On Saturday, hordes of gay men and other dance lovers will descend upon a club space in Manhattan for the Black Party, an edgier, kinkier underground variant of the “circuit party,” a gay institution that has, for better or worse, defined a certain strain of macho, drug-embracing, sex-positive party culture since their initial appearance around 1980. Circuit parties can be found all over the globe—on the circuit, as it were—from Palm Springs and Paris to Barcelona and Bangkok. But regardless of locale, the basics are the same: They feature local and world-class DJ talent and performers, have immersive production values, and are held in large venues filled with writhing, shirtless men.
Speaking of Bangkok, I just finished up a two-month stint living there, and while I had arrived expecting surprises, the existence of a circuit party was not one of them. Just as I was preparing to move, I came across a trailer for one.
It was based on the original White Party, which started in Palm Springs, California, in 1989.* The Palm Springs festival is still around, the style and aesthetic same as it always was—ads feature chiseled alpha males in speedos, flexing and posing. The Bangkok homage, named The White Party Bangkok, takes place over New Years and is produced in collaboration with the founder of the Palm Springs festival, Jeffrey Sanker. The trailer mimics that old school American circuit style with beautiful, buff men outfitted in aviators and designer underwear.
Despite the familiarity, seeing the video stirred the same sort of excitement I used to feel prior to attending one of these events over a decade years ago. It transported me back to that time when circuit parties were at the peak of their popularity in North America. Even the soundtrack triggered nostalgia, with a circuit remix (yes, it’s a whole style) of Abba’s “Voulez-Vouz.” But nostalgia is not exactly enough to fuel a lively cultural form. The remix’s tribal sound is from another time; its basic beats have since evolved to techno, deep house, or nu disco in the trendier queer club scenes. And many of the DJs who brought this genre to thousands of rolling queens have moved on as well: People like Victor Calderone who, back in the day, had famously remixed Madonna’s Ray of Light, has since gone on to more techno work and is playing some of the biggest EDM festivals around the world.
Overall, the gay party scene just seems so much more eclectic these days. There are groups like Horse Meat Disco headlining parties around the world, re-introducing the homos to that glittery ’70s sound while re-inventing it at the same time. I’ve seen them pack the Output venue in Brooklyn with guys dancing into the morning hours, seduced by smooth strings and that original four-on-the-floor rhythm. And then there are events like Burning Man, where we have our own LGBTQ theme camps in Black Rock Desert. We’ve come so far from that circuit vibe, with it’s non-inclusive standards of beauty and its stale sound. Of course, there are still many devout followers—but they kind of feel like those punks who won’t let go of the whole hardcore thing.
However, what seems played out to some can be revolutionary for others. According to Blue Satittammanoon, the producer and organizer of White Party Bangkok, the circuit scene in Asia is as fresh as new wave. This specific party is only in its second year, and the most recent festival saw approximately 13,000 patrons over the course of three days. That’s up from 12,000 who attended the previous year, when every single party at the festival sold out. As I dug deeper, I learned that similar such parties were happening all over Asia, creating a circuit of their own spanning from Bangkok to Seoul, and Shanghai to Tokyo. Given that the circuit scene in North America has been slowing down for the last decade or so, it’s surprising that the practice would catch on in Asia now, and with such strong appeal. To find out why, I decided to reach out to local organizers—but first, I reflected on what drew me to circuit all those years ago.
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I began fashioning myself as a circuit queen in the early to mid 2000s. I’d just come out and moved to the “big city,” which for me was Toronto, having grown up in a small town in southwestern Ontario. I got an office job, began earning a decent salary where they gave me my own desk and box of business cards. I had disposable income for the first time in my life, too, so I was poised to become a circuit boy—it’s not a cheap lifestyle, given the steep cover charges, necessary synthetic drugs, and travel expenses.
