Kids in America
We’re the kids in America
Everybody live for the music-go-round
Tommy sat next to me in tenth grade study hall. We were both equally awkward in that just-hitting puberty way: his gangly body barely holding up his newly too-big head, my body still not knowing what to do with the just-arrived fat filling my chest, tufts of hair sprouting around various orifices, fur lining formerly smooth surfaces of skin. Tommy stared at me and winked. Um, okay. Then he passed me a folded piece of paper, cartoonish snickers worming from his mouth. I unfolded the page and saw a stick figure hanging from a noose, my name written over the body. I looked up. He mouthed, “Dyke.”
That year, I rode the bus home for two months. In hindsight, it’s surprising I lasted that long. In November, a cheerleader named Donna told me she was planning to murder me. I calmly asked why she was planning to commit said murder, reasoning that if I were going to die, it would be nice to know why. She responded, “It’s nothing personal. I’m just a gay basher, bitch.” The claim that murdering me was somehow impersonal revealed the underdeveloped critical thinking skills of our aspiring gay basher. It also revealed that she believed one of whiteness’s most sacred myths: violence can be impersonal, that it isn’t more intimate than lovemaking, its scars long outlasting the tremors of pleasure.
If I had been a cuter dyke, odds are I would not have been the victim of Tommy and Donna’s threats. If I had clipped back my bangs with hot pink barrettes and made out with girls at parties while the bros gazed on, cocks hardening in their khaki polo shorts, my life would have had fewer stick hangings, more dudes grabbing my ass in the hallways. (Oh, all of those high school hall molestations I missed out on!) But I was fat. I was butch. I preferred kissing girls in my bedroom with the door closed. My crime—that of not being attractive enough for the football players—led not only the boys to threaten my life, but also an assortment of girls like Donna who saw my inability to please the bros’ sexual gaze as a crime worthy of the highest punishments.
That summer, free from the threats of my high school’s budding hate crimers, I packed into a car with five friends and drove the sixty miles to Cleveland for this thing we’d heard about called a rave. We weren’t sure where we were going or what a rave was, but it was a Friday night, and the other option would have been to go to Mellett Mall, get an Orange Julius, and stand outside the food court, sipping citrus cream while sucking smoke into our lungs, hoping to score a dime bag so we could go to the forest of scraggly trees and overgrown weeds behind the mall to smoke a few joints. If that sounds exciting, I’m not describing it right. Whatever a rave was, it was better than our usual Friday night routine. Plus, it was in THE BIG CITY, not in Canton, that patchwork of lawns, golden retrievers, and two-car garages, which someone decided qualified as a city.
We walked in, and fog machines sugared the air, strobe lights cutting pink stripes across the steam that a sea of teens wearing plastic bracelets up to their elbows seemed to swim through. The second I entered this adult Candyland, the terror and anxiety that constantly knotted my insides started to loosen. I know that sounds like a narrative device. There’s no way I could have instantly known that raves would be the only places I’d feel safe—no way my body reacted the second I stepped inside that skating-rink-turned-underground-club on the east side of Cleveland. Just because I remember it this way doesn’t mean that’s how it happened, of course. My memory is as sentimental as anyone else’s. But digging into that unreliable store is the only way I can tell this story. The truest statements are usually the simplest. I felt free. I danced. I was queer. I had a body. Others had bodies. I pushed my body against their bodies. Our salts, our carbon dioxides, our cells twined together. We panted. Sweated. Touched. Without recoil.
I danced all night—terribly, I’m sure. After that, I started going to raves every weekend. I’d glitter my lids and string stars around my wrists. I’d drag my thirty-inch wide pants stitched from Rainbow Brite sheets to the dance floor and match my feet and hips to the beat. I’d kiss Katie all night in a dirty corner of a warehouse, her lips and my lips and my hands and her hands, and no one could hear our sighs over the untz untz untz. Those rave years were not only my sluttiest but also my most gay. Cuddle puddles made up of a dozen girlbodies. Eating pussy in porta potties. Getting fisted in the backseat of my mom’s Honda Civic. Yeah, I was that kind of girl.
The seventies discotheque foretold the nineties rave. Most of us have heard the phrase “disco sucks” and have seen the antipathy against disco referenced in seventies nostalgia flicks like Dazed and Confused. Perhaps some of us have found a Disco Sucks T-shirt in a box in the back of our parents’ closet or have seen an interview with one of our favorite seventies rockers in which they railed against disco or have heard one of the countless jokes about disco that permeate our culture. Though allusions to the backlash against disco abound, most people don’t know that this backlash embodied a widespread attack on American gay and Black culture. While researching queerness and dancing, I stumbled upon the real story of the “disco sucks” movement. To be sure that I hadn’t somehow overlooked a well-known chapter of history, I asked several friends—queer elders, professors of LGBTQ+ studies, music buffs—if they knew the origins of the movement. Most said no.
