Rave Culture and the Queer Community

A dynamic and euphoric subculture of EDM, rave culture has exploded from its humble beginnings into an international phenomenon that has stood the test of time. Due to being synonymous with hedonism and sexual freedom, rave culture has been adopted by the queer community as a safe space for expression and exploration. We take a deeper look into the history of rave culture and its importance within LGBT circles.

Go-go Girl at 1015 Folsom, 1989. Courtesy of Melissa Hawkins.

Rave History 101

The term “rave” was first used to describe the wild bohemian parties which were taking place amongst beatniks in London’s Soho district. This was in the late 1950s, when the concept of an actual rave was unfathomable. As mod culture began to sweep through the British youth of the 60s, any wild party in general was labelled a rave. During the transition from the mod era to the hippie era, the term fell out of popular usage, and it wasn’t until the emergence of acid house music across the pond that the word became fashionable again. Chicago was the hub for the wave of electronic dance music that quickly spread to other parts of the world like wildfire, when native acid house artists began experiencing success in the UK. Clubs and warehouses in cities like Manchester and London jumped onto the acid house bandwagon, and thus rave culture was born. 

By the 1990s, house music was one of the most popular genres in the UK and Europe, especially among young people. At first, it caused a moral panic for society, who felt rave music and its culture was disruptive and unintelligible. Raves were underground events – grassroots organised, anti-establishment, and unlicensed – but like most things, they eventually became commercialised. Mainstream events began to attract up to 25,000 people. Nowadays, festivals like Tomorrowland hold significant cultural standing and pull in ravers en masse each year.

Dave Swindells, 1988. Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery.

A Queer Haven?

Rave culture has long since fostered a welcoming community and a sense of belonging for its members. Many ravers are drawn in by this idea, and feel able to express themselves entirely when immersed in rave culture. There’s an inherently liberal spirit to raving, as its very notion offers a form of escapism, especially during times of political dissent as demonstrated throughout its history. Society’s outcasts and marginalised groups flock to raves for respite, to be free of judgment, and to get lost in the euphoria of EDM. 

The rave subculture is multi-faceted and is not solely about the music. It’s also a place for drug experimentation, sexual promiscuity, and hedonism. It’s larger than life and almost surreal, providing a safe space for queer people to indulge in their desires away from the watchful eyes of society’s ‘finest’.

Photography by Rüdiger Trautsch.

Notable Venues

Unsurprisingly, many iconic venues associated with rave culture are also prominent queer spaces. Across Europe and North America, numerous clubs are known for intersecting LGBT nightlife with the rave scene.

Heaven was London’s original gay-only nightclub and is home to long-running gay night G-A-Y. The space is also known for its acid house events during the 1980s and the underground nightclub festival Megatripolis which helped to popularise cyberculture. In Berlin, KitKatClub is renowned for its techno and trance music selection as well as its sexually uninhibited parties. Elsewhere, the exclusive Berghain, which began as a male-only fetish club, is now considered to be the best nightclub in the world. Though long gone, Paradise Garage in Lower Manhattan had a ten-year run prioritising dancing over verbal interaction, and was the first club of its kind to put the DJ at the centre of attention. Resident DJ Larry Levan pioneered the garage house genre here. Also known as the “Gay-rage”, this influential discotheque attracted a devoted patronage of primarily black gay men. 

Since its inception and to this day, rave culture embraces the queer community, providing solace and liberation for those seeking ecstasy-fuelled experiences accompanied by the world’s greatest EDM sounds. 

LJK Photography.