From Pandemic To Protests, LA Nightlife Remains Resilient & Radical

History is playing out before our eyes.

The beginning of June normally kicks off a rowdy, busy, and boozy period for nightlife in the City of Angels. Summer arrives, and for many students, another semester has ended. Recent graduates flood into town, hungry to start Hollywood careers. Vacations to hotspots like Palm Springs are planned and eagerly anticipated. 

June also means Pride, a month of parades, parties, and other rainbow-wrapped gatherings meant to commemorate the Stonewall riots and the launch of the modern LGBTQ+ equality movement. Pride could be a very social, even flirty time for community members and allies enjoying queer nightlife. Coy gazes zig-zag around crowded bars. Strangers dancing in the streets or in clubs could become fast friends or more.

All of that feels very far away right now. First, the COVID-19 crisis shuttered all of the nightlife, immediately leaving thousands of performers, DJs, promoters, bartenders, managers, and other staff without work. In early May, LA Pride formally canceled its festival and parade. The fact that this year marks its fiftieth anniversary made the move even more disheartening. 

Alongside impatient refusals to follow public health orders about masks and social distancing, I kept hearing eagerly optimistic talk of “when this is all over” and “when we get to back to normal.” People clung to the belief that someday soon we would shut off Zoom, rush outside, toss our masks up in the air, and embrace our neighbors and friends.

Late May completely blew up any lingering hope for a “new normal” this summer. An appalled nation watched the horrifying footage of the depraved and brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Once again, the systemic racism and institutionalized abuse that infects the country was exposed to the world. What followed were days of massive protests in America’s streets, vicious confrontations with police, and curfews as early as 1 p.m. being imposed in some cities.

On Saturday, May 30th, the Abbey, the popular restaurant-bar-club in the heart of West Hollywood’s queer nightlife scene, reopened with limited service and safety protocols in place. Regularly included on LOGO’s NewNowNext list of the most popular gay bars in the U.S., the return of the LGBTQ+ hub was long-awaited but proved brief. Swelling protests against police brutality in the nearby Fairfax District turned violent at times, leading to a citywide curfew that shut down the entire city yet again.

LA Pride announced that a peaceful protest march has been planned for June 14th, beginning in the middle of the Hollywood neighborhood and marching to West Hollywood. In a press release from Christopher Street West, the group that sponsors LA Pride, board president Estevan Montemayor said, “It is our moral imperative to honor the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who bravely led the Stonewall uprising, by standing in solidarity with the Black community against systemic racism and joining the fight for meaningful and long-lasting reform.”

Even during the height of the pandemic, several queer nightlife hubs stepped up to strengthen their communities.

Some WeHo spots launched virtual events in order to keep some version of their party nights going. Further east of the Abbey on Santa Monica Boulevard is Western-themed Flaming Saddles, known for the wild rope and pole tricks of its go-go dancers (both women and men). When the lockdown happened, the club moved online with a drag brunch where queens could be tipped via Venmo and “Quarantunes,” its virtual karaoke happy hour on Instagram Live.

“The quarantine isolation factor has been really hard on a lot of our community who are normally very social,” Flaming Saddles general manager Lisa Brubaker told me. “We have been honored to be able to provide a tiny slice of togetherness.” Brubaker added that her team at Flaming Saddles is looking forward to participating in the televised LA Pride Festival on June 13th, to be guest-hosted by Raven-Symoné. 

Across town in Silver Lake, another of LA’s beloved queer night haunts is the Eagle, a leather bar that, like its New York counterpart, is closely associated with bearded men and brawny, hairy bodies. The space nonetheless became the home of Cruise LA, a party organized by Pony Lee and Elliot Musgrave as a way to introduce leather and kink into a “queer-identified space.” Their goal was to ensure that “women were represented, however they identify.” Promising “Leather. Lez Porn. Love.” on its Facebook page, Cruise LA grew into a monthly beer bust at the Eagle. The group also sponsors a leather contest that became the first non-binary leather title in Los Angeles: Mx. Leather.

Lee and Musgrave didn’t immediately pivot to virtual parties when the nightlife shutdown happened; they wanted to avoid the “false hope” attached to moving wildly fun in-person gatherings onto computer screens at home. Instead, they found new ways to keep the Cruise LA community connected. In doing so, they also addressed a common nightlife dilemma. “How many times have you gone to the same party and see the same people but don’t really talk to them? But you kind of want to know more about them?” Lee asked. To facilitate deeper interpersonal connection, Lee and Musgrave began using Instagram Live to host conversations with their Ms. and Mx. Leather titleholders, the party photographer, DJs, bar staff, and go-go dancers. “We’re utilizing this time as an opportunity for folks to get to see a personal side of the folks that make the party happen — that’s just impossible to get in a nightlife setting,” Musgrave explained.

Cruise LA is exploring other possibilities for virtual events and is considering using Zoom and Netflix Party to host a movie watch night. In addition to using the pandemic-triggered “pause” to strengthen ties, Lee and Musgrave are also doing food drop-offs and check-ins with people. More recently, as protests grew, they hosted a Live session for Black members of their community to speak. The constant goal is to preserve meaningful bonds. As Lee said: “Finding weirdos and having them blend and make out and dance and love each other is a passion of mine.” 

