Gay Male Youth and the Atlanta Rave Scene
by Michael Walker
Photos by Sabrina Sexton Weil
Walking into Backstreet one night this past October, I found the club filled with echoes of Whitney Houstons remixed "My Love is Your Love" segueing into a more rarified soul-diva offering: Chanté Moore's signature "Chanté's Got a Man," a song that I'd heard scores of times on the radio, but had never heard remixed before. But this is Atlanta the epicenter of the gay south as well as hip-hop's southern capital and nothing seemed more appropriate indeed than Chanté's rousing ballad backed by a jungle beat. It was something you would not find in Miami, San Francisco, New Orleans, or any other city known for its gay-friendly party atmosphere. The crowd here was different from what you'd typically encounter in those cities, as well. A more even mix of gay and straight, of early twenties and early thirties. And as it turns out, it was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of the true pulse of young, gay, Atlanta, for despite the popularity of clubs such as Backstreet, raves have become a crucial possibly even pivotal part of Atlanta's queer scene.
Although Atlanta's gay and lesbian population is decidedly and refreshingly diverse in terms of ethnicity, age, and interests, the club-going portion of this population is perhaps less representative of what we've come to associate with the gay-influenced club experience in other cities, and this may be a very good thing in many ways. However, clubs have been less of a source for innovations in the subculture of gay youth, who have like their straight counterparts largely circumvented the club experience in favor of the greater intensity and diversity of raves. Beyond that, the age restrictions legally imposed at many of Atlanta's most popular clubs have discouraged those under twenty-one from participating in the scene, leaving them to find alternative venues of expression and community. Raves, on the other hand, have not conventionally come under the same sort of constant legal governance faced by established clubs and are more welcoming to youth. The underground nature of raves also encourages a greater diversity of musical styles and DJs who are far more willing to take chances with what they spin than large clubs could offer.
Raves have always been an important part of queer youth culture since the formative years of both raves as a subcultural environment and the growth of a visible queer youth culture coincided in the late 1980s, primarily in Europe. At a time when Thatcherite conservatism was still socially influential in the United Kingdom, the sociocultural freedom offered by raves was unparalleled by other areas of the British social spectrum. As rave culture grew and spread to New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, raves provided an outlet for differences in sexuality and gender to be accepted and treated with equality. The pulsing music and dazzling computer-generated visuals of raves in California gained in their technological sophistication at the same point in time when the Internet was transforming from a government and educational medium to one of popular usage. Such a situation fostered further growth of rave culture with the Internet serving as an accessible, advanced, communications medium and the technological left coast culture of California propagating rave culture beyond its previously underground confines. As raves went national and started appearing frequently in Atlanta and central Florida (among elsewhere), the peace-love-unity-respect (PLUR) ethos of raving had gone from being an oft-spoken mantra of unity into a an accurate appraisal of the international scene.
In Atlanta, some queer youth find raves essential to their social lives, as the mainstream culture of the greater Atlanta metropolitan area while gay-friendly does not cater to their needs and their sense of identity. More than seeing themselves in terms of being straight or gay, many queer youth find themselves identifying in terms of the music they listen to, the clothes they wear, and the circle of friends they associate with common qualifiers of youth cultural typologies everywhere. The division between mainstream acceptance (or at least tolerance) of gays and lesbians in the adult world and the same amount of social tolerance in the world of youth should be made clear here. Many of the queer youth whom I spoke with while preparing this article agreed that it is much easier in Atlanta to be a gay/lesbian adult than to be a queer teen. The social structures of the adult world may be manipulated and altered as needed by gays and lesbians while the social structures of the world of teens are more or less determined by adults who, for the most part, come from more traditional backgrounds and systems of thought. Efforts to make such conventional spheres of youth culture as high school homecomings and proms more gay-friendly and inclusive have met with mixed success. Raves, and to a lesser degree, club culture, offer an alternative that is clearly desired by many young people, regardless of sexuality.
