Posts Tagged ‘local’

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Notes from the Road: Sorted Lives

2011.February.8

What Else Is Out There?

Whenever I travel, I try to meet with locals at sex-positive gatherings. In the four weeks surrounding my Western States road trip, I attended dinners, discussions, and parties in Austin, Denver, Boulder, Los Angeles, and Dallas. This itinerary gave me a taste of the best of the other towns, but it also raised questions for me about DFW (that is, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex). The contrast between the Dallas and Denver Churches in particular sparked questions about deeper differences between various alternative sub-communities. Some urban reputations seemed to be reinforced in poly circles. Austin was more hippy-ish. Denver and Boulder were more homogeneous. L.A. was more shallow (though interactions there were limited). And Dallas, well it is more…

What is Dallas, anyway? The community I know best also happens to be the hardest to describe. I’m not saying that my stomping grounds are uniquely complex, but the Metroplex does call for a certain specificity: which DFW subversives? Polyamorists? Fetishists? Democrats? There are plenty of people around here who identify as some combination of polyamorous, kinky, bisexual, burner, DIY, non-Christian, and/or liberal — regarding which only the Democrats usually limit themselves to one. Each descriptor I’ve listed (and there are more) gets its own local sub-community, yet however often the labels overlap, the communities themselves rarely do. For every five kinky poly bi pagan artists, one will dedicate zir time to the kinksters, one to the poly group, one to a pagan group, one to the art scene, and one to sex- or gender-progressive activism; there will be little in the way of doubling up or cross-over.

There is something about Dallas that encourages alternative folks to choose one sub-community to the exclusion of all others. Everyone is specialized, focused, and so busy with their One True Community that they start to feel uncomfortable anywhere else. And yet, once that choice is made, the community doesn’t really take over their day-to-day lives and social spheres, only their leisure time. I can’t help but contrast this against Austin or Denver, where more folks manage to make time for each group that fits. I doubt anyone would attend four sex-positive events in a single week, but a sizable portion would probably attend two, maybe even three — and their groups meet more often.

It was through visits to Austin that I had first begun to perceive that sub-communities could be better connected. Every person there seemed to be active in at least one other subversive lifestyle group, be it kink, burner, pagan… Austin’s kinksters and polies didn’t just double up and intermingle, they managed to integrate their “alternative lifestyles” into their actual lives. They organized discussions, workshops, and retreats to welcome newcomers and advance community topics. They maintained and kept track of intricate, healthy chosen-family trees that included friends, lovers, coparents, and everything in between. They were sustained by active, passionate people who could deftly jump from swapping poly parenting tips to plotting sex parties to unpacking their latest self-awareness meditation, and they could do it all without shame, hesitation, or lengthy backstory. Austin’s pervasive sense of community made Dallas’ alternative domain look like a closet of half-hearted hobbies, or worse: dirty little secrets.

Then I went to Colorado. Even Austin, it seems, could learn a thing or two from Denver and Boulder. The alternative communities of the Mile-High City and its radical hideaway neighbor share strong ties and deep integration of politics into their lifestyle. Whereas Austin’s sex-positive types tend to be very personal with their politics — pushing themselves and their communities on issues like the environment, but steering clear of Austin’s aggressive activist contingent — sex-positive Coloradans engage in direct political action as an extension of their intimacy. Denver featured more polies, kinksters, and pagans who participate in campaigning and advocacy than any other town I’ve visited. They also ally with local nonprofits, attend national conferences for everything from grassroots organizers to kinky Rennies, and are coordinating a Boulder satellite to Seattle’s Center for Sex-Positive Culture. I found the connection personally affirming; since politicos and polies in DFW frequently want nothing to do with one another, my occasional campaign work often results in a wearying degree of self-segmentation.

Colorado’s greatest surprise has to be its integration of all sexualities. While bisexual and, to a lesser degree, gender-non-conforming (GNC) people are welcome and active among Dallas and Austin’s hetero-centric subversives, it was in Colorado that I first witnessed self-identified gay and lesbian participants in a poly community. They organized, attended, and played right alongside everyone else, with nary a squick to be seen; the Boulder Poly group even holds events at the Boulder Pride House and organizes charity drives for LGBT causes. I had heretofore seen only a strict, unspoken segregation between those poly folks who required same-sex relationships and those who were hetero, heteroflexible, or bi (with strong emphasis on girls playing with girls, then coming home to a man). While I recognize that convenience, comfort (for both sides), and no small amount of latent homophobia make such integration a non-issue to most polies, I was heartened to see that it was possible.

