Gabriel Cholette understands the facets of queer nightlife and is not afraid to tell all. The French-Canadian author chronicles the tumultuous, often chaotic and electric experiences that span his travels across the international queer scene. In his debut memoir, Scenes from the Underground, Cholette draws readers into the backrooms of sex clubs and through a k-hole into the (anonymous) sex, drugs, and hypnotizing techno music that, in the age of dating apps, continues long past the bar’s final call and into the early hours.
It’s a melancholic celebration, waving through the party highs and hangxiety lows. From Berlin, Paris, New York, and Miami, Scenes from the Underground rejects mainstream heteronormativity, capturing tones of sexual freedom and fluidity while simultaneously honing in on the often toxic, yet utterly memorable, modern urban dating culture.
Observer: Where did the inspiration to write your memoir come from?
Gabriel Cholette: I met this guy, Jacob, on Grindr. He was pretty fabulous, very sexy. We started dating and to impress him, I started writing erotic stories. I had known for a while that I wanted to infiltrate Instagram with literary content because everything revolves around images and I was trying to tell stories about my travels.
We say an image contains a thousand words, but I wanted to go more in detail, more nuanced about the experience that I was living. I knew with Instagram you need visual content to go with the text, so Jacob and I collaborated to create these appealing texts with illustrations. As soon as I posted them they were really popular, and it just caught on. I had 16 stories at the beginning, and when the editor contacted me I had 33 in total, so that’s how we decided to publish it as a book.
You met your illustrator through Grindr? Whoa! How did working with someone you are dating affect your relationship?
It was complicated, I have to admit. We had some issues. I think I took down the posts and we had to put it back again because we had a fight. Sometimes I was excited to push content up and Jacob was more reluctant. But now, it’s really something that unites us. We’re not together anymore. But the book is something that still keeps us together, and he wants to do more books and I want to as well.
Throughout the memoir you explore sex and drugs. How did you find the confidence to write about these taboo topics?
For me, the most taboo topic was the drug use. I think at home, this was a big secret. I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m coming out as a drug addict.”
At first, the Instagram account was anonymous so it took a little while before my identity was linked. An editor came to me and was like, “Oh, we love those texts, but you cannot publish anonymously, that’s really bad for the press.” And then I said, “Okay, fuck it.”
The funny thing is, I was doing a P.h.D. at the moment, and when the editor contacted me I wrote to a teacher to ask if I should do this. Is it going to be bad for my academic career? She didn’t think the university would care. I still don’t know if that’s true, but she was like, “Just do it.” And so I did.
Yes, I saw you received your P.h.D. in medieval studies. Congrats! Did your background in medieval studies shape your views on modern day sexuality?
It’s interesting, because the term “homosexuality” didn’t exist during that time. What we see is this word “sodomite” that is anything that is not intersexual sex. Of course, the church is really against all sodomites, but sodomite can also be playing with a dildo, using fingers in the butthole, and anything that is not reproducing sex.
Medieval studies shaped a little bit of my understanding that things can change. The words we use, they shape our identities. I define myself as a homosexual, but I’m well aware that sometimes this term is still coined with pejorative ideas. I want to change things and I know change can come within words, so as soon as you start writing stories that affect the way we understand homosexuality, or we start defining ourselves differently, then it can provoke a profound change in our identities and the way we can see each other.
I was drawn to medieval literature because it thinks a lot about love and sex. I was really influenced because I studied brief texts and my stories are brief. At first I wanted to go into medieval stories because it was so far away from my writing that I didn’t think it would influence me, but in the end I ended up writing short stories almost in a way that medieval stories were written — very action driven, and they have some elements of marvel.
One of the most brutal parts of your memoir was the concept of rejection. When you go out to clubs you can fall head over heels for a stranger, but eventually the fantasy ends. What can Scenes from the Underground teach young folks first entering the nightlife scene?
I think rejection is what comes out the most through my book for me as well as a longing to be seen and heard by others. There’s this feeling that everyone evaporates in the book. When you’re going out in an international club, it’s doomed for an abrupt ending.
I was traveling in cities and falling in love with people, and it was brutal to realize that this was not the perfect way to date. To quote Rhianna, “I found love in a hopeless place.”
Often, I spent time in the club scenes feeling guilty. I felt like I was wasting my life, but now looking back, these were perfectly fine ways to build friendships, strengthen my identity, and gain confidence. The dating that came with it is really representative of the dating atmosphere right now. For young people, be aware that going out in a city makes it really easy to fall in love. Enjoy your love. But maybe be aware that this will not be the one you bring home or live with you in the near future.
How has experiencing the queer scene on an international level shaped your perspective of queerness?
The first part that lit up the project was the understanding that there’s this language right now that is developing internationally. Whenever I would go to Berlin or to New York, I would realize that the DJs were playing the same music, and the same kinds of references were going around. As a writer, I’m interested in language and I knew I wanted to do something with that. I started shaping this novel using the language of the globalized club culture.
Music is a staple point of the book with its ties to club culture and how we act. How did music influence your project? How does music influence our behavior?
Music shaped the memoir. It’s the rhythm from the music and the techno, even the way you think about DJ sets; they are a collage of different songs that are intertwined, faded, and put one on top of another. I think that’s what I did with the book is take these 33 stories that are not in chronological order and mash them together.
I think music is super interesting right now with our headphones. We’re always listening and it’s shaping music to be something that is so close to our ways of being. If I’m cooking, I’m going to be listening to a song that puts me in the mindset of cooking. If I’m sad, I’m going to listen to a very specific sad song that I know can help me cry. It creates this reference point with within which we live our lives
Before we had the Bible as the reference point. You had these short stories that you could relate to and compare. You could say, “Okay, I did this in this situation, but should I have lived like that?” Music doesn’t have this pedagogical and value driven element, but it’s also a reference point in the same meaning.
How have dating apps changed the LGBTQ+ community?
In my city, Montreal, there’s a kind of a revival of the activities in the village, a gay neighborhood. There’s this need to recreate this space in the city for communities and for people to unite. I think people were debating for a while if the village was important or not because people were like, “Oh, it’s segregation. Everyone is stuck in the village.”
But I see it also as a kind of beacon of hope for people that are in the rural regions. They see that in Montreal, this gay neighborhood’s important. When they come into the city, they will have a place to go.
Dating apps created a lot of parties that were in other regions, and maybe in the suburbs, or in the rural areas. But I think there will always be a need for space in the city, so that’s how I see dating apps’ relation to urban spaces.
At the very beginning, you write “Don’t send this to my mother.” Has your mother read your book?
Before, I was hiding things from her while I was living my club life. I was stripping away a little bit from her and my family at that point, maybe I needed that for myself. When the book came out I was like “Mom, I have a second coming out to do for you. I need to tell you about this book that’s coming out, and I think maybe you’ll be shocked.”
I wanted her to read it because I knew it would be important in my life, and I wanted her to be a part of it. She read it, and now she’s my biggest fan.