"At a rave, you're just who you are, and people are cool with it," explained Donovan, an eighteen-year-old raver living in metro Atlanta, "I moved here from Trenton [New Jersey] and people are a lot more friendly here at raves; [but] if you're not straight, you don't feel that way in places like malls. My friends who are still in high school say it's really repressive in school, too."
"I started going to raves because of the music; I'd been to one [rave] in Houston and loved it, so that's how I got into it here," said Ward, a high school student who has lived in Atlanta his entire life. Once I'd been to a lot of Atlanta raves, I noticed there were like, way more queer kids around than I would see anywhere else. And because people are alright with each other, you're less afraid to be open [about being gay] than at school."
Donovan and Ward reflect in their comments an attitude about raves I found to be very common among queer youth who participated in raves in the Atlanta area: the openness and tolerance of the setting allowed them a sense of both comfort and acceptance that other venues of youth social interaction failed to provide. The massive size of many raves and the reach of these raves in terms of people coming to them from not only the Atlanta area, but from all over Georgia and neighboring states contributed to their desirability, as well. As Donovan explained, while there were places such as bookstores and coffee houses where queer youth could feel like they were in a safe environment and there are even groups dedicated specifically to the needs of queer youth (e.g., the Gay Community Center Youth Group in Atlanta), these institutions could not offer the vastness, vitality, and excitement of a rave.
"Youth groups have parties and they do things that are really good for queer kids who are just coming out, but it's still really small and raves are places where you can go and dance and not be hassled; you can be with your friends or yourself or your boyfriend or whatever. It just doesn't matter as long as you're having a good time," Donovan offered. "Nothing else is like that and most places I go in the city are places that are somehow connected with the rave scene so I see people I know from raves a lot; it's something that I grew up being part of in New York and New Jersey and I'm glad that it's happening here, too."
Atlanta, like Orlando before it, also has the advantages of being an affluent and growing urban epicenter for its region while attracting tourists from all over the world, contributing to the international sensibility of its rave scene. At the same time, the proximity of Atlanta to Florida's burgeoning rave scene as well as home-bred Georgia talent allows Atlanta area raves to include fresh new DJs in their line-ups beside better-known artists from the world over. The opportunities for DJs to gain exposure while not being in as competitive a market as, for example, San Francisco, is appealing to many DJs who are looking to grow along with their growing scene. The tendency of raves to embrace a variety of musical styles and to introduce DJs who know their own genre inside and out (as opposed to club-based DJs who may play a broader variety with perhaps something less in the way of aptitude) is a big draw for gay youth, along with other rave enthusiasts. But aside from the universal elements of good music and a hedonistic experience, raves may offer queer kids something deeper.
"Raves have always embraced difference and exoticism in terms of music, people, everything," comments Dr. Cheryl Adoni, a medical sociologist and expert on youth subcultures, "and we have not seen that kind of embracing of differences in youth culture since the 1960s. It is one thing to make an aspect of youth culture that's extant more inclusive of minority differences, but it's quite another to say to everyone, minorities included, that each and every person can contribute something of value in building the culture. Most cultures are already built while raves offer a lack of hierarchy and the sense of progression that are vital for the emotional and social development of groups such as gay youth who are socially marginalized."
Dr. Adoni's endorsement of the value of raves to queer youth and other minority youth is, to a degree, substantiated in both the popular view of raves within rave culture as centers of mutual understanding and acceptance and by what research has been done on the social impact of raves, although such formal research is scant. Adoni is cautious in suggesting that raves are inherently queer-friendly venues in all cases, however.
"What happens at an individual rave is the same as what happens at any other individual gathering of a lot of young people," Adoni adds, saying that drug use and violence have been known to be part of the rave subculture, but it's difficult to judge the extent of their impact. "As long as people are not getting arrested or coming into hospitals due to drug-related incidents or acts of violence, then we have little to look at in the way of statistics. I only stress that raves, while very positive in most regards, are only going to be as high in quality as the people who put them together and the people who attend them. I'll use the analogy from my native Italy of football [soccer] games: sometimes an unruly crowd leads things to become unpleasant while other times, people get along just fine. Queer youth need to appreciate that raves are a social setting where they are accepted, but no one should automatically assume that raves are small pockets of utopian society."
