Stopped at a red light, Malfunction Junction. A seventies model Chevy pickup ahead of me, bull balls dangle from the trailer hitch and a faded bumper sticker that was probably added when the truck was new, “Disco Sucks”. There’s a man-child anywhere between the ages of 18 and 30 in the driver’s seat. It could be a hand me down, his father’s rig.
I’ll never share the memory of peeling the backside from that sentiment and slapping it on the tailgate in front of me. But I do have a scrapbook full of goose bump gospel moments in the fellowship of outcasts.
“The anti-disco slogan, ‘Disco Sucks’ available on t-shirts, bumper stickers, buttons and more…” Luis-Manuel Garcia explains, “…wasn’t just a metaphor in the ‘70s: it was a direct reference to cock-sucking, aiming a half-spoken homophobic slur at disco and its fans.”
I came of age in queer bars. I’m not gonna lie, I had some moves. I’m like Pavlov’s dog when I hear the thump of a drum machine and the pulse of a synthesizer. My shoulders roll, hips gyrate, feet slide and arms rise towards swirling colors real or imagined.
The light turns green, a new generation on my playlist; Janelle Monae’s “Django Jane” revs into the speaker, volume up, foot on the pedal I’m singing along, head nodding. I’m as fired up as ever.
My education began in earnest in the basement of the Palace Hotel and house parties in the late seventies. I was still in my teens. I was reading Our Bodies, Ourselves, Rita Mae Brown and Patricia Nell Warren. Holy Shit, I wasn’t alone.
House parties grew into clubs. We danced to meet each other, to be together, to celebrate. We were outcasts in high schools and hometowns. We were weirdos filled with shame but when we twirled and moved sang out “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, “I Will Survive” and “We Are Family” always ending our nights with “Last Dance” it was with a fist in the air.
It was life schooling. I enrolled in advanced courses of acceptance and denial, hitting the floor with an earnestness I had previously reserved for class officer campaigns. “Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir, Voulez vous coucher avec moi”?
In 1979 radio D.J Steve Dahl lit the fuse on the Disco Sucks movement in Chicago where he blew up disco records in Comiskey Park at a baseball game. AIDS was new and on the rise, terrifying the club scene. Confusion about what it was and how you might catch it contributed to the backlash.
Fran Lebowitz commented on the events, “There’s music I don’t like, but I don’t make a career out of not liking it-I just don’t listen to it. ‘Disco Sucks’ was kind of a panic on the part of straight white guys. Disco was basically black music, rock ‘n’ roll was basically white: those guys felt displaced.” A familiar refrain today, a scratchy record on repeat.
About the same time the assault on Disco was picking up speed my parents split for good. My father left his longtime teaching job in a local high school after falling in love with his student teacher, a young man in his mid twenties, closer to my age than my dad’s. Pop came out in a blaze of glory or burning bridges depending on which angle you looked at it. He moved to Portland and went to work for the Oregonian.
Thinking about it now, I may have wanted him to hang his own balls from his rear-view mirror like he had dice in his Northern Montana College days. I guess this might really be a sign of castration. These are steers, not bulls. Whatever. Anyway, I wanted him to be my dad again, not the poster child for a mid-life crisis. I jumped in my ’66 Dodge Pickup, a retired forest service truck that I had painted sky blue and followed him out west.
I pulled into the city, both cocky and overwhelmed as I went the other way on a one way. I had a meager savings, a typewriter and big dreams, muted and muddled but recurring. Dad and I had some reparation to be done. At least I thought so. His part included subsidizing my writing ambition. After all, he had created and nurtured this monster. He couldn’t just walk away.
The transformation he was going through had nothing to do with fatherhood. He was trying to leave his past, all of it behind. I wasn’t going to make it easy for him. After all, this was about me.
In the beginning of this contract I wrote by day. I was working on a brilliant debut novel about a talking dog that had witnessed the murder of his mistress, stunning the world when he exposed the killer that had tried to silence him with peanut butter. Ha, who wouldn’t want to read this?
At night, Dad and I would hit the town. A weird and tentative twist on our relationship. I wasn’t old enough to drink but I had swagger. In my black polyester pants, matching vest, white t-shirt and cowboy hat that may have had a feather in it, I must have been hard to resist. We’d dance until the bars closed then work all day. Eventually, the arrangement got uncomfortable. Watching my father cruise was unsettling. I started venturing out to different clubs on my own like The Other Side of Midnight, Embers and Aaron’s.
I was shaking my stuff to A Taste of Honey with a local DJ who had befriended me when a small, beautiful dark-haired woman moved in and up on me. She winked at the other woman, pulled me away and into her.