Growth Potential

Polies in Dallas and other communities often fail to see how their own lifestyles tie to the legislative, cultural, and personal struggles of LGBT people because — despite being almost universally progressive on social issues — many prefer to avoid politics altogether. It is usually less of an ideological choice than a decision to avoid wading through yet another cultural quagmire where one’s lifestyle is in question; an apolitical stance requires less justification, faces less challenge by others, and results in less disappointment. A similar attitude is common among many young LGBT voters.

I have long theorized that the inability to contextualize themselves reflects a lack of maturity in DFW’s sub-communities — not that the individuals involved are immature, but that the communities themselves are. For example, the poly group, which meets only once a month for an informal dinner, faces a revolving door of newbies and draws only a fraction of the people in DFW who identify as polyamorous. The group is not terribly old; it has no structure, no leaders (no volunteers to become leaders), and very few regulars who have been actively poly for more than 3-5 years. Those seeking to develop their understanding must look elsewhere: written and online resources, Austin’s two poly groups, or even the local kink community. Indeed, while some polies eschew community or are just afraid to attend a function in public, the more-developed kink community is Poly DFW’s biggest siphon.

However hard sexual subversives in North Texas try to distinguish themselves (even in private) from the populace at large, the communities actually have a very Dallas mentality in some ways. Dallas is a fractious but powerful city; it has always been contentious, always conflicted, and eternally brash. Today’s elite are much like the cocksure wealthy from the eponymous 80s soap, except with better PR and worse writers. Fortunately there is a counterbalance from stronger Black, Latino, and LGBT neighborhoods, but working the existing system has trained their leadership with some of the same bad habits. Their drives have become pervasive, infecting residents across the entire Metroplex.

You see, Dallas is a diverse city whose people are, far and wide, pre-occupied with image and control, two motivations that are hungrily coveted, weighty when obtained, and burdensome to defend.

I trace the personality of Dallas first to politics. Austin, Denver, and Boulder have similar political environments to one another because they have all long been liberal oases in conservative states (though Colorado is trending purple of late). LA, well, the communities there were pretty un-inclusive, so I doubt I’ll have much to say about them.

Dallas’ liberal majority is new and inconsistent at best; far more dynamic racially and economically than Austin, Denver, or Boulder, Dallas’ diversity has helped left-leaners to gain a political foothold without really quelling culture clash. Self-segregation thrives city-wide, and affluent corporate interests who favor the profitable status quo remain strong. The struggle between such disparate powers is exhausting and polarizing, leading even more residents (sex-positive and otherwise) to check out entirely. I suspect such tension compels small communities to attempt to be more impressive or, at the very least, to blend in amicably. For sex-positive sub-communities, blending in openly is unlikely; better to hunker down incognito than face an unpopular image and risk losing what autonomy (control) exists. This struggle is faced at all levels — by individuals, families, and communities — and I believe it is behind the “immature”, disconnected quality of DFW’s sex-positive folks.

Overlooking what qualities they share, each insular group avoids getting too close with the others, quietly judging them for nuanced differences like sects of a schismatic church. Dallas polies can be quick to dismiss swinging as degrading to women and blanketly denounce monogamists for reinforcing love as “possession” (justifying their own ubiquitous OPPs all the while). Many bi activists, who are fighting for visibility and acceptance from both hetero-dominant culture and the gay and lesbian alternative, distance themselves from non-monogamy rather than being seen as reinforcing the stereotype that bisexuals just can’t choose. Pagans and irreligious types denigrate Christian domination while growing dogmatic about the structure of their own dis/belief. Certainly these kinds of behaviors are present in alternative communities across the country, but they seem particularly common in Dallas and particularly rare in Austin and Denver.

How Good Could They Be?

But surely Austinites and Coloradans keep their eclectic sensibilities private! Well, yes and no. From what I’ve seen, it’s a matter of scope. DFW folks tend to hide their lifestyle choices from everyone who does not share them: coworkers and neighbors, family and exes, even friends and roommates. As I said above, Dallasites who feel the need to segment their lives (which is most of them) center one large fragment around work, family, and the home and a smaller one around their weekend sub-community; it is as if they maintain full-time secret identities to cover for their part-time hobbies.

