Undercover at the Party That Dares Speak Its Name

White Like Me

Desert Foxes on the Run: A Rendezvous With Gay History?

Ron Athey: What makes 35,000 homos converge on the retirement village/gay resort of Palm Springs and whoop it up for one surreal weekend known as the White Party? It was a question the Weekly wanted answered, and so it would be. But what could have been more comically absurd than to assign Vaginal Davis and myself to infiltrate mainstream gay culture's "Crown Jewel of the Desert," as the event is somewhat breathlessly called? My first instinct told me that we would be shredding it apart, as both of us have our gripes with the gay identity, and particularly gay agendas. On the other hand, nothing seems tireder than being part of "alternative" culture, so perhaps we could use our identity crisis as a learning opportunity.

I find mass phenomena like the White Party intriguing. (Only a week before, this annual migration had been preceded by the Dinah Shore Golf Tournament, which brings into town a massive throng of sports dykes and their admirers.) I also find the gay tradition of Palm Springs itself fascinating, but have never properly experienced it. During the past few years, I've visited such historical gay spots as the Gaiety Theater in Times Square, the "meat rack" on Fire Island and, of course, Numbers, L.A.'s upscale bar where the young and old are known to meet and money's often exchanged. I've been tipped off to several bed-and-breakfasts run by gay couples, but the next monumental visitation is to be the Parlament House, a gay hotel/sex club in Orlando, Florida — and reported to be well past its heyday — which allegedly has an antique store upstairs open 24 hours a day.

I'm also not completely naive about "circuit parties": I attended an autumn white party in Miami six or seven years ago, and had a blast — with my hot Brazilian husband, who I think was named Celio — but that was only a one-night event. Gearing up for three nonstop days would be more of a challenge. And since we're the convoluted political activists that we are, the weekend wouldn't be complete without character transformations every six hours, meaning we'd be in for a marathon performance weekend and very little time to be "natural" or married.


Vaginal Davis: I begin my journalista prep for Palm Springs' White Party by asking everyone what they know of these parties and their history. My friends come from three distinct camps: straight women, bull daggers and skater-thrash dudes. Their inability to help hurt my inner child, but luckily writer Stuart Timmons provided me with much-needed background. He said white parties are vaguely connected to the classic white/black parties that emerged from the New York disco scene at the Saint in the late 1970s, and that this particular Palm Springs affair is somewhat of a "spring break for fags."

This year, the official parties will be thrown at the Marquis, Windham and Hilton hotels, with other unofficial parties floating throughout the town. Ron Athey and I will attend the three major parties: Friday's Hardcore Ball, Saturday's Carnivale and Sunday afternoon's High Tea. For styling duties, we've recruited Susan Matheson (a.k.a. Crepe Suzette, gatekeeper at Sucker, my Sunday-afternoon punk-rock beer bust at the Garage). She is a film/TV costume designer who has also worked at Mattel designing Barbie. Susan is up to the challenge of dressing the largest Barbie doll known to man — the Dr. Vaginal Davis Doll.

Good Friday: The Drive to Palm Springs

Ron: Enterprise car rentals is an hour late picking me up. They said 15 minutes, and I'm starting to pace. "Glen" finally arrives, and we have to chat all the way there, even though I'm not feeling chatty. And, although I was promised a white town car, it turns out to be a silver Mercury Grand Marquis. But it's fine, I'm easy to please. Photographer Rick Castro thought we weren't leaving until Saturday, and Ms. Davis is convinced she is deathly ill just because her nose is running and her throat slightly sore, but I'm not having it. Somehow I round them up and get them in the car, and communicate to Ms. Davis that if she moans and whines all weekend, I am going to physically kill her dead.

Dr. Davis: The morning of our trip, I wake up with a sore throat and jack-cheese congestion. As everyone knows, what I hate more than flying is a long car ride. I must be the only native Angeleno who doesn't drive and has never owned a car. The Mr. & Mrs., as I call Ron, is a great driver, and I only have to slam the imaginary brakes once and hold the dashboard three or four times. Ricky, though, makes me nervous — I don't like people who drive with one hand, it's way too arrogant for my tastes.

Ron: The styling aspect of this project is becoming a bigger deal than attending the parties and is hard to put in perspective. We've rented, begged, borrowed and stolen to fulfill our white fantasy. Maybe the obsessive styling comes from perfectionism, but I have a feeling it's coming from anxiety. The idea of three days of 35,000 men and endless homo theme parties has me on edge. I hate insipid muscle queens en masse, and besides, I'm claustrophobic in any crowd. The truth is, I don't know exactly what to expect.

