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Dancing in the Dark
Courtesy of the filmmaker

The untold story of black and Latino gay club culture

Dancing in the Dark gives outsiders a look at the scene and asks why some men are still on the DL – watch here and read an interview with the filmmaker

Over the thumping bass pouring out of the speakers, as you wade past the occasional bouncing ass or the powder-beat mug of a drag queen, you’ll soon notice that to some, gay night clubs are more than a spot for a fun night out or even a safe space – this is church. Through the years, gay clubs have gone from disco-fuelled pit stops to petri dishes for cultivating mainstream popular culture. Purveyors of the early music scene like DJs Grasso and Nicky Siano to Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles helped to shepherd music through the disco-drenched dance floors of gay clubs. Many pop stars got their start either being played in or performing the gay club circuit: Lady Gaga, Grace Jones, Cakes Da Killa. More recently, Ariana Grande traded the stage at Saturday Night Live for NYC’s BPM.

More than simply a breeding ground for the latest music and fashion, clubs have been a necessary part of gay life for the black and latino communities. Even more than white gays, who have slowly begun to find wider acceptance in the mainstream, LGBT people of colour have faced struggle beyond comprehension. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, “People of colour are massively overrepresented among victims of anti-LGBT violence. Latinx people made up 43% of survivors of anti-LGBT violence, while black LGBT people represented about 23% of survivors.”

Of course, clubs are also problematic. Some self-hating gay men are still “on the DL”, sneaking away from wives or girlfriends to fulfill their sexual appetites in back rooms at clubs. Others deride the increasingly prevalent hookup culture that invades the dancefloor: people who are there to find sexual partners to go home with. To further complicate things, these LGBT spaces are quickly disappearing. The George and Dragon, the Joiners Arms’, the Black Cap – gone. This isn’t just a London-centric problem.

Filmmaker Adomako Aman has documented club life in New York for gay black and latinx people in order to illustrate how important these spaces can be. His film, Dancing in the Dark, is both a celebration and a warning that he hopes will wake people up and get them talking. Who knows? Maybe someone will finally listen.

Do you think that clubs are still safe spaces for LGBT people post-Orlando?

Adomako Aman: The Pulse Orlando misfortune really broke my heart when I heard about it. When I first came across some of the names of the young women and men, I had to stop myself from continuing to read on because I quickly became teary eyed. The realisation of America celebrating the legalisation of gay marriage to then mourning our brothers and sisters in our community meant that America has not taken that brave step to moving forward. It is really hard for me to face the fact that this was the deadliest mass shooting in America. A lot of these young women and men could have easily been someone I knew and partied with. Nightlife is part of the foundation of gay culture. I feel that even though we have found many other places to congregate, a lot of us begin our journey of learning about our community through dancing in the night.

Are pop stars who perform in gay clubs are really there to nurture an audience or do you think it’s because they want to capitalise on gay audiences?

Adomako Aman: I always find it interesting how pop artists, such as Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj, Madonna and so on, easily become the face of gay culture when there are so many people in our community that we can respect just as much as these artists. Gay people literally run mainstream media. We have designers such as Olivier Rousteing, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, and Alexander Wang that rappers want to be dressed out in. We have directors such as Michael Patrick King, Lee Daniels who have written powerful stories that millions of people have tuned in to watch.

Gay people are usually working behind the scenes of all of this. Why doesn’t someone say, “Gay people need narratives too?” Why don’t we have that many out rappers or singers that represent not only white, gay America but brown, gay America consistently too? It is so important that we see this type of representation in order for us to feel included. Our narratives are so important, in order for brown skin gay men to understand that we have so much more to offer and that we are gifted with talents to share with the world. It’s not fair that gay brown men are only brought up in STI/HIV statistics.

In working on this documentary project, I have found that most gay men find a way to connect through gay nightlife because a huge majority of LGBTQ+ underground performers and artists are more relevant there. I get that, but it’s as if we came back out of the closet to then go back into the dark. Mainstream media does not want to recognise us for reasons I am not sure of. I feel it’s important to see more gay men consistently winning to understand the beauty in our strength.

“Why doesn’t someone say, ‘Gay people need narratives too?’ Why don’t we have that many out rappers or singers that represent not only white, gay America but brown, gay America consistently too?” – Adomako Aman

I was interested in your point about how a lot of black/latino gay culture originates in the club. Obviously this was particularly huge around the time of 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, but is that still happening?

