July 22, 2018 

In queer clubs, race, age, gender, sexuality, and desire all fall away to create the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to God.

Lights Down Low

In October 2013, I found out I was HIV Positive. At the time, I was a year sober and attending 12 Step meetings nearly every day, where I had been told to search for a higher power of my own understanding. I prayed daily. I did everything I was supposed to, even when it felt like bullshit. And when I was diagnosed with HIV, I felt betrayed by a God I barely believed in or understood. I felt betrayed by AA and betrayed by myself. I was furious.

I considered getting high again. What better excuse than HIV?

But I didn’t. I went to the doctor and went on meds, and today, I’m healthy and HIV undetectable. And I am still sober.

This May, I turned 50, and the milestone made me realize that I shouldn’t have made it this far. My life is full of people who have died from overdoses and AIDS. And this February, Jon Nelson — my best friend, my former lover, my brother, a man I loved more than almost anyone I have ever loved — relapsed on heroin and overdosed in his car, alone.

I was once again devastated. I found myself hating the God I had pretended to believe in. I hated sobriety. I was furious at everything, and I was furious at Jon. I was lost.

In trying to make sense out of what happened, as well as all the emotions and fears that accompanied turning 50, I began a spiritual journey. I saw a shaman, began to meditate using crystals, studied the Tarot, and learned that if I look for love instead of fear, if I choose adventure and embrace life instead of hiding from it, then I’ll be better prepared to confront devastations in my life.

Gili Shani

For the last year and a half, I have lived between Los Angeles and Berlin with my partner, Noah. And perhaps it’s only natural when living in two global nightlife capitals, but over the past few years, I’ve come to love going out and dancing — even being sober, and even if I’m not who you’d think of as a “club kid.” Going out is a different form of the meditation that’s gotten me through the past few months.

There is a beauty in standing there, lost in the music and the pounding of feet, the sharp clap of a fan in someone’s hand, among colorful club kids and glamorous drag queens. In those spaces, race, age, gender, sexuality, and desire all fall away to create the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to God.

I decided that the best way to celebrate my 50th birthday — and maybe a way to celebrate Jon’s life, too — would be to invite friends to Berlin for a weekend of dancing and adventure.

One of my favorite parties in Berlin is called Gegen. It’s a radical queer dance party that allows for total freedom of self-expression, standing against the rise of global fascism and social binaries of all sorts. It takes place in a venue called the KitKat Club, and you can wander three floors, each with their own theme: a medical room, a fire breathing dragon, a swimming pool open for use, multiple dance floors and plenty of dark corners to hook up and make out and just be queer as fuck.

I remember standing in the middle of a room there with Noah, techno pounding through me, sweaty and dancing, his hand reaching down my back to grab my ass and pull me into him, and that sudden feeling of being connected, of being outside myself, of being part of something larger than any one of us.

I’ve never been able to obtain that sensation on any drug, but when it’s there, I feel suddenly free. I feel freedom in the light and the music and in Noah’s touch and the impossible lust I feel for him. I suddenly feel free to dance and lose myself completely, to know that we are all one and that we are all loved.

Behind us, a tall, thin person in a long black dress and bright pink hair stood against the wall. Their eyes were shaded in dark coal colors, their lips purple, and a cougar tattoo crept up from their neck over the side of their face. Their dick was out, their eyes were closed, and their mouth was wide open in ecstasy, while a gorgeous, genderfluid person knelt before them, licking and tasting them. In that moment I knew that taste, and in that moment I felt like I was both of them. I could feel what each of them was feeling.

Gili Shani

We left Gegen at 5 AM. I woke up the next morning, quiet so as not to wake Noah, and took out my crystals and held them — rose quartz and labradorite, prehnite and amethyst. I closed my eyes and let my mind go blank, releasing all the worries and fears and endless thoughts that quietly pass us by.

Then I climbed back into bed with Noah, kissed him, and reached down to grab hold of his hardness, finding a new kind of stillness inside his physicality.

There is a balance to life, to sobriety and spirituality, to sexuality and to the daily grind. I had an AA sponsor once tell me that we didn’t get sober to just lay around and meditate and talk to God all day long. We get sober to fuck and dance and love and feel and live life to its fullest. And that has become my mantra.

At the end of my birthday weekend, we all met at another party in Berlin, called CockTail D’Amore. It takes place at Griessmühle, a fairytale land made up of mazes and a giant warehouse and large silos to get lost in. You can sit along the canal and watch as tour boats float by alongside a teeming mass of half-naked queer kids.

When we arrived, we wandered around the large outside area, stumbling across fantastically-dressed art students, shirtless muscle bears, radical fairies, and an endless array of vivid people, all dancing and laughing and living their best lives. We stumbled upon a maze behind one of the silos where men stood having all sorts of sex. A group of them had their way with a muscle boy in a long pink dress and red high heels while he made out with a girl who knelt before him. The world was afire with music and sex and sunshine.

Inside, we danced as the DJ, Daniel Wang, moved from spinning to playing the bongos, the room pulsating lightness and joy. Noah and I stood again in the middle of it all.

On that dance floor, among the beauty of the music and the people and Noah’s love, I suddenly knew that there are no limitations in life and no end to what’s possible. I felt free. Despite all the hardship I may have suffered, and despite my age or HIV status or the million other ways I might feel stigmatized, I knew that I had the opportunity before me to live my life to the fullest, and that the only limitations that exist in life are those I impose on myself.

That’s the beauty of it all. We get to choose how we live and who we will be. Some will try to stop us and impose their will upon us, but we get to stand tall and live a life of love and happiness and compassion nonetheless.

Life can be hard, and sometimes we will have to fight just for the right to exist, but I knew then that together, dancing and fucking and being our truest selves, we are beautiful. I was filled with hope. I believe we will triumph over all the darkness in this world. That, at least, is what the past 50 years have taught me.

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