“Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of negative and toiling in the world. Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that the world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.” – Jose Munoz, Cruising Utopia
Sure, we were there to make a love connection, Vincent and I, taking time away from our work to go to the bar that was a mere block and ½ from our offices. “Players” (the largest dance floor in Central Pennsylvania)—boasted an “alternative lifestyles night” on Sunday nights, on the not quite twilight hours of 4-8 p.m. We’d meet outside of the English Department building after a supper of Mr. Coffee-coffee and peanut butter crackers from the vending machines, and then walk down the broken stone path, passing under the overgrown elm trees—the branch of one of which decapitated a student one snowy evening. We wouldn’t dress up, really. We tended to dress kind of alike, gay boy and queer girl, with vintage button down polyester shirts in paisley and sick green and magenta, worn over white V-neck T-Shirts, ripped jeans with thick belts, and Doc Martens. (We’d both anticipate stripping down to our T’s when the dancing got good, in order to show off our respective stuff.) I was testing out my battiness that year, my first fully “out” year after a decade of gender fluidity, when I lived in the East Bay before. In central Pennsylvania, it seemed important to be readable. And so I shaved my dreadlocks into a smooth, close fro, and dodged lipstick for a while. It also seemed important to dress down in order to downplay our status as professors as people older than most of those who came to Alternative Lifestyles night. Despite it being a school night, the weekly outing drew a sprinkling of young (and mostly unattached) professors, people from the community and nearby, smaller towns, college students, and even younger people from the high school, dropped off by parents. It was helped by its open-ended label (“alternative lifestyles” being functionally vague) to bring people who were not quite out, or who knew the fate of those who went to “Chumley’s”—the bar in town that was explicitly gay, 24-7. There, Chumley’s regulars had to face random squads of “visitors”—people from the other bars in order to gawk at the queers, to pick fights, or just look suspicious. Vincent and I went to Chumley’s too, sometimes after class, or after Player’s was over, and talked about what brought us to this college town, where resources were high, but where home felt illusive to the both of us. But there was no dance floor.
“Players’” had a predominant culture of folks dancing by themselves, especially at the beginning of the night when people were still filing in. They’d keep the lights darkish, anonymous. Some people would circle around the floor, in loose, unpredictable, wild arcs. Others, inspired by the raves that they caught in Pittsburg or Philadelphia, maybe, would primarily pogo up and down, arms reaching to the ceiling. One guy always brought a large bone, sort of like the kind Fred Flintstone would use as a walking stick, and he’d hump violently with it to the beat. I would often dance the way I danced at high school house parties, listening to P-Funk and Off the Wall in Ezra’s basement, loose and easy, a kind of spank-come-freak, shaking my bootie down to the ground. I’d let my eyes glaze into the distance, concentrating on the beat, especially when the tunes were not the choicest – bland electronica would mix with Celine Dion and then Cher. There was never once a flashlight or a sign telling me to stop.
For me, those times veered between a Zen experience of beat and movement and my own breath, and people watching. Those were the best times, watching each of us: our styles, the different facial expressions and personas, the ways that we moved in a spectrum of tightness and looseness, butch and femme, closed and open. We worked out the tight muscles of the week.
Along with my breathing and the stretching of my muscles, I’d enjoy the feeling of my thighs as they worked to the beat and the vibration of music. It was a feeling that made its way down to the core of me. At some point, this singular pleasure became the focus of my nights, so much that it didn’t matter if I hooked up with someone by the end of the night.
My one-woman utopia was temporary, however. Inevitably, I started to yearn for Chicago. That yearning made me frustrated at the university and the small Pennsylvania suburb where it resided.
I began to wonder if others felt the same way. I remember sometimes the only thing that would break me out of my funk was when Madonna’s “Ray of Light” would play at the club. Everyone would break out of their comfort-zone and sing together, “and I feel like I just got home” and we’d try to match our moves with each other, maybe follow the Rave people and reach up high, or do a dog like the guy with the bone. I’d grab Vinnie’s hand for a cha-cha, or look out for some cute girl who wasn’t in one of my classes.
