3 min

The Black Party’s saintly roots

Evolution and survival are bred into this party’s DNA

The Black Party’s underworld theme.

The Saint

The Black Party has carved a place for itself in the global scene as one of the leading BDSM and leather-themed parties. It challenges mainstream gay culture, and has maintained its role as the vanguard of the underground. It’s more relevant now than it has ever been, even after 36 years. “Artistically, it keeps pushing the envelope,” says Stephen Pevner, executive director of The Saint at Large, the company that produces the event. “Where the circuit has become so commodified and you can’t really tell one circuit party from another, The Black Party keeps trying to test people and take them out of their comfort zone.” 

That The Black Party usually happens around the spring equinox is never a coincidence. “It’s not just about heavy, fetish sex: that became the theme in a way, but those aren’t really the roots of the party,” Pevner explains. “The roots of the party are typically people who, since Pagan times, went into the forest and donned animal skins and paraded around to shed their winter selves to reinvent themselves for the spring.”

Evolution as a means for survival is bred into the party’s DNA — it all begins with The Saint At Large and its initial owner, Bruce Mailman. Mailman was the creator of The Saint, a legendary state-of-the-art gay nightclub in New York which opened its doors on Sept 20, 1980. The industrial, members-only club was topped with a planetarium dome and had a round dancefloor, leaving no corners for patrons to hide in. It was revolutionary for the time and is talked about as legendary today. 

The Black Party found its beginnings at The Saint. But the AIDS epidemic would soon loom over the decade; it would quickly begin to take its toll on the club itself. “Within a year, the members started dying off,” Pevner says. The fear of AIDS began to make gay men fearful of sex, leather and kink.

In order for the party to remain relevant and appealing to men who were now afraid of its main offerings, organizers had to reinvent how people saw The Black Party. “It was really conceptual,” Pevner says. “It started becoming less of a plain old leather sex party and started becoming a little bit more of a theatrically inspired, immersive environment.”

The Saint stayed open until May 1988, a testament to the club’s popularity. Soon afterward, Mailman and his team began doing parties — including The Black Party — “at large,” held at various venues around town. Eventually, it all became known as The Saint At Large, Inc.

And through it all, The Black Party continued to grow, innovate and thrive.

The theme for this year’s party is “SUBmerged,” a mythical, underwater fantasy with surging sea levels, submarines and subterranean brothels and dungeons. Joining the creative team this year is acclaimed conceptual artist Rob Roth. “The ice caps are going to melt,” Roth says, offering insight into the narrative for the evening. “There’s going to be a lot more water on the planet. I’m sort of getting into this idea that there’s not much land and everyone lives on converted oil-rigs and that submarines aren’t really used anymore for battle but they’re used for nightlife. You go on them and you go down — it’s sort of international waters and everything is legal.”

“There’s a return to what The Black Party has been doing for a really long time,” Pevner says. The goal is to mix art with heavy-duty sex, keeping the edginess The Black Party is known for while injecting the evening with a heavy dose of identity. “Because of homo-normalization — now we’re all so mainstream — it’s the last vestige of what we actually have as a true identity and it’s all ours,” he says. “Gay marriage and everything about gay life is completely mainstream. This is, back to its roots, the last thing that’s all our own. And even if the straight world appropriates it to some degree, they don’t really own it.”