This was Kris, a local attorney in her thirties. She fed me maraschino cherries from her amaretto sours. I’d practice tying the stems in a knot with my tongue.
Kris treated me well, took me to concerts, the theatre and barbecues with her friends. She’d pack a picnic lunch, her secret recipe potato salad. We’d drive into the mountains in my pickup that she claimed was a chick magnet. We’d lie on a blanket by a stream where I continued my lessons. We’d laugh hard and loud. I’d tell her about all the stories I wanted to write. She’d kiss me and tell me that she believed I could do anything. At night, we’d go dancing. God, I loved to dance.
Dad wanted me to find work if I was going to stay. Supporting the nightlife for both of us was taking a financial toll. I tried to convince him that I was working. My novel was my job. He was a patron of the arts. Unconvinced, he wanted me to contribute to the household, pay rent and help with the utilities. In a fit of rage and abandonment issues I left. I drove back to Montana where I found refuge in the arms and house of my high school sweetheart. I went to school and found a part time job.
Disco wasn’t dying, it was alive and well. I sought out house parties with the music cranked where I could find my groove again. I needed the fix. I felt alive on the dance floor with a girl running her hands over my body and whispering in my ear.
Later we’d have makeshift clubs of our own like the Amvets and Daddy’s. These were our safe havens away from the slurs, mumbled hostilities, nasty shout outs and bashings. We found refuge under the rainbow tent, in our big ol’ queer revivals.
I struggled to settle down, met another girl who would eventually get me to Seattle where I would let the colored lights and thumping beats take hold again. I just wanted to dance. When we split in the mid-eighties I gravitated toward the clubs like Neighbours where I would spend my weekends shouting and singing, going home with miss “right now”.
Our community though was experiencing devastating losses, our brightest, most creative men, our friends were sick. They were dying.
I have a painting that hangs on my wall done by Seattle artist Matthew Luzny. I shared a house with Matt. He had a quick, dry wit and a bark of a laugh. He’d whip his shirt from his lean and muscled body. He’d shake, shake, shake in the heat of release. He loved light and color. Oh the things he could do with texture, glass and paint. He had vision.
I’d met him through an artist I was dating. His diagnosis was perplexing and stunning. We didn’t know what to make of it. He and I had talked about having a kid together. The reality of such a venture was just the beginning of what we would come to understand about HIV and AIDS.
The “we” was taken out of it because I would never fully comprehend what it meant to live with the disease, the terror of a sore throat progressing to a full-blown cold. Matt died in 1994 at the age of 36.
In her book Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, Alice Echols says, “Lesbianism has never carried the same cachet as male homosexuality in either the music business or in disco studies. Disco’s only self-declared and unambiguously lesbian performer, Alicia Bridges, came out twenty years after she scaled the charts with her 1978 hit “I Love the Nightlife” And yet lesbian and bisexual women were part of disco culture-both in their own bars and in gay male and mixed clubs.”
Our history like history in general centers on men even in gay history. The dances and parties were filled with women too. These men were our brothers, we danced and sweated right along with them but little of it is documented. We participated in the seduction, the lure, our own sexual awakenings side by side.
- In the first minutes of January 1st, 2014 Musab Mohamad Masmari dumped gasoline down a stairwell at Neighbours the popular Seattle gay club. The 750 people inside escaped without injury, certainly not the attacker’s intent.
- On June 24th, 1973 an arsonist set fire to the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans.
- On February 21, 1997 the American terrorist Eric Rudolph set off an explosion at the Otherside Lounge in Atlanta.
- October 6, 1998 Matthew Shepard was beaten and left for dead near Laramie, Wyoming.
- September 22, 2000 Ronald Gay opened fire in a gay bar in Roanoke, VA, killing one and injuring another six.
- On March 1st, 2009 Lawerence and Lawrneil Lewis along with their cousin Alejandro Gray launched chunks of concrete at customers in a gay bar in Galveston, TX.
- On June 12, 2016 Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.
- June 28th, 1969 a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York caused an uprising and led to gay pride marches. Pride as we know it.
We cut loose. We were free. We got to be with people who understood. When you say, “Disco Sucks”, you can’t comprehend how we found one another or the way our bodies moved together. The risk involved was everything. It’s how we created community.
I love Disco. Dance music. It’s not the only music I love, I’ll put my eclectic collection up against anyone’s but I won’t be embarrassed by the 12” mixes that have contributed to my education as much as any lecture I sat through. Stonewall, discos, the seventies helped us find and shape our identities. It didn’t suck.
“I’m Coming Out” is an anthem we scream and shout. Don’t stop the dance.