Adomako Aman: I feel the New York City nightlife culture has definitely changed. I would hear stories all the time about the 70s, Studio 54, and how glamourous nightlife was. Now I feel people just come out to be seen and update their social media. Nightclubs are not as open as late as they used to be in New York. New York City is becoming more of a place for business and not for play. 

In the gay nightlife scene, you will catch people standing around waiting to be approached. There are also the group of people who come with their friends to have a good time and to mingle, which plays into forming the community. That’s why the gay world in New York usually appears to be small because how communal nightlife is. Then there are the gay clubs that have performers, such as Ariana Grande and Trina, that come out to see the gays which adds to the life of the club.

How do you feel about white gays appropriating black gay culture?

Adomako Aman: I honestly don’t think about that. But I do see how some gay white men are racist to blacks. Sometimes you would go on Grindr or Jack’d and see a white guy say no Blacks/Fems/Fats and usually are looking for masculine guys that they can sleep with at night and go to the gym with during the day because “that’s what makes a man”.

Brown skin gay men are usually admired by some white men based on how big certain body parts may be and that’s frustrating just because the basis is only sex-related – aside from that you mean nothing else. Pornhub even made a list of these statistics.

One of the guys in the film says that men on the DL are ‘messy’. Do you agree?

Adomako Aman: DL men are super messy. I truly believe these men are victims of society. A lot of these men are on the low. When people first think of gay men, they go into biblical terms: how homosexuality is going against religion; how gay men are not as strong as heterosexual men; and how dirty they may be. These messages can easily scare anyone who is currently facing the truth about their sexuality. Why should who you have sex with quickly indicate what kind of person you are?

People forget that these men are dating your sisters, your mother, your cousin, your friend, your aunt, and so on, which puts these women in uncomfortable positions to believing they are less than because they cannot please their partner. These circumstances place some women as victims of mental and emotional abuse because of the demons their partners are facing against society in living their truth as a gay man. This situation also puts women at risk for STIs because their partners are out being promiscuous with multiple men in hopes of ignoring the bigger picture that they are truly gay.

“The term DL is so interesting to me because only brown skin men would use it. When I call white gay men DL, they disassociate themselves from the term” – Adomako Aman

Do you think being a POC on the DL is more prevalent than a white guy on the DL?

Adomako Aman: The term DL is so interesting to me because only brown skin men would use it. When I call white gay men DL, they disassociate themselves from the term. I honestly do not know why. But it has happened on multiple occasions while in conversation.

Throughout my personal experience of meeting a lot of DL men, I usually do see them in the brown skin communities more than the whites. I feel it is one hassle to be a POC but then to be a POC gay man is another struggle. I feel, in particular, black people had to overcome a lot living in America, such as slavery and the continuous police discrimination and brutality. So to take that on along with being gay means a whole batch of new problems to face because not only are you trying to fight for freedom as a brown skin man, now you are fighting for freedom as a gay man as well.

How do you think club culture has evolved in the past decade?

Adomako Aman: I think the one thing that has changed in club culture is the use of social media. People used to go to the club to meet people to have fun with, dance with and possibly even go home with but now you can do that with the tap of your phone. You don’t have to pay for drinks and cab/train fare when you can easily have a brief conversation on what you and the joining party’s interests may be and quickly go from there.

I’m not sure if you saw but London’s club Fabric closed recently, another in a string of recent club closures in the UK. People are declaring nightlife to be dead. Is that the case where you are?

Adomako Aman: That’s an odd trend that’s going around where all these long-lasting clubs are getting shut down such as Splash, Escuelita, Secrets & No Parking in New York. I don’t think club life can ever really die. I just think things change for the new generation of folks based on their interests. I think why we don’t have some of the clubs like Studio 54 and so forth is because of drug abuse and STIs. Owners of these clubs find new ways to make a profit with a business rather than making it fun for their continuing patrons.

How do you feel about the idea of venturing into the club for sex as opposed to simply going for a good time?

Adomako Aman: Everyone is entitled to search for what they want to find in the club and I hope they find it. On the other hand, I am always interested in what the DJ’s music set is and if I can really dance to it.

What do you hope to accomplish with this documentary?

Adomako Aman: I really hope for this film to develop a conversation about POC, gay life because for so long our community has been ignored and shut off. I feel it’s important to showcase some of the examples of our community to show where we come from and for people to feel inspired to add on to this narrative that was created.