Queer theory makes a rather polarized distinction between pleasures of self-confirmation and pleasures of self-shattering, plaisir and jouissance. But pleasure can be approached as a conjunctural event in which new objects, attachments, identities, and ways of relating to the world emerge. Standard conventions in drug research remain unmoved by pleasure, consigning it to irrelevance, minimizing its significance or otherwise disregarding it. Thinking with pleasure is different from thinking about pleasure, thinking against it, or even thinking through it. It foregrounds the relation between the researcher and researched, proposing that each party has the capacity to affect and be affected by the other in surprising and potentially generative ways. While this creates some symmetry between the practices of the researcher and the practices of the researched, it does not confuse their respective projects. Each is engaged in their own process of self-transformation, though in each case established habits of practice and thought are put to the test in an encounter that creates the conditions for new ways of feeling and doing and being to emerge. Drug practices are often said to be motivated by a desire for self-loss, but this is not the same as a death wish. Concerns about safety inform the design of people’s experiments with drug use – experiments which also, incidentally, put techniques of reducing risk (among other procedures) to the test. Thinking with pleasure confers agentive capacities on research participants, while directing attention to the sociomaterial arrangements that constitute the infrastructure of their experiments and the criteria of value they employ to make sense of them. If care services find better ways of articulating with the everyday concerns and experimental arrangements people put in place to benefit from using drugs, new prospects for health, care, wellbeing and safer drug use might emerge.
In the abysmal UK documentary Chemsex (2015), there’s a horrible moment where one gay man describes his peers who use drugs for sex as “the walking dead.” Let’s think about this derogatory imagery for a moment. What should we make of this abject figure, the queer zombie?
The walking dead are beings whose claim on life is so tenuous and wrong and desperate they’re regarded as a monstrous affront and threat to the living order. In fact, this characterisation of drug users is a well-trodden stereotype appearing in multiple sites, from judicial discourse to popular culture. Effectively, it demonises people who use drugs by suggesting their lives are unnatural and not worth living. It’s a callous and demoralising insinuation that is destructive of lives and hopes for the future.
Last weekend, Unharm‘s Queer Contingent decided to bite this bullet hard, and threw an outrageous party to celebrate sexy demons, queer community, the growing movement around drug use, and killer dress-ups. Held on the weekend of the Day of the Dead, UnDEAD brazenly embraced the figure of the zombie, inhabiting it playfully and irreverently, to throw this configuration of abuse back in the faces of those who project it so vomitously. A perverse and confronting strategy, perhaps – not everyone’s cup of tea – but the sort of manoeuvre that has long been critical for queer thinking and queer survival.
This wasn’t “just a party”, it was serious fun. UnDEAD aimed to pay homage to the role queer parties have played in promoting vital practices for wellbeing: lively communities; cultures of care; and the invention of forms of safety that respect the transformative powers of pleasure.
The gay club scene in Sydney helped build the communities that responded so effectively to HIV and which have continued to devise inventive ways of looking after each other. Queer parties have sparked initiatives encouraging the safer use of substances like MDMA and GHB and led to the development of new ways of taking care of people in party environments.
These spaces and the communities they helped forge have come under pressure lately from lockout laws and a longer history of harassment through drug detection operations. The onslaught is intensifying at a time when more and more people are beginning to realise ‘we can’t arrest our way out of’ drug-related problems, and that communities (rather than law enforcement) are the most effective way forward.
Queer communities have been breaking new ground in this domain, but bad laws and aggressive enforcement are blocking progress, and have the added effect of chipping away at the bonding possibilities that have been so significant within queer party culture and been the basis for care strategies.
UnDEAD was the brainchild of Fiona McGregor; who put the party on with the help of comrades from the Unharm Queer Contingent, their mates and supporters. Legendary Sydney queer DJs Ben Drayton, Steve Sonius, DJ Gemma and HipHopHoe electrified the dance floor with killer beats and sounds. Partygoers were also treated to deadly performances from iconic queer performers Glitta Supernova, Willow Darling and Matthew Stegh, who brought the house down.
