Finding Light at the Black PartyS

When I decided last week that I'd attend Saturday's Black Party—the 34th annual iteration of it, and my first—I reached out to some friends to gauge their interest level or otherwise get their reactions.

"Sorry, Rich, that's my nightmare," said one.

"Wear a butt plug," said another.

"I've heard horror stories," said a third.

The narratives about the Black Party—the leather-themed bacchanal for gay men, which is generally modified on first reference by "infamous" and "notorious"—are as insistent as the house beats that ostensibly fuel its fun. A sense of darkness pervades it, from the name to the history to the raunch it prescribes. It originated in 1980 at the East Village nightclub the Saint, a place so synonymous with gay scene that when men started dying of a mysterious cancer-like ailment in the early '80s, some people initially referred to it as "Saint's Disease." Nowadays, the party is at the otherwise respectable Roseland Ballroom, a concert venue taken over by wild displays of public sex, both onstage and off, by professionals and amateurs alike.

There would be back-room black holes, people in the know told me, in which your guiding sense becomes touch. There might be shit involved, so I should choose shoes that I wouldn't mind ruining.

For the uninitiated, this all seems overwhelming and downright scary, tending to produce uneasy-to-horrified essays. But I was going to seek light in the darkness. The event sounded so utterly bleak, so mean in its countenance, that it seemed ready to buckle under the weight of its own gear and bend right back around to absurdity.

The Black Party, for instance, falls on the weekend closest to the vernal equinox, to echo a rite practiced by the Druids. This one was named Rites XXXIV. You know who else invoked Druids and Roman numerals? The '90s midtempo chant-and-cheese dance outfit Enigma. And then there is the idea that men come from all around the world to pay up to $160 to attend this thing that runs from Saturday night through Sunday afternoon, but "doesn't get going" until at least 5 a.m. Sunday morning, thus obliterating an entire weekend in the process. I can think of fewer things more ridiculous than taking fun so seriously.

Based solely on research and the expectation of "strange acts" (as advertised every year in the Black Party's literature) and of bumping into men giving blowjobs wherever the fuck, I figured it was possible to read the Black Party as camp, making it gay not just in practice but in removed sensibility—the recipient of a sort of cultural double penetration.

"I think it's the most culturally significant event in New York because you can do whatever you want—things that are otherwise internalized as those that you shouldn't or wouldn't do," is how my friend, A, put it at his apartment, where we pre-partied. There were seven of us in all, and the majority of us had never attended the Black Party. A was dressing in a leather jock strap and some rain boots. B, his roommate who had done some work on previous Black Parties, wore a tank top and shorts. C, a mutual friend of A's and mine, wore a shirt that looked like chain link and a leather harness over one shoulder. He aimed to look like something out of The Legend of Zelda.

I was going in jeans and a T-shirt, which is generally what I wear to everything. I do not go out of my way to be difficult—it's just that I don't go out of my way at all, generally, when it comes to fashion. Wearing leather or dressing sexily would have required me to make an extra effort. Whatever, I rationalized that going against the grain at this transgressive event would make me the queerest of the queer. I think it mostly made me seem unfuckable, or uninterested in fucking.

***

We arrived a little before 2 a.m. to ass, ass, ass everywhere, firm and plump and hanging out of jockstraps. At least half of the dudes I saw were wearing leather harnesses on their otherwise bare upper halves and at least half of those wore the same simple X configuration around their pecs. There's normal and then there's Black Party normal.

View gallery »

There was a Coney Island theme to this year's party—a giant wood entrance to the main floor was the gaping mouth of a painted wooden clown head. Lasers shot from its eyes, creating vivid displays that crawled like caterpillars, separated into fingers of light, and united into a sheet of color. At the far end of the room on the main floor, where the stage usually is, was a giant metal wheel. I never got to see it in use, but under it, in a caged-off area, I would later see some sort of group tarring-and-feathering with what looked like caramel.

A balcony ran around the perimeter of the hall. In the middle of the room, on the right, was a proper stage that had a chain-link fence backdrop, a leather couch and various neon beer signs for the likes of Corona and Heineken. Later, I'd watch a guy in a rubber horse mask get fingered on that couch by a beefy dude with a mean dick that pointed straight up at his meaner face. Then a stocky dude with FAGGOT written on his stomach in an arch of Olde English lettering took a turn getting fingered there.

A bunch of people in clownish getups—two guys in day-glo singlets that dipped below the navel, a guy in a Knife mask and Speedo, what I think was a woman-born-woman in a bikini and neon fishnet body suit—danced sexually without so much as touching each other. It was about as sex-provoking as five clones of Nicki Minaj half-heartedly jiggling for this crowd.

The music on the main floor was, and would stay, entirely disappointing: an unrelenting torrent of percussive, loud, ugly, anti-melodic house (or tribal, I guess, to be more accurate on a subgenre level). It was exactly what I would have expected 10 or 15 years ago. Every once in a while, we heard a remix of a classic—Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody," Whitney Houston's "Love Will Save the Day," Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)"—that only made me wish we could hear the original.

Every time I was dripped on, I thought about the meningitis vaccine I still need to get.