Cribbing for the Party

Dr. Davis: Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I got my clutches on a circuit boy who works for a major corporate entertainment entity. My contact was a nervous nelly and didn't want to be plucked as a "hedonist partygoer," but he gave me a rich plethora of details about circuitry:
  • Circuit parties occur yearlong in many cities and attract upscale gay men from around the world. There are the Hotlanta Party in Atlanta, the Sydney Mardi Gras, and parties in Pensacola, Austin, and Miami, which has the biggest bash. (This scene's official nightclub in L.A. is the Probe.)
  • Favored drugs are alcohol, Crystal Carrington (meth), trail mix (special k, ecstasy and Ritalin); a bad trip on special k is called "going through the k hole."

Getting Ready for Hardcore

Ron: I have volunteered to be the makeup artist for the weekend, which, I'm soon to find out, is a bigger job than I bargained for. For tonight's porno party, we are working a cunty RuPaul look on Ms. Davis: lots of browns and iridescent whites on the eyes, and spiky eyelashes. Outside in the hallway, residual spring-break rowdiness emanates from a couple of rooms, but security is not having it. Apparently, spring break is leaving Palm Springs because of a "no thong bikini" ordinance, ushered in by none other than Sonny Bono when he was mayor. Something creepy I'm never quite able to shake all weekend is the looming presence of Sonny Bono and Bob Hope — they are Palm Springs.

Getting Dressed

Dr. Davis: Mr. and Mrs. completely Naired me — even my butt crack — and after I slopped base on she began beating my high holy face. I'm always afraid I'm going to wind up looking like some tired club kid when Mr. and Mrs. starts to beat, but if she gets carried away there's nothing that more powder can't tone down. She said she'd kick my ass if I didn't tuck, so out came the electrical, gaffers and surgical tape. She could have stapled my scrotum like she does in her own shows, but the blood would have ruined my white dress. In over 20 years of drag, I've gotten away with never tucking. It's not so bad once you get used to it; it was miraculous how that thing between my legs — my tragic flaw — just disappeared.

Susan Matheson charmed Elsιe Anita, the custom-shoe designers who make RuPaul's footwear, into donating me a comfortable pair of plats. She then chained herself to a sewing machine, designing me, for the first party, a beautiful organza trench coat to wear over my slip. My hair, courtesy of Meesh, will be very Salt n' Pepper with honey-colored cornrow braids held up with cockrings.

The Hardcore Ball

Dr. Davis: Upon entering the Marquis' main showroom, expecting a sea of new and unyielding faces, we run smack into the famed French drag director and one of the most powerful white women in Hollywood, Chi Chi La Rue, who is accompanied by her squadron of porn ingιnues. Chi Chi espies my white visage and Ron's 50-gallon Stetson and starts shouting over the loudspeaker, "Vaginal Davis! What in the hell are you doing here?!" I start to wonder that myself. Two sardines in a can of mackerel. There are other drag queens, and even a sprinkling of biological females. Gobs of cute Southern boys, Long Island daddy kingpins, and fresh implants to Southern Cali from the Midwest. One particular corn-fed young man notices I don't have a drink and promptly rectifies the situation. If I get a little more aggressive, I could even get laid by some perky-pec'd gaylord. Everyone wants to touch me. When it comes down to it, even hardcore homos are starved for a good wo-man. Penis fits homemade vagina. Before leaving the party, I jump on a white baby-grand piano and start to impersonate Michelle Pfeiffer from The Fabulous Baker Boys. A bevy of bubble-butt boys from Brazil invite me back to their rooms to engage in fornication. I graciously decline.

Ron: I'm expecting the whole weekend to float by in a live-sex-show sort of way. Ms. Davis has been interviewing the crowd, and seems to think that Saturday's Carnivale is the only white party, and that we've dressed inappropriately, but I think it's white-themed all weekend. The rest of the party is obviously in mass denial, because nobody likes wearing white enough to wear it three days in a row. But that's what we've packed for, so too bad.

Saturday: On the Rocks at Joshua Tree . . . Gram Parsons' Death Spot . . . Carnivale: The Jewel of the Desert

Dr. Davis: I awake with a splitting headache; the awe-inspiring, panoramic view from my luxurious suite is of matte-painting mountains and blue sky. The Spa Hotel and Casino, where we're staying in modern Southwestern luxury, is not inhabited entirely by homos. Every year at the same time as the Palm Springs White Party is the annual Flower Home Craft Festival, so there are plenty of suburban families trotting about.

Today's outing takes place in Joshua Tree, which I always confuse with Vasquez Rocks. Ron wants to play a Nick Cave tape there, but I'm not having any of that. The weather is perfect, and the dry heat clears my sinuses. I'm fearful of rattlesnakes but still climb the rocks, and would climb them nude except that there are too many people in the park. Ron, being a devout exhibitionist, takes off his clothes and parades up the rocks as mothers gasp at the moundy roundness of his buttocks and the voracious width of his peterfication. N.B.: We stop by the motel where the Byrds' Gram Parsons OD'd on heroin; his demon spirit jumps into our photographer, Ricky, and makes his head spin and spew green vomit onto the road.