By comparison, sex-positive folks in Austin, Denver, and Boulder can be surprisingly forthright, living visibly across a much larger swath of their lives and promoting awareness at every chance. Those who maintain double lives might regard work (and perhaps judgmental relatives) as a part-time secret identity, but come home to their real lives full-time. By focusing on authenticity rather than how they are perceived and what they control, they have found a better grip on both; and though I can’t say for certain that it is related, they also seem to be more successful at finding work that fulfills them beyond a mere income.

There is a sex-positive beacon of hope for DFW in the Dallas kink scene, which offers a terrific well of wisdom, training, and resources from which to draw — so long as you are open to it. Dallas’ propensity to play up image makes the fetish community hard to enter gradually. While kinksters do address topics like polyamory, self-reflection, and activism expertly (especially at the Leather community’s two annual conventions), they usually do so along the periphery of kinkier topics and in highly charged settings; the displays of power can be overwhelming to those without a strong interest and open temperament toward whatever one might see. Without a thoughtful, supportive introduction, a quiet person can easily get the (wrong) impression that the entire community is unapproachable; for the eager, it is easier to get laid and diverted than to get the type of knowledge one might seek (and who has ever entered such a sub-culture knowing exactly how much they needed to learn?).

Dallas’ fetish scene is the single biggest community for sex-positive people in the area, so large it becomes easy to assume that all sex-positive people are universally kinky (which is not the case here or anywhere else). Even the kinksters are divided into sub-sub-communities (no pun intended) by interest. Thanks to frequent major events and strong online networking at FetLife, there is better overlap amongst these groups — including kinky segments of the LGBT community — than all other Dallas sub-communities combined; unfortunately, the benefits of interconnection are impenetrable outside of those settings. Anyone not interested in BDSM or unable to afford the often-pricey suggested donations has no direct access to the vanilla knowledge available there.

Well, What Do You Suggest?

Sex-positive DFW can continue to look to the kink community for guidance, but we risk irrelevance if we expect it to remain the centerpiece for all local development. The socially conservative culture has fostered a growing generation of sexual subversives who merely want the freedom to explore on their own terms; as long as these disparate groups remain focused on their own back yards, that exploration will be stifled and alternative lifestyles will stay relegated to our extracurricular activities. We will all continue to guard our dirty little secrets as if there’s something wrong with us.

Fuck that.

Instead, I propose the sex-positive people of DFW begin a conscious effort to develop our little communities of weekend deviance by strengthening our connections to one another. I’d like to see more poly events on the Fort Worth side of the Metroplex. I’d like to hear more discussions about strategies in politics and seeking out new relationships. I’d like to swap more stories about the places we have visited to hear what works and what doesn’t. I’d like to attend a workshop on some sex-positive topic without having to fill my gas tank or bring my own rope. Austin and Denver succeed in areas where Dallas doesn’t even know there are areas, but it is not because they are better or sexier than us; they just got a head start. As a result, their events range from facilitated classes and discussions to chosen-family reunions to hot, hot private parties. They nourish their communities because they are not just protecting their hobbies, they are protecting their lives. We can look to them for inspiration, but it will be up to us to forge our own way, hopefully a way built on something more than just image and control.

In academia, what I seek would be considered Interdisciplinary Studies: identifying and cultivating the intersections between unlike subjects. We must take time out to reflect on what our communities share with one another and build on that. We must recognize that politics reaches into our daily lives and if the system isn’t speaking to us we must speak to it. We must develop better self-care techniques and encourage them with our friends and loved ones. We must discover exactly how much we don’t yet know as a community, develop that knowledge, and share it widely.

A few months ago, I told someone on the local poly email that if they wanted to make more events happen, they had to step up, take the lead, and be ready to fail a few times before anything caught on. So I’m not proposing this stuff empty-handed; I am ready to step up, and I’ve already got some other folks involved on some new things coming down the pike. But we don’t want to drag everyone to something they don’t want to do. Help us. Guide us. Join us. Or blow us off and start your own events — it’s not like we know what we’re doing. Just help us make something happen.

