Boh, Sweat, and Tears: She Rex’s Femme Dance-Party Revolution
The Advocate may have listed D.C. as the fourth most gay-friendly city in America this year, but poll anyone along D.C.’s LBGT spectrum who doesn't reside on the "G," and you often hear that Washington's LGBT party scene has always skewed more toward gay men.
"Every other month, someone new to city asks me, 'Where the lesbians at?'" says DJ Mothershiester, a member the D.C. all-women DJ collective Anthology of Booty. "I can't seem to find them.'"
"I've been very unwelcome in many gay male spaces here, and I’m embarrassed to say that when gay men take up lots of dance floor space at a lesbian event, I don’t always look kindly on them," says Christina Cauterucci, managing editor at Where the Girls Go, a blog that covers queer nightlife and arts in D.C.
Cauterucci's first taste of lesbian nightlife was an excursion with her roommates to Jello wrestling at Capitol Hill's Phase 1, the oldest continually running lesbian bar in the country. Phase 1 is a well-known homebase for lesbians in D.C., and certainly a legendary operation. But overall, "the scene for women has historically been more underground and dispersed," Cauterucci says.
Over the last two or three years, however, that's begun to change. Whether it's due to the surge of new people moving inside the Beltway, increased female business ownership, or simple kismet, D.C. is experiencing what some term a renaissance in lively, popular late-night shenanigans with a femme bent, with more events happening more often and with better publicity.
Some expressions of this renaissance are DJ crews like Anthology of Booty, dance parties like Zeba Bar's GlittHER and Ottomania, and warehouse parties like The Beard and The Fro. Out of all them, the most visible exponent of D.C. femme nightlife is She Rex, a four-year-old party run by Maegan Wood and three other DJs — Laura Varlas, DJ Crush, and Alex Douglas Barrera.
Hitting Adams Morgan watering hole Chief Ike’s Mambo Room the second Friday of every month, the part revolves around an eclectic mix of catchy and, importantly, familiar music, from indie rock to Top 40—and on occasion the totally unexpected, like "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which played one evening and started a mosh pit, according to a Where the Girls Go article by the site's editor-in-chief, Sarah Marloff.
"When She Rex started, we just played music by women. After a couple of years, though, that became limiting. And confusing," Wood writes in an email. "What counts as music by women? Does Prince count because Wendy and Lisa are awesome? What about the Talking Heads? Tina Weymouth is an amazing bassist…When the gender binary started to get in the way of what songs we wanted to play, we got rid of that rule, though we do still often play a lot of music by women, if only by habit. Now we have more DJs every month and everyone can play whatever they want, and I think the focus is really just on whatever is fun."
This Friday, She Rex will team up with Anthology of Booty for its third annual "Booty Rex," a conglomeration of bumping and grinding that coincides with the start of Capital Pride. (Anthology of Booty also began four years ago, when the crew started the dance party known as “Backdoor,” at the 9:30 Club. It now takes place at Tropicalia.)
Although Booty Rex is one of She Rex's biggest events of the year, the party still takes place at Chief Ike's. "Personally, I like dive bars," says Wood. "I like that there are multiple rooms and dark corners. And there’s something to be said for moving out of the traditional gay space and queering up new places."
Wood grew up in D.C. and moved back here almost a decade ago, only to find out that the only thing going on in the way of women-targeted queer nightlife "was dyke night on Wednesday at Chaos," she says. "I think that was pretty much 'the scene.' We were let out of the house one night a week."
Cauterucci experienced her first She Rex as a senior in college and marveled at how "there were so many women in one space." With women who commute in from Maryland and Virginia, even West Virginia sometimes, "I could go see 12 different stereotypes of lesbians."
Hipper and less preppy than what Cauterucci had experienced D.C. bars up till that point, She Rex was the kind of place where you could make eyes at someone from across a pool table while enjoying $2 Natty Boh and PBRs all night.
She Rex's popularity, of course, can also make it a bit, well, incestuous. "I remember I broke up with someone right before a She Rex, and we had to talk about who was going to go and who wouldn't," Cauterucci says. Not a big OK Cupid user, she once had a girl come up to her and mention she’d seen her on the dating site. "It makes it fun and weird and sometimes dramatic."
In fact, the party can get so packed that not everyone enjoys sticking around for long, much less until the approximately 3 a.m. dispersal time. Lindsay Taucher, the co-founder of the DC Femme Collective (which formed last fall as a "response to lack of resources for the femme community"), writes, "It has the tendency to get very hot and crowded. When it gets really full, as it inevitably does, I spend too much time sweating to enjoy myself."
She adds, "And the fact that you’re guaranteed to run into every D.C. queer you’ve ever befriended, hated, or hooked up with is definitely a double-edged sword." DC Femme Collective holds two or three gatherings a month, including trips to thrift stores, clothing swaps, brunches, speed dating, and meetups at bars. Its members also go to She Rex as a group.
Wood says the enduring popularity of She Rex took the DJs by surprise. The whole thing is deliberately laid-back and low-maintenance—Wood and the cohort say they prefer to plan ahead no more than in "six-month increments … It keeps things fresh!" Facebook invites don’t go out until a couple days ahead of each event. But maybe that's the whole appeal.
"It’s not scary for anyone," Wood says. "We definitely have made decisions along the way to be inclusive. At one point, we were asking, ‘Do we charge men? Well, that’ll bring up issues for trans men…’ so we decided to leave it."
This isn't to say that most of the LGBT nightlife scene isn’t still troubled by the class, race, gender, and identification disparities that DC Femme Collective’s other founder, Melissa Henry, noticed four years ago, when she moved here from the Bay Area. Henry says she had a hard time finding queer events that "weren’t mostly made up of white men" or "geared towards a wealthy, white lesbian audience."
Cauterucci also points to the persistence of these divides—which is why, she says, WTGG hosts its own party: OverEasy at Dodge City on Sundays in the summer, beginning in the afternoon. "For those of us who don’t subscribe to the 'we’re just like straight girls, only we date women,' approach to life, and who view sexuality in a more radical, less binary way, some of the standard lesbian bars and parties can feel stifling."
Packed though it may be, there's little that's stifling about She Rex. Alexander Smith, another founder of Where the Girls Go, put it this way in an email: She Rex is "where you will absolutely simultaneously be in the company of your ex, your main squeeze, your future ex, your future main squeeze and your former field hockey coach. With sexy results."
Booty Rex begins tonight at 9:30 p.m. at Chief Ike's Mambo Room, 1725 Columbia Road NW. $5.
Photo by Lindsey Barnhart, courtesy She Rex