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Raves are inherently queer, with lessons for Trans+ liberation now
Trans+ History Week Transgender

Raves are inherently queer, with lessons for Trans+ liberation now

"Raves reflect my transness back at me. They’re joy as a form of rebellion," writes Leigh Flint. This article was produced as official content for the first ever Trans+ History Week, one of QueerAF's launchpad projects.

Raves are a culmination of cultures, an intoxicating mix of art and music from various communities. They create spaces that channel a notion of freedom of expression and defiance of expected composure.

Raves are designed to almost overwhelm you, to overtake you to the point that a room of strangers is connected not just through singing the songs, or love for the artist, but through a unique sense of rebellious community.

It stands to reason that many trans people today, myself included, feel a sense of attachment to this culture. This is not new by any means - there is a longstanding relationship between trans/queer people and rave as a counterculture. 

The commonly told story of the advent of rave attributes its origins to four people. But as usual, the real history is messy and complex, involving various communities for decades before the ‘second summer of love’ in ‘88. 

So forget what you think you know about Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Nicky Holloway and Johnny Walker. Yes, they did go to Ibiza and were inspired to bring the scene to prominence in London, Manchester and then the nation. But no, they shouldn’t get all the credit. That is not only an oversimplification, but erasure.

Parts of rave culture have their roots in soundsystem culture, originating decades before in Jamaica and becoming prominent here in the UK during the ‘60’s through the ‘80’s.

This was a time when Black people, particularly young Black men, were excluded from social nightlife through discriminatory laws and policing. So they made party venues out of their own homes and later larger spots like warehouses, building community and safety from not just racism, but also homophobia.

Pearl Alcock, one of the pioneers of the scene, was openly bisexual, and her parties became a place of joy and relaxation for queer and interracial couples.

Then there were The New Travellers. Distinct from Roma and other heritage-based travelling communities, the new travellers were, essentially, hippies from the first summer of love.

Choosing to live nomadically, they set up free festivals in the countryside, calling for a new society based on love and freedom. Their yearly pilgrimage to Stonehenge is said to have rivalled Glastonbury.

Overtly political, they were heavily demonised, targeted by laws like the 1980 Highways Act which forced many into retirement.

By the time the golden age of rave arrived in the late ‘80s, they had spent years building the infrastructure for open space mass gatherings in the face of criminalisation - infrastructure that was adapted in the illegal rave and free party scene.

But the Chicago house movement, a predominately Black and queer scene that took off in the ‘80s, is where we can see the most immediate parallel to what the rave scene represents for Trans+ and queer folks now.

At the time there was an explicit need for spaces where Black, gay and trans people could socialise, could play with presentation and expression without the threat of violence, in part due to rampant homophobia and the AIDS crisis. 

DJs like Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan and Jackmaster brought light to these spaces in a dark time, blending disco, funk and soul with the thumping futuristic synths popularised by acts like Kraftwerk.

Of course, this is still only part of the story.

We can trace modern rave culture back to many more influences, like the daytime raves that were a big part of South Asian youth culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

But the unifying tie between all these factors is how all of these scenes were about making spaces for people who society excluded to connect with others like them, feel the support of a community and blow off steam. 

They varied in how deliberately political or radical they were, but all of them still inherently held space for the othered.

When I’m at a rave, this is the history I see around me and feel more connected to. It is joy as a form of rebellion.

It makes sense why many trans people, myself included, still feel a sense of attachment to this culture: we played a part in getting it here. 

This article's illustration is by Trans+ creative Jua O'Kane

🎨 Artwork description, by Jua O'Kane

"A digital illustration of a white, transmasc raver, with two Black transfems, one dancing and the other DJing, reflected in his sunglasses. I wanted to portray the frenetic, joyful energy of Queer rave spaces, how they allow us to cultivate freedom and inspiration away from a world that feels increasingly hostile to trans existence. Most importantly, I wanted this image to remind you of the ultimate takeaway from Leigh's article: that rave is descended from and indebted to Queer Black culture."

Despite the almost total commodification of the scene today, I know there will always be a rave available somewhere that I can truly let myself just be, in a way I still haven’t experienced in many gay bars and only feels comparable to certain protests I’ve attended.

The continuation of these spaces is so important.I take solace that the history that’s shared more frequently now is of Black queer pioneers and venues spearheading the scene to mainstream prominence.

It’s an invaluable one. But considering how commodified the clubbing and wider rave scene is now, we must also highlight how modern queer rave spaces are still ongoing. Otherwise we run the risk of imagining these contributions in the past tense. 

The commercialised history of rave can give the false impression that soundsystem culture was only about speaker technology, or that early queer nights held at the Hacienda were just a launch pad for straight white kids to get off their face.

That once we got to superclubs and the ‘night-time economy’, it became just another behemoth industry, with business techno events like Boomtown, Boiler Shop and Berghain as its crown jewels.

The modern industry and many partygoers on this side of the scene sanitise queerness, relegating queer contributions to the Golden Age while closing down our clubs, and appropriate parts of Black culture.

They pick and choose the parts they want, showcasing them not as queer culture and/or Black culture but ‘Rave Culture’ - as if the former didn’t create the latter. 

But we are still the organisers, the DJs, the people pushing fashion, gender presentation and self expression to new limits to this day. Berghain is literally a queer venue, and a large amount of the most famous samples and beats still popular today are from Black and queer elders.

The bigger picture this history reflects

The hostility of the mid ‘80s and the weaponisation of the AIDS crisis framed gay people as a disease at the same time as acid house was initially ramping up. In more recent years we have increased visibility, but dwindling safety. 

Our government is still aggressive towards marginalised people. Right now trans people are the face of moral panic, framing us as a social contagion

This onslaught of cruel rhetoric alongside policies like puberty blockers bans and the Cass Report are becoming more overt. 

It’s almost a rinse and repeat of the ‘80s. So it’s no wonder we’re sticking our heads in bass bins for fun like previous generations.

Just as Beyonce’s Renaissance showed the living, breathing truth of Ballroom, collectives like B.O.S.S are reclaiming soundsystem culture, and artists like Nia Archives are deliberately trying to curate raves as safe spaces for marginalised people while showcasing sounds from earlier eras in new ways. 

More trans and nonbinary DJs like Mandidextrous are being open about their own genders and wearing their identities proudly. There are even efforts like In The Key that aim to highlight and support artists from minority gender backgrounds. 

What can we learn from this history?

The lesson for all of us from the rave scene is that when they remove our right to exist openly and put targets on our backs, we make our own spaces. Spaces where we get to be who we are and share in each other’s cultures and histories.

The history of rave shows that spaces like that are so valuable to everyone that they get blown up into the mainstream time and again. It’s almost as if, when you make advances for marginalised people, it helps everyone. Something to ponder on next time you’re spacing out to a big bassline.

This article was one part of a series of official content produced for the first-ever Trans+ History Week. During the week we invested in, mentored and published over 30 Trans+ creatives from the UK, US and Europe. Want more of the history lesson you never had? This is for you