This movement climaxed on a warm July day in 1979 in Comiskey Park, Chicago’s baseball stadium, during a double header between the White Sox and the Tigers. The White Sox had been doing poorly, so the owner partnered with Chicago shock jock DJ Steve Dahl, one of the most popular rock DJs in America, to organize a promotion that involved a mass burning of disco records between games. Dahl dubbed the spectacle Disco Demolition Night, the name eliciting the classic American aromas of burning rubber mixed with the fried sugar of funnel cakes and smoke from a pig on a spit. Dahl had crowned himself the colonel of the Disco Sucks Army; he regularly declared on air, “Disco sucks!” while smashing records. He always lisped when he said “disco,” cuing to the audience that his hatred was of more than just the music.
Dahl and the White Sox owner expected a few thousand people, at most, to show up with records in tow. Instead, over 70,000 people, mostly white men, crowded into the White Sox stadium, clutching not only Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor records but also Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye. Disco Demolition Night was a two-for-one special on total douchebaggery—it was not only homophobic but also deeply racist. Comiskey Park could hold 50,000 people but was usually half-empty. That night, however, the stadium brimmed with pot smoke, the stench of sweat and beer, and more bodies than it had ever held before. Footage shows men who had been turned away at the door scaling the walls of the stadium to get in.
Between games, Dahl took bins of records by both disco artists and Black non-disco artists and blew them up on the field. As the second game began, the stadium echoed with shouting and shoving, air sizzling with the anger of white men. A few minutes into the game, the audience broke onto the field. The terrified players ran away, and this army of men, peppered with a few women, conquered Comiskey Park, setting the mounds on fire, shrieking with gleeful rage, passing joints and beer bottles and flasks of liquor between them. A couple was seen fucking at third base.
Steve Dahl recently wrote an article, “Disco Demolition Night Was Not Racist, Not Anti-Gay,” in which he shows just how racist and anti-gay Disco Demolition Night was. Dahl explains why he hated disco by asking, “Dress up? No. Dance lessons? Hell, no. Cover charge? No.” Translation: white men can’t be expected to know how to dance! To spend money on their dates! To put effort into their appearance! Translation: Whatever happened to the good ol’ days when bringing your girl and a six-pack of beer to the Woolworth’s parking lot counted as a night out on the town? Translation: I am terrified of my own body, which is to say, others’ bodies, especially queer bodies. Black and Brown bodies. Female bodies. No, not terrified—ashamed of my own body: its lack of rhythm, its inability to sync feet to a beat, its paucity of pleasure and joy.
Unbelievably, Disco Demolition Night worked. Hatred of disco spread like wildfire throughout the country. Disco disappeared from mainstream airwaves and charts. Somehow, a group of angry, drunk men, led by a radio DJ with the maturity level of a bobblehead doll, destroyed the most popular musical genre in America.
Disco still thrived, however, in queer nightclubs. In the late 1970s, Frankie Knuckles, the resident DJ at the Warehouse, a Chicago club frequented by mostly Black, gay men, started mixing disco records with European electronic music and American R&B, creating house music.
Fast forward 15 years, and suburban kids organized underground raves in paintball palaces, abandoned warehouses, overgrown fields. House music and its offshoots—drum and bass, breakbeat, happy hardcore—pumped through the speakers at illegal dance parties taking place at the edges of cul-de-sacs, two-car garages, a golden retriever in each window. Like disco before it, a queer subculture created by people of color had arrived on the shores of middle America.
Four years before I discovered the rave scene, I chased a neighbor boy. It was the summer of 1992. We were twelve. Sun hit the sprinklers in a rainbow spray, our bodies breaking through color, wet and laughing. I chased him. He chased me. My belly protruded over polka dot spandex. His friends rode by on their bikes and glanced our way. Neighbor boy suddenly said, “Ewww! Gross! Why is your fat jiggling?!”
That moment marked my entrance into the kingdom of gender. Before, we’d been bodies of wet joyfulness. Then, he saw a glint in his friends’ eyes—perhaps it was only the sun, but he took it to be the shine of judgment—and the joy he’d felt a second before drained like water into dirt, and he transferred to me his shame—that he’d let himself lose control in the spray of sprinklers, that he’d treated a girl with pudge poking over her polka dots as his equal in the chemical neons of that suburban lawn—and I gave him the gift of making his humiliation my own.
