We Came to Sweat is a new documentary about Starlite, New York's oldest black-owned gay club. Located in Crown Heights but recently torn down, the bar served as a blueprint for some of our favorite clubs today. In New York, as in London, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, gay clubs are going through hard times. The reasons for the closures are open for some debate, but it's important to document the spaces while they're still here, to preserve a record of LGBTQ history.
Kate Kunath's new documentary is a love letter to Starlite, a renowned, all-inclusive space, which managed to survive 50 years of racial and sexual social inequality, but sadly wasn't able to withstand Brooklyn's tide of gentrification. We spoke to her about the film and club.
VICE: Hey, Kate. How did you first hear about the Starlite, and why did you decide to make the documentary?
Kate Kunath: I was looking for an apartment right across the street from the Starlite, and naturally, I couldn't resist—so I went inside. It was the early afternoon and Mama Dot was working. She came out from behind the bar and showed me around. She was very friendly and was clearly a proud fixture in the establishment. Then she dropped the news that the building was sold and that they may have to leave. She had a petition there that she wanted me to sign. Naturally I signed it, and two weeks later I was back with a skeleton crew to start filming.
What were you hoping to achieve by making this film?
My work in the early days was motivated by the obligation I had to these participants who were entrusting me to bring their story into the world. It took five years to complete, and I had hoped that a series of events would lead to a successful "Save the Starlite" campaign, and that the film would then be a resource for businesses anywhere that were threatened by similar forces. But as time wore on and their movement was failing, the story was becoming more of a cautionary tale.
However, the bar was established in a pre-gay-liberation movement era, and the fact that it survived for 50 years is something I did want the story to recognize and celebrate as an accomplishment.
In London, many of our LGBTQ venues are being lost due to increases in rent. What does the film say about the similar situation in Brooklyn?
The gentrification of South Brooklyn at the moment is an enormous topic. However, it's been the mandate of several mayoral administrations, beginning with Giuliani in the early 1990s, to "clean up" New York. Individuals in positions of power are making decisions based on short-term gains, guided by misperceptions of the residents' values.
There's an irony in the removing of cultural spaces in the interest of gentrification because that assumes that gentrifiers don't value cultural communities. And I don't agree with this. But I do think that gentrifiers need to be aware of how they are impacting the neighborhoods they move into. There needs to be the infrastructure to support community representation in the redevelopment of neighborhoods that is effective. The alternative to this is that we as citizens will live in environments that react to market value rather than what we value as humans.
Do you think the prevalence of apps like Tinder and Grindr have contributed to clubs like Starlite closing down, because people are using clubs less and less as places to pick up or meet people?
I don't think Tinder or Grindr contributed to the closing of Starlite. But the prevalence of online dating does contribute to the general apathy that society has towards gay bars.
As the heteronormative wind blows, I think the drift is that gay bars are obsolete, for two ludicrous reasons. One, gays are now more welcome into society, as evidenced by gay marriage strides, and don't need the "safe haven" of gay bars. Two, online dating precludes having to meet in a public space. There are many other things that happen in a gay bar besides meeting people for hook-ups. The Starlite catered to all walks of life, which is what made it wonderful and successful in accomplishing its mission. To replace this dynamic experience with online dating is to isolate and privatize the LGBTQ community again, and to risk reproducing sexual shame.
Somebody in the film says, "Just like you need churches, you need bars." Can you expand on this?
In a city like New York, there really isn't anything better than a place you can go to talk to an old timer about the way it was, or learn from their experience. Bars like the Starlite provided that to the general public, and also to individuals who were rejected by their church communities or families. The Starlite was a place where people were accepted whole—with their sexuality and their spirituality intact.
What was the impact of AIDS on the gay nightlife around the area?
What I've gathered is that it has made an impact on multiple fronts. Of course the 70s and 80s were a very liberated moment, and the underground was an incredible mecca of creativity, love, and celebration. Unfortunately, this was a fertile environment for the spread of AIDS, and because all people were kept in the dark for so long about how it was transmitted and prevented, it became an epidemic.
Prior to AIDS, gays were making strides in their civil rights, and the Stonewall riots had sparked the gay liberation movement. But AIDS turned back the clock, and it was gay spaces that were targeted. From the bathhouses of San Francisco to the sidewalks of the West Village, any place that encouraged any public display of sexuality became a target to remove or sanitize. And it hasn't changed that much since then.
I love that the Starlite never stopped playing the same records it played back in the 70s.
I think Carlos Sanchez says this the best in the film. The 70s were a golden era for music and clubbing. It was a time when people felt free and alive. The Starlite was popular for playing disco before it was actually disco, and the people would come out to get that feeling back that they had in the 70s, before the crisis. As Carlos says, "I've got my life."
What's the most important thing you've taken away from following the plight of Starlite?
There was this unspoken common ground of the patrons, which was their willingness to say "Fuck the establishment!"—whether that was over politics, religion, sexual shame, or social norms. And the energy of that was intoxicating. But what I took away from the plight is that nothing is permanent, progress is not a straight line and losing space is losing ground in the bigger picture.
I don't think that gay bars have to exist for the same purpose as they once did, but I do think that the culture generated by the LGBTQ community has the potential to engage society on a level that perhaps no other minority class can do. The physical presence of queer space is representational, practical, and necessary in the future, so we should be rethinking the gay bar as we once knew it.