Content warning: Nudity
Burning Man began as a bonfire ritual on the summer solstice in 1986 when Larry Harvey, Jerry James, John Law and a few friends met on Baker Beach in San Francisco and burned an 8 feet (2.4 m) tall wooden man as well as a smaller wooden dog(1). They lit it up, and a curious crowd gathered to watch it burn.
Queer participants at Burning Man have been around since the beginning. It was not until the 90's when we started seeing queers making their marks on the scene in a way that started making impressions on the community and beyond. Then, when Larry Harvey created the 10 principles it was a tone that really resonated with participants like us.
One of those early ground breakers was Sister Porn. He was one of the people responsible for the 2001 art piece that caused a protest at Burning Man and forced the community to relfect on what the culture of our community meant to the organization. That was only one of his moves that created an amazing impact for queer culture in Black Rock City and beyond.
You can read about Burning Man History on their web site.
LGBTQAI+ participation in the earliest days was marked with some amazing memories shared with members of the queer burner community detailed below. If you have stories to add please get in touch with us.
Sources for the above: 1. Burning Man Wikipedia,
This History of the Gayborhood / Queerborhood and other names is an effort to update the time-line of Queer participation on the Playa over the years. Some of the details below have several authors and notes and we will note them at each point.
Sources: Puck/Nathan | Toaster/Scott | Sister Porn/JD
In 1993, Burning Man was an event of about 2000 people and there was no annual ‘theme’ for the event, there were no organized streets, or registered theme camps. It was not as governed by rules as it is today because it was such a small event, there wasn’t really a need for them. Plus, the gathering in the desert was to make art with fire, so the anarchist spirit didn’t really lend itself to governing. While the event was ‘anarchistic’, it also was perceived at first by many early gay participants as a ‘straight event’ that was supportive of gay people. But in the early days, it did not appear to be a space where other gay people were easily found. (Nathan)
Any assemblence of a Queer Neighborhood (known as the Queerborhood, Gayborhood or Gay Ghetto over time) had taken a lot of forms within Black Rock City. However, the assemblence of Queer Camps asking to be placed near each other started something that grew over time. It was clear in 2016, by survey of the community, that having such a space was really important for vulnerable and marginalized members of our community to feel safe in a sea of overt heteronormity. (Toaster)
Like the ravers and the San Francisco Cacophony Society, queer creativity and participation on the Playa had its roots off the Playa. The context of the early 1990’s was very shaped by AIDS activism that was very visible at fund raisers and parties, and these events had an edge that reflected the times. Queer artists and event promoters who were helping create a wild queer party scene in San Francisco during the 1990’s helped create the context for Burning Man participation on the Playa. (Nathan)
Queer activism and culture in the 1990’s generated from San Francisco sometimes took the form of performance art and road trip adventures. Queer Nation’s “Mall Zaps” and the “Lavender Tortoise” road trips to Reno of the early 90’s organized by art and event promoter Ggreg Taylor were examples. (Nathan)
In addition to the 1990’s activist and “Club Kid” culture, many other queer cultural scenes were happening, such as the Radical Fairies, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and others. Like fire performance and other kinds of radical art and entertainment happening in San Francisco, the desert became a new place to celebrate radical culture of every kind that was becoming more regulated in the city of San Francisco as the 90’s advanced. (Nathan)
Three queer San Franciscans named Gabriel, Bart and Graham went with a car, a tent, and very limited supplies to check out Burning Man. They were regulars at Radical Faerie events and SF clubs and had heard about Burning Man as an arts event, but didn’t know any friends who were going. So they went. They didn’t notice any other gay people at the time, but when they came home, they told all their friends, and started a tradition of coming home and telling everyone’s friends about Burning Man. This group eventually grew into the 200-300 person queer Avalon Village at the event for many years. (Nathan)
The Burning Man event in 1993 was smaller and followed a rhythm that was possible with roughly 2000 people that is different than with 70,000+ people today. The entire community could see when anything happening, like the start of a procession with fire breathers, dancers and drums that could be heard from far away.