The first circuit festival I attended coincided with Pride weekend in Toronto. It was the first time that I’d ever taken ecstasy, and I still remember the feeling of coming up on the pills—problems that I’d been having with my family seemed to untangle themselves in time with the beat. we weren’t speaking after my coming out, but on the dance floor that didn’t matter. I’d resolved all our issues … in my head, at least … with chemically induced reasoning. I soon felt an intense euphoria just by moving my body with all those other men, with my people. Eventually I took my shirt off, comfortable enough to flaunt my body, proudly enjoying my sexuality and losing myself in the lights and sounds. It was fabulous. The drugs were fabulous. I felt so beautiful that night.
Inevitably, all my problems came right back when the weekend was over; but to escape from them, even for a bit, made them much more bearable. From that Friday on, I did “e” pretty much every weekend for years, in addition to gradually incorporating other drugs to take the edge off, like ketamine and coke.
I got buff, hitting the gym twice as hard, traded in my ironic graphic tees for skin tight muscle shirts, and even attempted to shave my body hair—smooth skin being the coin of the circuit realm. Being a very hirsute gentleman made the chest shaving problematic. The first time I tried, I just used a razor, but it turned out a mess since I still had so much hair on my thighs and lower back. I used Nair the next time, which worked, but left me freaked out by how easily the hair came off. I decided in the end that the best way to fit in was to just keep the chest hair trim. People seemed okay with that. In fact, there was even a niche market for it back then, well before beards and body hair were hip.
In circuit culture—both on the dance floor and in the effort it took to look the part—I found I was so much more than the “faggot” my family had said I was. I got in shape, I had my own phone extension at work, and I went to fun parties with beautiful, interesting people all the time.
I was following in a disco ball-lit path that thousands of gay men before me had strutted down. The circuit party started with men travelling between the The Saint in New York, The Probe in Los Angles, and Hotlanta in Atlanta. Many more parties followed all over North America, including Sanker’s White Party in the late ’80s. Although some of the events today are purely for profit, during the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s many became a way to raise funds for HIV/AIDS service providers. They were also where the community could come together and celebrate life during tough times, while remembering those who had passed. But as the immediate threat of AIDS faded—and gays were afforded more and more social opportunities outside of our ghettos—the popularity of circuit declined.
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To find out what was happening in Asia during those early days of American circuit scene, I spoke to Yoshida Toshinobu, the Promoter of Shangri-La, which is the leading party series of its kind in Tokyo. “Other than in Japan, the doors to the gay scene hadn't been opened yet,” he explained via email through a translator. “So in the ’80s and ’90s, most gays had to remain closeted. The only fun they could have was going to regular clubs. In Japan, there were gay nights every weekend, and house music was in its heyday.”
Although the White Party Bangkok only got starred back in 2015, a semblance of a circuit scene was forming in Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore fifteen years earlier, according to Toshinobu. Other countries like Thailand, China, and South Korea joined later on. The Shangri-La parties began back in 2003, just when the scene in North America was slowing down. They hosted five parties the first year, drawing 10,991 patrons total. 13 years later there was only a slight reduction in numbers, with 10,714 people attending their five events. So what makes circuit so vital to the Asian scene when, in its homeland, the necessity of it was largely obsolete?
“Now we’re seeing a kind of normalization of gay,” Russell Westhaver told me over the phone. He was careful not to imply that gay lives were adversity-free today, but just that there’s an increase in recognition of same-sex rights in the West. Westhaver is an Associate Professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, and he has spent many years writing about and studying the circuit scene as a participant and observer, though he admitted his last real party was 2003’s Black and Blue in Montreal. “I think as we become normalized we can occupy public spaces in these somewhat more comfortable ways,” he explained. “The need for collective confirmation, these sub rosa or hidden or alternative spaces becomes less of an issue.”
Of course, Japan is different than North America, and Thailand has its own situation as well. Though a city like Bangkok can seem like a paradise for gay tourists, with a number of gay nightclubs, saunas, and go-go bars, there are no anti-discrimination laws protecting the LGBTQ community who actually live there. Same-sex marriage is yet to be recognized. There’s even a sort of conversion therapy for transgendered youth.
