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Horoom Nights: Pride, Freedom — and Sex — in Tbilisi, Georgia
Somehow I ended up somewhere I never expected to be.
“We need to email them our passport numbers,” Casey told Michael and me. “Plus, our birthdates and access to our Facebook profiles. If we check out, they’ll send us an invite back.”
It was 2019, and the three of us and our other nomad friend Gillian were living in Tbilisi, Georgia, a country in Eastern Europe, on the crossroads between Europe and Asia. And Casey had learned of something called Horoom Nights, a special, once-a-month queer night held in Bassiani, a famous local nightclub.
Michael and I have never been big partiers. Being crammed into some smoky, sweat-filled bar drinking sour, overpriced drinks? Please. We'd rather have an intimate conversation with good friends in the garden courtyard of some charming bistro.
But this was different. We were in Eastern Europe now, with two good friends. And how interesting did this particular event sound?
Still, Georgia was a pretty homophobic country. Pride events often included violent counter-protesters. As a result, the organizers of Horoom Nights were now very careful to vet everyone who wanted in.
None of us was crazy about our personal information being in a database that could fall into the hands of a homophobic government. Fortunately, Michael and I had been in town long enough that we’d made some connections in the local LGBTQ community, and we knew someone who volunteered to vouch for us and get us added to the guest list without divulging any personal details.
The club didn't even open until midnight, and word was things didn't get started until at least one in the morning. So Casey, Gillian, Michael, and I all met for drinks beforehand at a bar near the club.
Earlier, Gillian had suggested applying "guyliner" to Michael and me.
"Do it now!" Michael said at the bar, eager to be edgied up. "Please?"
We found an empty room in the back of the bar, and Gillian went to work on both of us, though I was considerably less enthusiastic.
The nightclub itself was located in nearby Dinamo Arena, a massive Soviet-era stadium where the Georgian rugby and football teams play their matches. Or, more specifically, in a labyrinth of concrete rooms and corridors underneath the arena.
Irony lives: Georgia’s queerest event happens in the same place where some of the country’s most macho events take place.
They weren't kidding about the tight security. After getting on the invite-list, we’d all been sent bar codes for the attendants at the door to scan, to compare with our ID cards. Then we were wanded and thoroughly patted down for weapons. Finally, little stickers were placed over the lenses of the cameras on our phones so we couldn't take pictures of the other attendees, who almost certainly didn’t want their identities revealed.
It was tighter security than in most airports.
Once inside, we walked through several dark, concrete corridors that felt straight out of a post-apocalyptic film — Blade Runner meets Mad Max. You don't follow signs or arrows on the floor, but rather the pulse of the techno music.
Except at some point, we must have taken a wrong turn, because somewhere nearby, I heard the rustle of clothing. And urgent moans.
We’d accidentally entered the "darkroom" area — something I’d read about online.
As in, a place for the attendees to have sex.
This area had been turned into a maze of sorts, with wooden walls and soft red lights. Since most unmarried Georgians live with their parents, places like this are sometimes the only way some gay and bi guys can have sex with each other without fear of discovery.
Yes, it was exactly what was advertised, and there seemed to be plenty of willing participants.
But this isn't Michael's or my thing, and I doubt women would have been welcome anyway, so the four of us backtracked to the dance floor. I did wonder if the darkroom was in operation on the nights when the club is heterosexual.
We were disappointed that the main dance floor was closed, since it's located on the bottom of an empty Olympic-sized swimming pool. Photos made it look amazing.
Instead, we followed the pounding music up some stairs and around a corner to a smaller dance floor.
It was packed. The music pounded out a clanky but monotonous beat, and fog machines on the ceiling spewed out white smoke in long, steady blasts. The local Georgian crowd — and they did seem to be almost entirely locals — jerked or swayed to the steady rhythm.
For a moment, the four of us stood and watched.
