Prizm News / October 1, 2018 / By Rebecca Huff
(Prizm photos by Richard Sanders)
Monthly get-togethers in venues across Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky have created new spaces for LGBTQ people to meet and mingle.
(Correction: In our October issue of Outlook, we incorrectly identified a tea dance attendee as Richard Cooke, the cohost of the event. He is in the photo below. We apologize for our mistake.)
By Rebecca Huff
A gloomy, rainy Sunday in September couldn’t stop what was originally planned as an outdoor tea dance among the trees and fountains of Cincinnati’s Washington Park. The gay tradition, revived last year in Ohio by a couple who lost their go-to bar, simply moved across the street and indoors.
But even inside the majestic, century-old Memorial Hall, Cincinnati’s 2018 version of the
tea dance is still far more out-in-the-open than events of old. The once- or twice-monthly dances rotate from location to location in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky, from hotel ballrooms to restaurant rooftops to theater lobbies to straight bars.
They serve much the same purpose today that they did back in the day.
“We created the tea dance to stay connected,” says Richard Cooke, who along with his husband, Marty Wagner, brought back the almost lost tradition in April 2017 after their own Over-the-Rhine hangout, the Famous Neons Unplugged, closed for good.
Cooke and Wagner did more than just stay connected with their own friends, though. They recreated a safe space for the LGTBQ community, both physically and in spirit, that has drawn people who remember tea dances and those who came along far after their decline.
“I love the diversity. It represents the vitality of the LGTBQ community here in Cincinnati,” Cooke says. “Everyone is welcomed.
At least 300 people attended the Sept. 9 dance, the first of two scheduled last month. From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., people of all ages were coming and going. A family—a straight couple and two young girls—were among the first on the dance floor. DJ Thaddeus and DJ Björg provided the music.
“It’s super inclusive, everyone is here to have a good time. There’s no negativity, no drama,” says Henri Maicki, who lives near the early September party spot in Cincinnati’s Over-the- Rhine neighborhood. “It brings in a really cool community that’s not out and about in Cincinnati.”
Tea dances date back to a time when it was impossible to be out and about anywhere.
“There was a time when you had to be secretive, where you didn’t want your name associated with the word gay or you would lose your job,” says Jim Gooding, who came down to Cincinnati for the Sept. 9 tea dance from Franklin, a town 40 miles north in Warren County.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, local laws and government actions around the country effectively outlawed gay bars. Owners risked their liquor licenses if they were caught selling alcohol to LGBTQ clientele. It was illegal to dance with someone of the same sex. (It also was illegal to wear clothing associated with the opposite gender.)
People adapted. When police would come into gay bars—it happened regularly and in 1969 sparked the Stonewall uprising—same-sex couples would quickly rearrange. It eventually led to a new way of dancing that remains today; to avoid getting arrested, couples simply began dancing near each other without embracing.
“A lot has changed,” Gooding reminisced.
Tea dances, which had been around since the 19th century in straight society, were a perfect fit for the LGBTQ community of decades ago. They traditionally took place in the afternoon, when police weren’t on the lookout. When the gay social scene developed on Fire Island in New York, the afternoon time also let people catch their ferries home.
Tea dances eventually migrated to Greenwich Village and began attracting younger, less affluent gays. T-shirts and denim became the attire for tea dances, and the events alternately became known as T dances. The idea of Sunday social gatherings fir LGBTQ people lives on with the idea of Sunday Funday.
Matthew Jones, a visiting assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Miami University, says the LGBTQ community should embrace its identities and culture.
“I think that as queerness becomes more accepted by straight culture, we run the risk of assimilating in the same way that other minority and marginal groups do,” he says. “The pull of that kind of normalization is strong, but the price of admission to heteronormative acceptance is often a loss of the traditions that made our culture unique.”
Tea dances back then weren’t as inclusive as the new series of events in Cincinnati. Jones attributes the division to living in different “spheres.” The dancing-apart trend happened, according to historians, when tea dances and gay bars became men-only spaces.
“Social, political, intellectual and cultural lives overlapped only a little,” Jones says. “Gay men’s and lesbian women’s cultures came together in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, when lesbian (and some straight) women stepped up to do the work of caring for gay men who were sick.”
That’s also when tea dance began to fade, which Jones suspects is in large part because of the AIDS epidemic and its impact on gay men.
“With their deaths, so, too, died many subcultural practices,” he says.
Technology and bars also were a factor in the demise of this almost extinct celebration.
“I think we need to work to maintain queer spaces and queer cultural traditions,” Jones says. “Without them, we lose an invaluable lifeline to our own past and our own future.”
But technology is also part of its revival.
“It rekindles the importance of meeting people face-to-face,” says Ron Bails-Forbes of Cincinnati, who came to the September dance. “There’s no substitute for personal contact.”
Rebecca Huff is a freelance writer in Cincinnati whose work also has appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaHuff9.
FIND OUT MORE
Richard Cooke and Marty Wagner schedule one tea dance per month in the Cincinnati area, and they’re experimenting with adding another. Keep track of where future dances will take place by liking their Facebook page: It’s Time for Another Tea Dance.
October is LGBTQ History Month. Prizm and other LGBTQ publications from around the country are sharing articles on topics related to our community’s history. Visit prizmnews.com for the entire series.