Despite Toshinobu’s portrait of Japan’s relative cultural openness, anti-discrimination laws and recognition of same-sex marriage aren’t any better in Japan or the countries in the region making up this Asian circuit. Taiwan may become the exception, where late last year a marriage equality bill was approved by a legislative committee that could lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage. Still, to say that homosexuality has been ‘normalized’ like in North America is a stretch.
So could the lack of LGBTQ rights explain the popularity of the circuit scene in Asia?
Although his understanding of Asia is admittedly limited, if Westhaver were to guess, he’d say yes: “I think it’d be generally fair to say that when the rights of gay people are not particularly secure, when they are fundamentally marginalized in ways that they’re probably not in North America, they would experience the same kind of challenges that I think circuit parties in North America spoke to, which is a visceral celebration; being present in the moment; a kind of abandonment where you could be fundamentally who you are at a bodily level.”
Traditionally, these circuit parties are a place for gay men to be themselves—a sentiment Satittammanoon had expressed several times. “There’s something magical when thousands of gay men come together,” he said. “You feel like you’re part of a community that’s bigger than yourself; it’s empowering at the same time.”
“For those brief hours, you’re the majority. You feel the power on the dance floor,” Stephen Pevner, the executive director of The Saint at Large told me from his office in New York. (The Saint at Large produces The Black Party each year.) “I think [the circuit] follows wherever gay people who feel oppressed are gaining a mental picture of where they could be going.”
Since it’d been so long since Westhaver had been to a circuit party, I was curious what he thought about them after all these years. He described them as a necessary and “fraught” site of affirmation: “It was a place where gay men who, at one level, may have felt and experienced a great degree of marginalization could confirm themselves in a bunch of different ways in a narrower sense. It served the same function as gay pride does, more generally.”
Westhaver uses the word fraught to mean “neutral complicated.” He appreciates the positive aspects of the circuit, such as the connection one can feel with others and the freedom to express oneself through dance. But he also sees the negatives, like valuing particular notions beauty, the close connection the scene has with drug use and addiction, as well as the possibility of risky sexual behavior that comes with excessive drug use. Ultimately, he sees the circuit as a place of both empowerment and danger.
I eventually stopped going to circuit parties because I grew to prefer trance and techno music over that circuit and tribal sound. After arriving at a party and being there for an hour or two, I’d slip away from my friends and go to one of the underground clubs in the city that weren’t gay per se, but were certainly gay-friendly. That was in 2006, and same-sex marriage had been legalized in Canada a year earlier, which might be why I was finding more and more straight techno clubs that were gay-friendly. I started bringing fuck buddies and lovers with me, and we’d dance together all night long, grinding and kissing. Nobody said a thing to us and I felt more myself at these places than I did at circuit parties, because I didn’t need to assimilate to a certain look. I haven’t trimmed my chest hair since.
That said, I owe a lot to the circuit scene because it was a stepping stone toward self-acceptance. Once I left that world and started going to straight venues, I felt empowered in a different way, because I was able to be gay in a straight setting. Integrating my life was intimidating at first, but it turned out to be an important shift that helped me deal with my family when we started talking again. Those people at the club accept me, so you will to. And they did.
“The fact that emancipation has given us the freedoms to be out basically says that these circuit parties aren’t even really essential anymore,” Pevner said. Since this isn’t the case in Asia—not yet anyway—events like The White Party Bangkok seem crucial as they may help some men see how coming together in joy and communal action might get them somewhere better. Despite my conflicting feelings about the circuit scene, there’s no denying that during certain periods they have been instruments of empowerment, only becoming obsolete when equality is achieved. For gay men in Asia, circuit is currently a wonderful thing. But when it fades, that will be a good thing, too.
*Correction, Apr. 2, 2017: Due to a production error, this post originally misstated the city in which the original White Party began.