Riding the Rave scene

Benoit Denizet-Lewis

In warehouses and stadiums across the country, gay youth have found an open, accepting, albeit chemically enchanced, place to be out

The rave scene has been the target of increased media scrutiny this past year, largely because of well-publicized deaths and overdoes associated with the all-night parties. But often overlooked in the news stories is the fact that roves are among the few places where teens can feel comfortable being gay. In this report, Advocate contributor Benoit Denizet-Lewis goes inside the scene, describes the elements behind the receptive atmosphere, and explains just what it is that makes roving such a popular pastime among today’s gay and lesbian youth. What follows is a look at the wild and blossoming culture and a glossary to guide those new to the scene.

It’s a happy moment in the gayest youth subculture in America. It’s 2:30 A.M. inside this large multiroom warehouse in Oakland, Calif., and while about 10,000 young people engage in the fine `art; of parting, three shirtless teenage boys sit in a row near a massive speaker, eagerly massaging one another’s back.

About ten feet away, 16-year-old Jason–dressed in a white tank top, large furry pants, and what appears to be. five pounds of children’s plastic jewelry around his neck–is engaged in a ten-minute make-out session with his friend Darren. Only minutes earlier Darren was involved in a similar session with a skinny, hyper redhaired girl who says her real name is Jolly Rancher Girl.

Now Jolly Rancher Girl is too busy handing out glitter, hugging strangers, and dancing like she’s swatting imaginary flies to notice that Darren has his hands all over Jason. The pair’s make-out session is sometimes soft, sometimes sloppy, and the boys smile politely when interrupted by well-meaning girls who blurt out, “You guys are so cute!”

“Before tonight I always thought Darren was straight,” Jason says, hardly able to contain his smile, which has grown significantly larger since the drug ecstasy kicked in.

“I am straight,” Darren says, grinding hard on his blue pacifier. “But you know, that’s what this scene is all about. You can be whatever you want. There’s no gay, straight, none of that societal crap. Everyone can be bisexual here. If I want to kiss a guy, I’ll fuckin’ kiss a guy.”

On the turntables, barely visible through the pack of sweaty bodies, is DJ Dan, a gay man who hasn’t thought he was straight in quite some time. The popular 31-year-old DJ spins his funky house sound, and at this moment, with the dazzling lasers and pulsating beat, there isn’t an aloof soul in the house.

Observing this frenetic energy is Tom, who appears to be in his 60s but will say only that he’s “over 25.” Tom, who has a black yin-yang tattoo on his forehead, insists quite vehemently that he is God.

“I have always been God,” he says. “We are all gods. You are God too. You aren’t a gay god, you aren’t a straight god, you are just God. I mean, who the hell did you think you were?”

Was Jesus a raver? Probably not. But ravers–many of whom wear T-shirts declaring, JESUS RAVES–like to think that, given the chronological chance, he would have been.

Since its beginnings in U.K. basements and warehouses in the late 1980s, rave culture has consistently preached peace, love, unity, and respect.

The PLUR philosophy, combined with the subculture’s focus on drugs (including ecstasy, LSD, gamma hydroxy butyrate, speed, and pot), earned some ravers the name techno-hippies in the early 1990s. But as raves–usually allnight gatherings of young people who dance to house and electronic music–have grown in popularity and mainstream recognition, so too has the backlash against them. A number of rave-related deaths and overdoses have brought increased media and police attention to the scene this past year. The deadliest accident occurred August 29, claiming five teenagers when their car plummeted 1,200 feet off a rocky cliff after they had attended a rave in the Angeles National Forrest in Southern California. Pharmacology tests revealed all five had ingested some form of methamphetamine.

But what’s often overlooked in the news reports is that this is a scene of particular importance to gay youth, who either can’t get into gay clubs or don’t like the atmosphere of them.

“It’s weird because in many ways the rave scene, which has both straight and gay people, is often much more accepting than the gay scene,” says Jonathan Wishnev, 22, a DJ and student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who started going to raves when he was 15. “So much of the gay scene in most big cities is based on superficiality, and a good [rave] is not about that at all.”