Not far from the Eagle is Jumbo’s Clown Room, the popular bikini bar where Courtney Love once danced. When the shutdown happened, Megan Rippey and fellow Jumbo’s dancers organized Cyber Clown Girls in order to move their pole shows onto Zoom. For their show on May 30th, the first night of LA’s curfew, Rippey, wearing a purple wig and clown make-up, hosted the show and mentioned the cultural role of the clown as a satirical truth-teller — a jester that reflects society’s quirks and ills. Acknowledging the dissonance of the moment that maybe a lot of those watching felt, Rippey addressed her Zoom crowd. “We’re in a virtual world here while the outside world is burning and inside this world,” she said. “We’re putting on a clown show.” She added that they would be donating a portion of their earnings to Black Lives Matter.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Clown Girls Gone Virtual 📱💦🤡 (@cyberclowngirlsshow) on

Emily Whittemore, who danced at Jumbo’s under the moniker of “Naomi,” started a Crowdcast night called NAOMIDROME. Her idea was to invite musicians to send in tracks for her and a guest to dance to live, testing the “stripability” of the songs. Her cyber-sexual space of vaporwave vibes and 8-bit aesthetics proved to be one of the more vivid and funnier virtual events that I have watched. As her black cat Binx crept around the set, Whittemore welcomed guest dancer Austin — a philosophy major in college — and they easily fell into talk of Whittemore’s dreams about “sexy ladies on Slip ’N Slides,” whether or not one of the submitted songs was about Elon Musk, and the high cost of living in San Francisco.

The two women then took turns dancing against virtual backgrounds that ranged from Pee-Wee Herman antics to a particularly splashy bit of rainbow psychedelia. “I want my viewers to feel like they’ve entered another realm in which strippers goofing around is the Rule of Law, and where sexuality is just the byproduct of our creativity and personalities,” Whittemore explained. A guest writing into the chat put it best: “NAOMIDROME feels like the future.”

Despite the zany tone, the real-world context was not lost there either. Acknowledging the killing in Minneapolis and subsequent protests, Whittemore announced that CashApp tips would be donated to Black queer and trans organizers who were jailed while protesting. “History is playing out before our eyes,” she told her audience.

Another history-making effort in LA’s nightlife scene has been the arrival of Jolene, a party that VICE called the “Sexiest Trans-Inclusive Strip Night in America,” organized by dancers Fine China and Jordan Kensley.

A reference to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Nina Simone’s song “The Other Woman,” China chose the event’s name as a way to take back the label of the “other woman” and make it empowering for trans women and sex workers. “I just want to use this as a way to highlight the talent that is in the pool of sex workers,” China said. She also described the party as a way to create a healthy and open context for the freely expressed desire of trans amorous people. The organizers want to provide a space for those men to “not be judged for who they’re attracted to, and it’s making it okay to experiment with your feelings in a safe environment,” Kensley said.

Jolene was initially hosted at popular LA hotspots Cheetahs and Precinct. When the pandemic shuttered clubs around the city, China and Kensley participated in other virtual shows to see what worked and what didn’t for fellow dancers. Having learned some best practices, the Jolene team is now ready to jump into their first virtual version on June 11th — a night designed to celebrate Pride.

Their line-up will feature both trans and cis women and devote several slots to new dancers trying out for the regular Jolene line-up. What can we expect on their debut virtual night? Inspired by classic Jumbo’s shows, Jolene will be more of a “variety show.” The Pride night promises a “grinding show” in which women “are wearing metal plates on different areas of their body and grinding them off,” Kensley said, as well as “bed shows” featuring sexy stripteases. Via separate rooms, Jolene will also offer virtual lap dances for watchers who want a private interaction with a dancer that catches their eye. Proceeds from their night will go to sex worker outreach programs.

With a pandemic and mass protests underway, what’s the way ahead for the summer? Despite helicopters circling protesters and troops patrolling downtown, Angelenos will have a variety of ways to be engaged, be conscious, and build community.

Lisa Teasley, a writer and artist, pointed to a role played by LA’s creators of culture. “Uplift and change can be found in creative collaboration in the same way that effective transformative human rights protests require organization and community building,” she said. “So artists in this moment can take this momentum that has been created and be of service in the healing of the collective soul by combining their gifts.”

After weeks of staring at screens at home, the current moment is forcing us to look outside as thousands of bodies in the streets powerfully affirm that Black Lives Matter. Curfew follows quarantine in a seething city, forcing us to examine the responsibility of LGBTQ+ hubs during the current unrest. Pride does, after all, commemorate a riot.

Public outcry will not dissipate any time soon. Protests’ momentum seems to only build and pull in more and more people. Taylor Weeks, a bartender, joined peaceful protests downtown and was detained and cited by police for being out past curfew. Cuffed in zip ties and sitting in a police van for hours, she bonded with the other women. “We all came together,” Weeks said. Using bobby pins, they helped each other free themselves from the zip ties and massaged those whose arms were sore after hours of having their hands tied behind their backs. She added, “I took pictures of all of us. They all were like, ‘Post that shit on Instagram. Let’s go live.’”


What Do You Think?