“The pressure, on my people, to express our identity and pride through the metaphor of party is very intense.” – Hannah Gadsby
I remember my first party. Will — a gorgeous kid with pockets like a pop-up pharmacy — makes his rounds on the high school lunch benches and invites the whole of Year 11 to his mansion in the backwaters of the northern rivers for his 18th. I’m a quiet kid, an introvert who has only been drunk a few times, and my best dance moves are the waltz and the foxtrot from ballroom classes years back. Nevertheless I’ve been invited, and my curiosity gets the better of me.
Will’s 18th was like entering the fae realm. Vases of flowers upended onto the kitchen floor, an antique chair upside down on the lawn. The people I knew had transformed. Some into terrible rampaging beasts, dancing like they were on fire, and some into eerie creatures who would whisk you away to some sequestered couch to talk in whispers and murmurs.
After laying low for a few hours, I ventured out onto the dance floor and the enchantment fell over me too! The lights, the music, the hot breath of my neighbour on my neck, they were intoxicating, and I danced the whole night. The rules of regular life seemed to float away and we became like animals, like gods. Utterly free.
Upon trying to recreate the experience, I become privy to a code and it’s a rude shock. I can’t help but see the way the boys and girls get drawn together through complex rituals of behaviour. In ancient customs, straight folks hunt each other across the floor. Fix his hair. Fix her earring. Glance up-down, stumble backwards into him. Catch her, lift her up onto your shoulders, so on. Oh. I thought, bewildered. It’s all sex.
Maybe I should have known that very few people will dance that much for dancing’s sake.
There is none of this for the queer teenagers. So what do we do instead? Well, most of my queer friends didn’t party at all. The rituals were alienating. The best you could hope for was kissing your same-sex buddy on a drunken dare to raucous cheers. No, thank you. Straight clubs, which I attempted, were even worse. Men, eager to initiate these rituals of seduction, hovered, waiting for permission. They gyrate vaguely to the beat, edging in and out of your personal space like a boxer trying to engage in hand-to-hand combat. My hope began to falter. Perhaps, I was back to being a sensible, sober creature, who preferred a night in above anything else.
But when I moved to Sydney, I knew I had to give it another shot. Sydney Mardi Gras has been world famous since its inception. How odd that gay folks could be so famous for partying, and yet my friends and I had felt so shut out of most of it. I headed out to Birdcage, at the Bank, one Wednesday night. Dionysus, Greek god of wine, was also the god of festivity and madness. His sacred festival was the Dionysia or Bacchanalia, in which the strict structure of ancient Greek society would be dissolved. Men dressed as women. Everyone drank ferociously. Women would band together and kill livestock in the field. It was a real party.
That’s what a queer space is to me. I entered the party and saw everything imaginable. Strange and wonderful costumes. Butch, fem, androgynous, drag, Luigi onesie. Dancing of all kinds, melodic swaying and wild thrashing back and forth. To move through the crowd was to be greeted with gentleness and kindness from every side. Excuse me, yes of course, hi, hello, hello. There was no ritual, no pressure. Sex was still there, but if strangers embraced they were drawn together by simple magnetic impulse, crashing together like waves in a storm. Codes of behaviour became non-existent. Now, these relationships were flexible and interesting, and power dynamics became…well, dynamic. Once again, the rules floated away, and I could dance like I was possessed.
As far as I know, my party fever will never break. There’s a reason the gays know how to party. Partying has always been society’s way of loosening the bonds, undoing the rules for a few hours, and that’s queerness’ forte.
After Mardi Gras Fair Day, I make my way to the Burdekin Hotel on Oxford Street for JUNIPERO, the afterparty. Named for the sapphic Black Mirror episode, the first floor is decorated like the fictional beach town of San Junipero. Beach balls, bubbles, inflatable lobsters stuck to the walls. I sit for a while as people begin to congregate.
There’s a display on the wall with beautiful footage of beach scenes and mermaid performers. The lighting is pink and pleasant, and the live music quickly draws a crowd. A hip hop performance by SOPHIYA was a highlight, with her big black boots, pigtails and deep, smooth voice. With the energy up, the crowd starts dancing to lesbian anthem after anthem.
The air is relaxed and happy. Folks of all shapes, sizes and styles intermingle and laugh. It’s one of those nights where you’re desperate for a rest but banger after banger keeps playing and you can’t help but gasp in delight and go on.
Later in the night, a burlesque performance from the immortal Clara Fable drives us wild and we keep on dancing. Thanks in particular to Mia and Natalie, two strangers who I might never see again, but who were so much fun.
During the party, and long after I go home, the feeling of acceptance and belonging envelops me in a glow.
You can still find me at Birdcage most Wednesdays, tearing it up. There’s nothing like a Bacchanalia to level the playing field every once in a while. Happy partying to all, and happy Mardi Gras!