Upstairs and directly across the room from that giant wheel and behind the DJ were little carnival booths. Around the side was a fairly well-lit hallway that provided an endless stream of dudes—such a stream that the ceiling dripped with what I assume was condensation from all the sweat. Every time I was dripped on, I thought about the meningitis vaccine I still need to get.

Before 3 a.m., I saw my first public sex act of the night: a guy getting a blowjob under a light who nonetheless blocked the view of the action with his left hand, a small gesture of politeness.

The back-room space came after that corridor and around to the right. A large hallway led to the various debauched zones of sensory deprivation. On entering the darkness, everyone adopted a vintage-zombie gait, a slow left-to-right hobble. The first room on the left was dimly lit, as opposed to not being lit at all, and featured a DJ playing much cooler, funkier stuff than the four-on-the-floor animosity of the main room.

It felt normal: A bunch of dudes hanging out, listening to Azari & III. A lot of them had their asses hanging out and I could tell exactly what they were packing, but still.

We stumbled further into the darkness. Given the crowding, the back rooms felt impenetrable, but only, of course, figuratively. At a sloth's pace, we passed by one room just as the worst thing happened: Its light turned on. There were too many bodies inside and out for me to discern exactly what was going on, but a giant circle of men was standing around … someone. Something. They all hissed like vampires at the light.

***

And so there was a lot of shirtlessness, a lot of milling around, a lot of dancing, but that's about it. The vibe seemed celebratory and light. I don't know if it was the Adderall I popped for the sake of being able to stay awake and lucid for enough hours to get a piece of writing out of this experience, but as I waited to order a vodka Red Bull at the bar, I decided that maybe for the first time since getting to New York over 15 years ago, I was in no hurry. "I'm just happy to be here," I said.

A trans woman from Manila asked me if I was straight. "Because you have your clothes on," she said.

I wandered, sometimes with the friends I'd come with, sometimes bumping into people I knew, sometimes having random interactions with passing strangers. A trans woman from Manila asked me if I was straight. "No!" I said in the same incredulous way that I do when anyone asks that anywhere. "Oh, because you have your clothes on," she said.

She had a point. Being dressed was certainly doing me no favors in the attention department. But also, even after 4 a.m., there was still something tame about all that was going on. I had seen the one blowjob and a little bit of making out and fondling and whatever those vampires in the back room had been doing when the light beamed in and killed them, but that's about it. Do I repel sex? I mean, I have plenty of it, but it just seems like places where it should be happening, if not to me then to other people—high school, the Meat Rack on Fire Island—are still and sexless when I pass through.

I had spoken to myself too soon. I reunited with A, who had with him this boy whose dick he wanted to suck. We made our way back up to the dim, DJed back room upstairs, which was no longer cool but hot—in temperature and activity. Like everywhere else I'd go that night, the smell was standard dude musk, nothing weirder than that. Two guys were standing up fucking in a corner. One seemed to be getting ready to sit on another's dick on the leather couch, jacking himself off in anticipation. Across the room, behind the DJ table, a group of guys stood up, stroking their dicks. Something was coming.

A perched on the leather couch and starting sucking his boy's cock. I stood with my back to them and felt … unmoved. I wasn't mad at any of this. I didn't disdain these people for getting their specific rocks off, but I really didn't want to participate, and I avoided eye contact with the conveyor belt of men cruising their way through. Then I worried that I was blocking A's exhibitionism.

A and his boy moved across the room. An extremely handsome athletic dude who had been trying to catch my eye finally walking up to me and asked if I was having fun. "Well..." I said. At first I was pausing to consider how to answer, and then I let my dangling sentiment be the answer. "It doesn't look like you are," he said. Well, whatever. When in Black Party, scowl. He ran off, I plopped down on the couch, and someone with very small breasts in a sequined dress started rubbing me. Christ. I didn't want to be mean, especially to someone so clearly different than everybody else, but it was about as erotic as being bitten by a mosquito. When A came back, I excused myself.

***

Around 6 a.m., A and I decided that we would split up. Before he left, he urged me to take my shirt off. It felt like a compromise of my principles. But it did seem like a stupid principle to stand up for, as if I were 14 and trying to be different for the sake of being different. And it was hot everywhere now. Also, someone in the bathroom had complimented my shirt, and I wondered if he was shading me. I stripped it off. I think I was the last organism in the building to do so. In a nearby corner, a pack of rats tweaked each other's exposed nipples and struck curious poses. They felt the heat, too.

I wandered by myself for the next half hour. I made out with a guy halfheartedly. When I finally squirmed away, he was surprised, which surprised me. There had been no discernable chemistry between us. Back down on the dance floor someone said to me, "Great job!" At what, I have no idea. If he meant achieving a body fat percentage that's more than 10 percent (more like 15, tbh), to him I say, it wasn't a job but a pleasure and a delicious one at that.

I met back up with A, and we lamented the general vibe, which if increasing on the sleaze, was somehow lacking excitement. "I keep waiting for something to happen," he said.

I'd hooked up with him before, and was startled to see him in a harness.

