By Sam Sciarra
Within the context of western democratic nations, unprecedented human rights advances have characterized the past fifty years for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Of course, we cannot deny that there is still a very long way to go—LGBT citizens of certain nations like the United States still face much discrimination and lack crucial freedoms (such as the right to get married, among others). However, it is still important to recognize that this increased societal acceptance of LGBT people has resulted in the creation of distinct yet similar gay youth subcultures throughout the cosmopolitan west. These gay ‘scenes,’ which primarily revolve around the nightclubs and various nighttime happenings of large urban centers, have become the preeminent space in which homosexual youth form their identities and engage in a decision making process concerning the type of gay person they want to become. This is most likely because, as Cattan and Vanolo (2013: 1166) suggest in their research on the emotional geographies of gay nightlife, “clubbing entails seeking people, places, relationships, and ways of being which provide physical and emotional security, which are often denied in the heterosexist world.”
The sheer importance of nightlife and clubbing to gay youth and their processes of identity formation in the urban centers of the west is perhaps the reason that these communities are often touted as spaces of openness and tolerance; as places where anyone and everyone is welcome to join and express themselves however they want, no matter their look, gender identity, or sexual orientation (hence the widespread use of the rainbow flag as a symbol for the LGBT community). Yet despite this perception of tolerance and acceptance, the actual experiences of gay youth involved in American and European LGBT scenes are defined by “drawbacks, such as the pressure to conform to dominant identities and dress codes, diffused consumption of alcohol and drugs, and exclusion from clubs for marginalized poor subjects” (Cattan & Vanolo 2013: 1159). In other words, gay youth becoming involved in their local scenes and engaging in the process of identity development face a contradictory perception of the tolerance of these communities, and thus feel a heavy burden to conform to dominant and more stereotypical ideals of “gayness.”
Los Angeles and Glitterball Mania
Such has been my own experience as a gay male student in Los Angeles, where a gay scene exists which is highly divided along lines of gay identity, and thus fragmented through boundaries of race, class, geography, and entertainment forms such as music. In Los Angeles, the neighborhood of West Hollywood is perceived by the general public as the center of gay life in the city, and the area has a clear alliance with traditional and older values of gay identity. These values consist of an extreme dichotomy of masculine or feminine appearances and behavior, excessive monetary wealth, drag queens and pop music which can be dated all the way back to the development of the first American gay youth subculture of the 1970’s, which cultural critic Alice Echols (2010: 48) claims were “the days when gay men were considered (and often thought themselves) gender ‘inverts’, internally female if externally male.” West Hollywood has since evolved into an exclusive mecca for LGBT men and women that identify with this kind of “gender-invert” ideology, which, as Holt and Griffin (2003: 411) note, undoubtedly seeks to “position the scene and its inhabitants as authentic and heterosexual space as inauthentic.”
But, of course, nowadays most gay people do not relate to this homosexual superiority complex and separationist mantra. Twenty-first century gay youth (like myself) who are not ultra-masculine, super-feminine or cross-dressers; gay youth who are not die-hard followers of LGBT icons like Lady Gaga or Madonna; gay youth who do not spend their hours going on shopping sprees on Beverly Boulevard, and gay youth that seek to spend time with their heterosexual peers as well as gay friends, feel completely lost in West Hollywood and excluded from the so-called “center” of gay life in Los Angeles. As a result, alternative scenes have sprung up in neighborhoods like Silverlake and Downtown, reflecting an attempt to move away from the traditional tendencies of the original American gay liberation movement that are still embedded in mainstream media and West Hollywood. But the burgeoning gay youth cultures in Silverlake and Downtown LA, in their effort to move past the importance of sexual orientation in defining an alternative gay scene, have so far failed to avoid the pressures of conforming to the old yet still dominant, exclusive, consumerist gay ideals of West Hollywood. The epicenters of these alternative scenes—spaces like A Club Called Rhonda in Silverlake and the Spotlight Warehouse Party in Downtown LA—began as inclusive spaces of mixed identity, in which sexual orientation was not highly emphasized, but the type of music being played each night was. But this quickly changed, and both spaces and thus both scenes have become inundated with the pressures of aligning with the “glitterball mania” tenets of West Hollywood, with exclusive (or exclusively gay) guest lists, dress codes, expensive drinks, shirtless buff men, and drag queens. Griffin and Holt (2003: 420) would argue that the inability to distance these scenes from West Hollywood “may be due to the global spread of the language of authenticity as rehearsed in gay liberation discourse and the rhetoric of consumerism.” Nevertheless, after two years in a city as large and diverse as Los Angeles, not feeling a sense of belonging with the “center” of gay life, West Hollywood, or the alternative scenes of Downtown or Silverlake left me wondering: where can I go to fit in?
