Let’s get one thing straight, so to speak.
There’s mainstream gay club culture — homogeneous house music, international circuit parties, rainbow flags everywhere, which is fine! — and there is underground gay club culture, which is more like a spider web of alternative scenes. The underground reflects themes and identities, as well as literal geographies, that are usually marginalized, or are, in a word, “queer.”
In Los Angeles in early 2016, two queer club denizens put a party together at a strip-mall gay bar in deeply Latino eastern Los Angeles and called it Club Scum. Far from the posher dance floors of the gay enclave of West Hollywood, the goal of the organizers was to mix scenes that hadn’t often met, even on the widest of webs: drag and punk. They were nervous.
“The first Scum, yeah, some people were leaving, and the manager was worried,” said one of the co-founders, Rudy “Rudy Bleu” Garcia, referring to their venue, Club Chico in Montebello, Calif.
“But at the same time, those punks who took the bus were rolling in late,” added Ray “Hex-Ray” Sanchez, the other co-founder. The pair shared a laugh as they recalled the hint of what was to come. The punks mixed in with goth drag queens and the club’s masc, down-low regular clientele. Something clicked. “By the end of the night,” Mr. Garcia continued, the bar owners said: “‘Wow, this was great, the energy was great, the performers were great.’ And the regulars” — pause — “have the rest of the month.”
More than three years later, this monthly party featuring art and drag performances, D.J.s, go-go dancers and sometimes live punk bands, has become a staple of underground East L.A. night life. The mixture has worked, its founders said, because Scum spoke to a cultural current that was hiding right before them.
“For us, it’s just fun to play X Ray Specs and then Banda Machos, or like, Gloria Trevi to the Germs,” said Mr. Garcia, 41, referring to the sounds of Scum playlists, but also to the musical styles that might echo against one another across city streets in East L.A.
Dress is central to Scum’s subculture. The club’s adherents show up reflecting all kinds of alternative styles, often with a gender-bending or drag bent. Body positivity is functionally boundless. Extravagant face makeup is a norm. Prosthetics are encouraged.
On a recent night in September, the latest Scum night at Chico was going strong. The music and vibe veered — seamlessly — from New Wave, to techno, to traditional Mexican ranchera to hard-core punk. A few people approached me and said they’d never seen me there before, just as a regular said might happen. Inclusivity reigns at Club Scum. I smiled and embraced strangers, informing them that, yes, I was a party virgin.
“Scum is that place where you can be your true authentic weird self,” said Mr. Sanchez, 30, and I knew exactly what he meant. In a way, I’d been to this party, in some form, many times before.
I had a pretty great time living in Los Angeles in my 20s in the mid-2000s.
It was in its last few years in the ranks of megacities that were considered underrated, and, for its sheer vastness, Los Angeles felt like a place where wonderlands for any fancy beckoned from behind discreetly marked doors. There was always something going on, always another room to peek into, always another entrance. In that decade, L.A. was the city of secrets.
I was convinced that in order to really understand the place, I had to get to know as many distinct night life scenes as possible. After dark, I got in my car and went out. I plunged into the neighborhoods that radiate from downtown, hurtling into backyard ska-punk shows in El Sereno, experimental art happenings in Chinatown, and smoky trip-hop after-hours in warehouses in South-Central. Most of all, I was at the underground gay club nights.
In L.A.’s central neighborhoods and its Eastside, denizens followed the underground gay calendar from club to club, week to week, where we made bands of friends and notched strings of enthusiastic bed mates. There wasn’t a lot of overthinking going on; labels weren’t in style. Maybe this was because the period came right after the vibrating trauma of Sept. 11, but also well before dating apps, necessitating analog contact with strangers in order to have a life in a driving-heavy metropolis.
The corresponding flow was fluid and bent slightly toward the nihilistic in everything from music to sexual practices to street fashion. As a result, it’s taken me some years to realize that there were actually two alternative gay underground cultures in Los Angeles at the time, and that many of us had firm footholds in both.
