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Queers Take the Theme Parks

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Gay Day heads to Great Adventure, this time as a private party

“I grew up in Cleveland,” remembered DJ Susan Morabito. “Which means I had Cedar Point, the greatest roller coaster theme park in the country.”

Morabito let this boast sink in, then continued, “Twenty-five coasters. I loved it. I watched each coaster being built year after year and experienced each one. I love theme parks for the coasters.”

“I grew up in Minnesota,” promoter Mark Nelson countered. “And we had Valley Fair, which is a like a midget version of anyone else’s theme park. It had one roller coaster. One flume.”

When Nelson was reminded of the roadside roller coasters that dot the interstates along Minnesota’s lake region, he replied, “But it’s just a little tiny roller coaster.”

Then, with typical self-deprecating charm, he laughed, “Well, the Minnesotans, we’re not the brightest people in the world.”

Not to buzz-kill this childhood idyll, but what does one suppose Minnesotans, or anyone else for that matter, would have done if they had to negotiate red T-shirted, same-sex couples while waiting in line for said coaster?

Nelson was blunt.

“I would have had a heart attack,” he admitted.

Morabito took a beat, but came up with something slightly more reasoned.

“What it would have done for me—we’re going back to the 70s—but if I had seen a bunch of lesbians running around it would have given me an idea of what lesbians looked like. Back then I thought they were truck drivers. It would have encouraged me at an earlier age. It would have made me feel like it was okay to be gay because back then you had no role models who made you feel it was okay. Now, how my parents would have thought about it is a different story.”

Fast forward 30 years and Nelson and Morabito gazed onto another recreational area, New York’s Central Park, from the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nelson admitted, “I was a go-go boy when I came to New York,” but now his Web site describes his chosen profession as “entertainm­ent architect.” It’s hard to think about a decent night out in this town in the past ten years—from Boy’s Life to Junior Vasquez’ Earth—without also thinking about him. His client list runs the gamut between Tom of Finland and Katherine Gibbs and as if that’s not enough for one plate, he’s about to launch Great Adventure’s first ever “gay day” called “Fairgrounds.”

Morabito hoped to launch her own career as a radio DJ, but station politics like play lists and program managers sent her night-clubbing and there’s been no looking back. Relocating to New York in 1987, a summer Fire Island residency at the Pavilion established her almost immediately as Pines Pasha able to transcend the old boy’s club of the big room DJ. She was the first woman to spin a Saint-at-Large Black Party and continues to challenge herself by expanding not only repertoire, but also her venues. She’s just returned from DJing a gay pride party at the San Diego Zoo.

And yes, we went to the roof of the Met to talk about theme parks. But before we arrived roofside, we took a quick detour through the Costume Institute’s “Dangerous Liaisons” show of 18th century fashion and furniture and there she was: the Fainter. Dead-center in this Rococo reproduction of Paris’ Varengville Room, she hit the floor in the middle of a party. Perhaps the hammered silver embroidery on her corset wrapped her too tightly, but whatever the case, she was—as they say in club parlance—“down.” She’s practically a rasison d’etre for Nelson and Morabito.

“I want the Latin kids to be able to come,” Nelson began, discussing whom he’d like to see at his theme park party. “I want everyone to have the opportunity, especially a lot of the groups. We’re doing a lot of outreach to the Gay and Lesbian Center and even their 12-step programs. These people don’t want to go to a nightclub at four in the morning and I don’t want to feed into someone’s addiction. I have my own problems with that. I’m a victim of my own work. I don’t want GHB at this party. I can’t tolerate another person going down at my party.”

As a DJ, Morabito voiced concerns that are naturally different from those of a promoter, though they share a disdain of the Fainter.

“The one thing we have in common is that we don’t want to see someone go down,” she began. “Even if I don’t see it when somebody does go down, that takes away the good energy in a 500-foot radius. That’s not fair to me, the dancers and it’s obviously not fair to the promoter.”

