By: Writer: Stephen Torres. Design: Rosanna Yau.
This story is brought to you by the great people over at the Bold Italic. The Bold Italic is an online magazine, shop, and events hub in San Francisco. We celebrate the free-wheeling spirit of the city.
“Los Angeles.” “Well, where are your parents from?” “Los Angeles. Well, I mean my mom mostly grew up near La Puente, but...” “No, no! I mean, what country were they from?” “The United States.” The thing is, I always know what these quizmasters are trying to ascertain, it’s just fun to see their frustration. My skin is brown, therefore my origins are most certainly “exotic,” a word that will show up later to describe my features, usually followed by other choice descriptions such as “sultry” or perhaps, if these questioners are feeling daring, picante – you know, so I can understand them better. I can safely say that my experience is far from unusual. If you are any shade other than pale and you have spent any time on Castro Street, chances are you may have experienced this. Every month, however, somewhere in the city, there is a party geared toward gay men of all sorts of shades on the color wheel. Latino, Asian, Black, Middle Eastern—whatever the culture or race, there is probably a corresponding party advertised on posters in high gloss promising a time tailor-made for hot _____ (fill in the blank) and “their fans.” I’ve been to a couple of these nights before, and throwing similar parties at places like El Rio and The Lone Star, it can be a difficult to negotiate the genre. Sometimes I wonder if these parties are more for the men of color or for their fans, but it seems like all who attend appreciate that they exist. I thought it might be time to visit a few to see what they were all about. First on the roster is a monthly held at Underground SF called BLACKOUT! which is billed as a “chocolate oasis.” It seems that more than one party in town has the same name, which must provide for some good ol’-fashioned Three’s Company–style misunderstandings for club goers. “Wait a minute! This is a party for who?”
When I arrive, it isn’t exactly hopping yet, so I hang out at the bar, which is covered in, what else, Hershey’s kisses. Chocolate oasis indeed!
I have a drink in the lounge area where I meet a white guy named Tony who admits to me that the old saying is indeed true that “Once you go black….” I guess I appreciate the candor, but I begin to feel a little creeped out and decide to circulate. The party begins to pick up steam as more people file in, and I’m actually surprised by the amount of women who come in. Go-go boys, both black and white, are dancing on the bar generating some substantial cash from the patrons.
One of the dancers is named Brooks, who is a good-looking guy with an enviable physique. We talk about growing up as half-breeds (he is half black, half white; I’m half Mexican, half English American). He used to be uncomfortable in his own skin, but now he relishes it. I imagine you probably should if you’re gonna be a go-go boy. He smiles sweetly and goes back to the waving bills.
I am a pretty shitty dancer, so I’m relieved when a well-honed dance crew does a performance around midnight. As they carry out the routines, the place feels more like a community center mixer than anything else. Most everyone seems to be old friends, just hanging out and kicking back. I wasn’t sure what to expect before coming, but I’m relieved to find that BLACKOUT! is fun and laid back. Club Dragon has a reputation for being a haunt for white guys trolling for Asian dudes, but when I get there, I’m hard-pressed to find anyone there who isn’t Asian. The club is located inside Club 8 – a two-story venue adorned in Chinese lanterns, neon palm trees, and, of course, the eponymous dragons. I’m smoking a cigarette under the swaying lanterns when a very excited guy comes up to me and announces his name, which I can barely hear. He keeps saying what sounds like "Ryo from Ohio, Ryo from Ohio- it rhymes!" all the time laughing hysterically. Then he tells me he's actually from Japan, he's drunk and giggles away into the fray. I suddenly feel like I've just encountered a character from Alice in Wonderland. I head upstairs where the dancing is more concentrated and people are moving to a slew of Top 40 standards. Much like BLACKOUT! the one thing I feel here is a lack of pretense. It might just be because I’m out of my element, but it really doesn’t seem that way. I ask one of the bartenders if the club’s reputation is justified, and he sweeps his hand around the place to gesture the obvious. He thinks guys that come to the Dragon are Asians looking to meet and hang out with other Asians. While I’m talking to the bartender, another guy taps me on the shoulder. He wants to know if the bartender is my boyfriend and if I’m waiting for him to get off work. I tell him I’m just asking about the club, to which he says that the bartender is right; the place is mostly “sticky rice,” but it’s a cool joint and he has a good time. He also gives me his number and a kiss. Well, maybe not all that sticky?
Club Papi is probably the king of nightlife in the genre of clubs geared toward gay Latin men. Its empire includes venues in every major city in the U.S. and parties in Mexico as well. Mass marketing and a heavy sex vibe that includes partnerships with online porn make the franchise insanely popular. Papi goes off monthly in SF at Space 550 on the industrial side of the Bayview. The party this evening is a special Labor Day edition. Before I hit the main event, I get my feet wet at Leche, one of its satellite parties at Trigger in the Castro. It’s a warm afternoon and I expect Trigger to be packed, but I think I may be one of 20 people in the place. The bartender assures me it’s because of the holiday weekend. The club is offering free chicken tacos on the mezzanine courtesy of Taqueria Zapata. I get one and meet some of the go-go boys including Cisco, who’s handsome and friendly and more than willing to chat. Cisco thinks the reason these parties for gay men of color exist is because of the latent racism within the gay community that rears its head in the form of fetishism and stereotyping. When he dances, he feels the response and connection is better with a Latino crowd. After Cisco’s done at Leche, he’ll be heading over to Papi. I too make the trek over to Bayshore Boulevard for Club Papi. It’s only 9 p.m., but my previous visits lead me to think it’s going to get packed, and I want to get there before I lose steam. The last time I was here was several years ago and I honestly can’t say much has changed. Even some of the music seems the same. I wander through the crowd in the cavernous main room that’s full of elaborate lighting schemes, glistening dancers, and a throbbing crowd. By this point I’m also famished and am happy to learn that like Leche, Papi has free tacos. I eat two in the near-empty salsa lounge before heading outside for a breather. To be honest, although it’s not even midnight, my stamina is waning. This sort of clubbing is made for younger men. I am, however, digging being surrounded by so much brown. I realize it’s been a while.
Most guys at Papi tell me they don’t even bother with places like the Castro anymore, and I can’t say that I really blame them. I’ve had my share of offensive comments and unwanted attention while in the 'hood. Why deal with that if you don’t have to? Places like Papi, Blackout, and Club Dragon provide a space where men of color can hang out and not feel fetishized, where you’re not the only dude that looks like you. Maybe one day the community at large will be more integrated – the palette’s hues smudging a little bit more. After all, there is more than one color stitched into that flag. In the meantime, this bean is calling it a night. My eyes struggle to stay open as my bus rattles into the balmy night. If you feel like chasing the Dragon, SF’s biggest party for queer Asians is jammed every Friday at Club 8. It’s been a few years since the Castro’s only regular bar for men of color, especially African American men closed. Nowadays, BLACKOUT! does the honors every third Friday of the month at Underground SF. El rey of the gay Latin scene, Club Papi and its spin-offs provide ample opportunity to search out some ritmo and make the city feel a little more bronzed. Alas, the charmingly named Leche at Trigger is no longer with us, but if you're searching out some ritmo in the Castro, check out ¡Pan Dulce!, happening every Thursday at The Café. Club Papi still packs them in droves on a monthly basis at Space 550. Just watch how many of those tacos you eat!
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