Imagine a wound that cannot heal, because to heal one must recognize the wound is there and care for it. Dust and bacteria and hazardous particles—shame, guilt, fear—fill the wound till putrid pus froths inside it. The infected wound marries another infected wound, and they have children. The children begin life healthy, whole. They shriek happily as they belly flop into sun-blue swimming pools. They waddle with poop-filled diapers across linoleum, shaking chubby butts to a pop beat wafting into the kitchen from the radio. As the months turn to years, their child bodies hit growth spurts—they bleed, grow hair, thicken with fat and muscle. They notice the adults around them rarely sway their bodies to music, seldom sing and shimmy and shake. The children’s bodies begin to fill with nicks and cuts. Those nicks turn to sores, to gaping holes, till their bodies, too, begin to brim with infection, and the family of wounds rots together—no touching, no laughing, no dancing.
Karma does not mean what goes around comes around. Karma means the energy you put into the world impacts you as much as it impacts others. Whiteness is based on the denial of humanity. Some are worthier of dignity, prosperity, and safety than others, says the logic of whiteness. How can one connect with the human in oneself—which is to say, how can one be present in a body that sways in a sea of hands and sweat and laughter—if one’s very existence is based on violence? When a video of a toddler dancing in a kitchen or living room, ringed by adults who cheer the child on, goes viral, the toddler is never white. Circles of human joy, of embodied community, of dancing as holy sacrament, do not exist in the white-flight suburbs of America.
Not all of us were white, but we all grew up in the suburbs spreading from Cleveland’s edges like pale mold. My friends and I escaped the joyless deserts of our homes by going to raves. We’d dance till the sun rose over the warehouse’s rotting roof, light freckling through the thin, rust-belt trees in the lot. We put squares of LSD on our tongues, let the paper soaked in hallucinogens dissolve, taking in the body of those drugs as if it were the body of Christ. We witnessed the miracle of liquid color, felt beats break through our skin, dissolving the distance we’d been taught to put between our bodies—our ghost selves made real in the strobe lights of illegal parties. Brighter than a snow-glittering lawn lit by glowing Santas, we spun and twirled, rainbowing the dance floor. Up to our elbows in plastic bracelets of every color the Jo-Ann Fabrics sale aisle offered, we raised our bead-covered arms and screamed.
I know that we cannot exit the kingdom of gender. I know what Judith Butler says about the social prison into which we are all born, but dancing in warehouses that turned my snot black for days while wearing JNCO Jeans wider than Victorian ladies’ skirts, then collapsing into a pile of teenagers in the back corner, kissing any lips that came my way, bodies unknowable in the dark, is the closest I’ve come to escaping that kingdom.
There, no one threatened to noose my dyke neck. No one leered at my pudge belly. No one transferred their shame onto me. The joy of unpoliced viscera. The joy of whistles and plastic visors powered with triple-A batteries and Rainbow Brite pants and dancing and laughing and dancing some more. A joy so near my own body—so much my body—I couldn’t unpack its meaning until now. For twelve hours every Friday at the end of our brutal century, in the heart of a brutal country, I was not female, fat, queer—I simply was.
The names in this essay have been changed.
My ideas about shame were inspired by Brené Brown’s TED talk “Listening to Shame.”
My summary of Disco Demolition Night was informed by the following: ESPN’s special on DDN, titled, “Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago 1979,” which aired on September 5, 2011; Graham Reid’s “We Need to Talk about the Disco Sucks Movement,” published on June 26, 2017; Derek John’s “July 12, 1979: ‘The Night Disco Died’ — Or Didn’t,” which appeared on NPR’s site on July 16, 2016.
The quotation that I “translate” comes from Steve Dahl’s “Disco Demolition Night Was Not Racist, Not Anti-Gay.”
Michaelangelo Matos’ “Frankie Knuckles, ‘Godfather of House,’ Dead at 59” discusses the origins of house music, which I briefly summarize.
The image of the wound that cannot heal because it is full of guilt, shame, and fear is inspired by Becky Thompson and Veronica T. Watson’s essay “Theorizing White Racial Trauma and its Remedies.” They write: “Racial dissociation leaves a hole in its wake, a hole that might be filled with shame, guilt, loss of self or a ‘ruined moral identity.’” My exploration of whiteness’ inhumanity is based on Thompson and Watson’s essay.