“I might be saying this because I’m a lesbian,” Morabito continued, moving on to another pet peeve. “But I don’t think the dance floor is for certain things. I can see the playfulness, but I do take issue when someone whips it out.”

Nelson agreed.

“I’m mortified,” he stressed. “Just like a lesbian would be.”

But Morabito was serious, and related her all-time worst case of bad behavior from a recent trip to New Orleans.

“I saw a woman go down on a guy on the dance floor,” she exclaimed. “It wasn’t hidden. I was just trying to get into the groove. It was not the right place for it because it affected my groove. Now you’re coming into my space!”

“I’m not planning on anyone getting a blowjob at my party,” Mr. Nelson tried to reassure.

“They will,” Morabito laughed gleefully, “They will. It’s a thrill.”

Nelson covered his ears.

“I don’t know it,” he shrugged. “I don’t hear it.”

Morabito was still laughing.

“You can’t put signs up: no blowjobs,” she giggled. “Let me restate. If you want to do a blowjob on a ride, that’s fine, but just be conscious of who else is in the area. Take responsibility. Lesbians are going to this thing and I don’t think lesbians want to see that.”

Morabito and Nelson clearly enjoyed going at each other, but they raised an interesting point. How public is a Ferris wheel, anyway? Gay ingenuity is putting the Ferris wheel to work as a lighting element for the outdoor dance floor that Randy Bettis plans on peppering with Bon Jovi tracks.

But don’t be frightened by the Bon Jovi.

“You can be very gay,” Nelson promised, because unlike some of the other theme park gay days, “Fairgrounds” is a private event.

“I’ve had some nasty e-mails about discrimina­tion,” Nelson said, rolling his eyes. “But I’m not discriminating. It’s a wedding, okay? And not everyone is invited.”

If only it were as benign as a gay wedding. Most theme park gay days involve red-shirted queers mixing with the general population in a space typically devoted to children. If you don’t believe the general population fears gay recruitment of its young, you’ve not attended one of these public gay days.

“We’re trying to go for bigger numbers,” Nelson said. “If people want to bring their kids, we can have the kiddie rides open. How often can you go and celebrate? You really can’t go to the Pier Dance with your kids.”

Still, isn’t what he’s proposing as insidious as a “no gays” policy at the park gate on other days?

“It’s like a door policy almost… I want people to feel comfortable,” Nelson explained. “If they want to flame out, I don’t want them to get a dirty look from some homophobe that’s just not comfortable with it because it’s the middle of New Jersey. I went there and they’re not homophobic, but they don’t have exposure.”

“I think that’s not a sound argument,” said Jeffrey Epstein, the guru who’s been running a red-shirted mix-in at Disneyland for the past four years. “We’ve never had any issues with physical violence on gay days, on rare occasions people said things under their breath, but we’ve never heard of any big confrontat­ions.”

In addition to a senior slot on Out Magazine’s masthead, Epstein co-authored the Queer Disney guidebook “Queens in the Kingdom” and produces Gay Days Anaheim, rolling out his next event on the weekend of October 2.

Epstein elaborated on the benefits of having gay days be part of the everyday operation of the theme parks.

“I love the fact that what we do end up making a statement, but making a statement is really secondary to the fact that we’re all wearing red T-shirts just to identify each other,” he explained. “It’s just like ‘Will & Grace.’ They’ll always tell you that first and foremost their goal is to be funny, and if there’s some great social benefit to that, it’s secondary.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s militant,” Mr. Epstein continued. “But certainly we do a lot of work with gay families and gay youth. And it’s very important for young gay people to feel normal in situations where they otherwise might feel like an outsider. It’s hard for those kids to feel like they’re connected if they go to Disneyland and every other family they see is opposite-sex parents. It sends a really strong message to those kids, when they can go to Disneyland—a place every kid wants to go—and see someone else with two mommies and two daddies. I don’t know if that’s militant or activist, but it helps gay people feel like they’re more of a community.”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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