This feeling of alienation, of being lost, of not belonging, and the emotional consequences of not connecting to the “glitterball mania” that exists in gay Los Angeles, was one of the key factors that gave me the motivation to research the existence or nonexistence of this phenomenon in other urban European gay scenes. Of course, a main goal of this research was personal—I wanted to learn more about my own identity as a gay young man. But I also wanted to (hopefully) find the antithesis of Los Angeles: a truly post-modern youth culture that, for LGBT people, has already advanced past the traditional, older ideologies of gay-straight separation, consumerism, and extreme dichotomies of masculinity and femininity. I hoped to find a place where there is no gay scene, but just the scene. A place where straight people, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and everyone in-between can mix, mingle, and socialize. A place where youth look past the categorizations of “gay” or “straight;” a scene in which sexual orientation is not the most significant common thread linking young people and their social groups together. My hope is that the findings from this research will give all other LGBT youth who are feeling lost and excluded from their local scene the courage to go and seek out their own vision of an inclusive gay community.
Berlin: No “Gay Scene,” just “The Scene”
Although my course of study landed me in the Netherlands (which is why my research attempts to focus on the gay scene in Amsterdam), I used the opportunity of living in a central European city to explore and immerse myself in the gay youth scenes of several places—and I found the closest thing to the opposite of Los Angeles while visiting Berlin. Over two separate visits of four days each, I was plunged into the legendary nightlife of Berlin, visiting several bars, clubs, neighborhoods, and even a citywide street festival on Germany’s Labor Day. Throughout both visits, I attempted to remain acutely aware of the happenings around me, while asking critical, research-related questions: To what extent is there an emphasis here on sexual orientation and ‘traditional’ ideals of gayness? Does there seem to be separation between gay and straight, or is there evident togetherness? Through the anthropological research method of ‘deep hanging out’ (also known as participant observation), I was able to determine that Berlin has mostly moved past the conventional gay ideals of exclusivity, glamour, and extreme masculine-feminine dichotomies that define traditional western LGBT communities, and especially the scene in Los Angeles.
Evidence of this could be seen throughout my visit. For example, one night I went out alone to Südblock, a gay nightclub in the hip area of Kreuzberg. Although the website of the venue clearly advertises the space as a gay one (complete with rainbow flag symbolism), I could immediately tell by the event flyer that this was not going to be a ‘traditional’ gay party by any means. Instead of the typical pink-clad, shirtless guy or drag queen imagery, the BOO HOO party used clever green alien illustrations in their flyer, perhaps indicating the promoter’s desire to move away from long-established ideals of gay beauty and behavior and towards a futurist model of inclusion for all. Keeping in mind Sarah Thornton’s (1995) point that “’authentic’ subcultures are largely constructed by the media, members of subcultures acquiring a sense of themselves and their relation to the rest of society from the way they are represented in the media,” the flyers for LGBT parties are hugely significant in establishing the definition of authenticity for a specific event (Bennet 1999: 604). Südblock’s organizers surely recognized this fact and attacked the problem of idealized gayness at its roots. Likewise, the definition of authentic openness at Südblock was further reinforced in the description of the party online, in which the organizers wrote: “can we just say we love the crowd that’s been coming to our parties? You’re beautiful! And we don’t mean that in a lookist way that reinforces beauty standards—we mean your souls or whatever. The vibes have been good, and it’s all your fault.” (ResidentAdvisor 2015) Before even arriving at Südblock, one could sense the tolerant attitude towards looks, identities, and behaviors—quite a different approach than the glitzy, showy definition of gay authenticity as advertised in West Hollywood (see the difference below). Attending the party at Südblock was refreshing—the crowd was a crazy mix of people: equal amounts of gay men and straight couples, some lesbians, and even a few cross-dressers here and there. But the key element that distinguished this party from a gay event in Los Angeles was the crowd’s lack of individual visibility; no one attempted to stand out or be noticed more than anyone else.
