A couple weeks ago I posted a Facebook status: “One day I’ll be a good gay man and be able to afford Masterbeat, Hustlaball, Southern Decadence, The Black Party, and all the Folsom parties. Till then, I can hardly afford Target.” It was intended, of course, as a cheeky complaint over how expensive gay circuit parties are. But one friend read it as something darker.
In his living room in North Hollywood, he later told me, “I don’t think you realize how expensive it they really are. As a lifestyle, its costs are more than monetary. It’s not something to idealize.”
His words stuck, and spurred me to have some frank conversations with friends who routinely travel to party weekends like Up Your Alley in San Francisco, the White Party in Miami, and so on. I met all of them at places like this—on a sweaty dance floor during Atlanta Pride, or on one of my trips to the Folsom Street Fair.
Talking to them, I noticed our similarities. We were all urban, white, and sexually adventurous. We flocked to the “big three”—New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles — for fun times. But I was significantly younger than they were (they were all middle-aged, more or less). And I was poor. As much as I would love to, I couldn't afford to leisurely fly off to Madrid for a sexy bear gathering.
A friend “who knew a guy” got me into Magnitude, the Folsom Street Fair's official dance party, last September; sparing me the $125 ticket. New York City's Black Party holds the reputation as the largest and most bacchanal gay circuit party in the world — a madhouse of costumes, public sex, and electronic music (it's on my bucket list). Tickets to last year's party cost between $150 and $180. Tickets to Rapido in Amsterdam cost 75€ (approximately $80) when co-purchased with tickets to FunHouse, the afterparty. A V.I.P. pass to all the parties during Hustlaball weekend in Berlin costs 179€ (approximately $192), and that doesn’t include the “Steam Cruising” afterparty at one of the city's luxury gay saunas. And VIP weekend passes to Masterbeat, the New Year's Eve circuit party weekend in Los Angeles, cost a whopping $325. Those costs literally exclude many gay men from attending; but that exclusivity somehow makes them even more attractive.
These events and the dozens more like them bring together three wonderful things—sex, music, and travel—with the unspoken promise of party drugs thrown in. Many of them give a percentage of funds to LGBT organizations. But if seen as businesses — which they are — these events drive a global industry catered exclusively to gay men with deep pockets. It's an industry that overlaps with gay fashion, gay media, and gay entertainment.
My reasons for wanting to go are simple. They're fun. But there's more to it than that: a party weekend promises a place where I can dance and cruise with a carnality that can't be unleashed at the local gay bar. They promise a break from the post-AIDS sex-phobia we live in. Every gay man has things they love about gay culture (at least, I hope they do). I love a dance floor filled with shirtless guys.
In the United States, public opinion has rapidly embraced the monogamous, family-oriented image of gay men. When the supreme court ruled in favor of marriage equality last year, it was a long-deserved and hard won victory. But if the zealots and homophobes of America who opposed the ruling glanced behind the black curtain at the backroom of the Full Fetish party that September, they would have seen me and hundreds of guys engaged in a very different cultural tradition—one that would surely affirm all their ugly prejudices.
The fact is that cruise culture isn’t dead. It has simply moved from wooded parks in America's cities to circuit parties all over the world—and it carries a $200 entrance fee. That admittance price comes after travel and hotel costs, and it doesn’t include the amount of money we spend on sexy clothes or “party favors” that are an inevitable feature of this milieu. Some guys I chatted with couldn't calculate how much they had spent this year on gay events. And nearly every one I spoke to gave me a warning.
“You wouldn’t believe how many of my friends are addicted to Tina,” one said. Every guy said something like this: they had a friend who took it too far, who equated the dance floor with drugs, or who spent so much money and time in the gay party circuit that they had ostracized themselves from the more placid parts of life: from nights at home, movies in, and time with (non-sexual) friends. While many of them appreciated the feeling of fraternity they felt with gay men all over the world, every friend expressed a similar sentiment: “I need to slow down one of these days."
One night I was standing outside the Beverly Wilshire with a friend from Seattle. We were admiring some Ferraris parked in the entrance. The conversation drifted to his former cocaine addiction, which eventually led him to rehab. He's been sober for years. “We look the best and live the worst," he said. His voice sounded defeated. "Gay men burn the candle at both ends.”
It was a sweeping decree, but in my own life it was true. I remembered the last time I stumbled out of a club in Atlanta at six in the morning, trembling and sweating, so fucked up I could hardly speak. In that moment, I felt like a child playing a man's game — or, more accurately, a man being childish.
There were nights I had felt overwhelemd and used, and not in a good way. How many times had I used those events to numb myself and forget my poz status? How many guys had discovered for themselves that party drugs have a nasty habit of increasing HIV risks? How many times had I paid large fees to get into some pricey club or exclusive party, only to be dissapointed? At those times, the lack of money in my wallet was worsened only by the feeling that my sexuality — my need to be around other gay men — had been manipulated and banked on.
I remembered what my friend had said to me: "As a lifestyle, its costs are more than monetary.” These were the non-monetary costs he meant: the cost of buying into an image of what your gay life is supposed to be, an expensive and glamorous picture that seems to leave many feeling empty and spent. What he told me in his living room was his own little dirge to the lost friend, the one everyone seemed to have.
No one told me circuit parties are entirely bad, and I don't believe they are. They can be great fun, they can be liberating — but they do come at a price. Is that cost worth it?
No one told me to calm down or stay home. In their different ways, they simply told me: be careful, becasue this life can hurt you.