There were the more mainstream-adjacent scenes that centered in East Hollywood and Silver Lake: leather, bears, rockers, “creative” types, the people who congregated at places like Akbar, MJ’s, the Eagle, Cuffs and Faultline. Then there was the immigrant-led underground, dominated by working class gays and lesbians, Latin drag queens, trans people. These venues included the old Le Bar on Glendale Boulevard (now the hipster haunt Cha Cha Lounge), the now-defunct Circus Disco in Hollywood, the divey New Jalisco on Main Street, and Tempo on Santa Monica Boulevard, a veritable club of worship to gay vaqueros and queens.
Farther east, there was the little known lesbian bar Reds in Boyle Heights, and Club Chico, a “cholo bar,” as we called it back then, that catered mostly to Mexican or Mexican-American guys who shunned the traditional L.G.B.T. identifiers but could definitely be described as “men who have sex with men.”
Being a gay underground clubgoer in L.A. at the time meant almost by default being some shade of brown. Nearly half of the county’s population was already Latino, but it was a time, almost two decades before Latinx entered the dictionary, when the city was weirdly un-self-aware about it. Everyone was just mixed in.
The deeper I got into downtown and the Eastside, the weirder and freer things would get. Which is why, when I first entered a Club Scum night in Los Angeles in 2019, I knew, in club-going terms, that I had effectively returned home.
Scum sits at the intersection of queer culture, punk culture and drag culture. It is for women, men, and literally every gender expression in between. Mr. Garcia is a veteran underground night life maven, part of a generation who created intense community at the L.A. queer party nights of the late 2000s, like Mustache Mondays (whose co-founder and beloved impresario Nacho Nava died in January) and Wildness in MacArthur Park.
The community at Scum, like that of similar parties that exist in its orbit, touches on the propensity among alternative-leaning, young Eastsiders to be drawn to anything goth, gore, electro or hard core. For drag personalities in particular, Scum is seen as a community home-base; several drag houses have organically formed around the party.
Scum also serves as a beacon to the essential identity of the Eastside of Los Angeles County. Montebello, where Chico has kept a low-key presence since 1999, is a couple blocks away from the boundary of unincorporated East L.A., which, remember, is a distinct entity; its natives — including Mr. Garcia and Mr. Sanchez — don’t ever let a newcomer forget it. The location keeps the club rooted in the various cultural pillars of the region. East Los Angeles proper is more than 95 percent Latino, according to the U.S. census, and largely some form of Mexican.
From here, Scum also becomes the party that arguably fits best for those who feel like they’re the strangest in their neighborhoods, anywhere. Maybe they love the Misfits, but also know their Juan Gabriel. Or they skate, but also do some drag. To some adherents, it’s all “queerdo,” a construction of “weirdo” and “queer” — apt, though of uncertain provenance.
“It just feels safe,” said Amanda Estrada, 31, a regular clubgoer and musician, who once had a band with Mr. Sanchez. She attends regularly with her partner Rocío Flores, who also D.J.s at the club. They were there together on the very first night. “At Scum, you know you’re among your people, your community, and I know that sounds cheesy, but that really is the vibe when you walk in,” Ms. Estrada said.
Mr. Garcia and Mr. Sanchez came into the scene through their bands, and by promoting clubs and making zines. These activities will sound familiar to elder Eastsiders, as they have flourished in the gay underground of the Eastside since at least the 1970s, said C. Ondine Chavoya, a professor at Williams College, and co-curator of “Axis Mundo,” a 2017 museum survey exhibit that charts queer visual arts and cultural production on L.A.’s Eastside. “It was about being the punk kids at the gay disco, or being the Latino queers at the bar in the West Hollywood, which didn’t always work out,” Mr. Chavoya said.
For the misfits, the outcasts, the night crawlers, it works. “Scum provides a space for people to be themselves, and take risks, and try new things with the way they dress, perform, communicate,” Mr. Garcia said. “And to meet other people who are like you, and are not just trying to fetishize you for being brown or for being punk.”
Mr. Sanchez added: “It’s been nice to bring people to our gay bar, in the hood, where we grew up.”
Daniel Jack Lyons is a photographer who divides his time between New York and Los Angeles. Daniel Hernandez is a Styles West reporter and the author of “Down and Delirious in Mexico City,” a nonfiction exploration of youth subcultures in Mexico.