“Shlllllllll.” He sucked his teeth and winced in discomfort, contracting his hips backward, to pull away gently. “Teeth. Teeth!” I looked up—he wasn’t upset, he just wanted me to mind my head. No one taught me how. I had had no childhood / teenage experimentation as a rehearsal for gay adulthood. Gay erotica on menonthenet.com was some preparation, but the literary only approximates the flesh. He had cruised me at Urge Lounge on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and we left together to the rooftop of his six-story apartment building. Outside, up there, it felt like all of New York was witnessing me give head for the first time. His kind reprimand, “Teeth!” didn’t cause me embarrassment, but rather coached me to use my body differently, toward mutual pleasure. This an ethic of queer nightlife I treasure deeply, teaching each other how to feel good. Queer nightlife is filled with pedagogies of the body, ways to use our bodies to ends that the rest of the world doesn’t want us to, ways that make us feel in excess, ways that unmake respectability, ways that make the world anew.
The first time I went to a gay nightclub (circa. 2001) I didn’t know what to do with my body. I was eighteen years old, a recent migrant to the US, attending college in central New York state. A handful of LGBTQ folks at my rurally-situated campus borrowed a university van, and we drove an hour through the wintry night to the closest gay club—Trexx. I skulked behind a pillar, wishing I was invisible, observing the many ecologies of the bar. Two latinx femme twinks danced on top of the speakers on either side of the stage. From my lowly vantage, the metallic leggings they wore made their legs look so long. The bar stools were occupied by older men; I was eighteen, everyone looked older. Everyone seemed to know why they were there, what was possible, who they were, what they brought to the space. The complexity of the night made clear to me that I had so much to learn—queer culture, style, politics, sex. If only the academy made room for this kind of education!
The following summer in New York City, I met Brendan at an LGBTQ South Asian support group meeting; he saw the wonder, or perhaps desperation to belong somewhere, in my eyes, and became my gay auntie, coach, professor. He took me to G Lounge in Chelsea, suggested what drinks to order, adjusted my body language to posture as a 21-year old (the legal drinking age), and pointed out how the bar’s circular shape choreographed cruising. “If you get to the bar before seven-ish, they’re not really checking IDs. You can just hang out until it fills up.” That made for rather long evenings at G as it didn’t fill up until close to 11, but I taught that trick to every other teenage friend I made that summer. Brendan outlined the ecology of the bar, giving names to the many cohorts around us (muscle queens, butch queens, twinks, etc.) and he laughed at me for having a specific “type” (Latino bears)—almost two decades later I’m willing to admit he was right.
The terrain of New York City nightlife was my first queer studies classroom. Walking down Christopher Street at twilight taught me how lingering looks and subtle smiles between strangers could serve as unspoken invitations. Browsing video and book stores when clubs weren’t an option was an education in sex toys and fetishes categorized by bandana colour. The architecture of bathhouses trained me to walk circuitous paths, showing me that the same trajectory might carry new treasures the fourth or ninth time around. At Heaven nightclub, I ran into Francisco, who worked the same summer internship as I did. “You’re gay?” “You’re gay??” He dragged me to a dark corner, and my neck exploded in sparks I didn’t know it could when his lips and tongue pressed against my skin. Also at Heaven, my friends slowed down their swirling hands so that I could watch them more closely, and learn to chase one glowstick behind the other, hypnotizing myself with ethereal threads of light in the dark. Those nights at Heaven were broken up by drag shows, queens weighed down by head pieces, jewels, gowns, and makeup, and yet light in their voices and bright in their energy: “Make some noise bitches!”
In these primal scenes of pedagogy, I am reminded that queer people give each other the gift of queerness. There was certainly an early moment in my sexual awakening in which I was convinced that my desire for men was merely that, an innate difference that I had no control over, that had no moral or cultural bearing; all other aspects of my personhood were intact, in particular my masculinity. How boring! My body was not supposed to know or even like kink or bottomhood, another person’s body hair or fat, the mess and art of wearing heels or saris. I never actively sought these embodiments out, I just sort of learned them, learned to love them, in the everydayness of clubgoing. Here I am, eighteen years later, a faggoty, gender studies professor, drag queen, bear-adjacent auntie mapping out the queer classroom I wish I had had, one that leads with sensation, pleasure, body, and sound, one that aspires to the pedagogy of nightlife. I lean into these figurations because I believe they have the potential to make other worlds, to feel and imagine more than the whitesupremacistheterocapitalist academy wants us to. Teaching is how I recycle these gifts of queerness, like an eccentric auntie who doesn’t like to throw away things that are still usable so instead inappropriately regifts them, hoping they seem as fresh and wondrous as they did when I first received them. This version of me was made in the nightclub; queer nightclubs saved me from (homo)normativity.
My queerness was learned in dance, and in particular it was learned dancing with Black and Brown queer and trans people. We make and find citizenship in the nightclub through dance. Wriggling through the mass of bodies to find space for our own. Articulating limbs in ways that make us feel free. Catching the song’s bass in our hips, strings in our shoulders, and emotions in our lips. Summoning elsewheres—home, church, street—into the club with mimetic gestures. Songs guide our body through the night: the declarative “AaaaaaaaaAyeAyeHeeHeeeYeahYeah” that leads confidently into Show Me Love, the climactic throbbing payoff following Dive in the Pool’s extended intro, the narration that interrupts Work this Pussy and asks us to pause and bask in femininity. Black divas have gifted the world so much of our queerness.
Dance—crafting our bodies in relation to architecture, sound, lyrics, and other moving bodies—is how the night becomes another world. But just like the university classroom, some people have more right to the club than others. White, able-bodied, cisgender men have greater access to beauty, space, and style, whether or not they dance well, whether or not they dance at all. Dancing at the club taught me how to be queer with others, to move my body in tandem with a whole room, to be soft enough to make room for others, and hard enough to hold a stranger’s attention. This was minding my head, keeping my body safe, loving other bodies consensually, making pleasure collectively. Dance also trained the foreignness out of my queerness; dancing too strangely, I learned, could make me undesirable, could make me look silly, unruly, or even dangerous. This too was minding my head, managing my body, learning to be properly, palatably gay. Making alternatives spaces to dance, curating a queer Bollywood night in Chicago and becoming a party host and drag queen, has been my attempt at making room for strangeness—my own and others’. Moreover, for Black and Brown and fat and femme and trans folks, dance becomes a means of seizing some of the night back for our beauty, bodies, and pleasure, elegantly cascading to the floor with dips, or leaning in hip-bone to hip-bone to bachata the rest of the crowd away.
Mind Ur Head. What a lovely name for a party. I hear in it care, reciprocity, and pleasure. I hope that when we get to dance again together, that you move your body freely and strangely and wildly and fully. Queers, trans folks, people of color, sex workers, and freaks, the night has always been ours! There’s room for all of us to dance. But please, mind your head.
by Kareem Khubchandani
Kareem Khubchandani (any pronouns) is the Mellon Bridge Assistant Professor of Theatre, Dance, & Performance Studies and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Tufts University in Medford MA USA. Kareem is the author of Ishtyle: Accenting Gay Indian Nightlife and co-editor of Queer Nightlife (forthcoming from University of Michigan Press), and performs as everyone’s favorite over-educated, over-opinionated drag auntie LaWhore Vagistan. Follow Kareem on IG/Twitter: @kareempuff