Ron: Ms. Davis looks like a giant spider trying to crawl out of our hotel room: she is 6-foot-6 barefoot; now add 6-inch spike heels and a 3-foot feather headdress. Her futuristic showgirl "hairstyle" requires an entire bottle of spirit gum and two jars of silver glitter.

We arrive at Carnivale, where, predictably, a Latin band is playing in the main courtyard. Inside the discotheque, which is an unbearable hot box, thousands of sweaty men dance to tired house music. The stage is lined with porn stars, whose go-go dancing definitely works for me, so I stop fussing and endure the heat. (It's startling how quite often your favorite porn stars in real life end up being 5-foot-nothing little shorties.) I don't smoke, drink or take drugs, but dancing can work like a drug for me. It feels wonderful to abandon my persona and just dance. I start peeling off the layers of my tuxedo. Four or five songs later my bliss is replaced with irritation and claustrophobia, so I drag Rick and Ms. Davis outside. In the fresh night air, two peculiar suburban queens ogle me, asking Ms. Davis if we are lovers and where she found me. "Prison," she replies. "I hang outside of them looking for hot, tattooed prison trade."

Dr. Davis: The Carnivale Party is at the Windham Hotel — four long high-heeled city blocks away. (Tonight, Viva Rebecca has transformed me into the ultimate showgirl — part Liz Reney with a dash of Nomi Malone neurosis. My bangles and beads were provided by Rusty of Koreatown.) I was really excited that this party would be more fun than the Hardcore ball and that people would be dressed ΰ la Black Orpheus or Mardi Gras. Well, there are more people dressed in white, but there isn't a speck of speciality to the events, just a lot of drag queens who seem very suburban in their I'm Going to Las Vegas, Housewife-Night-on-the-Town drag. I really feel overdressed. Mr. and Mrs. has really surprised me with her all-white tux with formal tails. At the beginning of the evening, Ron and I joked that we were gayz trying to pass as gays; as this party wears on, that statement is becoming more true.

Sunday I: Auntie Day

Ron: The weekend is starting to blur, and it didn't dawn on me until last night that we wouldn't have a hotel room to get ready in for this afternoon's party, and fucking Daylight Saving Time started today, stealing another hour from our sleep. However, typical of life's many lessons, this all turns out to be our lucky break. We embark toward Cathedral City to find a post-queer auntie brunch somewhere, and Ricky chooses Legends, a restaurant inside the Desert Palms Inn, one of the world's largest gay resorts. (An "auntie queen" is a gay man who uses too much moisturizer and collects antiques.) Its dining area, with spritzer moisturizers on every table, overlooks the frolicking, action-packed pool scene.

The restaurant is open, but it's now called the D.P. Cafe, not Legends. Its new owners, Larry McGee and Roger Bouvier Reimers, treat us to cocktails and lunch and tell us about the the desert-area gay business boom. Ms. Davis gets tanked. She may be a big lady, but she's still a cheap date. Somehow, in her alcoholic blur, Ms. Davis finds her way to a microphone and starts her usual shtick about being an alcoholic who's tired of going to gay A.A. meetings, and "I want to have hot buttered three-gees with some of you male couples out there." This brings the burnout poolside crowd back to life, for a minute. Roger, who once worked styling for Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Vogue and Life, to name a few publications, sports a gorgeous coif and a handlebar mustache that could best be described as feathered. "I would never get a tattoo myself," a guy named Jorge whispers in my ear, "but my dick's getting hard looking at yours. Do you think I can see the rest of them?" Thanks, Jorge! Later I go to the bathroom to take a piss, and have a near sexual encounter with him.

The Desert Palms Inn is active, and I'm feeling in my element here. By the pool, I run into Johnny, an obsession of mine from L.A. whom I've been trying to track down for months. We exchange numbers, suck face and play "chicken fight" in the pool, but no one wants to fight with us. Back in the restaurant/bar, Larry has brought out two go-go boys on chain leashes, and one with a flopping penis is working an off-kilter Peter Berlin hair bob. An hour later, they put towels around their waists, take off the Lycra G-strings and do the towel dance. I have to drag Ms. Davis — kicking and screaming — into the pool ("Black folks don't swim!") to take photos with me. She calms down upon learning it is only 5 feet deep, and then won't get out for an hour.