But it was those moments alone on the dance floor that were the most satisfying for me. Those were the moments where my own pleasure in the music intertwined with my fantasies about the queer life that I wanted to lead, the music propelling me into an imagined space that was not yet here. This was especially important to me in a town where I felt like I had very little privacy. I often felt hyper-visible as black and queer. I was the only African-American woman in the English department. And a queer one to boot. I often felt like my every move, professional and romantic was watched by some force larger than myself, maybe some like Rick Santorum or I don’t know who, but my need for those “Alternative Lifestyle” nights also had something to do with those other dancing bodies, nearby but not yet connecting with mine. We had something important to do there on the floor of Players, and it may or may not have to do with each other. Other queer women I know have expressed this same freedom that they’ve felt, dancing in gay bars in the 1980s and 1990s, in company, in the presence of gay men, hot, bothered, shirtless, and totally uninterested in anyone else but each other.
Turning away for a moment from the polyamorous perversity of the black and brown space of the disco, the supportive family of the Ballroom scene, or the camaraderie of the lesbian bar, I reflect instead on those moments of singular pleasure in black queer nightlife. How might the presence of a desiring body, enjoying itself –either alone or with others, queer the space around it? Perhaps it’s the process of tapping into one’s own sexual power that opens us to others, so that we move from a closed system of desire to porous, from singular, ultimately to multiple. Thinking about Jose Esteban Munoz’s words that began this essay, might our moments alone offer us a glance at queer futurity, the meeting of the world as we wish it should be and the world as we experience it, in the flesh?
“Oh, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good…”
In “I Feel Love”, Donna Summer captures the infectious possibilities of autoeroticism, but also resists our demands for satisfaction. For right now, it’s all about her. We revel in her knowledge of her own voice, in her testing of its limits. It takes us over until all we can think of is that voice, as it swells then recedes, skims the pulsing rhythm of Maroder’s invisible hand.
In one of the most visible examples of desire as already known, Michael Jackson created his own Party of One through his iconic language of singularity. As Nicole Fleetwood suggests, this language of self: the one glove, the sparkly socks, the surgically altered face—all create a gendered and sexual opacity– a way of “passing in plain sight” that was only confirmed by his death. Ironically, Fleetwood suggests, it is in death that Jackson’s image is reconnected to corporeality as he is reembraced as family member, heartfelt soul singer, and the little boy from Gary, one of us—in perpetuity.
But in a rare interview, before his rise to superstardom as a solo artist with Thriller and the performances afterward, Jackson suggests the possibility of escape and for a rare moment of solitary pleasure to be found in the nightclub Studio 54. “When you dance here,” he tells a young Jane Pauley, “you’re just free. You dance with whomever you want to. You just go wild . . . It’s fun to look at, you know, other people. You walk around and see all kinds of things. You know, Darth Vader was here the other night. It was incredible.”
It’s too bad that I haven’t had a chance to see that image of Michael alone at Studio 54 that he describes in the interview, the one of him lurking in the balcony Phantom of the Opera style. For the most part, the photographs that I’ve found of Jackson at Studio 54 show him surrounded by others, mostly engaged with others, if a little awkward. In one shot he’s boogying down with Diana Ross. In other, he’s having what looks like a serious conversation with John Travolta.
But one photo does capture my attention. Michael is on a couch with Halston, Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger. Jagger is making owl eyes with her fingers at the camera, a play at returning the mawkish gaze of celebrity, perhaps, and everyone else seems to be caught in mid-laugh, except for Michael. He seems distracted, lost in thought, sipping a small glass of what might be orange juice, dwarfed by his long fingers. His knees are pressed closely together, sandwiched between Liza’s lap and Bernadette Peters’. Here, Michael seems to have created a solitary retreat from within, under the gaze of others. He leans back and slightly away from the group, his eyes cast down and to the left, away from the camera. Perhaps Jackson is bored, distracted, wishing he were somewhere else. Or perhaps we are in the presence of the erotic, in the way that Audre Lorde defines it, as the space of the not quite realized, “the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling,” the space of queer longing.
Francesca T. Royster is a queer writer, teacher, scholar, mother, and jazz bassist living in Chicago. She has published two books: Becoming Cleopatra: The Staging of an Icon and Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era, in addition to numerous scholarly essays.