It was a young-ish crowd, mostly male, and the vibe was definitely, almost defiantly masculine. Many of the men looked like they'd just come from a construction site or the rugby field elsewhere in this facility. Shirtless studs pantomimed boxing routines, and punkers jerked back and forth amid lean twinks and hirsute leather folk. There were even a few straight-laced office types in white button-down shirts and ties, although this felt more like a sexy conceit than anyone coming directly from work.
The beards were thick, and the bodies were ripped. You could practically smell the testosterone.
We all stepped onto the dance floor.
This being a techno club, we danced the dance of the self-absorbed: sharing the same space but not dancing together, not necessarily even acknowledging the people around you. And when we were finally as sweaty as everyone else, we took a break to get drinks at the bar in another room.
"What do we think?" I asked the others.
Michael wiped sweat from his forehead. "Too smoky, too loud, and too hot."
I smiled. "Said the man who was insisting that Gillian apply guyliner on him an hour ago."
"I am a delightful contradiction," he said, winsome enough to make me laugh.
"I think it's erotic," I said. "A lot of the men sure are sexy. Especially the ones who don't look quite so full of themselves."
"Oh, I totally agree," Gillian said.
"I love how everyone looks like they're having such a great time,” Casey said.
Casey was definitely right about that. It was clear that almost everyone had come here for the same reason: to dance, and flirt, and drink, and check out other people without fear.
In short, they'd come to be themselves. They were openly celebrating every precious second that the club is a safe and open LGBTQ space. Simply attending Horoom Nights was a brave act in a place like Georgia. The year before, the club had been raided, and the organizers arrested — though they were eventually released with all charges dropped.
But that Saturday night, there was no sense of menace or oppression in the air. There was just hundreds of queer Georgians in all shapes and sizes, and all kinds of gender expression, free for a few hours to completely be themselves.
Georgians are understandably proud of their hospitality, but they're not an especially expressive people. Since we'd arrived in Tbilisi, greetings had sometimes been gruff, and more than a few folks had stared at us — lighter skinned and beard-free, so obviously Westerners — with expressions we couldn’t read.
But at Horoom Nights, almost everyone was smiling — the studs, twinks, punkers, dykes, and cos-dork cuties. Honestly, we saw more happy faces than the rest of our time in Georgia combined.
Later, we danced again. The music was monotonous, virtually unchanging, but somehow hypnotic. To my surprise, I found myself surrendering to the beat.
Suddenly I was the beat, going with the flow, unaware of the past or future, living only in the present.
In the moment.
It was weirdly transcendent. So this was the point of techno music.
We left the club at around four a.m., but the feeling of being in the moment, of being present, stayed with me, and with the others too — even Michael, who had long since stopped complaining about the smoke and the heat.
The night still felt very young. After all that dancing, we wanted something to eat.
So we wandered the surrounding streets looking for a place to get late-night hamburgers (and — more importantly — french fries).
We were all lighter than air, talking together and buzzing like bees, skipping from topic to topic like they were flowers. We discussed sexual liberation, the politics of gender expression, and the Amazon Prime show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Gillian loved the show's feminist sensibility, but even being in the fugue of a post-techno trance, I was annoyed by the show's use of the tired trope that artistic genius seems to excuse someone from acting like a selfish jerk.
We eventually found a McDonalds with a walk-up window and ate hamburgers and french fries sitting on some nearby steps. We kept talking, simultaneously carefree and somber, like we had all the time in the world and the answers to all the problems of the universe.
Which, at that particular moment, we did.
Finally, we caught cabs and headed home.
Michael and I didn't get to our apartment until almost seven a.m., right before sunrise. But that was okay. I was still in the moment, and even now, I didn't feel tired.
But I knew we had to sleep, so we quickly showered and climbed into bed.
I was still feeling the erotic charge of the night — the memory of those hot men on the dance floor, the glimpse of those men in that darkroom, the pulse of the techno beat.
So Michael and I started touching, our senses alive and aware. The touching became kissing, which became sex, our two bodies soon becoming one.
At some point, the sex turned into sleep, which dissolved into dreaming.
The next morning, the whole night before felt a little bit like a dream. In a way, the morning did too. And I was pretty sure I never wanted to wake up.