The Price of Inclusion

Avant Gardener/Brooklyn Mirage

I didn’t get invited to go to Fire Island this year, which makes me feel like a gay pariah. I’m painfully aware of this after watching the movie, Fire Island. I loved it, but it reinforced my feeling that I lacked a queer community, and notably, one with a summer share in the Pines. My best friend and roommate Shane was invited for three whole weekends, and I am on the sidelines, waiting to be picked while pretending to be above it all. In short, I am bitter for not being invited to go to a place where I probably wouldn’t feel welcome anyway.

Instead of being in the Pines, I am in my apartment, thinking about what Pride means. Mostly it looks like subtractions on my bank account. And for those who do go to Fire Island, there are thousands of dollars spent on a one-quarter summer share to sleep on a twin bed. There is also the cost of new outfits. You can’t wear the same thing twice. And you can’t buy from cheap sites either, as imitations are clocked and ridiculed. Add in the cost of booze and, for many, drugs. It gets expensive.

Above all, both in the city and on Fire Island, there are the events. There’s LadyLand, which is described as “a festival for everyone where all are welcome with open arms.” That is to say, all who can pay the minimum price of $70 dollars. Even more popular is Planet Pride, which for folks who purchased early and chose the pre-6 p.m. entry, the price was $100 dollars. It’s a “Party with a Purpose” and claims to benefit LGBTQ+ nonprofits, although it never tells you how much is given. Attendance was around 7,000. I’d say they should be able to donate quite a bit.

I wonder how guilty I should feel for going to places that keep out and exclude those without means. The price of inclusion is high. For those who can afford it, you wonder if all the money gets you any closer to finding a meaningful queer community. Without community, genuine pride seems like a momentary flash in the dark, like a night out you can’t remember.

These questions are not new. Queer nightlife served as a foundation for the myth of gay affluence. The myth was fueled by the notion that queer couples tend to be DINKs (Dual Income No Kids). This dubious assumption was supported by flimsy studies, ones which got their data primarily by interviewing men who attended upscale queer events. By the very nature of these gatherings, the men who attended had disposable income.

Planet Pride is held at Avant Gardner, which is best known by the main stage of Brooklyn Mirage. It’s a giant warehouse with stages both indoors and out and it constitutes everything I imagined going out in Brooklyn would be like before I moved to New York from Michigan. Perhaps because I’ve only gone to this space in summer it feels especially dream-like. You can weave in between stages and find a whole different crowd listening to different music. The mirage title is appropriate. You’re seeing people through a twist of a kaleidoscope. Like all good parties, it’s an oasis that you know will dry up. Under the right atmospheric conditions, it appears real, even if it’s not fully there, which doesn’t feel dissimilar to my own feelings of pride.

Nine years ago, I came out to my parents on Mother’s Day (sorry Mom). I thought I would be perfectly well-adjusted by now, but my psyche still contains unflattering, self-loathing angles like ones you might see in a funhouse mirror. In that reflection, I pinch my stomach fat and wonder how many more Sweetgreen salads (light dressing) until I have abs.

Before the main event of Planet Pride, there’s a pregame party in Chelsea, hosted by someone who made millions from crypto and NFTs, whom everyone calls “Crypotwink.” The fact that I am standing in a $15 million dollar apartment, bought with money made from something that isn’t real, makes me laugh. At the door we are asked to take off our shoes by beautiful shirtless male “shoe checkers” and offered rainbow-striped socks, which I decline.

No one seems to know “Cryptotwink” but it looks like all of gay male white professional New York is here, putting the homo in homogenous. Like me, they all seem to have been invited by a friend of a friend. I recognize many faces from job recruiting events or hook-up apps.

We are guided out to the terrace. My boyfriend, Jon, and I are almost certainly dressed, for lack of a better word, the sluttiest. Shane was talked out of a more risqué outfit and is wearing jean shorts. The bartenders, also shirtless, offer either Vodka Sodas or White Claws, which is the queerest thing about this place. The bartenders and shoe checkers come from a service listed on their booth as www.modelbartenders.com. Apparently, the hosts were given a website with shirtless headshots to decide who to invite. While the model part may be true, the bartender part is almost certainly not. Each time I get a drink, the server forgets one of the components of a Vodka Soda Lime.

More men file in over time. It is an interesting menagerie of my past and present associations. A friend approaches us and delivers a derisive soliloquy about Shane’s sunglasses, saying they look like they were from Amazon (they were), but I take more offense than Shane does. I see a former finance associate who asked me for nudes in exchange for helping write my cover letter when I was applying for a job there. Lovely. I overhear a recruiter from yet another professional services firm (yawn) tell a former recruit he is he is disappointed in the “thot pics” he has been posting on Instagram.

I need another drink. This time, no soda. Tough.

Walking to the bar, I lock eyes with the handsome boyfriend of the de facto host who is responsible for the guest list. His eyes are the blue, cold, and deep. I say hello, but he can’t remember my name, which is the first ding to my confidence. He’s with his friend, a writer I’ve liked hanging out with in the past. I compliment one of his recent publications, and he too has no idea who I am. I write it off as meeting people while drunk, but that seems to be the only way I’ve met any gays lately. These drunken connections turn out to be another sleight-of-hand, something threaded through haze, which disappears on the other end of the morning.