This unassuming characteristic proved to be typical of Berlin as a whole throughout the time I spent in the city, and it is further reflected in Berlin’s lack of a specific “gay neighborhood.” Gays could be observed everywhere in the city—from the party at Südblock and other popular “non-gay” nightclubs such as ://about blank and Ritter Butzke, to the kebab restaurants in Kreuzberg or Freidrichstein and the cafés of Prenz Lauerberg, and everywhere in between. The gay community of Berlin has mastered the art of integration, and all of the city’s young residents (and visitors alike) seem to have dropped the boxes of “gay” or “straight” and embraced a postmodern, fluid view of sexuality. The progressive, tolerant atmosphere in Berlin, when compared with the antithetical environment in Los Angeles, induced the realization that a continuum of western gay youth scenes altogether exists—one that involves varying levels of tension between old and new visions of sexuality, and a multiplicity of gay identities. The scene in Los Angeles can be positioned at one end of the scale while Berlin occupies the other. Hence, this awareness left me asking the pressing question: where does Amsterdam fit on this spectrum?
Amsterdam and the Disjuncture between Perception and Reality
Before starting my exchange in Amsterdam, I expected to experience a truly progressive city with an atmosphere of gay visibility, acceptance, and harmony with the straight community. These lofty expectations were surely based off of Amsterdam’s rich history of gay liberation and the city’s ensuing international reputation as the “Gay Capital City” of the world. Moreover, the city’s lenient attitude towards common western taboos such as marijuana, hard drugs, and prostitution only reinforced the perception that Amsterdam would have a gay youth community with a much different vibe than that of Los Angeles. In line with these expectations, I developed three critical research questions to assist in an uncovering of what the gay youth culture in Amsterdam is truly like. I sought to find out: what kinds of tensions and boundaries have been fostered within the gay scene in their efforts to integrate or separate with the straight community in Amsterdam? To what extent do the different ideologies of gay identity (conventional vs. postmodern) contribute to these boundaries and tensions? How does this environment compare with the seemingly inclusive ways of Berlin, and the exclusive atmosphere of Los Angeles (i.e. where does Amsterdam fit on the continuum)? Research was conducted throughout my four month long exchange program, and involved several methods such as face-to-face interviews, participatory observation (‘deep hanging out’) and the consulting of theoretical concepts and other academic work. My findings by and large position Amsterdam as a city closer to Los Angeles on the gay scene spectrum; although Amsterdam still prides itself on being one of the most tolerant and progressive cities of the western world, the LGBT youth community does not entirely reflect this well-known image of acceptance and inclusiveness.
The disjuncture between reputation and reality in Amsterdam could already be seen following some of my initial ventures into the gay scene. At the University of Amsterdam’s International Student Network orientation program at the start of my exchange, the A.S.V.Gay organization and their events were heavily promoted. I was excited to see that one of the primary visions of the LGBT student organization, as stated on their website, is “not…to separate herself of hetero students, [but] instead to develop good collaborations with hetero students in the shape of gay-straight-alliances on every level possible.” (A.S.V.Gay 2015) This indicated that A.S.V.Gay’s membership and social events would be full of a mix of all sexual orientations and identities. Yet while attending their first three “Borrels” (drinks) at the Amstel54, a gay bar in central Amsterdam, I realized that at every event, almost the entire crowd consisted of gay young men, with just five or six lesbians mixed in, and absolutely no straight youth. Furthermore, the male students in the organization had a strikingly comparable appearance—all white, with similar haircuts and sleek jean/t-shirt combinations. Already I could see that A.S.V.Gay, despite the organization’s self-proclaimed vision of inclusiveness and heterosexual “collaboration,” was not as diverse as previously anticipated.