Raves in Atlanta attract queer youth predominantly from the Atlanta area, but it is not uncommon for ravers to come from as far as north Florida or coastal South Carolina. Geographically speaking, Atlanta has become the urban hub of the new south and its central location is poised to make the area become even more significant in the international rave scene. While everyone involved in the rave scene in Atlanta might concur that the music and rave experience is the most important part of the subculture, the role of design aesthetics and fashion should not be overlooked or downplayed. Many subcultural genres that start out having an underground status grow in size and scope to the point that they are mass marketed and marketing aspects germane to rave culture should not considered as negative. For any subcultural movement to grow and to retain some level of social acceptance (a status that is needed to ensure the allowance of legal raves, among other reasons) an amount of diffusion is necessary. Rave culture has also brought its dynamics of PLUR to a larger audience, some of whom may not have even attended a rave, surprisingly.
"Raves now are eighteen and up, most of 'em," Ward elaborates, "many kids in high school can't get into the larger raves, legally, at least. But you see people at high school dances and things trying to make them seem like raves and it's pretty lame and kind of funny, but it's good that these kids who've never had the chance to go to a real rave know it's out there. They'll go, then, when they're older."
"Not only the growth of rave culture itself but the possibility for rave culture to contribute significantly to culture beyond its own boundaries should be a concern," Dr. Adoni adds emphatically. "Society is defined by many different social and cultural segments, and youth culture is one of the most transitory of all cultural settings. Rave culture would have to include not only whatever happens at a rave, but things legitimately inspired by the ethics and aesthetics of raves. That is what we see in diffusion of clothing fashion and so forth. Most of this is even a secondary diffusion because rave culture appropriates from other subcultural groups. But there is nothing wrong with this; in fact, it's normal to contemporary society."
If raves and the subcultural atmosphere associated with raves are accepting of queer youth involvement where other spheres of youth subculture are not so accepting, rave culture could well become linked to the growth and development of queer youth subculture, which would indeed be a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship. Queer youth have already embraced and therefore furthered many of the aesthetic hallmarks of rave culture, including bringing in Japanese anime and related trends that merge the boundaries of sequential art, video, fashion, and design. The appropriation of material originally intended for a preadolescent audience such as Hello Kitty and other Sanrio creations is also another notable trend within both rave and queer youth culture.
"I categorize the process of adopting aesthetic markers of childhood by rave adherents as not a form of infantilism or regression, as some observers have labeled it, but as what I term a soft rebellion," Dr. Adoni states. "Kids attracted to the cultural offering of the rave scene are as much dissatisfied with what mainstream youth culture offers them as they feel excluded from participation in such culture. They are acknowledging that much of what mainstream culture offers is scripted and through returning to references of childhood, they establish a different location for themselves, seperate from what mainstream culture offers. Like children, they are acknowledging a desire to play and to play for the sake of playing: what would better reflect that point of view than cartoon characters and stuffed animals? Queer youth can do this without worrying about conforming to gender stereotypes; a boy can carry around a stuffed animal and not be labeled or demarcated in a negative way from his peers."
What Dr. Adoni identifies here in what she calls soft rebellion is perhaps the most often overlooked yet most crucial aspect of rave culture: the need to play for the sake of playing and the willingness to forsake traditional gender roles and hierarchical limitations. Adoni indicates that many non-Western cultures have traditions of hedonism centering around music and dancing that are not part of a coming-of-age ceremony or related transition in a person's life, but which celebrate the simple joy of life. Within Western culture, even, she finds ample precedents, the most notable of these being Carnival as manifest in the Caribbean Islands and Latin America. Adoni also notes the strong traditions of gender-based separation within American youth activities and the fact that dances have traditionally been social occasions where dating could occur while raves sponsor dancing and merry-making without gender-defined scripts. The lack of such scripting and presumptions allows greater social agency for queer youth with less pressure to treat dancing as a precursor to sexual encounters. Gay clubs, in contrast, offer a very different situation.
