One of the defining features of nightclubs is that they are loud and dark: there’s little allowance for speaking. It’s a space where our bodies are especially loaded, in part because they are the primary means by which we signal to, and experience, one another. We dance, we push, we touch, we avoid, we shoot glances across the room. The resulting intimacy is charged with volatility — sometimes experienced as warm and exciting, but always on the cusp of something suffocating or even violent.
Being Pride Week, I was prompted to reflect on some of the ways in which Johannesburg’s night spaces are experienced by queer and/or non-binary bodies. How does cis-hetero-normativity contribute to the contouring of the nocturnal city? To what extent are nightspots designated as ‘gay’ experienced as ‘safe’ by their intended audiences? And how do queer bodies negotiate the layered possibilities and vulnerabilities of the night-time?
One of the very first places I went out after moving to Johannesburg was Liquid Blue, a cocktail lounge in Melville. It remains unclear to me whether Liquid Blue was originally marketed as a gay bar, or whether it has simply been claimed by a queer audience. Either way, the lounge is now a widely celebrated gay night-spot, with a playlist that spans house, kwaito, hip-hop, RnB and pop — designed to keep the dancefloor jumping. My early experience at Liquid Blue made me stunningly optimistic about Johannesburg’s night scene and to this day, it remains the most inclusive club I have visited in the city. No entrance fee, with an audience that is acutely representative of the South African demographic: predominantly black, with white, coloured and Indian partygoers as visible minorities. The dancefloor is an exchange of intimacies that disregards race and gender, and although the crowd is mostly men, young women of any sexuality can feel a precious sense of safety.
Indeed, in my conversations with Johannesburg’s non-binary partygoers, one of the primary debates seemed to be about the place of cis-hetero bodies in queer night-spaces. A few months ago, while chatting to Desire Marea (of FAKA) about partying as a queer, black man, he told me that night-spaces specifically designed for queer audiences are increasingly rare. “Those spaces hardly exist now”, he said. “It’s literally a space that was once a straight club, and now it’s a gay club, and there are still some straight people.” In these spaces that were not designed for queer bodies but in which queer bodies are present, he argues that there is “still that energy and sense of being unwelcome”. It’s “not as safe as a space that is designated especially for you. And we need those spaces. We can’t just integrate. We want to explore ourselves”.
When Desire first moved to Johannesburg from KZN, he began renting an apartment in a lesser-known part of inner-city Jo’burg: run-down buildings, occupied predominantly by young men, many of whom had also migrated from KZN. Early on, he and Fela Gucci (of FAKA) began partying at the neighbourhood tavern. Having spent a lot of time in rural taverns, Desire described this to me as one way of connecting to a particular part of his “black experience”. He and Thato had been in awe of how homo-erotic the tavern was. Young men, many of whom would not have identified as queer outside of that space, were the sole clientele. “They were dancing in ways that would not have been acceptable even at Buffalo Bills”, Desire reflected. It was an intoxicating place, but its permissiveness was also fragile. After one of their friends was assaulted there, they did not go back.
Desire now speaks of his successes and struggles in claiming Braamfontein, as a space in which he, and other queer bodies, can feel welcome. There remains, he tells me, a class gulf between nightspots in Braamfontein and the tavern where he once partied, such that those in the tavern do not have access to places like Great Dane or Kitcheners. To some extent, Braamfontein has become a space in which the ‘alternative body’ is welcomed and celebrated. But Desire argues that there is often only a particular kind of ‘cool’, and a particular kind of ‘gay’ that is desired. He told me a story about a time he wore a dress on a night out and was waiting in the queue for the entrance. Although no one else in the line had been asked for an identity document, he was pressed by the bouncer and subsequently turned away. Those queues, he told me, were so often utterly “dehumanising”.
Part of what Desire is pointing to, in his story about the dress, are particularities about how femme bodies are received in night spaces. He describes this as the “hetero-normativity of gayness” in which “femme bodies are not allowed to express their sexuality in the same way as other gay male bodies”. Of course, club culture that is anti-femme also affects how women experience night-spaces. To this end, the monthly Pussy Party at Kitcheners has sought to create a pro-femme platform that celebrates femme artists and audiences, featuring acts like FAKA, Angel Ho and Dope St Jude, while also pushing back on particular forms of cis-het machismo.
These are instances in which traditionally hetero spaces have opened themselves up to more fluidity. But to what extent are designated ‘queer’ spaces experienced as ‘safe’ by queer bodies? Unsurprisingly, this answer is also not always clear. Many have told me that while these spaces might allow them to feel comfortable in their sexuality, gay clubs that are almost exclusively white provoke other discomforts and other forms of violence. Some described feeling “unacknowledged” which was “disappointing” and “painful”. Reflecting on a night out at a gay night-spot in Illovo, a friend said: “obviously I feel safe there as a queer white man. But it made me feel more uncomfortable than when I was in Kitcheners making out with an ostensibly straight boy because it felt like a church of whiteness”. Despite describing Illovo as “super white”, those I spoke to also recognised it as the heart of the post-Pride party.
And of course, the city’s designated ‘gay clubs’ are not only racialised, but also classed. In Maboneng, a new nightclub, Industry, has been opened with the aim of catering to “upwardly mobile gay men and women”. It is a very chic spot, playing cutting edge electronic music, with patrons who look as though they just stepped out the pages of a high fashion magazine. It’s in image that is at-once immensely appealing to some, and deeply alienating to others. And indeed, this is likely to be true of many night-spots in the city.
Much of the discourse on non-binary nightlife in Johannesburg is about the experiences of queer men, with very little attention given to queer women. In reflecting on her experiences in the nocturnal city, a friend of mine said this: “one of my major concerns when visiting night spots is about the level of unwanted attention and uncalled for touching. For me, not all queer safe spaces feel safe, in the same way that not all heterosexual spaces do. One of my most unpleasant memories at a particular gay bar was being accosted by the bouncers not only outside, but also while waiting for drinks. So one person’s safe space is not necessarily another’s no matter how queer safe they claim to be.” Perhaps unexpectedly, she said that one of her favourite spaces to go at night was the strip club, where the music was good, men did not bother you, and all the attention was on the working women.
Over the past few days that I’ve spent talking and reflecting about nightlife outside the bounds of cis-heteronormativity, the term ‘non-binary’ has exploded in its meaning. Not only do we need to think about how our night-spaces might welcome or militate against gender non-binary audiences. But we might also think about the ways in which our identities are always more than one thing at once. We might be both woman and queer and black; straight, white and disabled; rural and gay man; hip-hop head and crowd-phobic; and so the list goes on. All of these identities factor in the ways that we experience space. The question of queer-safe nightclubs seems then to point to this wider question: how might we craft night spaces that take our multiplicity as their basis?
“There’s just a lot more in Jo’burg”, Desire reflects. “There’s a lot more people dealing with energies, dealing with trauma. There’s a lot more conflict. It’s just a thing about the city. The conflict is a thing that’s in the air. But also a unity that’s very hard to reach. You have to delve to the deepest darkest places to try and find shared experience. Nightlife for us is not just going out. Nightlife is also sharing a bed with someone. Essentially nightlife is living the way you want to exist and it’s transcending the experience you have during the day. It’s like you’re emancipating yourself. It’s resistance”.