My disappointment only increased when migrating with the group of A.S.V.Gay members to their usual Wednesday night hangout, the gay Club Exit on the Reguleiersdwarstraat. The club’s atmosphere felt like it could have been that of any gay bar in West Hollywood—blaring Top 40 pop music hits and a crowd of only gay men and some lesbians (no straights). Although the appearances of the gay men seemed to be a bit more mixed at Club Exit (perhaps because this was not an A.S.V.Gay organized event), the women at the club all looked quite similar and all had the same type of short haircut—echoing Griffin and Holt’s (2003: 412) point that “a standard of self-presentation [exists] that is expected on the scene and a judgmental gaze that applies to gay men as much as to lesbians with regard to appearance.” The pressure to conform to certain “standards of self-presentation” was a feeling all too familiar to me from my experiences in glitzy Los Angeles—and, as it turns out, I was not the only American there who has felt this frustration. Sarah, another exchange student friend who is a lesbian, explained to me that night:
Being gay has a lot to do with dichotomies. You’re either super feminine or super masculine, there’s not really an in-between. But that feeling of needing to be one or the other—well there’s a lot of that for lesbians too. For me, I feel like I’m a more feminine lesbian, and I have a lot of problems being visible as a gay woman, whereas if I had short hair everybody would know. If I wanted to look gay, I’d have to cut my hair off…to show my queerness, I need to do things to tell people that. (Sarah 2015)
Even though the experiences of young gay men and lesbians are very different and should be treated as such, Sarah’s comments reveal that there are significant similarities for all young gay people in terms of feeling the pressures to appear a certain way to prove one’s queerness. The fact that I was noticing these pressures already after my first immersion into Amsterdam’s gay youth culture was surprising to me, and seemed somewhat problematic considering the city’s reputation for openness.
After the mediocre experience with A.S.V.Gay and at Club Exit, I decided to check out Club NYX, also on the Reguleiersdwarstraat. A couple of people that I had met, both gay and straight alike, told me it was a fun club with a very mixed crowd of people and interesting music. After reading the club’s website, I was really excited to go, as it states that, “although NYX is initially a gay club, straight people are just as welcome,” and the crowd is supposedly “a melting pot of likeminded, multiminded people; people who are out to have a good time, to enjoy themselves and enjoy each other” (Club NYX 2015). Sounded like a perfect environment for me! Yet when visiting NYX (once on a Thursday night and once more on Friday) it became clear that in reality the atmosphere of the club only somewhat lived up to its broadcasted image. The appearances of the individuals in the club widely differed, consisting of an interesting mix of wildly dressed up girls and hipster-casual boys—reflecting this notion of a “multiminded” crowd. However, on both nights, barely any gay people—or any gay affection or closeness—was noticed. A plethora of straight couples could be seen hugging, kissing, and dancing together, but where were the gay people? Of course, I realize that my research and observations of Club NYX could be viewed as limited because I only attended two events there. Yet my general impression of the place was that it was overwhelmingly straight, and that the club, although “initially a gay” one, has become a destination for those straight youth wishing to take part in what they see as the “gay chic,” or the notion that being gay or socializing with gay people makes them cool or “trendy.” A similar transformation has occurred within the previously mentioned alternative scenes in Los Angeles, and especially at A Club Called Rhonda in Silverlake, which originally had a very mixed (perhaps majority gay) crowd but has now turned into a hot destination for the fashion-conscious heterosexual youth of LA. Transformations such as these are common nowadays, and can be traced all the way back to the tremendous rise of gay disco culture in the late 1970s, which, as Alice Echols (2010: 60) notes in her piece about the era, saw “celebrities and trendsetting (and trend-following) heterosexuals…pursuing the frisson of the illicit that still clung to homosexuality.” Club NYX looks like it has been unable to avoid the legions of “trend-following” straights—so much so that promoters at the club seem to have resorted to more conventional West Hollywood-like means of bringing back LGBT partiers, hence the widely circulated flyer (see below) for their annual Room Service party on Easter Sunday. Through this advertisement, NYX successfully reduces itself to align with the more stereotypical definitions of gay authenticity as embraced by the mainstream media. Thus, although NYX surely has solid intentions in terms of inclusiveness and tolerance, as their brand can be seen to be striving for an environment more like Südblock and Berlin, there is a major discrepancy between this goal and the reality of the crowd that is attending their events. Could, perhaps, a larger cultural phenomenon among youth be responsible for this separation between the gay and straight in Amsterdam?