The only incentive I can offer is better sex — no — better sexuality. How much could we better understand ourselves and each if we had more of the community watching out for each other? How many newbies could we keep around if we could figure out what to tell them at their first appearance? How much of our time together is wasted relearning the same things someone else has already gone through?

Let’s show that Dallas isn’t just a hobby city any longer, but an integrated community that is ready to grow.

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Notes from the Road: Church vs. Church

2011.February.1

Imagine my surprise when my friends in Denver invited me to attend the local Goth club. Not the invitation itself, but the destination: a Goth club called “The Church”. That’s funny, we have one of those in Dallas, too.

So, of course I have to write a comparison and contrast. It’s pretty much required of we suckers who got English degrees (cc: Princeton from Avenue Q).

Now, I’m not going to declare one or the other to be the definitive Church experience (especially since the Dallas Church freely admits to being “inspired” by another club in Miami), nor am I going to delve into a hundred years of city records to parse out the venues’ minute histories, but I think a quick look could be revealing.

Commonalities

Aside from the obvious (name, resonant playlists, sustained devotion to a dying faction of freakdom), both Churches host primarily on Sunday nights, with a smattering of special events on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Both have big stages, lights and videos, and excellent sound systems primed to pump the acerbic basslines of industrial and a thousand offshoots directly into your cardiac muscles. They laugh in the faces of high school segregation by hosting 80s music in special rooms. Each has been around for over a decade and are facing upstart competitors on alternate nights (Dallas has Cafe Excuses’ Panoptikon, Denver has The Shelter), and while the old guards reign the old venues in both towns, the newer clubs have been more successful in drawing newer, younger regulars (more on that later).

The Scene…

Dallas’ Church is dark, loud, and successfully moody. Housed in a former trolley repair shop and dinner theater, every surface across four rooms is black and/or velvety – unless it’s metallic, like the club’s famous and fingerprint-y stripper pole. Equally important are the two wood-planked patios, which offer respite from the crowd for smoker and non-smoker alike. (I’ve heard rumors that Joan Jett & the Blackhearts shot the video for “I Love Rock & Roll” here; I’ve watched it a half-dozen times and I’m more inclined to believe it was shot at Gilley’s or somewhere in Deep Ellum – if in Dallas at all.)

Dancing is the main attraction; regulars go to the uppermost platforms (see above re: stripper pole) to show off, the stage to meet people, and the pit to move. And yet everything about this Church is built on a foundational control of visibility; you come to watch, to be watched, or to disappear entirely (if this last part makes no sense, you have probably never experienced the bittersweet individuality of being too beautiful, too hideous, or too bodily-modified to blend in anywhere but a Goth club). Newbies and voyeurs linger along the outer railing, or in the cushy chairs behind. Each patron of the Dallas Church gets to decide for zirself whether to be a wallflower or a spectacle, and there is no expectation that either choice is a lifetime commitment. To emphasize this freedom all the more, the main room has an upstairs balcony with a full view of the stage and dancefloor and just enough lighting for the bouncers to make sure no one is actually having sex on the decadent velvet armchairs.

An outlying fixture through the death and gentrified rebirth of Deep Ellum, The Church (Dallas) recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. This Church rewards loyalty and is rewarded in kind. Regulars can buy dogtags that earn the wearer free admission on Thursday nights (when the Goth angle is downplayed and the music and looks focus more on hard industrial) and discounts to other events, and for many Church-goers, the question is never whether one will return, but when.

The first thing you notice about Denver’s Church is – holy guyliner, Gothman! – it’s located in an actual, honest-to-weirdness, goddamned stone-and-mortar church!

I’ll let that soak in.

Legend has it that the Saint Mark’s Parish Church was an active parish until a priest committed suicide there (I don’t want to meet the Goth whose pants don’t cream at the thought of shuffling steel-toes across such un-hallowed grounds). And while the temptation is probably there to revamp the building (dig a moat, put in more ornate crosses, and paint it black), the exterior is pretty much untouched from its days as a house of God (it will remain that way, thanks to the church’s 1975 placement on the National Register of Historic Places). It is only at night – when club lights escape through the stained glass and thuddy basslines demand your attention – that its true, nefarious purpose is apparent.