Then, like a sanctuary at the other edge of the rooftop, I see an old friend, Steven. Once I told Steven while at a group hangout that I had had trouble finding my gay community in New York. In the moment, people generally agreed but didn’t say much. Steven later reached out over Facebook Messenger to say, “Hey, I’ve felt the same way as did my boyfriend when we moved here. If I can do anything to help, let me know. Always happy to chat.”

A simple message that I never got to show appreciation for since COVID sent us both into no-man’s land.

So I tell him now, “I just wanted to say how much it meant to me to feel acknowledged, and you might not even remember this but you sent me a note on Facebook about a year ago that made me feel a bit less lonely and I haven’t gotten the chance to say thanks.”

Steven smiles and gives me a hug, and says, “Honestly, I don’t even remember it, but I’m so glad it gave you comfort. Thanks for telling me.”

It’s a brief conversation before we’re pulled back by our respective boyfriends into other conversations and other groups, but I begin to think that maybe that’s what Pride means: finding comfort. Here, on a billionaire’s rooftop in Chelsea that comfort materializes, becoming reality for just a moment.

Eventually, we all start to leave the pregame and head out to the subway for the actual event. We arrive and then wait for the rest of the group who, once they get there, make a circle that doesn’t include me or Jon. I actually laugh out loud at how much this seems like high school. I take Jon by the arm and head to the venue’s entrance. Apparently, the two guys who forgot my name earlier had the same idea, and we walk in together. A security guard says “Yo Rondo!” to the writer who is wearing a Boston Celtics jersey, and the wearer of said jersey looks bewildered by this. This kind of faking it I can appreciate, and we laugh as we enter a party with 7,000 other gay men.

If you have never entered a party of shirtless, muscular men, and tried to inch closer to the stage, you’re probably underestimating how much you can really twist your hips and torso. That day was a lesson in contortionism in more way than one.

As expected, the crowd is overwhelmingly young white men. It’s only 9 p.m. Within about an hour I’ve lost track of my friend Brandon, who is my kindred spirit at places like this. He’s already left, feeling out of place, and dejected that he had spent 200 dollars. Shane meanwhile is telling us to follow him, forcing us against the crowded hordes to try and find the rest of our group. Eventually I get tired of trying to find people who I am worried won’t even talk to me once I get there.

I am aware in the moment that my sense of alienation may be perpetuated by my own insecurity. Like many queer people, I spent much of my whole life as an outsider. At times, I recoil at the exclusion within my own community, even when most times it’s unintentional. But there are other times, I participate in the exclusion if it means there’s a space for me.

While I try to figure things out, it dawns on me that I also just find Planet Pride boring. The DJs are famous, their sets, just fine. But these events have a remarkable sameness about them–the acts, the high drink prices, and the wealthy, white crowd. I thought it being Pride weekend would imbue the event with some magical energy, but I don’t feel it. I am glad at least to have space to dance with my boyfriend. I run into many people from my home state of Michigan, who don’t live in New York and who weren’t even out back in college. Seeing these people out shows they have found some kind of comfort. It’s why queer people have come to New York for decades.

Jon and I dance for a couple more hours, trying to get our money’s worth before I say, “Let’s go get pizza.”

Jon has never said no to drunk food.

In her poem, Mirage, Amy Lowell writes “A thousand misconceptions may prevent / Our souls from coming near enough to each other to blend.” Lowell herself was queer, writing many of her poems about her partner, the actress Ada Dwyer Russell.

Over the course of that day, I try to be part of these souls coming together. I have to believe others are seeking the same kinship I am. If I chose to hold on to the mirage, even if it is a vain illusion, maybe I can find the community I am looking for.

There are certainly far more inclusive parties in NYC than this one, but none are free, and I am not suggesting they should be. Still, I find myself trying to think of alternatives.

Samuel Delany, the science fiction writer and author of The Motion of Light in Water, said the most welcoming places for a queer man of color in NYC were found cruising in the truck-beds of the Meatpacking District. Beyond a place for sex, it was a space where the Gay Liberation Front shared leaflets on activism and safe sex practices. Now the area has changed, and it includes the crypto-billionaire’s apartment. The neighborhood once included the Clit Club, a lesbian-run spot, whose sex-positive parties from 1990-2002, were known for being racially, generationally, and economically inclusive. But, I suppose, all good parties have to come to an end.

In the days that follow, I start small. While still hungover, I ask the boy who didn’t remember my name to get dinner and actually get to know him. He becomes someone with whom I actually really love spending time. I reach out to Steven and ask him to go on a double date with our boyfriends. I spend Pride Sunday walking down my favorite streets in Greenpoint, hand-in-hand with Jon. I come home and debrief with Shane and spend the following weekend just with him, thankful for a best friend whose identity mirrors my own. Some things are so corporeal they can’t be written off.

***

Jack Lancaster is a writer living in Brooklyn by way of Michigan. His writing is featured or forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, Apartment Therapy, and Testudo, and more can be found at www.jack-lancaster.com

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