BY JOHN LAMBTIME PEARSON (Instagram, Twitter)

Editor’s Note: For about seven years, San Francisco got to dance its heart out at Hard French, a daytime soul/funk dance party at El Rio. After being named the best gay party in America, Hard French called it quits earlier this year and stopped throwing its epic monthly fêtes. We asked a longtime Hard French party-goer to write about his experience and what the dance party meant to him.

I still remember the first time I heard the words “Hard French.” It was the spring of 2010 and my friend Brian looked up from his laptop to read me a SF Weekly article on a new party that was happening at El Rio in San Francisco.

“This is a party for everyone – a party where drag queens mingle with lesbians, leather daddies soul dance with cholas, sharps share hot dogs with activists, jocks make out with twinks, brown meets white meets purple meets gay guy meets ladies meets q and everyone leaves excited for the next party,” read the listing.

There was promise of BBQ, soul music, and all you can drink beer, so I was sold. Soul music has always held a special place in my heart since my parents always had it playing while I was growing up and the idea of daytime dancing in San Francisco sounded glorious.

Two years earlier, in 2008, I had graduated from UC Berkeley, but wasn’t out: I kept my nose in my books and didn’t even think about having sex. Over the next two years, I would come out to my closest friends, find myself a boyfriend for a couple months and went to my first gay bar (Q-Bar!) but I still generally felt lost in the gay world. But, when Brian and I headed onto the patio at El Rio for the first time, I knew we had found something special. There was this beautiful spectrum of humans, dressed with intention, dancing and laughing in the sunshine.

Hard French was the first place I really saw fabulous queer people expressing themselves freely, and it gave me the courage to do so myself. Over the next few months I wore makeup, glitter, and fake eyelashes for the first time. I replaced the Lacoste polos and sweaters and slip-ons in my closet with furs and tank tops and Chelsea boots.

There was a feeling of excitement that revolved around choosing an outfit for each month’s party, and walking from my apartment at 17th and Dolores to El Rio dressed in whatever over-the-top ensemble I had thrown together. I felt proud and powerful watching people turn their heads as I strutted on by.

Every time I stepped onto that patio, I saw myself becoming more comfortable talking and flirting with other gay men. I met so many people through Hard French, straight, lesbian, gay, bi, whatever! They all were there to get down. Hard French was a beacon of positivity and it felt like you could talk to anyone – so different than the dark dance floors of the Castro where most people seemed unapproachable.

Back then, I had little confidence and had trouble thinking of myself as desirable (perhaps due to years of sexual repression). But at Hard French, the amazing founders – Devon Devine, Tina Faggotina, Amos G, Jorge P, DJ Carnita, DJ Brown Amy – made this incredibly benevolent environment where a faggot like me could thrive.

A few months after that first time, the Hard French Winter Ball was announced. It took place in a haunted hotel called the Brookdale Lodge. It was touted as the “queer prom you always wanted,” which was a delightful idea, since many of us did not get to express ourselves in the manner we desired at our own proms.

The party was amazing, with many in vintage prom dresses and others dressed in handsome suits, taking over this bizarre hotel way out in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I had been shocked and honored to find myself nominated for Hard French King, alongside an extremely diverse line-up of nominees.

I was completely dumbstruck on the stage when they asked me why I thought I should be king; I had no idea what I was doing, it was just an honor to be there. In the end I didn’t end up being crowned, but I did end up going home with the (drag) queen, who happened to be staying in a replica medieval castle near the hotel. So, file that under “Hard French Memories To Last A Lifetime.”

Thankfully, Hard Frenching is not totally over–you can attend special celebrations tied to Pride, Dore Alley and Folsom Street. To learn about upcoming Hard French events, follow them on Facebook.

Featured Photo: Sh0t in the City