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.