Once inside, it’s hard to just think of Denver’s Church as a club. Every detail seems to remind one of the importance of one’s environment, and with good reason. It’s a club in a fucking church. Unfortunately, the crowd on the night I visited was too small to justify opening the main room – the big, church-iest hall, where once were pews and hymnals and Easter pageants and big metal collection plates – but that big empty space was just visible enough to further enhance the atmosphere, like it was a forbidden hallway to some dark lord’s throne room and only the most malevolent dark minions were allowed.

You could spend an entire night examining the little nooks and crannies, gasping at the Goth-y-ness of it all, and walk away satisfied at the end of your night. On a quiet night like the one I attended, hell, that might be the best idea. Without a lot of people to watch, one can be forgiven for walking the walls for deeper and deeper appreciation, until you finally decided to touch each brick tenderly and ask how it feels to be a mindfuck.

So What About the Congregation…

While I know of no holy suicides at Dallas’ Church, plenty of messed up people and events have passed through on their way to oblivion – and I mean that in the best way possible. My first time, a regular showed me around; she’d had to pick WHICH Gothic outfit to wear, and everyone knew her by her profile name on the Church’s website. That summer night back in ’05, even the rooftop patio was crowded, and I felt overwhelmed and underdressed by all of the costumes and the flaunting – oh, the flaunting! Of skin! Of personality! Of deviance! Of rubber and leather and metal (or cheap approximations thereof)!

The legendary Sunday night freakshows managed to convene dark horse DIYers, up-and-coming fetish models and photographers, mischievous barely-legals who worked last-minute Wal-Mart lingerie purchases like they were stomping a Parisian catwalk, and lurkers of all ages who redrew the line between creepy and sexy before Edward Cullen was a gleam in Stephanie Meyer’s eye. Innocent that I was at the time, my personal Virgil had to drag me into the women’s room to show me how unimportant was gender here – thanks to the cadre of drag queens, transvestites, and royal genderfucks who held court there.

It was all so fucking hot. And while the best days of Dallas’ Church were behind it before I’d ever set foot inside, it is still the place to go for events that belong in Dallas (but not anywhere visible in Dallas). The Church regularly hosts open fetish parties ranging from latex fashion shows to baby’s first spanking bench; concerts featuring industrial anti-heroes of Europe, the mid-’90s, and, well, the late ’90s; and old-guard reunions for early loyalists who want to break out the trip pants and the steel corset to scare off some errant frat-boys or tell out-of-towners about the good ol’ days.

Denver’s Church offered a superficially similar experience: I danced a bit, I stepped out on the smokers’ patio for a phone call, I had a drink and went to the restroom… but it just never quite got to feeling like a club. Amplified, it could have felt like anything from a loud Christian youth lock-in to a stealth rave, but everyone was just too damned chill. People were sexy, perhaps even sexier than in Dallas, but they were not as sexual. I couldn’t help thinking of when Denver DJ Fetish Dolly came to Panoptikon (Dallas’ other Goth club) few years back: she wore fabulous latex that did all the work, played good (not great) music, and flirted across the dance floor without the slightest indication of what she might do if someone were to flirt back. I wondered then what she would have thought of the ladies room at Dallas’ Church; these days I wonder how she’d fair at the hands of one of Dallas’ expert sadists.

And while the Denver folks probably had more square yards of black textile than a Dallas crowd twice as large, that was as deep as the Goth went. No one was particularly lascivious. No one was creepy. There weren’t huge groups to join or avoid. I didn’t feel like a voyeur, here; I felt like a 16-year-old attending my first Teen Night, trying not to be disappointed that THIS was what all the fuss had been all about.

Worshipping Online

That Goth communities have endured this long is, in large part, thanks to the concurrent development of online networking, and few businesses of leisure have ever milked that opportunity as brilliantly as Dallas’ Church. Since before there was Facebook, or even MySpace, The (Dallas) Church’s three websites offered a community where DFW’s lost young adults could grow from bad poets to bad dancers to bad-asses who, at long last, know the strength of numbers – the strength of belonging – and also might happen to make their own leather goods.

The homepage boosts information, events, and highlights content from sister sites. For visitors of all stripes who go to see or be seen, there’s The Church Pictures, which posts pictures from special events and other nights. Dallas’ Church has long capitalized on their voyeuristic allure by welcoming professional photographers and local models at every event, stamping their pics for credited sharing, and encouraging Church-goes to share their own. Before the advent of Facebook, hard-core fiends went to The Church Boards, a third website where even the most sporadic visitor could feel like a regular  (socializing is easier to manage typing to a screen than shouting into the darkness).