If the experience at Club NYX was a prime example of the de facto segregation that occurs between gay and straight youth, then my time spent at Club Church was a bleak reminder that instances of de jure segregation within the gay scene are also flourishing in Amsterdam. Church, the most well-known gay fetish space in the city and a club actively involved in funding and organizing gay events throughout the year, such as Gay Pride and the gay party on King’s Day, effectively abides by the traditional, older values of exclusivity and gayness that I am used to seeing in Los Angeles. Not only are gay men the only people allowed to attend parties at Church, reflecting Cattan and Vanolo’s (2013: 1165) claim that “exclusion and inclusion are defined not only by money but also…by social networks,” but there are also strict themes and dress codes that partiers must abide by—and these codes are quite extreme. The night I (hesitantly) went to Church with a Dutch friend, Nick, who is actively involved in the gay scene of Amsterdam, I had to strip down into just my boxer-briefs in order to be let in. Of course, this was a very uncomfortable experience, and probably the main reason I have avoided the club since. This situation highlights a major discrepancy of the gay scene as a whole, and resonates with Holt and Griffin’s (2003: 412-413) general argument and their assertion that “the idea that queer subjects may avoid gay places because of expected standards of dress contradicts the idea that the scene is universally welcoming and suggests that, to experience the scene’s authenticity, you must learn to look like you authentically belong there.” And at Church, learning to look like you authentically belong there involves not only stripping down into your underwear, but also consuming mass quantities of alcohol and drugs. This was evident before even entering the club—my friend Nick explained to me as we were leaving for the club: “You have to drink a lot to have a good time at Church…no one at Church is sober. They’re all fucked up on something! Here, have another beer.” (Nick 2015) Therefore, Church, as a central figure in the gay youth scene of Amsterdam, is a first-class instance of the “drawbacks” that Cattan and Vanolo (2013: 1159) suggest exist in gay scenes throughout the west, especially concerning “the pressure to conform to dominant identities and dress codes…[and] diffused consumption of alcohol and drugs.” After experiencing the exclusivity and pressures of Club Church—and having so far examined this phenomena within three central players in the youth gay scene of Amsterdam—I was beginning to understand that the image of tolerance, inclusion, and openness that the city is internationally known for is not entirely the truth.
The presence of exclusivity and a separation between gay and straight youth was further noticed throughout my exchange and notably during my visits to non-gay clubs, bars, and events. Whereas in Berlin, events and venues I visited that were not technically aligned with the LGBT community (such as Salon zur Wilden Renate, Club Golden Gate, Kosmonaut, Suicide Circus, among others) had a significant amount of gay attendees who were visibly affectionate towards one another, these same types of places in Amsterdam had virtually no gay presence whatsoever. At a popular cocktail bar that I have gone to on numerous occasions, Snappers Resto, I thought a few times that the intense eye contact I had made with the bartender signified his identity as gay. Yet when I eventually gathered up the courage to go up and ask him for his number, I was disenchanted to learn that he was, in fact, not gay. I found myself in very similar situations at popular clubs like Chicago Social Club, Canvas at the Volkshotel, and the Melkweg near the Leiedseplein, and also at electronic music festivals such as HYTE Amsterdam and the DGTL Festival. I recognize that these happenings could definitely be due to the general cultural differences of male attitudes towards other men between the United States and the Netherlands. But when examined in conjunction with the exclusionary experiences of the gay places aforementioned, they altogether illustrate Amsterdam as a city very close to Los Angeles on the spectrum of gay-straight separation and values of conventional gayness.
