I first met Kirk Calvo while he was shaking his ass in the cage at the Eagle. But that was a while ago, and his nightlife career has since progressed from being the cage dancer to being the guy that hires his own cage dancers. Kirk is now the man behind Lavender Underground, and he’s set out to change the way our community treats each other, one party at a time.
To watch the 26-year-old Chicago native dancing in his underwear, you might not guess that he’s a recent UW grad with a degree in the Comparative History of Ideas. But, then appearances would be deceiving.
“It sounds completely ridiculous on it’s face,” he laughs, explaining his degree, “but it was an interdisciplinary degree that combined philosophy, history, and the social sciences. It taught me how to understand how people think, and why they do the things they do, based on the conditions they’re in.”
It isn’t exactly an obvious leap from academia to party planning, but Kirk has agenda.
“You can make an enormous difference just by setting a good example for each other,” he tells me. “Imagine if we all did that.”
What exactly a good example may be, of course, is relative, and thus may not look the same from person to person. What is Kirk’s idea of a good example, then?
“Human kindness,” he says. “The very idea of setting a good example for each other seems so novel. Say, if you’re on Grindr, and you’re not an asshole, that’s setting a good example. It amazes me every time how you can catch another gay guy off guard simply by being nice to them on social media, or in a bar. It’s crazy. It really points to the fact that something needs to be done there.”
Kirk is an activist, in a way, even if he doesn’t seem like one. But, while some people protest and march, and some people get elected to office, he focuses on how he can affect the gay community more directly.
“The way that I approach activism within the community, and my parties” he admits, “is I obviously do it through the nightlife sphere. That’s been the cornerstone of our community’s culture since time immemorial. So it’s a cultural way that I approach it, not necessarily a political way.”
It’s not an unusual mode for activism, especially when it relates to a community that, at least historically, survived primarily through remaining hidden in places that were safe to gay. It could be said that the opening of the Twin Peaks bar in San Francisco, thought to be the first gay bar to feature windows that allowed patrons to be seen from the outside, was a form of activism.
Is that why, then, Kirk has chosen some of our local watering holes to spread his message of goodwill?
“A gay bar has always been a gathering space for GLBT people to come and be free from the constraints of mainstream society,” Kirk reminds me. “It’s really incidental that these events are held in drinking establishments. That’s not really the end goal here. The end goal is to provide a liberating and safe space for our community, but also to figure out a way to foster positive changes in the way we relate to each other. What better way to do that then to get all of us in a room together?”
I’ve found that I can affect positive change by lifting up those things that have been seen as shameful: being husky, being hairy, being effeminate, being black. All these sorts of things that have gotten pushed to lower end of the gay social hierarchy, I’ve found that I want to lift them up rather than criticize anything.”
While Kirk has only been legally allowed into the bars for a few years, he’s spent half of his life as an acknowledged member of the gay community, having come out to his mother at the ripe old age of 13. What was his experience like, coming out at such a young age?
“I went to all-boys Catholic high school,” he tells me, “and it was really…”
“Ha ha! According to porn, yes,” he says, laughing, “it was very gay. But according to real life, it was actually very isolating. I was the only out, gay kid in my entire school. I went through a lot of really hard stuff in high school. I was battling depression and anxiety, because I was very isolated.”
It was certainly a rough time for the young Kirk Calvo, stuck in such a conservative, judgemental environment. But he wasn’t without resources, fortunately. He just needed to seek them out.
“Thankfully I was able to find this GLBT youth group,” he tells me, “which gathered GLBT kids from the region of Chicago that I lived in. It was a life saving experience for me. I was finally able to come together with kids who were experiencing the same thing I that I was experiencing, so I didn’t feel that alone any more.”
It was more than a life saving experience for him, though. It was a life changing experience, influencing how he related to his community from then on. It gave him the desire to pass along the messages of acceptance and community that he’d found there.
“That was really a huge experience in my life that shaped my approach to things,” he confirms. “From that point forward I wanted to give back in that way.”
Perhaps it was this life saving gathering, then, that pointed Kirk in the direction of using gatherings such as his parties as the medium for spreading his message of goodwill toward his fellow gay men. His parties aren’t support groups, though. Activism inspired or not, they’re more than just sewing circles where all the gay boys hold hands and sing kumbaya. They’re dirty, raunchy, and very sexually charged, with frequent sexual fetish themes like leather, rubber, and even piss play. One monthly party, Area 2181, even includes a handy “hanky code” primer in its event info, so that people who want to advertise a particular fetish can properly do so.
“At my current parties that I do,” he admits, “they are very sexually charged, obviously, for several reasons. One of the reasons is that I think that sex is obviously an important way for gay men to relate to each other.”
It’s a type of sex positivity that Kirk clings to, which helps differentiate his events from the more hedonistic affairs that characterize your typical circuit parties. He sees value in expressing sexuality, and wants his party guests to feel free to do so, but wants them to do so with the understanding that there can be more to gay men connecting with one another than groping each other in a some dark, smoky corner at the back of the bar.
“At my more sexually charged parties I try to promote a sense of significance and value to sexuality,” he says. “I want it to be fun, but I don’t want the message to be lost, that sex actually has value, and is something a little bit deeper than the surface sometimes allows.”
Sex positivity also has connotations of openness and acceptance. The LGBTQ community has often had to deal with significant shaming from heteronormative society for many things, including sexual proclivities. This sense of shame is sometimes expressed within the LGBTQ community as well, perhaps coming from a place of self-hatred and internalized homophobia. At parties like Area 2181 and Black Friday Reloaded, Kirk hopes to reduce the potential for shaming by putting the fetish themes front and center.
“It does provide that kind of outlet in a way,” he says “for guys that are into the more non-vanilla side of sexuality, to come and to celebrate that, and to experiment with it. There’s a lot of stigma attached to kinkier sex. I think a lot of gay men are often afraid to experiment with it, because they think they’ll be shamed.”
By providing safer spaces for gay men to see, learn, and experiment with new things, Kirk hopes to help people understand the stigma is often a product of assumption.
“Stigmas like that often exist only in our minds,” he claims. “They only exist because we assume other people are going to judge us for it, so we hide it.”
None of this is to say that you have to participate in any particular fetish to enjoy, or even be welcome at any of Kirk’s parties. Area 2181, for instance, is described as being “created for gay men from all walks of life,” regardless of age, race, personal style, or sexual proclivity. It’s the underlying theme of Kirk’s message, after all, that, no matter what facet of the gay community you may hail from, it’s good to be nice to each other.
“When you dig down beneath the surface,” he says, “it’s deeper than bear vs. twink, vs. leather, vs. muscle queen, vs. circuit queen, vs. whatever. Despite the real diversity of our community of gay men, there’s still this pressure to look and behave a certain way. I’ve found that best way for me to foster change in that is not so much to critique it, and be like: ‘It’s bad that you want to go to the gym five days a week, and it’s bad that you want to have a six-pack, and it’s bad that you want to act masculine.’ More so, I’ve found that I can affect positive change by lifting up those things that have been seen as shameful: being husky, being hairy, being effeminate, being black. All these sorts of things that have gotten pushed to lower end of the gay social hierarchy, I’ve found that I want to lift them up rather than criticize anything. I think that’s the most effective way to approach it.”
To learn more about Kirk’s events, you can visit his event production website at LavenderUndergound.com or check out Lavender Underground’s Facebook page. Black Friday Reloaded happens on the first Friday of every month, and Area 2181 takes place on the third Saturday of every month. Both parties are happen at the Seattle Eagle.