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Frank Ocean’s PrEP+ Party Didn’t Feel Queer

Frank Ocean sitting on the ground.

There was something about the journey to and through Frank Ocean’s “club night” PrEP+ that felt distinctly Kanye West. The process of finding out about the event just 24 hours before it was happening, and then the details seeping out either by rumor, or painstakingly slowly by Ocean’s team all made it feel like more than a few stunts West has pulled. But what you quickly learn with these sort of things — like we learned over the weekend that Ocean dropped his albums Endless and Blonde — is that you must give yourself over to the experience. You must commit your time, and you must make the conscious decision that you’re going to go down this rabbit hole, wherever it leads you. And now, having been through PrEP+, which a press release called the kickoff of a new club series, we aren’t entirely sure the journey was worth it.

On Wednesday evening, an email went out to specifically queer media outlets about Ocean’s new party. It boasted a flier fronted by the Spanish musician Joel Kurasinski (who, as far as we know, is straight). The email spoke of the drug for which the party was named, pre-exposure prophylaxis, and described the intention to create an “ongoing safe space made to bring people together and dance.” This night in particular was meant to be an “homage to what could have been of the 1980s NYC club scene if the drug PrEP … had been invented in that era.”

 

That description came with a series of rules that emphasized consent, no tolerance for “any form of discrimination” and the succinct directive that “the dance floor is for dancing.” It was a short brief, light on the details. No one knew where things would take place, or how they could finagle access to the event. No one knew who this lineup of “globally celebrated DJs” would be. And when people don’t know something they want to know, they infer or assume.

It’s important to say that, though some claimed the event would be inclusive, that word is in none of their own material. With the name of PrEP+, allusions to the AIDS epidemic, restriction on cameras, and a rule about consent, many assumed this was meant to be a sex party. (However, that was never explicitly stated.) Neither, to be frank, was the word queer, though there was a “zero tolerance” for homophobia and transphobia mandate. Still, many assumed that PrEP+ was going to be a queer, sex-positive club night that would make us feel something. But for many, that is distinctly not what happened.

“I expected something similar to Battle Hymn or Ladyland due to all the ‘safe space,’ ‘consent only,’ ‘no videos’ messages that came with my ticket, but the overly tight security and lack of respect for the dark room threw me off,” Paige Cole, a star of Are You the One, tells Out. Cole attended the event with her boyfriend, Rembrandt Duran. “I think my expectations made it worse than it actually was.”

Ticket links for PrEP+ went out over Wednesday night and throughout the day on Thursday. Out was not privy to how the guest list was composed, but we were allowed to invite a few of our own friends — and we did! But, as the invitations went out, pretty early on, criticisms began to crop up: would the crowd be racially diverse? Does the name and premise do a disservice to the history of NYC nightlife and the ways in which those living with HIV helped to shape the culture? Where would it be?

While it slowly leaked that the venue would be the Knockdown Center in Flushing, criticisms about the supposed imagining of 80s nightlife culture with PrEP began to pick up steam. “We love you Frank, but 80’s nightlife was revolutionary because of people living with HIV and their caretakers,” ACT UP New York tweeted. “Let’s uplift our elders and honor their legacy.” And while no doubt well intentioned, this criticism is a peculiar one.

The reality is that much of New York’s nightlife culture of the 80s and 90s was fueled by those living with HIV and those rallying around them. That is a fact we cannot deny and it is in absolute need of acknowledgement. But to pose that fact as if it in some way proves that the AIDS epidemic did not wipe out a generation of queer and trans folks that had a massive impact not only on nightlife culture but also on creative industries — an absence that is still evident today — is revisionist. To pretend as if that plague did not instill a fear within some in the community that kept them from indulging in the culture, and/or policed how they interacted within it in ways that we still see latent effects from is asinine. There is a way to acknowledge both of these actual histories, and that involves a nuance that should be respected and implemented by both sides. 

“Much of the critique I’ve seen so far is pinning a lot of things on him that don’t really hold up,” Ryan Sides, a senior director of social media at BET, says. “It was just an underwhelming party and I think it can stop there.”

The Knockdown Center in Flushing was confirmed as the venue for PrEP+ around 7PM. For those taking the train, this generally meant a long ride (for this writer it was an hour, coming from uptown Manhattan) and then possibly either a 15 to 20 minute walk or a bus ride to get to the venue. Inside, they were presented with almost cavernous, smokey rooms, lit with errant strobes and other colored lights as well as lasers. A lineup of DJs which included Justice and SXYLK rotated on and off the boards, with no indication of who they were, and there was very little by way of instruction. You had to give yourself over to exploring.

“It was so white,” Sesali Bowen, a former senior entertainment editor for Nylon says. 

To be clear, there were certainly people of color in the building. Jaboukie, Jeremy O. Harris, the Papi Juice team, Kimberly Drew, Maya Monez, Recho Omondi and many more were all in attendance. But many people of color who spoke to Out said they felt it was an overwhelmingly white event, either in actual ratio, or in vibe. Similarly, for an event with so many queer people in attendance, PrEP+ distinctly felt...not queer. And video cameras, manned by the party’s staff, being walked around the room behind strobelights, made it feel like a distinctly unsexy, slightly performative, and not so “safe” space.

“I had a lot of fun dancing with my friends, and the venue was pretty cool but it was missing something,” photographer Myles Loftin says. “There were a lot of straight people there, and a lot of the DJs were straight and white. I just wish that it felt more like a queer New York party.”

While we didn’t stay for the entire event, starting at around 12:30AM there was an hour and a half period where the music at least felt like something similar to what may have been imagined. The techno faded and a lineup of what seemed to be more house-centric music, with a few classics began to spin. Even the lights changed with the music and it seemed like things were turning around. But sure enough, it later turned out, that vibe was lost. And the allure of possibly spotting Ocean himself, or what the event could have been, couldn’t keep this writer from the realities of work in the morning.

“I really have just been thinking about what it could have been, because the bar is so low for Frank with his deified cultural status,” a lawyer who asked to remain anonymous but attended the event says. “He certainly meets it, often exceeds it, but rarely raises it — certainly not since Blonde. [This] could have been a night uplifting queer New York nightlife and DJs, past and present as an homage to the history there. But [in the end] the theme just felt a bit shallow and performative, not actually a part of the evening inside.”

To that point, PrEP+ had no integration with PrEP the medication as far as we know, except for in name. There are rumors that Gilead, the makers of Truvada, had some sort of sponsorship of the event. Representatives have confirmed there was no sponsorship. But also, from my experience of the party, there was no educational tie-in, or reference to PrEP, the drug, at any point in the night — though the name PrEP+ was on a few screens.  In fact, Jason Rosenberg, an activist with ACT UP that attended the event, said that a security guard almost confiscated Truvada from his bag upon entry.

“It felt like any other hazy night at Knockdown,” the lawyer continues. “And maybe that was the intent? Maybe Frank wants to be a part of these sort of pedestrian night club spaces.”

“But man, what it could have been!”

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