the queer case of sink the pink
The red brick façade of the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, with its flickering neon yellow light, is hardly inviting. As you climb the steps to the front door, the bouncer reminds you to be quiet - residents are sleeping. Once warned, the door...
In more exact terms, Sink the Pink is a monthly club night, gradually spreading its glitteringly gorgeous wings into festivals and festival-style events. It's loved by so many because of its carefree joie de vivre, and yet what drew me to it was less its fun-loving ethos and more just how many people really do love it as well as how diverse the clientele is: all ages, all genders, all sexualities under one roof. Neither gay nor straight, it's just a club night with no sexually defining attachments, as Glyn Famous - one half of the Glyn and Amy Zing duo who are the parents (or naughty siblings) of the Sink the Pink brainchild - made great pains to express. Last year I set out trying to find out just why Sink the Pink works, because in so many ways it shouldn't...
What's always intrigued me about clubbing as a gay man is the fact that I've only ever clubbed around other gay men. Sequestered away in an underground basement somewhere, I've surrounded myself with people "of my own." It makes perfect sense; to get slightly theoretical about it, it's what Kay Shelemay would describe as a "dissent" community - a community that defines itself through its difference. I can't go to a club, I have to go to a gay club, because I am a gay man and not a straight man, nor part of that straight society that doesn't fully accept me. It's potentially self-pitying and self-perpetuating, but its comforting. Endless queer theory amounts from such nihilistically determined renderings (a personal favourite is Is the Rectum a Grave? - I mean, the title alone...) but I do have to wonder, is this the most productive view to have?
Even in London, see two men or two women kissing in the park or on a bus, for example, and the constructedness of society suddenly becomes apparent. That small kiss is a transgression - a glorious one, but one nonetheless.
For Sink the Pink, the answer is a resounding "no." Glyn Famous spoke of the "duty" he felt not to keep the gay community in this box, hermetically sealed away from heteronormative society. It's all very well to have these grand thoughts, but how did Sink the Pink come to achieve them? I believe the first, and incredibly important, aspect is its geographical location. What other location more perfectly encapsulates the bastion of masculine heteronormativity than the Working Men's Club? Places of pulling pints, playing pool, watching football - I can safely say I have never entered a Working Men's save for Sink the Pink because I feel like I don't fit in. It's a straight space. Yet when you walk through the doors at Sink the Pink - the glitter, the drag, the Cher - it's all so stereotypically camp! These transgressions of heteronormative space are endlessly theorised - Foucault and Valentine were my go-tos - and are incredibly powerful. Too often we forget that the world is, for better or worse, a heterosexually constructed space. Even in London, see two men or two women kissing in the park or on a bus, for example, and the constructedness of society suddenly becomes apparent. That small kiss is a transgression - a glorious one, but one nonetheless. And that's what Sink the Pink at the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club is - as the most base act of finding a location for a club night, it says "everyone, gay/straight/bi/lesbian/trans/queer/questioning, we are all welcome in this space."
Inside, the Working Men's is transformed into a colourful conglomeration of free expression, but importantly, it doesn't forsake or forbid its inherent heterosexual nature. The members of the club - elderly men and women (on the majority, straight), are still there, eating scampi and chips, while Oozing Gloop runs through the club, fully green and even more fully naked. This coming together (note: not this "clash") is what gives Sink the Pink its unique edge.
Its focus on drag is another fascinating aspect. Anyone who has gone to Sink the Pink would probably reference drag at some point in describing it. But, what do we mean by drag? It's certainly not the Soho scene of flawlessly fishy faces on stage and a jeans and T-shirt audience. Few of the attendees or performers go for "femme real" status. Jacqui Potato, Joan Oh, Poly Esther and countless other guests give us drag face with beards that rival the beauty of Conchita Wurst's. Once again, to delve into the impenetrable depths of gender theory, Sink the Pink is essentially a case study in Judith Butler's performative gender theories. Glyn Famous describes his look for Sink the Pink as: "I'm wearing a long wig, I've got my penis out, I'm a huge top, but, you know, it's just like, who cares? I am just what I am." How do we reconcile the "feminine" wig, the "masculine" penis, the "feminine" false eyelashes, the "masculine" moustache? It shows that all of these gender markers really have no basis in anatomical sex. We can put them on, take them off, play with them; as Butler would say - by playing with them we are "working the weakness of the norm" - normality tells us a woman can't have a beard and a man can't wear a wig - Sink the Pink challenges that belief.
