the process.
Likewise, coincident with New York’s high cost of living, the clubs tend to attract groups of people who are a part of—or closer to—the 1%. The socially elite demographic tends toward homogeneity, distancing itself from notions of “queer.” Therefore, queer social life, especially nightlife, has moved further and further away from these more official, well-known NYC venues and closer towards “the underground” of DIY nightlife.
I use the term DIY nightlife, to refer to the events organized, promoted and operated primarily by private—usually queer—groups.
Events and parties that fall under this category have the privilege of operating under completely different terms. They typically don’t own liquor licenses, allowing them to keep the party going well past the city’s normal curfew hour of 4am.
Being so independent instills higher production requirements for the gathering. It also bestows a significantly higher level of agency for those producing the event who wish to ethically control where money is going . Some donate the profits to charities. Others find the option to operate more freely license to focus on what matters: creating a good time. A “good time” to many in the queer community is reinforced through the signs prohibiting discrimination or harassment of any kind–racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or harassment. Prohibition of these elements harmonize to form what many see as utopian safe space. Safe to be whomever you want to be, dress however you want and act as freely and unapologetically yourself, all the while in the company of community members.
So I wondered what would be the impact of pandemic of COVID-19 on the all-important social and community venue that is queer nightlife, now prohibited and the novel coronavirus impacts rendering all the DIY producers and subcommunities unemployed. .
Male models Matt McMahon and August Gonet are bartenders at New York City’s infamous nightclub, the box. The box has a reputation for being a nightclub that fits in with the exclusive clientele of the 1 percent. But it is also regarded as a safe space by the queer nightlife community, because of some of the weekly parties thrown and the slightly “out of the ordinary” or X rated content in their nightly burlesque shows. I spoke with both McMahon and Gonet about The Box closing their doors and what that has meant for them.
“In terms of our everyday life, it obviously affects us in the sense that we have so much free time now and are not able to see so many of our friends as we normally would while working there, but …. I feel like it’s affected us the most by taking away our source of consistent income and access to health insurance.”
Being male models with large social media followings, they are very privileged to have earned and saved money; therefore, the future of COVID-19’s affect on mass closures doesn’t necessarily worry them as much as others in terms of future employment. Furthermore, since The Box is an official place of business where the two were legally employed, they are able to receive unemployment. Many of their friends and acquaintances, however, are not so fortunate, they said.
“..A lot of friends and people we enjoy that space with, support themselves almost entirely with these nightlife gigs… it’s just usually for DIY events and parties that are put on privately, which obviously doesn’t suffice to be qualified for unemployment. So it’s been really sad hearing from our friends, a lot who were forced to leave NYC because of financial reasons, and they don’t know when they’ll be able to return. .. When and if they do return is it still going to be the same? A lot can happen in just a few months and the amazing energy that radiates from this sector of nightlife and makes it so special comes primarily from the minority groups in charge of it. The whole thing is just really sad.”
I wanted to know if anything was being done to frontload DIY nightlife in the virtual community, seeing how the closure of education and wellness institutes has lead to transition to online meet-ups, primarily using zoom.
“And yeah some of these DIY events are doing some virtual meet ups, using zoom I think, where there’s a dj and the usual party queens are there, but its just not the same; you’re not going to feel the same energy experiencing all of this through a screen while you’re physically still at home in a room by yourself… Also its not like they’re getting paid or anything in return, they’re doing it mostly to uphold the community, which is such a beautiful thing but still a little depressing at the same time.
Queer party community and DIY nightlife in New York City coincide in many ways, almost parallel. Most DIY parties are produced almost entirely by some type of queer collective. Whether it be the DJ’s, the promoters or the party organizers the entire dynamic is a part of the lgbtq community, a minority group or both. Matt and August voiced their sadness and concern:
“A lot of our friends in this party community are trans and/or minorities who may not have solidified citizenship status and depended on DIY nightlife to support themselves physically emotionally and financially. I don’t need to go into any details – I also want to respect the privacy of our friends— but a lot of people we know are having trouble accessing the hormones they need and HIV medication. Some of those who were forced to return home have been faced with the reality it may not be easy for them to return to the United States let alone New York City.”
Nevertheless, in my view, DIY/Queer nightlife culture is inherently anti-capitalist, making it all the more appealing to oppressed minority groups and communities.