Amsterdam’s position as exceedingly close to Los Angeles on my continuum can be solidified when considering the surprising but noticeable lack of gay visibility in everyday life. Even though my research mainly focused on gay bars, clubs, and other nightlife hubs, I made sure to pay close attention to the presence or non-presence of gays in ordinary public spaces throughout my time spent in the city. Of course, this kind of observation is imperfect, considering that one cannot really identify a gay person unless they are overtly engaging in an action of affection or closeness with a person of the same sex. However, when comparing the overall environment in Amsterdam with the amazingly high level of visibility of LGBT youth and gay affection in Berlin, it is easy to see that the stereotype of Amsterdam as the “Gay Capital City” is certainly not justified. Throughout my entire four-month stay, only two gay couples openly expressing affection towards one another in public spaces were noticed (one of which seemed to be hiding behind bushes in Vondelpark to avoid being seen). Whereas in Berlin, a plethora of young gay couples could be seen eating Middle Eastern food together in Kreuzberg, walking down the streets of Prenz Lauerberg hand-in-hand, or simply engaging in Berlin’s favorite pastime, drinking beer on the U-Bahn or S-Bahn, no where in Amsterdam could this kind of openness be seen. Even when attending HYTE and DGTL—two of Amsterdam’s best electronic music festivals—a noticeable lack of gay representation could be seen. Keeping in mind the thriving music festival culture in Los Angeles, in which festivals are often considered spaces where LGBT youth can shed the societal restrictions on public expressions of affection in the United States, we can position Amsterdam as equivalent, or perhaps even below Los Angeles, in terms of the visibility and openness of LGBT youth. Moreover, this lack of public visibility makes it abundantly clear that the LGBT youth of Amsterdam are, despite legal and societal (and therefore, cultural) perceptions of acceptance, still trying to “escape from the condition of isolation that characterizes many gay men…and lesbian women…living in an unsatisfactory and oppressive heteronormative landscape.” (Cattan & Vanolo 2013: 1169)
LGBT citizens of the United States and Europe are undoubtedly witnessing and living through history, as tolerance and acceptance of openly gay people continues to undergo a process of normalization into western culture. This is a fact that we can all be thankful for, as these gay citizens are our sisters, brothers, children, coworkers, doctors, politicians, and friends—and they deserve to live in a world that not only tolerates them, but allows them to fully explore and develop their individuality as much as their heterosexual peers. And still, even with the unprecedented progress that has been made in the last half-century, a large number of LGBT youth still feel marginalized; ironically not just by their straight peers, but perhaps even more so by the very LGBT scenes that are supposed to allow them to flourish into their uniquely gay identities. My own personal experiences, when combined and examined together with the findings from my research, illustrate an LGBT world that still essentially clings to the old, traditional, “gender-invert” gay ideology that has most likely persisted in gay youth culture because of its continued legitimization in mainstream media and advertising. West Hollywood and certainly the majority of the scene in Amsterdam almost perfectly embody this; surely contributing to common feelings of alienation and isolation shared among LGBT youth throughout Los Angeles and Amsterdam. Berlin, on the other hand, emerges from this experiential research as the most progressive, inclusive space for young gay people to experiment, form their identities, and (most importantly) be true to themselves.
And yet, despite the major problems for LGBT youth that have been cultivated by this dominance of a one-sided representation of gay identity, hope can be found in the springing up of small, alternative scenes that attempt to mimic the atmosphere in Berlin—such as Silverlake or Downtown LA, or even Club NYX in Amsterdam. Of course, my research highlights the fact that these scenes have experienced seminal issues avoiding the dominance of “glitterball mania” or an alignment with the “gay chic.” But it also is clear that these subcultures have very solid intentions in terms of perpetuating a postmodern vision of nightlife where sexual orientation is an afterthought. It is this kind of futurist intention, much like my own going into this research, that can help LGBT youth channel their struggle with feelings of alienation and isolation into a sort of agency when engaging with their local scenes. Now that my research and exchange experience is complete, I will be going back to Los Angeles, where instead of simply feeling sad for myself that I don’t belong like I did before I came to Europe, I plan to bring back the essence of Berlin and contribute to advancing the alternative scenes that need work. My hope is that my experience and research highlights that progressive, inclusive spaces do exist. Even though Amsterdam and Los Angeles (and the entire west, for that matter) have a long way to go in terms of allowing diverse gay identities into mainstream visibility, changing this reality first and foremost starts with not settling—and instead helping to create inclusive spaces that allow your identity to flourish.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
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