Although The Boards appear to have fallen, the Facebook page is active, updated, and well-administered. Dallas’ Church has always stayed at the forefront of online social networking, luring newcomers via MySpace, Facebook, and even Twitter, while avoiding niche sites like Foursquare and LinkedIn that are, frankly, irrelevant. Somehow, the club rarely panders too hard, yet it maintains a strong online profile. And while most of the Dallas fetish community might not be in regular attendance, they do follow the local Church on Fetlife and can attend kink-themed events without embarrassment or irony. (An opposite cross-over posture is maintained by Dallas’ thriving fetish model community, most of whom are only kinky when the camera is on but know better than to bite the hand that feeds them.)

As for Denver’s Church… um, they have a Facebook, I think? One that, despite having three times as many fans as the Dallas page (ooo, dems is fightin’ words!), exhibits only a minimal online presence. Seriously, I did an online search for “Church Goth club”. Out of the first 10 links, 6 are for Dallas, 2 are for Denver (none of them an official homepage), 1 is for yet another “Church” in Ohio, and the last is to SecondLife. Need I go on? No wonder there was no sense of community…

Deviation from Deviance

Despite its infamy, Dallas’ Church has experienced a steady decline in attendance for about as long as I’ve been old enough to attend. The O.G. scene (Original Goths, or at least “original” within my lifetime) got older and had to move on when work got tiring, babysitters wouldn’t work Sunday nights, and the clothes at Hot Topic just didn’t seem to fit any longer (sometimes figuratively, sometimes horizontally). It didn’t help that Deep Ellum was crashing and burning under the willful oversight of late ’90s and early ’00s City Hall.

But the thing about anachronistic subcultures: eventually, they simply fade away. It is a credit to the fetish, burlesque, and even steampunk aftershocks that Dallas’ Church still gets its two nights a week; Friday and Saturday nights, the building is known as The Lizard Lounge, a decidedly non-alternative club predating (and technically operating) The Church and catering to kids who would have gone Greek if they hadn’t gone to community college. The more The Church loses its infamy, the more these heretical brats show up on the wrong night, degrading the once-proud costumes of black, royal purple, and red wine with just a few too many white polo shirts and (Goth forbid!) ballcaps.

In Denver, I didn’t have to step into the swank (and empty) cigar lounge and eye the (brilliantly idiosyncratic) sushi bar on ground level to suspect the same thing might be happening there. But I suspect these quirks make sense to folks in Denver, and there are definitely some upsides. The Church in Denver is only ever The Church; there are no aliases, no frat nights, no Invasions of School Girls that I can tell (all fishnets aside, Dallas, there’s nothing Gothic about plaid skirts when their invasion is timed perfectly with Spring Break). Denver’s Church gets concerts in the great hall that stretch the boundaries of “Gothic/industrial” to include even rap; this probably says less about Denver’s Goth community than it does about Denver’s entire population, which is generally more laid back, homogeneous, and Caucasian than is Dallas’.

The fact of the matter is, Denver’s Church has everything it needs to throw a good party – namely, a smaller prevalence of white ballcaps.

In Summary (A Slow Night…)

I wish I’d had more than one brief night to draw from in writing about Denver, but little things tell a lot. The setting is incomparable, but that can only go so far. I get the sense there’s room for more interesting people – and therefor more potential for a resurgence – in Denver. Dallas appears to have the better crowd, but the well of black gold is nearly exhausted, and their absence just makes slow nights more painful. A slow night in Denver would probably just mean more room to dance and a better chance of hearing your friends, while a slow night in Dallas could mean a run-in with a drunk rich kid or a decidedly underwhelming visual adventure.

What I’d really like to see is a Goth-exchange program; just once, let’s take a busload of Dallas freaks up and invade Denver’s Church for the greatest night Goth America has ever seen.

And then, when we get home, let’s all bury the NIN T-shirts, give leather back to the S&M community, and start creating some new ways to access the darkness of it all so the up-and-coming moody teenagers have something to aspire toward that is more original, authentic, and revolutionary than sparkly vampires and girls who only make out with girls when their boyfriends are watching.

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