Exploring the Role of the Queer Community in Nightlife Photography

Queer folks are trailblazers of creativity and community. Here’s how gay clubs have been quintessential to the evolution of nightlife photography.

To be visibly gay—gay out loud, gay without apology—is to have inner strength. This is strength resulting from a failure of society to recognize and create space for the queer community.

It also resulted in the queer people of yesteryear creating their own spaces for living, loving, and pursuing a good time. One of these havens was the gay club.

Image via Joel Goodman/LNP/Shutterstock.

The earliest gay clubs didn’t reflect the fun and flirty queer institutions we know today—they were closer to hideouts. But, they were the world’s first examples of gay nightlife, places where one could shake off the perception that their existence was an “abomination.”

What did these first queer-inclusive gatherings look like? Popular culture saw the creation and emulation of drag queens and kings at masquerade balls, which led to today’s vogue balls, which led to circuit parties, which led to outdoor “kikis” when the weather’s nice.

Being unapologetically gay in every one of these situations aided and continued to aid in desperately needed queer representation. Documenting these events captured the history many tried, and failed, to erase.

Read on to understand how documenting the presence of the LGBTQIAP community in party and nightlife visuals helped to visualize and expand history.

The Early Days of Queer Revelry

Centuries ago, to be gay was to live in private. In dozens of societies around the worlds, homosexuality was considered a crime until at least the 20th century.

So, for the LGBTQIA community to enjoy each other’s company—far away from judgmental eyes—special pubs, parties, and gatherings were created.

London’s underground “molly” clubs of the 18th century were some of the earliest examples of confidential meetups in the queer community. Named after the slang term and occasional slur for gay men, molly pubs, clubs, and houses were where queer men gathered to drink, talk, and have sex.

These clubs were an open secret, rarely spoken about, but existed in plain sight for whoever was looking for them. An example of this, historians gather, were London streets with names like Cock’s Lane and Lad Lane.

Victorian-era news illustrations featuring the Boulton and Parks case of 1870. Known as entertainers “Stella and Fanny,” Boulton and Parks were arrested in drag, but were later acquitted for “conspiracy to commit sodomy” . . . after serving two years of hard labor. Images via Historia/Shutterstock and Historia/Shutterstock.

With homosexuality—more specifically, sodomy—being considered a crime since the passing of the Buggery Act by Henry VIII in 1533, queer men took refuge in molly clubs, hosting drag balls and simulated weddings.

While no photos of these events exist, written accounts and select illustrations do, paving the way for the future documentation of LGBTQIAP history.

These queer spaces existed for as long as they could, until police raids occasionally tore them apart.

Documenting the Masquerade Balls and “Pansy Craze” of the 1800s-1900s

In the 19th century, more and more gay parties and gatherings popped up in major cities around the world.

Among the most notable were masquerade balls, better known as drag balls, in the Black-founded Hamilton Lodge located in Harlem, New York City in 1869.

Manhattan had its fair share of gay bars at the time—including Pffaf’s Beer Cellar and The Slide—but the Hamilton Lodge drag balls were where you went to have more high-spirited fun.

Word of the Hamilton Lodge and their drag balls spread through New York City’s gay community and, as the decades proceed, attendance (and criticism from mainstream society for these gatherings believed to be immoral) grew.

Images via Historia/Shutterstock and George Hoyningen-Huene/Condé Nast/Shutterstock.

Drag balls became so popular throughout the Roaring ‘20s and the 1930s that the infatuation was dubbed the “Pansy Craze.”

Clubs catering to drag performers and the audiences that wanted to see them, thanks to the flourishing party lifestyle that defined the era, boomed not only in Manhattan, but in San Francisco, Paris, Berlin, and London.

Photos of cisgender and transgender performers and patrons from this era are aplenty, with men donning dresses and women donning suits in publicity photos and on club posters.

Illustration of a women-only club with women smoking cigarettes and drinking tea
Illustration caption from France, 1911, reads: “Tea at the department store. Here, at least there are no lecherous men, tea is reserved for women only.” Image via Kharbine-Tapabor/Shutterstock.

Saloons catering specifically to lesbians and bisexual women occurred around the time of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, but before then, gay men and women stuck together.

Like gay and bisexual men, lesbians seeking the company of lovers and female friends had to to limit their interactions with other women to private gatherings in homes. The Daughters of Bilitis, a homophile organization founded in 1955, answered the need for alternatives to the bar scene and police raids by using member homes as meeting places for queer women.

The Great Depression and Prohibition led to an early death for mainstream drag culture, but it was revived in the 1960s as the modern drag culture that the world knows today. The precursor to this culture is depicted in “Paris is Burning” and “Pose.”

The short lived drag magazine Female Mimics depicted the behind-the-scenes process of drag queens preparing their looks and performing at events. While it aided in representation for drag performers, the queens included in Female Mimics were white—underrepresenting a majority of those performing in New York City’s drag culture at the time.

Black and white photo of classy drag performers posing for the camera
Image via Before Stonewall Inc/Center For The Study Of Filmed History/Kobal/Shutterstock.

What Does Queer Nightlife Look Like Today?

The rise in social justice advocacy in the 1960s, with a turning point being reached in 1969 during the Stonewall Riots in New York City, allowed the global queer community to kick down the doors they hid behind.

The 1970s and 1980s saw an increase in the creation of predominantly gay and gay-friendly clubs in major cities. New York City alone had Studio 54, the Pyramid Club, Danceteria, and the Crisco Disco, among others.

Circuit parties—multi-day parties drawing primarily gay crowds around the world to gatherings filled with music and sex—also grew in popularity.

Images via John Storey/AP/Shutterstock, Joe Schilling/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, Jason Manning/Pymca/Shutterstock, Paul Hartnett/Pymca/Shutterstock, and Andrew Savulich/AP/Shutterstock.

While incredible to see documented in archive photos, posters, and illustrations, images of queer gatherings from this time notably lack the cultural diversity embraced today.

While the white drag queens of Female Mimic huddled together to give each other makeup tips and outfit coordination advice, queer Black and brown people attended drag balls separately. This segregation exemplifies how much race has played a role in marginalized communities.

Today, queer nightlife is further integrated. Gatherings and parties meant specifically for queer people of color do exist, like the New York City-based Bubble T and Papi Juice, because of the intersection of racial identity and safe spaces.

But, diversity at many modern-day parties is a must for many queer people today. Photos and videos of queer joy and freedom have contributed to the sense of belonging that marginalized communities need.

To see unabashed freedom on a dance floor, or in a group of people interacting, shows that happiness and relationships are possible, despite hate and ignorance within society.

Images via HOW HWEE YOUNG/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, Vadim Ghirda/AP/Shutterstock, Dosfotos/Shutterstock, Peter Brooker/Shutterstock, and Vincent Sandoval/Shutterstock.

Cover image via Brendan Beirne/Shutterstock.

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