The event was mostly a Friday to Monday event with some rituals that happened pretty routinely. During the day people would drive to Fly Hot Springs or Gerlach for food. At night, random parties would happen at different camps, but Saturday night there was a procession of dancers and performers, and a series of art installations being burned; Sunday night was the Burning of the Man himself. The rave camp was placed a mile outside of the rest of the camping area, and after all the fire events finished, everyone would head out to the raves to dance until sunrise. (Nathan)
The event grew in size and some of these routines started to turn into bigger traditions. The Saturday night procession turned into a full scale opera. The raves grew from small-ish sound system events to huge parties with fire performers and a much bigger scale. The whole event adopted an Inferno “Hell-Co” theme of sorts, which wasn’t expressed as an official theme, but functioned as an art theme that was the first time the idea of a theme really came into being. (Nathan)
In this period of 1993-1996, Queer participation was as anarchistic as the rest of the event. There were no theme camps or anything very organized, but queer people participated in the event and began building small communities within the event that would later become larger village. (Nathan)
In 1996 Burning Man grew to 8000 people and had a series of accidents that required changes. A person drove through a tent and ran over another participant, and organizers for the event made efforts to maintain the anarchistic spirit of the event while creating rules to promote safety. A map was created for the event and driving (driving a permitted art car was no longer allowed). Theme camps and organized participation developed out those changes, and the event theme became an organizing tool. (Nathan)
The first official theme “Fertility – the living land” seemed designed to be calming after the 1996 inferno. Many participants wondered if Burning Man could continue given that it adopted new rules, especially the rule to curb driving, as it would prevent one of the best features of the event; driving to Fly Hot Springs to soak for the day. People also wondered if the organized city map with roads and organized camps would kill the anarchistic feeling of the event. But the event continued to inspire people and work through changes. (Nathan)
Queer Camps Began Organizing on the Playa
Early camps that got started were
Jiffy Lube & M*A*S*Hcara
While Jiffy Lube had been around since 1995 as a sex-positive space, it registered in 1997 as a theme camp with a different name – M*A*S*Hcara. Using its historic “M*A*S*H style tent as an event area, Ggreg Taylor worked with camp organizers to add a raised back-room entry into the back of a semi-truck as a sex space with Wizard of Oz footage playing. (Nathan)
The Burning Man theme was “The Body”, and that year the Black Rock Gym and Beauty Bar was formed by Gabriel Plumlee, Nathan Purkiss, Scott Barney, Huck Worden, Victor Torres, John Cordaro, Patrick Schiller, and others who had been attending Burning Man since the early 1990’s. The gym included a fully functional dry sauna to and the beauty bar featured drag artists sharing beauty tips for anyone who trusted them with makeovers. (Nathan)
In 2000 queer artists Jeff Kennedy and Xavier Caylor (and others who would later be involved in creating Audrey’s cabaret), created Playa art installations using black-light radiant fabric art. (Nathan)
After creating the Black Rock Gym and Beauty Bar of 2000 and 2001, many of the Gym / Beauty Bar camp mates wanted to start their own projects. Scott Barney wanted to create a fairy-wing making factory camp called “Fairyland”, and Huck Worden wanted to create a lush lounge called the Sacrafactory, Jim Rudolf wanted to create a mobile café to serve Vietnamese Iced Coffee, and Nathan Purkiss and Gabriel Plumlee wanted to bring the gym and sauna back again. Instead of breaking up into several camps, the groups returned in 2002 as Avalon Village. (Nathan)
2002-2008 joined by several theme camps with about 200-300 people camping at the village each year, (but about 500 people connected on lists of the various camps attended on alternating years). The camp was envisioned as a space for queer people to find other queer people, and a highly interactive village of artists, performers and queer / queer friendly community. Activities at the village included poi spinning classes, fairy wing and tutu making, wrestling matches, fire dancing, massage workshops, drag performance, queer discussion groups, parties, daily sober meetings, serving Vietnamese Iced Coffee daily, and many other activities. (Nathan)
Avalon Village was first conceived as “the Isle of Avalon” for the Floating World theme of 2002, but each year a variation on Avalon was decided for the community, often using acronym A.S.S. for the years when the community took the name Avalon Space Station and Avalon Synapse Station, etc. (Nathan)
…everyone was hooked and wanted to do more. It turned into a very committed community for many years, and many of the community still participate through a camp that would be formed later called “the Mudskippers”. (Nathan)
Avalon Village last organized on the Playa as a village in 2008. The year before, 2007 had been a peak year with dynamic theme camps, art, a beautiful plaza with multiple towers lit up with twinkling blue lights, and great energy. By 2008, many of the camp mates were starting to feel burnt out about pulling together the village for so many years. It also seemed that Burning Man was encouraging the village to break up into theme camps, as we had feedback from them that the size of our village was unwieldy. Plus, the American Dream theme turned off some of the queer camp mates who were very angry with George Bush at the time and decided not to go. Those that did in 2008 still reported having a fantastic time that year. But times were changing. We wanted something new again. (Nathan)
The use of Jiffy use of Lube name should not be confused with the oil changing company, but this is the name used at an important point in Queer Burner history when an artist on playa felt like he was being censored by law enforcement authorities. This turned out to be a huge ordeal. This was information given to me directly by the artist that was affected. (Toaster on Sister Porn)
Note in the picture to the right that Larry Harvey is seen addressing the crowd as shown in the video (linked above in about the 2nd or 3rd video of the 3. They are all together on YouTube and are worth seeing for history minded people. (Toaster)
Mario Cisneros who was part of Moonbow Camp was responsible for the Gay Burner Official Meet and Greet which he started and was the biggest event on playa for queer participants. He also started:
Catcher, from the Down Low Club, continues the Monday night tradition of the LGBT meetup launching burn week since Mario's passing.