For its followers, the rave scene is about more than partying; it’s about absolute, unconditional “freaks are us” love. “The rave scene is the only place where you can go and be with hundreds or thousands of other teenagers, both gay and straight, and feel no homophobia,” says Brian Manges, 20, of Fairfield, Calif.

Ravers can be found in virtually every community in America. They come from the ghettos and the suburbs, united by the appeal of a subculture that borders on a full-fledged social movement.

“The scene has spread everywhere, and young gay men have always led it,” says Jennane Britton, 27, a former label manager for R-Senal Records, a dance music label in New York City. “Believe it or not, the best rave I ever went to was in Knoxville, Tenn. But wherever you go, you’ll find gay boys in the scene. There’s music, an incredibly open atmosphere, and a ton of cute straight boys who, with the miracle of ecstasy, will do some pretty surprising things. What more do most gay boys want from a night out?”

Aside from the slim yet real possibility of scoring with chemically altered straight boys, gay male teens can find in the rave-scene environment a place to come out of the closet.

“The rave scene was the first time I ever hugged a guy other than my father,” Wishnev says. “If I hadn’t gone to raves and been surrounded by people who were totally accepting, who knows if I would even be out today?”

For teenagers who may be unsure of their sexuality, the scene provides space to experiment in a nonthreatening atmosphere. An informal survey of female attendees at a small rave in San Francisco found that three quarters had kissed a girl for the first time at a rave and one third considered themselves bisexual.

“Nowhere else in youth culture are the lines of sexuality and orientation as blurred as they are in the rave community,” says Ariel Meadow Stallings, executive editor of Lotus, a national dance culture magazine.

While raves differ from city to city, most feature a large percentage of gay ravers and promoters. Within each city the scene tends to be divided based on musical genre, including house, trance, and jungle, also known as drum and bass [see page 61]. Gay teenagers tend to be most visible at raves featuring trance, a scene heavy on androgyny.

While many ravers insist that the scene is all about music, spirituality, and community, the reality is that it would surely not exist without the presence of drugs. And this focus on dangerous highs worries many youth advocates.

“The rave scene is great as an accepting environment, but it becomes problematic when it’s intrinsically tied to drug use,” says Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker and coauthor of Lesbian and Gay Youth: Care and Counseling. “Many gay youth already don’t have routine environments where they can meet others, and if the only environment where they feel truly good and safe is one where they’re using drugs, that can set up a pattern of lifelong drug use.” Drug use can also lead to unsafe sex and HIV transmission, Ryan adds.

Stallings has seen both the beauty and the ugliness of the scene. “Anything goes at a rave, and that’s both its strongest asset and its biggest flaw,” she says. “At a party you can discover yourself in ways you never would have, but you can also go overboard and overdose. Sometimes you can do both in the same night.”


House: A deep, earthy sound, house music often uses vocals or horns and pianos with a generally funky, jazzy melody.

Jungle, or drum and bass: Especially popular on television and radio commercials, jungle music, also known as drum and bass, features a double-time hiphop beat with almost any kind of melody imaginable. Reactions to this distinctive music are usually extreme–“love it” or “hate it.”

Lotus: A national dance and rave culture magazine based in Los Angeles.

Pacifier: This child’s toy keeps ravers from grinding their teeth, a common physical reaction to the drug ecstasy.

PLUR: An acronym for “peace, love, unity, and respect,” a popular mantra of rave culture. Longtime ravers are the first to admit that the scene hasn’t always lived by that motto, but it’s still considered the standard of conduct.

Rave: An all-night gathering of young people (usually between the ages of 15 and 25) featuring loud high-energy music, complex lasers and light shows, and a plethora of illegal drugs. While some raves are illegal, many are fully licensed events in warehouses, clubs, stadiums, or outdoor locations. Attendance at raves can range from 50 to 25,000 but more typically is between 200 and 10,000 people.

Techno: Very electronic and industrial-sounding music, with a hard, generally fast beat.

Trance: Trance music is often softer on the ears and body than most techno, but it still keeps ravers dancing. Styles vary from slow, ambient trance to fast, psychedelic trance. Featuring floating melodies over gentle washes, trance is designed to take participants into another world.

Denizet-Lewis is a San Francisco-based freelancer who has written for the San Francisco Chronicle.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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