"Even if you can get into a gay club, you'll be cruised," Ward offers, adding that "my older friends who've been to lots of Atlanta clubs say that it's so macho, it's all gym boys with their shirts off. Raves aren't like that; that's not at all what raving's about and people can relax and enjoy the music and dancing without all that shit."
The aspect of personal performance and performativity in raves also is appealing to queer youth along with the do-it-yourself ethos that had been punk's legacy to rave culture. Many ravers I know whether gay or straight cite the chance to be part of something and to actively participate in something as opposed to being a mere observer of an event as a prime attraction to raving. Possibly, this participatory aspect shares something in common with earlier traditions in gay bars and the gay notion of camp. Even drag queens have a strong bond to raving: the notion of dressing up, donning a costume, and enacting a role if so desired is powerful within rave culture.
"Because there's no inherent mechanism to prohibit, in way of an example, a boy from wearing make-up, there is no grounding in taboos. Fantasy is allowed, fantasy is encouraged; the whole candy raver look has been favored, I think, by gay youth because of its aspect of fantasy. People participate however they feel comfortable participating and as long as no one else is infringed upon by their participation. Acceptance of differences goes a long way towards fostering a sense of community," Adoni suggests.
Drugs are an issue that is often brought up in conjunction with both raves and with the gay party scene in Atlanta, but how prevalent are drugs within raves and what effect do they have on queer youth? While exact, definite, answers to those questions may be nearly impossible to obtain, it should suffice to say that many queer youth find the Atlanta rave scene a safer place with less drug use than they do the club scene. Additionally, several teens I spoke to in conjunction with this article believed drug use at raves to be no worse than drug use within their own high schools. Donovan's comments on raving and drugs are perhaps most lucent of all:
"Some people who rave use drugs, okay? Some don't. I think it's a personal choice. Some football players use drugs, some businessmen use drugs. You can't say 'oh, ravers are all druggies' because that's not true. If you want drugs, sure, you might get 'em at a rave. But it's not like everyone's on drugs or selling drugs."
Drug use in the rave scene certainly occurs, but there is no evidence in Atlanta or elsewhere to suggest that the prevalence and incidence of drug use at raves is any higher or more dangerous than drug use in other social settings. In fact, a comprehensive study conducted by medical researchers in 1997 indicates no clear correlation between drug use and raves (see Adiaf, E.M. & Smart, R.G. 1997 "Party subculture or dens of doom? An epidemiological study of rave attendance and drug use patterns among adolescent students," Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 29:2, 193-198). The positive aspects of the rave scene, especially as far as queer youth are concerned, are obvious and very tangible. A sense of belonging, community, and freedom are all encouraged via the rave scene for young people who have a difficult time finding such acceptance elsewhere. And true of any mutually beneficial relationship, queer youth have contributed greatly to the furtherance of the rave scene. The future in Atlanta for a truly PLUR culture seems bright.
I thank all the queer youth of Atlanta whom I interviewed for this article, especially Donovan and Ward, who provided a positive attitude and no small share of wisdom. Also, Dr. Cheryl Adoni must be thanked for her support and deep understanding of the rave scene. Dr. Sid Moormeister, my long-time friend and champion of everything PLUR in San Francisco also offered useful input, as did my friends Mike Mahaffey, Derek Elmer, and Allison Gardener.
MICHAEL WALKER is a researcher and writer who is best known for his work on the social and medical issues faced by queer youth and for his work on
medicine in developing nations. His scientific research has been published
in a number of leading academic journals including AirMed, Diagnostic
Imaging, CATScan, and the ATA Chronicle. He is currently researching body image and gender identity in rave subculture. He currently divides his time between Savannah and Orlando.
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