A network was created called “Gay Burners” to promote the networking of gay people who were part of this enormous Burning Man culture. It first came into being December 2008 as an idea by Toaster with support from community leaders like Kitten (Comfort & Joy) and Bucket (Camp Beaverton). It became “Queer Burners” in 2012 in an effort to appeal to a larger audience in the LGBTQ++ targeted audience. (Toaster)
So if we follow some of these strings to this point we see where some people who were among the first out and participating queers on playa are still there physically or in spirit. People who eventually formed the Mudskippers started from those early roots, subsequently with Camp Stella, AstroPups and Vietnamese Iced Coffee Experience (VICE). Quixotes Cabaret is still out rocking it as of 2017 as well. There is longevity in these people. (Toaster)
Fun Fact: Jiffy Lube came back one more time in 2009 on the back side of Comfort & Joy as ‘Spiffy Lube’. (Toaster)
2009 to 2015 there was a growing awareness of camps and their importance of having each other close so we could create spaces that were safe for people who were vulnerable. Burning Man was suddenly becoming a place that was not safe anymore. 2009 had upwards of 49,000 participants and following the ticket debacle of 2012 suddenly those numbers were growing quickly. People had more access to more tickets and regular attendees in many ways making it less safe. These issues were brought to the Burning Man organization in 2016 and since then there have been some important changes. However there is a lot of room for growth. (Toaster)
This is not everyone. There were clearly some camps who were making an impression and more were coming together every year.
Of course over the years the list of queer and queer friendly camps has exploded, but the ones listed above still go strong and evolve fervently as the demands of Placement have become more demanding. Leaders from these camps actively engage the community and participate in the community at large while fighting Burning Man for our safety still. For a complete list of camps and their links CLICK HERE. (Toaster)
The year Burning Man lost their shit. The ticketing system was changed to a lottery and with that camps could not get tickets. No camps – no Black Rock City. It was also the year for “Jumping the Shark” where people all over the world were being introduced to this major life changing event in the dessert and one horrible truth started to seem more real: was Burning Man becoming commercialized? In the end with the ticketing problems, Burning Man recovered and handled the situation flawlessly and promised to do better next time. (Toaster)
Toaster went to the Burning Man Global Leadership conference voicing concern for the safety and well being of people who felt unsafe at the Black Rock CIty event; women, gender non-confirming and transpeople in did not feel safe. Andie Grace (a BMorg employee) fought back in an open forum saying people were responsible for their own safety as stated on the back of their ticket. But we were talking about personal assault and rape. That conversation may have started people in the community to recognize their was a need for more because in subsequent years changes started happening. Some were grass roots and others were general policy and leadership tones started changing. (Toaster)
The theme was “Fertility 2.0” same as 1997 (Fertiltiy) where the theme left a lot of LGBTQ people asking how they fit in that picture. While it had been fifteen years since the previous version of “Fertility” the theme really failed to resonate. (Toaster) #facepalm
BAAAHS (Big Ass Awesome Amazing Homosexual Sheep)
The first large scale queer art car on the playa dedicated to mostly queer patrons and participants hit the playa huge! You enter the art car through it’s anus. It also sports two large disco balls as testicles. Facebook Link (Toaster)
Queer Burner Retreat (100 people)
The first of it’s kind regional like event focusing on LGBTQ people. Regional events happen all over the world and their nature is they tend to be very hetero-centric and there might be queer people there. This event gives queers the full freedom to express who they are and there are some straight people. This was held at Groundswell Retreat Center in Yorkville, Ca. It was land run by Radical Faeries and used to be a kids fat camp before the Faeries took over. It allowed attendees from all camps at Burning Man to come together, camp together, eat together and build new relationships. (Toaster)