But most of all, UnDEAD was one of those thrilling events that demonstrates how inventive, playful, daring and caring our community can be. We were blown away by the creativity, guts and sheer nerve of all the queer souls who came out in the middle of the night to claim the dance floor and support the growing movement. Renowned photographer William Yang captured some of the magnificent creatures who graced our party – check out his pictures of the event here (further snaps from SXNews here). To summon the ghost of Oscar Wilde, let’s just say that reports of the death of Sydney queer culture are greatly exaggerated.
Unharm is a grassroots organisation that campaigns to make drug use as safe, positiveand ethical as possible. That includes changing laws, like the criminalisation of drug use, that make it harder for people to live well.
The Unharm Queer Contingent formed in early 2016 and has gone from strength to strength this year, hosting a stall at Mardi Gras Fair Day; participating blocs in public rallies such as Reclaim the Streets and Keep Sydney Open; and convening community events such as Party safer and save our parties, Queer Chemistry, and a public screening of the documentary Rampant: How a City Stopped a Plague that brought key figures in the debate over Sydney nightlife together to discuss how to apply this local history to present controversies.
The Unharm Queer Contingent wants to turn queer culture’s flair for wicked dance moves into something even more wicked – a dance/community generated movement. It’s happening right now, and it’s thrilling. Rise up, queer creatures of the night, and stake your claims! Let’s make a world where people aren’t criminalised for using drugs. Let’s get drug detection dogs out of our celebratory spaces, and pill testing happening at music festivals. Let’s work out better ways of looking after each other, whether friends or strangers, and put them into action.
If you want get involved, you can find out more by joining our online community discussion forum, or simply come along to our next event, to be determined.
Meanwhile, read this recently published review of some of the research literature on queer culture, drug use and sexual health to familiarise yourself with some of the facts, figures, issues and challenges that inform our work.
Open Letter to the Premier and Deputy Premier of NSW
by Fiona McGregor
Dear Mike and Troy,
I am writing to you to express my grave concerns about the deleterious effects of the lockout laws on our city. I’m a born and bred Sydneysider, a writer and performance artist. I was a musician in the prolific band scene of the 1980s; and producer and curator of events in Sydney through the 90s and 00s. I have met your sister Julia several times; she has read my books. I have published five, most set in Sydney. You may know my most recent Indelible Ink, which tracks the creeping conservatism of the early 21st century and how it has destroyed Sydney. It was a bestseller when released six years ago, won and was shortlisted for many prizes, and continues to sell well.
If most of my creative work has been about freedom, most has also taken place in the economies of the night. The economies of the night gave me wages that supported my artistic pursuits; in turn, I made art about them. From the early ‘80s I worked, as so many students and artists must, in hospitality. Glassie, waitress, kitchen hand, you name it. The band scene was huge: from the upper North Shore to the Shire, and west, the most humble band had two gigs a week. People are still listening to INXS, or Nick Cave’s early band Birthday Party, whom my band supported regularly when they were in Sydney. Our scene had a significant population of Brisbane musicians who had fled the Bjelke-Petersen regime, such as Ed Kuepper of the The Saints. They wrote songs about Queensland’s police state that are still being played, and earning royalties.
Such was my education, my formation as a young artist. It continued in the 90s with work in bars and restaurants around the Oxford Street area, home then to the most exciting progressive queer scene in the world. Working late shifts on weekends enabled me to get up on weekday mornings and write. My novel chemical palace was read beyond the queer party culture it paid homage to, by people such as your sister Julia, for whom it was emblematic of their own youthful experiences of a free, flamboyant, fun and safe city. The parties I co-produced in venues in and close to Oxford Street employed four DJs, half a dozen performance artists, a lighting designer and art designer, a cloakroom person, a security guard, and two people on the door. They brought in crowds that gave the bars revenue that paid bar staff, managers, and venue owners, themselves with substantial liquor licencing fees to pay. A portion of the takings always went to charity.
We danced until the sun came up – as humans have done since time immemorial. These were our corroborees. We told stories through song and dance, brought communities together, shared love, expressed our politics. We opened spaces for people to make experimental art that could not have existed in any other context. We lived all those great pop songs you still hear on the radio. Saturday Night Fever, Last Night a DJ Save My Life, and our very own Easybeats’ Friday on My Mind. Sydney was alive. People came here from all over the world to participate in this wonderful culture, which celebrated life to its fullest, which valued the ground on which it was made; where genders, generations and races mixed more harmoniously than anywhere else. You would have seen the Mardi Gras parade on television. This was the coalface, where the raw gems got hacked out.