The members of the club - elderly men and women (on the majority, straight), are still there, eating scampi and chips, while Oozing Gloop runs through the club, fully green and even more fully naked.
The implications of this frivolous act of dressing up are immense. If we consider gender and sex as two separate entities, then gender need have no bearing on sexuality. A man dressing up as a woman no longer need imply that he's gay - indeed, Butler spells it out quite simply when she says that "the distribution of hetero-, bi-, and homo- inclinations cannot be predictably mapped onto the travels of gender bending or changing." So, when Robyn Withawhy, our gloriously beautiful drag queen, steps onstage in lacy lingerie and pole dances, with his wife chanting from the audience as his most proud and ardent supporter, Sink the Pink brings the precariously balanced Jenga tower of sex, gender, and sexuality crashing down.
All this is marvellous, and it works so brilliantly in those few hours that Sink the Pink lasts. But, what happens when Sink the Pink ends? Do we have to adopt the nihilistically bleak "rectum = grave" axiom and accept that this transgressive liberation can only exist in the brief time period between 9pm and 3am once a month? Can this equality infiltrate into broader society? My main thesis in my dissertation sought to argue "yes."
Recent queer theory has taken a turn for the positive. My argument rested on the notion of "potentiality," as expounded by the queer theorist Esteban Muñoz. In technical jargon: "potentialities are different in that although they are present, they do not exist in present things. Thus, potentialities have a temporality that is not in the present but, more nearly, in the horizon, which we can understand as futurity." Sink the Pink can therefore be understood as a "potentiality" that expresses "queer futurity" - obfuscating terms, but hopefully it'll all become a bit clearer... The moment we leave Sink the Pink, we all have to battle on through the misogynies, sexisms, homophobias and transphobias of the world. Some would argue that this reduces Sink the Pink to flippant nothingness - it shows us a fake world of dreams. Muñoz, however, argues that it gives us hope for a better future, a "queer futurity" - I would urge you to follow this line of thought.
But, what happens when Sink the Pink ends? Do we have to adopt the nihilistically bleak "rectum = grave" axiom and accept that this transgressive liberation can only exist in the brief time period between 9pm and 3am once a month? Can this equality infiltrate into broader society?
We can take the Sink the Pink ethos with us when we leave - but how? Up until now, I haven't mentioned music at all (my degree was in Music, after all.) Here is where music constitutes as Sink the Pink's most powerful weapon. It's no coincidence that Glyn described music as the "spine" of Sink the Pink. In one sense, his description is obvious. No club night would work without music. But music has a much more important role. Music is the one aspect of Sink the Pink that we can tangibly take with us. The music played at Sink the Pink is Top 40, disco classics, those love-to-hate-hate-to-love guilty pleasures we all have. We might not want to admit that we still love Spice Up Your Life, but I'm sure we all secretly do… My point is that when it's played outside of Sink the Pink, we are mentally transported back to the night and everything that comes with it. We are aurally taken back to the Sink-the-Pink ethos, or rather that ethos of equality is brought into our daily lives. This psychological invocation of memory and emotion through music has been rigorously scientifically proven by the likes of Elizabeth T. Cady, Richard Jackson Harris and J. Bret Knappenberger. We create a small pocket of queer utopia in our heteronormative world. We isomorphically link stepping into the Bethnal Green Working Men's with stepping into our car. The weaving is magical.
So, how does this relate to Muñoz and potentialities? Well, the fact that we can feel the emotions of Sink the Pink outside of the event show that it wasn't a fallacy - those few hours weren't teasing us with an impossible queer utopia, but showing us that society has the potential to be that way. And it does, because we can feel those same emotions when listening to the music outside of the event. The idea is all a bit meta, and it takes a bit of willful hope on behalf of the reader (a hope that I'm asking you to hold,) but the idea, or the truth, is a powerful one.
As Sink the Pink grows, as more of these pockets of queer utopia open up, as the message reaches more and more people, as other organisations and club nights support the same mentalities, who knows where we'll be in a few years time. The rectum isn't a grave, so go and Sink your Pink into it.
Text Jacob Bird
Photography Peter Fingleton