I remember the exact moment I realized it was time to leave the sex party and go home. It was 7:30 in the morning, and I was standing in front of a bunch of cots filled with piles of naked men. A man dressed in a leather jacket emblazoned with the words "human urinal" was next to me, a funnel strapped to his face. And as I stood there contemplating the circumstances that had led me to this place, a man wearing nothing but a harness and underwear staggered down the hallway and accidentally pressed up against me. "Oh my God!" he exclaimed to his friend, as his wet skin rubbed up against my arm. "Some guy must have pissed ALL OVER my shoulder!"
I had spent the last six hours at the Black Party, a giant gay event that takes place every year at Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan. Every March, thousands of shirtless men cram into the large concert venue in midtown to dance to world-famous house DJs, do lots of drugs and, once 3 a.m. rolls around, have public sex in various parts of the building. For three decades, the party has been a raunchy high point of the gay calendar in New York, and a throwback to the most hedonistic aspects of pre-AIDS gay culture. (This year's party will take place on Saturday, March 19.)
I had come here to confirm several of my long-cherished beliefs about sex and gayness: that sex in all of its forms was awesome, that gay men's permissive attitudes toward it were much saner than the straight community's, and that events like this one were a healthy celebration of the most transgressive elements of gay life that had preceded me. But as the night progressed, my attitude went from excitement to discomfort to utter revulsion -- and I began to wonder, did I even belong here?
I was 23 years old at the time. Like most gay guys, I spent my late teens and early 20s making up for the chastity of my high school years. As I moved from my hometown in Edmonton, Canada, to bigger cities, I went to gay punk shows and arty queer dance parties, getting myself drunk enough to talk to men I thought were cute and, on occasion, going home with them. But my sexual coming-of-age was probably not that different from that of most straight men and women, filled with prolonged periods of unwanted celibacy and awkward one-night stands.
I was a monogamist by nature, but I longed to be more adventurous in sex. When I lived in Toronto after college, my older friends visited bathhouses and cruised the park in my Portuguese neighborhood. "You'd be surprised by how hot those men behind the bushes are," one of them told me. "Too bad they're all married with kids." When I got a job working in a gay video store, I could see guys hanging out on the roof deck of the gay bathhouse across the street. I would watch them idly smoke their cigarettes during the afternoon and wonder whether I was missing out on a key part of the gay experience by not being over there in my towel, instead of heading home to my boyfriend.
But by the time I was single again -- and living in New York -- I was determined to change that. After I wrote a magazine article about HIV educators, a source approached me with an intriguing proposition: He had a free ticket to the Black Party and was wondering if I'd like to tag along. The Black Party, he said with an eye roll, "is definitely an experience." I'd heard people describe it as one of the filthiest events you could go to in New York City, and I knew a little bit about its history -- like the rumors that its performances, at one point, had included a man having sex with a snake and the fact that it had emerged out of the Saint, the notorious East Village gay dance club.
Although it closed in 1988, the Saint's extravagant production values and muscular clientele helped define the body-obsessed party culture that most people still associate with gayness. (It was so central to the 1980s New York gay scene that when AIDS first appeared, it was referred to as the "Saint's Disease.") In the decades that followed, it also spawned a constellation of expensive, drug-fueled international parties collectively known as "the Circuit," which still exist today and of which the Black Party and Palm Springs' White Party are probably the best-known. They attract a crowd of buff and wealthy men, who can afford party drugs and expensive tickets (getting into the Black Party costs $140) and get away with not sleeping for entire weekends at a time. It's the most extreme manifestation of a gay party culture that has waned in the last decade -- as suggested by the disappearance of New York's extravagant gay dance clubs and the dramatically decreasing attendance rates of the Circuit -- but it was still an only-in-New York episode I didn't want to miss.
So, at 1 a.m. on a chilly March night, I arrived at the Roseland Ballroom with a mix of trepidation and excitement. Over the course of the next hour, the venue's enormous dance floor filled up with thousands of sweaty, shirtless men, mostly clutching water bottles to offset their party drug-induced dehydration and dancing wildly to the loud techno music. The attendees were mostly in their 30s and 40s, eagerly showing off their gym-built bodies. The atmosphere was intense, but didn't seem particularly crazy.
Then I felt a hand in my pants. One of the massive bar areas on the second floor had been turned into a makeshift darkroom. And as I walked a few feet into the dim lighting, I bumped into a group of men getting a blow job from a kneeling figure, though I could only make out vague shapes. In a way, it was exactly the commitment-free sex I'd been eager to try. But as their fingers inched their way into my underwear, and their hands got more and more aggressive, I realized I wasn't even remotely turned on. I was just uncomfortable. This was nuts: I wasn't going to have sex with a man, let alone a group of men, whom I couldn't even see.
The atmosphere grew increasingly debauched. People had sex in every nook and cranny. On the second floor, two enormous porn stars, including artsy French actor (and Salon Man on Top) François Sagat, had oral sex in front of 50 or 60 people. Then they urinated on each other, splashing on the surrounding audience. On the ground floor, a long banquette was filled with dozens of men openly masturbating.
This was what I'd come for: a bacchanal of shamelessness and free sexual expression. It embodied the radical gay politics I thought were lacking in my generation of gay men, so concerned with marriage and adoption and fitting in. But now that I was seeing it firsthand, I found myself strangely disconcerted. It wasn't just the fact that so many of the men seemed to be on meth or GHB, or the fact that many of them were probably having unsafe sex. It was the sheer frenzy of it. The sex I was seeing didn't seem erotic or pleasurable so much as compulsive -- not an intimate act at all, but a performance.
Then, around 5 a.m, I witnessed a scene that remains seared into my memory. A group of a hundred or so men had gathered around the pool table near the main stage and were watching four men, one wearing a cat mask and another dressed in a boy scout uniform. The boy scout first poured the contents of a beer bottle into the man in the cat mask, who was lying down on the table. The cat masked man shot the contents (and not with his mouth) back out onto onlookers. The boy scout then got rid of the bottle in favor of other implements; first a pool cue -- handle first -- then four pool balls. As I walked away, I saw him prepare to insert one more object: a magic eight ball.
A few hours later, as morning rose, I walked into my Brooklyn apartment and dropped my clothes into a plastic bag. What had I learned? Never to play pool at the Roseland Ballroom. But also that I wasn't as bold as I had thought. I'm sure a gay man in any era could have been freaked out by that kind of extreme exhibitionism, but I wondered if my squeamishness wasn't also a sign of a generational divide. If gay sex in the 1970s was marked by rampant hedonism, and gay sex in the 1980s was defined by AIDS, then perhaps gay sex in the new millennium -- a time in which kids like me are coming out at earlier and earlier ages and finding themselves less and less defined by their sexuality -- is largely distinguished by its normalcy. As gay culture becomes more and more like straight culture -- and increasingly unconstrained by stereotypes -- it makes sense that, for better or worse, our attitudes toward sex become more and more like straight people's as well.
That doesn't mean that men won't or shouldn't keep having sex in dark rooms or on pool tables in front of large crowds, but it means that, as the march toward the mainstream continues, it'll probably become increasingly uncommon. And it doesn't mean I'm not grateful -- over the last few decades, those hordes of kinky gay men paved the way for my sexual freedom. I like that the Black Party exists. I like that it makes people uncomfortable. And I never want to go there again.