Over the years, licencing and other laws began to strangle this culture. The Entertainment Licence pushed venues already in stress to pay amounts that encouraged corruption. And bands could no longer play as they once had. Musicians out of work moved interstate and overseas. (Subsequently, NSW Government did a $400,000 enquiry into why the live music scene had died … )
You are putting nails into our coffin. The youth of this city have been robbed; they will never have a fraction of the riches we had. Yet it isn’t just about youth. It is about economies, and culture. We didn’t stop just because we turned fifty. We are still dancing. But we are under siege. We have hardly anywhere to go now. We can’t employ musicians, artists, bar and door staff at even a fraction of the numbers we once did. The destruction is architectural as well. Our venues have closed. Entire buildings have been razed. Sydney, already gutted by Askin’s corrupt pro-development premiership of the 1960s-70s – has lost beautiful deco pubs, most significantly the Exchange Hotel, whose various bars and dancefloors were home to us for thirty years. We are afraid of the police.
We can’t pass our wisdom onto the next generation because this is not a material culture, it is one of ritual and constant reinvention. You have killed Kings Cross and Oxford Street, which lit up the Sydney night for decades, or a whole century in the case of the Cross. You have scorched our bora rings, held up a Not Welcome sign to visiting tribes, and punished us for nothing more than celebrating, storytelling, socialising and loving. Your actions with the lockout laws are stunning in their insensitivity and disrespect. That we pay your wages beggars belief in the way you treat us. What did the people do to deserve this?
I know better than you how violent heterosexual men can become on alcohol. Because these night-time economies I worked in, and wrote about, and still attempt to participate in, were in the frontline of that sort of behaviour. As a woman, I was frequently targeted; even more so as a queer. I saw bashings; many of my friends were bashed. But we would never have relinquished a fraction of our freedom to counteract this; to the contrary. The solution to the problem of violence is agency to the vulnerable, and education to the perpetrators. It was, and still is, punishment given when deserved, according to the law, which at the time was sufficient.
Who will write the songs your children will dance to? A fraction of the artist normally available to a city of this size, because so many have had their livelihoods taken from them. And they won’t be writing pæens to life in the southern Eden Sydney once was to the world, they won’t sing to freedom in the sun, to people who love and look out for each other. They will sing about a city that has become a mausoleum. A people who have been oppressed. A despot in thrall to an oligarch whose casino – the most violent venue in New South Wales – is the only one exempt from the lockout.
What are you going to do, Mike? And you, Troy? Are you even listening?
So, I’ve been thinking about the mass media’s investment in sensationalism as a way of growing its markets; the way this dynamic structures the narratives that get told about drugs, sex, nightlife, crime, etc; and the sense in which sensationalism is also productive – it mediates, amplifies and circulates affects and desires around the law and its transgression.
In this sense, sensationalism could be said to amass publics that ramify the erotic thrill of transgression, even as it intensifies popular investments in the policing of public order (cf. classic moral panic theory). This process is not merely a matter of representation, but cultural and economic at once, deeply entangled and emanating from the prerogatives of capitalised media.
If we turn to the night-time economy, that object of sensationalised reporting, intense moral panic, and popular entertainment in recent times, you could argue that its survival and mass appeal materially depends, in part, on a process that paradoxically also produces it as a problematic object of governance, singling it out as the proper target of authoritarian intervention: an object that requires forceful policing in the name of public order.
Stanley Cohen famously argued that moral panics creates folk devils. I take this to be a material process of production, and not merely a question of discursive representation, in the sense that the world is now populated with folk devils. They are among us, the common folk. And they come out at night.
The expected response to these figures from the right is to scapegoat them, and from the left, to deny their reality.
But instead of exiling these figures, disavowing their desires, declaiming the processes that produce them and our own implication in them, the only constructive response to this situation – a response that Isabelle Stengers would call diplomatic, in the sense that it does not deny but rather seeks to acknowledge the materiality of media as a generative element in the ecology of desires – is to affirm what is common in the making of folk devils, to account for their presence, and to actively engage these figures in the construction of problems in a way that multiplies and transforms general capacities to engage in public life.