Friday, July 7, 2006

The Church of the Holy Circuit

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #290, July 7, 2006)

PHOTO: Excalibur, Chicago

Come with me now to Excalibur, “the best nightclub in Chicago.” It’s the Monday evening after the International Mr. Leather contest, and time for the Black & Blue Ball—the final official event of the IML weekend and one of the events on “the circuit” (as was Sunday night’s post-contest “Salute” party at Chicago’s famous House of Blues). This is where leathermen and circuit boys intersect.

(For the uninitiated, “the circuit” means circuit parties, a series of gay men’s dance parties held in major cities around the country and the world throughout the year. Just as a distinct culture has grown up around leather runs and title contests, a similar culture has grown up around circuit parties.)

They probably haven’t thought about it, but for many gay leathermen and gay men in general this and other circuit parties serve many of the purposes that churches serve or, in many instances, formerly served. Those who worry about the future of organized religion, and who wonder where the church is headed in the twenty-first century, will find ample food for thought here. (Perhaps it’s not coincidental that some of the most enduring music played at circuit parties is by an artist named Madonna, and her new album is called “Confessions on a Dance Floor.”)

The building that houses Excalibur was originally built in 1892 to house the Chicago Historical Society. The building’s architectural style is Romanesque Revival, based on the 11th- and 12th-century architecture of Spain and France. The building, clad in red granite, has turrets, high-peaked and steeply sloped roofs, arched windows and even a cathedral-like rose window. It looks vaguely church-like except for the absence of crosses on the roof peaks.

Entering through an ornate, dark portico, one finds oneself in a large central entrance lobby surrounded by other rooms (side chapels?). As with all great cathedrals, the building’s interior is decorated with stunning art, mostly contemporary photographs and including some interesting collage pieces. The ceilings are decoratively painted, and even the floors are ornate. Up the grand staircase from the main lobby is the main dance floor, surrounded by four levels of balconies and topped by high, steeply peaked ceilings.

The evening’s DJ, Matthew Harvat, is situated in a loft overlooking the dance floor. Like the organist or music director in a church, the DJ at a circuit party is responsible for picking music that will lead to the greatest inspiration and spiritual uplift. The beat of the music inspires bliss, and the messages in the lyrics celebrate love, music, fairness, justice, brotherhood and respect for self and others. Most of the vocals are sung by soulful female voices straight out of a gospel choir.

This is what the disco music of the early 1970s, the post-Stonewall years, has become. Some of tonight’s musical selections, in fact, are reissues or remakes of classic 70s disco—notice this word—anthems.

The music, and the bliss it inspires, are also reminiscent of the idealistic, positive, hopeful and politically-charged 1960s. One song exhorts listeners to “keep the faith.” (Unfortunately, too often circuit-party bliss-seeking involves drugs—another way in which this scene hearkens back to the 1960s.)

The effect of the music is enhanced by a fantastic light show that uses every trick in the book. Computer-controlled lights quickly and continuously change position, color and pattern, sending light beams cascading around the room. There are also lasers, strobe lights, fog machines and a mirrored disco ball. (In its time, the stained glass in twelfth-century cathedrals also served as an awe-inspiring light show.)

Everyone on the dance floor is male, in leather and, according to my gaydar, gay. But within that demographic it’s a diverse mix: black, white, Latino, Asian, etc. The age of crowd members ranges from the twenties to the sixties. Some are gym-buffed and some are not. But everyone is beautiful. No one seems to notice or care about ethnicity, age or physique—everyone here is equal.

The men are busy disproving the old adage that “Leathermen don’t dance.” The dancing is sensual and sultry. These guys know how to move and how to seduce. If dancing has always been a surrogate for sex, here it’s not too far removed.

Unlike traditional churches, circuit parties do not concern themselves with ritualistically marking, celebrating and commemorating life stages—baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc. The action on the dance floor is very much centered, like Buddhism, in the here and now. In that sense it is timeless or out-of-time, if only for an evening. It is an escape from the ordinary and the mundane, although not a permanent one.

But for tonight, it will do. Tonight, this is sacred space for these men and this tribe. Tonight, Excalibur is their cathedral and the Black & Blue Ball is their proverbial Sunday morning service on, in this case, Monday night.

This is their own kind of Sabbath rites and rituals. They are dressed in their version of Sunday Best, which in this case involves lots of leather, lots of body jewelry and lots of skin. This is their version of bliss-seeking, using their bodies to reach spirit, transcendence, liberation—the kind of liberation that started with Stonewall and just keeps evolving.

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