Dr. Davis: I wake up screaming with another headache and see a beautiful boy, who looks like an Anglo-Mexican mix, lounging around the pool. Ricky is near him, so I yell that I'm comin' down! I take advantage of the Jacuzzi and peer at the cute rocker-looking dude who drinks cocktail after cocktail, although it's only 10 in the morning. Ron joins us, and the dude gets a load of his tats — you can see him getting excited. I start thinking of ways to pimp Ron, like a Suddenly, Last Summer procurer of hot speed-metal thrash boys. I'm wearing my bitch-bitch ensemble as we head to Cathedral City, the gay town that West Hollywood tries to be, but never can.

Outside of a lesbian crib-death bed-and-breakfast (my term for where lesbians go to rekindle relationships), we run into a gimpy hustler who wants to be my husband, then stop by Choices — the most generic-looking gay bar I've ever seen. There's even a freedom-flag wraparound motif on the building.

Lunch at the Desert Palms Inn is in keeping with being post-queer. This resort was used to house the stars and crew of the '60s film Palm Springs Weekend. The most interesting element of Palms Springs is the gay retirees, who have stories to tell of old Hollylore and piss-swellaganzas. For today's T-dance, I'll be Audrey Hepburn incarnate — prim and proper in neo-conservative chic.

Sunday II: "High" Tea Dance

Ron: "Oh my God, Ms. Davis, we are so deluded. We've both been to tired tea dances before, we knew it was going to be a casual, outdoor event, but we got this genteel image of proper high tea and went into character together."

Dr. Davis: "Mr. and Mrs., I've never been to a goddamn T-dance. Mainstream gay culture is much more radical, more monstrous than any piercing, branding, tattoo, punk or leather scene. It's all like candy-coated evil. Look at that porn star over there with his shiny face and body, like someone put clear nail polish all over him. It's like a homo version of the Stepford wife."

Ron: I work my "perfect gentleman" look with toupee, tie and glasses, and Ms. Davis works the perfect '50s female equivalent. The event, which is to feature Kids in the Hall as entertainment, is held on a hotel's tennis courts. It is by far the tackiest of the three sanctioned White Party events. We try to hang out for the Kids, but after two hours I'm cranky as a bear, and my corset isn't helping. At the pool, Ms. Davis and I plop on lounge chairs next to Michaelangelo Signorile, the Out magazine columnist and inventor of "outing." He tells us that many gay men want to feel like a part of something larger, and that's why they attend circuit events. I'm not convinced it's about community. Everything seems about sex and desire to me, or maybe just partying, but community? Ms. Davis clocks a hot Asian muscle boy walking by: "Ooh, look at that hot piece of rice," she says. "I'll take mine stir-fried, please." She thinks she has a license to say anything that comes to her head just because she's a giant black queen from Watts, and I'm not one to argue with her, and apparently, neither is Signorile.

THE END: Dinner at the Red Tomato . . . Rum & Cokes at Wolf's Den . . . Homeward Bound

Dr. Davis: I couldn't wait to get out of my outfit. Walking out of the party, I ran into some aging straight surfer dude who instantly became obsessed with me. He had come to hang out on the outskirts of the party with the intention, I believe, to fag bash. Of course, I'm the only person in all this homo environment to attract straight men. Story of my li'l big life. Ron and I strip nude in the dirt-road makeshift parking lot, changing into boy drag to eat another post-queer dinner at the Red Tomato. I order the Mary Pickford, and Ricky Castro has a Lainie Kazan. We end our stay in Palm Springs at a leather bar, Wolf's Den. I down rum and Coke after rum and Coke, and Ron flirts with the muscular daddy bartender, who happens to be an ex-sloppy-bottom trick of Ms. Castro's and who's pretending he never engaged in man sex with our photographer. The ride home is soundtracked by Sylvester, and gives me the idea of directing a film where I play the disco diva from his early years in the Cockettes and later as lead singer of the rock combo the Hot Band, and his Mrs. AIDS years.

Ron: The archetypes come to a head at the Red Tomato. A classic fag-hag hostess seats us in the Joan and Cristina Crawford section, explaining how "When someone stole the original ceramic Red Tomato cookie jar, I marched down to C.C. Construction Co. and said, 'All right, who stole my fucking tomato?'" C.C. is a butch country gay bar with a neighboring bathhouse. I pose for a shot beneath a portrait of Barbra Streisand. Of course the portrait is from her worst period. Ms. Davis poses on the other side with Bette Midler, whose worst period is so consistent, you can't tell what period it's from. At Wolf's, the leather bar where no one wears leather because it's too hot, there are two deaf bears at the bar. The animated gestures of signing and the accompanying rubber-face expressions can fascinate me for hours. The "Marilyn Monroe" veal parmesan I ate at the Red Tomato is making me sick, and I'm ready to go home. The other two are so drunk, guess who has to drive? I must admit I'd rather be the designated driver than die in a head-on collision with Ms. Davis pantomiming "You make me feel mighty real."@LA: