Nightlife spaces are crucial for queer communities, and Black queer women and trans/non-binary folks love to party as much as anyone else. But so few places are actually for us. Gay bars are dominated by white gay men, straight bars are a no-man’s-land of men, and lesbian bars are an endangered species. Dedicated venues for Black queer women and trans/non-binary people to practice ~the art of seeing and being seen~ are few and far between. But over the past few years, a new generation of pop-up parties has intentionally created space for Black LGBTQ+ people across the globe. From London to Chicago, these parties are a haven of Black queer joy and community.
One party, Ascendance, takes place every month in New Orleans. Ascendance’s mission is to “deliver intentional social experiences that foster closeness, community, and solidarity through the celebration of the full expansiveness of Black and brown people and cultures.” Co-founded by Lenny Raney (aka DJ Chinua) and Whitney Thomas (aka DJ Prck), Ascendance is run by a collective of seven NOLA-based Black and brown creatives. It’s an explicitly safe place for women and LGBTQ+ folks.
I went to Ascendance’s second-ever party in September 2017. As a closeted baby Black queer woman, it was the first time that I felt truly comfortable at a party or bar. Unlike other nightlife events, this one came with rules that were specifically designed with my safety in mind. No physical touch without consent. No racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, or ageism. No saying the N-word unless you’re Black. If somebody touched me without asking, as so many straight men on dance floors feel entitled to do — well, it meant that they were the one who was out of place, not me. Lenny Raney tells GO that Ascendance’s rules were “crafted with and by large contributions from Black queer and trans/GNC people.”
There are like-minded parties across the country and globe. Ascendance was inspired, in part, by Papi Juice in Brooklyn and Everyday People in New York. In Chicago, there’s Party Noire, an “inclusive cultural hub celebrating Black femmes, QWOC, + Black womynhood along the gender spectrum” that specifically holds space for Black queer, trans, and gender non-conforming folks, per their mission statement.
Rae Chardonnay and Nick Alder co-founded Party Noire in 2015 after their own negative experiences with going out as Black women. As Chardonnay explained in 2019, “It’s hard for femme people of color to just go out without men or white people fetishizing us.” Alder added, “There’s an expectation to perform, to be sassy. It’s like you have to dance for them or entertain them.” Walk into any Party Noire event, on the other hand, and you’ll see rooms full of Black femmes having the absolute time of their lives.
Other parties who are doing similar work include BBZ and Pxssy Palace in London, Moonshine in Montreal, Yes Yes Ya’ll and Bambii’s Jerk in Toronto, and Danza Divina in Denver. These parties are popping up all over the place. Each one has its own unique mission statement, vibe, and community, but they all have one major theme in common: They are places where Black queer and trans folks are intentionally centered and uplifted. They share similar rules and expectations around consent, racism, homophobia, and other harmful behaviors. The spaces are not exclusionary; anyone is welcome, as long as they agree to uphold these values.
It can be tricky to create a space where Black queer women and trans/non-binary people are truly prioritized and protected. To do so is to fight an uphill battle against the entire rest of the world. Plus, thanks to internalized racism/sexism/homophobia/transphobia, sometimes the call is coming from inside the house. For parties striving toward “safety,” the work goes beyond simply listing rules. It’s an elaborate and ongoing process of vetting and educating partygoers, then dealing with issues as they arise.
At any one of these parties, folks who transgress rules may be checked or even asked to leave if necessary. In addition to hiring security personnel, Ascendance, Party Noire, and Pxssy Palace all enlist volunteers to serve as community “advocates” or “ambassadors” so partygoers can go to them for help with conflicts. Party Noire also offers a hotline that allows anyone to reach the team for assistance immediately.
Importantly, the organizers also empower Black queer women and trans folks to take ownership of the space themselves. “We’re very encouraging of our partygoers to take agency in the space, so if they see something that’s out of line with what this community stands for, they can say or do something about it,” Chardonnay tells GO. This agency is especially important, because not all of the people running these parties are Black queer folks themselves. Raney says that he sees his role as a cis-hetero man as enabling and empowering Black LGBTQ+ people “to have the agency to enact the safety measures and practices that serve them and their communities.”
Ascendance, Party Noire, and other likeminded parties are the inheritors of a long tradition of Black LGBTQ+ nightlife. For Black queer and trans folks, nightlife spaces are about so much more than just dancing. They are also centers of community, where people can form relationships, nurture friendships, make business connections, and access various resources and forms of support.
The oldest Black lesbian-owned bar in the country, Jewel’s Catch One, was founded in Los Angeles in the ‘70s. Founder Jewel Thais-Williams kept the club open for 40 years, overcoming years of police raids, harassment, and even arson. Her bar, like so many other Black queer nightlife spaces throughout history, was literally life-saving at a time when there was so much at stake. When the AIDS crisis hit, for example, the Catch became a haven for Black queer people who had nowhere else to turn. On the opposite coast, the underground ballroom scene of New York served a similar function.
Jewel’s Catch One closed in 2015. There aren’t many modern bars that occupy a similar niche. Some argue that this is because Black queer people are in a less marginalized position now than in the past; they don’t “need” a special bar of their own anymore. But I can tell you that young Black queer people like myself are still desperate for a place to go out that’s for us.
In the absence of bars like the Catch, pop-up events like Ascendance, Party Noire, BBZ, Yes Yes Ya’ll, and others fill the gap.
Almost five years after Chardonnay and Alder founded Party Noire, their mission statement is as salient as ever. “There are still people out there who are seeking spaces like Party Noire,” Chardonnay tells GO. “We’re really committed to the community that we serve, and we’re really committed to lifting up Black women as much as we can.”
A party can’t be autonomous in the same way that a bar can. The venues are rented for a day or night, not owned. Still, these parties are marked by Black ownership and direction — with all of the creativity that entails.
“Because it is our own thing, we can reinvent it however we want,” Chardonnay says. “That keeps it exciting.” Raney adds that the “experimental nature” of Ascendance is what motivates him the most. “Addressing these deep-rooted inter and intra-community issues through nightlife events feels like such a unique opportunity to try out new language, new strategies, and new modalities of thinking and problem solving,” he explains.
As long as they keep throwing these parties, Black queer women and trans/non-binary people will keep attending: showing up, showing out, and coming home to each other.
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