Social distancing, sheltering in place, and staying the fuck at home might have generated a boom for Zoom, and dubious stock profits for some tipped-off elected officials, but it’s been tough on nearly everyone else. Entire industries have ground to a halt, with bars and nightlife remaining closed for weeks, maybe months.
At a moment that folks might most benefit from getting together with friends to laugh, drink, or dance their masks off, there’s nowhere to go but home. As wise man Stephen Colbert said of our global predicament, “Right now, inside is the place to be.” It’s fortunate then that many of the resourceful professionals who make queer nightlife hum around the world are using technology to bring “going out” back inside to sheltering partygoers. This past weekend, D.C.’s DJ Matt Bailer debuted the virtual version of long-running ’90s dance party Peach Pit, and the D.C. Eagle is teaming every week with its sister bar in San Francisco, along with Cell Block Chicago, for a series of online social events. The virtual party revolution is swiftly turning.
So welcome to Club My House, where the bar is always open, and there is no guest list tonight. On a recent Saturday, we hung out via Instagram Live at Haus of Cumming, where host DJ Sammy Jo spun a set from the Williamsburg apartment of his boyfriends Michael and Ethan — while one or both cleaned house in the background wearing just a jockstrap — and DJ Darren Dryden spun music from the booth at the Haus of Cumming’s NYC home, Club Cumming. Their split-camera video feed beamed loud and proud, from tablet to television, bouncing between video hookups with performers and guest DJs appearing live from their apartments.
Jake Shears dropped in from somewhere in Virginia to bless the party with his latest single “Do the Television,” and Rod Thomas, a.k.a. Bright Light Bright Light, joined to sing his old-school house track “This Was My House,” featuring backup vocals by Niki Haris and Donna DeLory. Burlesque queen Velvetina Taylor did her shimmy, pups Penny the Chihuahua and Charlie the Cavalier made cute on-camera cameos, Agave L’Amour served her burlesque accompanied by percussionist jojoSOUL, drag diva Princess Brittney slayed a close-up lip-sync of “Got to Be Real,” and nobody had to leave the house. A sign on Sammy Jo’s laptop encouraged viewers to tip the performers via Venmo.
For a single party from several locations, the night was a success. “The biggest challenge was trying to do it somewhat seamlessly,” says DJ Sammy Jo. “It was just figuring out, okay, this person has to log on and then request to join the feed and then once they log off, the other person has to come in and join. So we were trying to just make it go pretty smooth, which I think we did okay, all things considered.”
Even for Sammy Jo, who’s been working the turntables for nearly twenty-two years, organizing a virtual club night was a virtual leap into the unknown. It’s a new world for partiers, too, but Sammy Jo says the response, online and on Venmo, has been phenomenal. “We made a bunch of money that we could give to the performers. It was really comforting to see that people would still support us, even if they weren’t going to a club and getting drunk. They’re just getting drunk at home.”
The LGBTQ community knows well that surviving a pandemic requires not only knowledge, patience, and fortitude, but stores of positive energy. And nightlife helps supply that in abundance.
“We got such a great response from people saying, ‘Oh, we really needed this brightness and cheer and joy and happiness,'” Sammy Jo says. “It just brought a bit of joy into people’s lives, which sounds really cheesy, but I guess it was what everyone kind of needed. So it was nice to be able to do that, and then to be able to showcase the people that we love, the regular performers at Haus of Cumming. It made us feel like our family is still here. We can still pull together and do stuff even if we’re not in the same room.”
From a distance is how we’re all managing our social lives these days, so, naturally, Peach Pit DJ and promoter Matt Bailer landed on Bette Midler’s sentimental hit as the theme for his ’90s dance party’s first virtual edition, Peach Pit: From a Distance. As Bailer manned the DJ booth at DC9, taking the virtual dance floor from house classics to pop princesses to Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison,” the club’s owner/manager Bill Spieler worked the Twitch-hosted live video feed, and Bailer’s friend Khorey Baker managed the busy online chat room.
Admitting that he had little idea what to expect of his first virtual club set, Bailer feels the night went great, “even though it was very strange being in an empty club deejaying for no one, and also on camera, which is not something that I’m used to or comfortable with.”
The event left Bailer “intrigued and curious about the kind of possibilities. I’m 42 now and a lot of my friends who aren’t going to leave the house after 10 o’clock on a Saturday night tuned in and were basically at Peach Pit. That to me is exciting…. To be able to have that experience while you’re at home in your jams, eating ice cream and dancing. That’s kind of amazing…. [It] seems like an untapped thing that we’ve now been forced to tap into that is awesome.”
Even when nightlife patrons are no longer forced to socialize from a distance, Bailer thinks he might consider continuing his virtual parties. “I definitely love being in the club with the feedback and the energy in the room, [but] this is an interesting little thing. I don’t know if I would have tried if we weren’t in this situation where I was kind of forced to.”
DJ Sammy Jo, on the other hand, is enjoying his virtual club nights while they last, but as for continuing after this national shutdown has lifted, he insists, “Absolutely not.”
“It’s great to be able to do it now that it’s our only option, but standing in a room alone or with my boyfriends? It just feels weird, because then does anyone want to just watch a feed of someone DJing? I’m uncomfortable with that. So I cannot wait to just have live people, and I can hide in the DJ booth and just play my music. But until that moment comes, we’re planning on doing it probably like a full-scale event like we did last Saturday, once a month I think.”
Bailer hasn’t planned his next virtual party, but “I would love to do more Peach Pits,” he says. “I would also love to do some Shady Pines, the ’80s party that I started recently on Sundays at DC9. I’m open to whatever and DC9 staff is so great, so easygoing and so good at getting the stuff up and running. I’m grateful to them for whatever they want me to do.”
Like so many other aspects of social distancing, deejaying to a virtual crowd is a major adjustment, says Bailer, but he’s willing to adapt. “So much of what I do is reading the room, reading the crowd. Without a crowd, what? If a DJ falls in the forest and nobody’s there to hear it, does he make a sound?
“There’s nothing close to actual live people there dancing to it. I’m definitely looking forward to that. Also, of course, there’s the fact that this is my full-time job, so it will be nice to have that back, too. But in the meantime, I also just love any way I can share music with people. So I’ll take what I get.”
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