Instead of waiting, I set out to find it. I wandered some more upstairs, bumping into a friend, D, who I'd had no idea would be attending. I'd hooked up with him before, and was startled to see him in a harness. I'd never known he was into that sort of thing. He told me it was borrowed. We made our way back to those carnival booths by the DJ. There, a super cute, youngish guy with buckled leather forearm coverings asked D for a cigarette.

"How has your night been?" D asked the kid.

"It's been great so far. I had sex with this guy that I had been wanting. I had no idea he'd been wanting me too," the kid responded.

"How many guys have you had sex with tonight?" asked D.

"I'd say ..." the kid started.

He was already to the point of having to estimate? Whoa. That's a lot, I thought.

"...Six or seven," he said. He assured D that he'd have no trouble getting his dick hard again, ha ha.

"What do you want to do?" D asked me.

"Go home, I think," I said.

"Yeah," he said.

I walked away. Then I realized D wasn't behind me. I turned around to see him making out with the kid. A little later, I received a text: "I'm a slut. Have fun."

Fat chance. I really was ready to go. But then a trancey remix of Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know" was playing, and I saw a wide-framed dude with pneumatic muscles and in a jockstrap being penetrated by a tight, lean dude with a backwards baseball cap. They fucked hard, backwards and to the beat. "How will I know if he really loves me?" wondered Whitney. Well, if he fucks you up against a stage while small, unfazed women wheel around trashcans for all of the condoms and wrappers on the floor, he really just might!

So that was kind of fun and worth staring at. Still, I was legitimately ready to turn away and get my coat when B came up, now shirtless and more flirtatious than he had been when we congregated at his place. We danced a little bit, but he demurred when I made an attempt to kiss him. OK, whatever. It was good, at least, to have a roaming buddy. At this point, it was after 7 in the morning. We passed tables full of fruit and coffee. I walked by a guy who was totally nude and eating a banana, his giant banana of a dick bouncing as he moved to the beat. B thought this was cliché, but I thought it was thematically sound.

I saw what looked like a random splatter of discoloration on the carpet and thought, "Oh my god. It really happened. Someone really did shit there." But no—on closer inspection, it was part of the flower pattern on the Roseland carpet. I wasn't getting tired, but my brain was.

B and I bumped into E and F. E was someone I had been introduced to a few times and had always thought was cute, but never thought he had any interest in me. F was simply the hottest guy I'd seen all night. He was 27, had the slightest touch of a corn-fed vibe, friendly eyes, a wicked grin and a firm, round ass. I expected to say hi and move on, but E said, "Do you want to come with us?"

The standard Black Party narrative had found me after all. As we walked to the back room, going single file, E told me to hold onto F. As we entered the darkness, F put my hand on his dick. The DJ room was mostly empty, because the temperature was unbearable, so we walked back around to the booths.

Now we had attracted a group of men who were slowly closing in, leering and bumping and rubbing us.

Once there, we made out in various configurations: E and me, F and E, F and me, all three of us together. E pulled F's dick out and started blowing him. The previously dark booth was almost immediately illuminated by the roving lights of that giant fucking clown. Asshole. I hate clowns. Now we had attracted a group of men who were slowly closing in, leering and bumping and rubbing us, like we were at the end of the "Thriller" video. None of them interested us, and we were undeterred. I pulled my dick out and E switched from F's to mine.

Despite my intense interest in both of these dudes, I couldn't really get into this particular scene and only got half hard. No one cared. F blew me. I blew him. More guys pushed in and pawed us. We finally had enough and decided to go down for some dancing, which meant simulating fucking and more making out. We also licked each other's pits.

E told us he was going to the bathroom and would be right back. More than 10 minutes passed, and it was clear to that he wasn't coming back. I figured he'd gotten distracted (fair enough) and really, that was OK, because I could devote my full attention to F.

"We either need to get out of here or go find somewhere dark upstairs," F told me.

"Let's get out of here. Come to Williamsburg," I said.

"OK."

***

We went to retrieve our coats and F's cell phone. Because my friend had a friend with a connection to the event, I had been able to bypass security and keep my own cell phone all night. Waiting in these lines struck me as the evening's true rituals—the labor of returning to the reality of modern existence. It was fine, though. We had plenty to talk about.

Back at my place, F and I were about to shower and devour each other. Talking in the cab, he had revealed himself as a bottomless pit of kink. "What's one thing that you always wanted to try but never did?" he asked me. I told him and we did it. We ended up fooling around for about an hour and a half, directing and discovering each other. I spent that time in awe—first that someone so beautiful, nice, and sexually talented existed, and second that this person was in my bed.

"This is the real party," I told him, at one point. "Everything that the Black Party purports to offer, all that sexual abandon and freedom, I'm getting from you." In the past 12 hours, I hadn't so deeply felt the symbiosis of inspiration and exploration than I had while naked with this guy in my white sheets.

"I think you need to explain that to me again after I've rested and gotten some of my brain back," he said. I came, he came, and we went to sleep around 11:30 am.

At 3 p.m., I woke up, fully alert. I closed my eyes a few times, but was conscious for the next hour, spooning F while he remained asleep. His once-glistening muscles now sparkled like sand in the sun pouring in through my curtainless windows.

[Photo by Victor Jeffreys II.]