This was the year that the Gayborhood was called into question for several reasons and several leaders in the Queer Burner community were called into the BMorg Offices for a discussion on possibly splitting up the Gayborhood into 2 distinct zones. There were too many camps in the 7:30 sector and BMorg was asking if this was because of queer camps asking for grouped placement. (Toaster)
Answergirl had taken over for Retro as head of Placement at BMorg and was trying to find a resolution to our needs as LGBTQ. The Burning Man organization struggled to fit the idea of the "Gayborhood" into the city as a radically inclusive environment. There was little to no acknowledgement of the "Gayborhood" (or later "Queerborhood") identity of the 7:30 sector that attracted queer camps and our allies. In fact during the meeting there was a moment when it was presented that a dissolution of the area was what the BMorg had in mind. (Toaster)
In the course of our meeting we demonstrated that there is a huge safety need for LGBTQ particpants. Thanks to Cindy Vee (NoPants) and some others who worked hard to but together surveys and data we was presented to BMorg. That was June of 2016 which resulted in a comprimise that still is in place was of 2019. (Toaster)
Answergirl said that Gayborhood was, in the eyes of Placement, non-existant. She spoke officially at the 2016 GLC where she was giving a talk about “burnout” (ironically) that: “The Gayborhood does not exsit so we have nothing to talk about. There is no official anything. People fill out their applications and ask for placement…”. It was difficult for Placement Staff to know who were queer camps and who were "allies". If a queer camp wanted to be placed with other queer camps they needed to say so on their apllication. (Toaster)
There were camps who want to be in the Gayborhood that do not put that in their applications at all. Placement, when asked about a couple camps, were shocked to find out they were a part of the Gayborhood. (Toaster)
The Gayborhood was mostly in the 7:30 sector and we saw AstroPups placed at 4:30 and J well away from most queer camps to their surprise.
The 7:30 sector was helmed by Bravo Placer who, by most accounts, was a pleasure to work with. We still needed an advocate to help keep queer camps together for safety reasons. Trippi Longstalking takes over as Placement and Bravo Placer remained the lead placer for the 7:30 sector. (Toaster)
The only regional like 10 Principles event in the world for LGBTQ people and our allies moved to Saratogo Springs Retreat Center that can handle a lot more people.
A year of big changes! 2 Queerborhoods! This was the year a new Gayborhood was created in the 4:30 sector with BAAAHS as the anchor camp. While the Nacho Daddies and Burner Buddies campers were still at 4 & J, this new space was curated to manage the growing 7:30 sector into this other thriving area of BRC. This new neighborhood offset the damns on the 7:30 sector. It was a success, but the principles of the new 4:30 and D Queerborhood have promised to make it bigger and better in 2021.
What a year! Black Rock City was virtual through our home computers while the actual city in the desert was not built because of this Covid-19 Pandemic! Many, many camps participated including many of our LGBTQ camps.
Will Covid-19 let us enjoy another year on the playa? Many people are wondering even as promises of a vacine continue to beg the question about safety. Everyone will be watching to see if the Burning Man organization will make the move toward the Black Rock Desert. In 2020 people started focusing on the Regional Events as the future of the burn fearing Black Rock City might become a legend of the past. It is with optimism, hope and a visual on safety that Burning Man 2021 is a go!
Queer burners relaunches as a 501(c)(3) with new and old leadership combined into a force for moving this project into a better and more stable project that can give more back to the community. Get more information about our charter and bpard members here CLICK LINK. Find out how you can be an active participant in what new and amazing things we are able to accomplish.
Mindfulness keeps us in the moment, but looking ahead we have to ask: What if Burning Man at Black Roick City is no more? We hope to keep the foundations if this commubity alive in the 10 Principles and contninue to participate in many ways. This might include creating a new event in more places for our LGBTQ audience AND in already existing events anywhere in the world. Stay tuned for more.
1993 - 2008: Avalong Village | 2009 - 2015: Gayborhood | 2015 - 2019: Queerborhood | 2020 - ____ : East Village / West Village