A swimming pool full of gorgeous women is not an uncommon sight on Miami’s South Beach, where great weather and massive nightclubs attract crowds of partying tourists every season. But the party on the rooftop of the Marseilles Hotel this past weekend had two crucial differences. First, there were almost no men splashing around with the bikini-clad revelers. Second, nearly every attendee was black.
This was my welcome to SweetHeat Miami, a week-long celebration by, for, and of queer women of color. Now in its ninth year, the party is one of many summertime jams that draw huge crowds to the pristine waters of Miami Beach, but it remains the only party that caters primarily to black and Latina women who love women. And theirs is not a niche market, with attendance in the tens of thousands every year.
It all started with founder DJ Dimples, a veteran DJ looking to recreate Miami’s famous party scene for a QWOC audience. “At this point, after nine years, everyone comes,” she told me, pointing to the event’s climbing popularity with straight women and queer men. (While this year's official number of attendees is still being tallied, the organizers put the final count at over 50,000.) “I like that. I don’t care who you are; this week is just about letting loose and having fun.” With this year introducing the first male host for a SweetHeat event—Kid Fury of The Read fame, a Miami native and longtime SweetHeat attendee—only the list of DJs remains all-black and all-female.
This commitment to black womanhood makes SweetHeat incredibly appealing to many subcultures within the black lesbian community. Over the weekend, thousands of women showed up: femme women, masc women, women with locs, women with weaves. Attendees traveled from Atlanta to Cleveland, all for the opportunity to mix and mingle with fellow black women. “Usually, if I’m at the club and I see a cute girl, I have no idea if she likes girls or not,” said Brit, 30, who traveled from LA for the event. “But here, I can just walk up to a girl and say 'hey.' I have more confidence.”
“Yeah, but mad girls are here with their girlfriends, though,” said her friend Jocara, 30, who lives in Portsmouth, Virginia. And it’s true—looking around the raucous parties, for all the women flirting with strangers, there were just as many cuddled up with their girlfriends, enjoying the music and sense of community. Tiffany, 27, and Kacha, 24, heard about the event on Instagram and flew down from Jersey to experience the fun first-hand. “We’re just excited to be here and see what it’s all about,” Kacha said. “Besides Pride, there’s really nothing like this back home.”
Perhaps that’s why everywhere I looked, I saw girls with their phones out, taking Snapchat videos and livestreaming the events for friends back home. At one point, Angel Jones, co-founder of Studs Are In, waved me into a Periscope stream to say hi. “Everyone wishes they could be here,” she grinned. “This is the place to be.”
Indeed, with so few events like SweetHeat, the party has become something of a mecca for black lesbians across the country. Many women hear about the party through social media, like Krys, 31, from North Carolina, who has attended for four years. Others tag along with friends, like Quetta, 29, who explained that this was her first-ever SweetHeat. “We have events like this back home, but they’re not as long,” she said. With six days of events and thousands of attendees, for women longing for vacations beyond Pride weekend parties, SweetHeat just can’t be beat.
With so many queer women of color converging in one place, it only makes sense for the Human Rights Campaign to tag along. Volunteers Nik, Ken, and Janelle were there for black women, but they weren't there to party. Instead, they spent their day encouraging attendees to sign up for HRC membership. In spite of all the revelry around her, Nik explained that being a queer woman of color still involves a lot of struggle. “I can get married because of HRC, which is amazing, but I can still be fired or be denied housing because of who I am.”
Of course, the prevailing mood of the week was overwhelmingly jubilant. More than once I was struck by how much the events resembled a rap music video—scantily clad women, drinking and dancing, dressed in their absolute best—but without the predatory gaze of straight men vying to take a girl home. Many of the women I spoke to admitted that there wasn’t much of a hook-up scene at SweetHeat. “People come to flirt, meet people, and have fun,” a stud named Kimberly told me with a bittersweet sigh. “If there’s a hook up scene here, I’m still trying to find it.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the girls of SweetHeat are shy. During Saturday night’s Playhouse event at premiere Miami strip club G5, dozens of girls clambered on stage to tip and flirt with exotic dancers. Throughout the evening, the club’s male MC lavished the crowd with compliments, lamenting “I wish I were a lesbian, man! I want to party with y’all!”
By the end of the weekend, it was clear to me that 2 Fly Entertainment, the organization responsible for SweetHeat Miami, had created something magical: An opportunity for black women to be truly carefree. After I told Musa, a woman from Chicago, that I was Ethiopian, her face broke out into a huge grin. “I love that. I’ve met all kinds of women this weekend. I just love all the different kinds of black. After all,” she laughed, “that’s why I’m here.”
Photographs by Catalina Ayubi.
Haylin Belay is a NYC-based writer and sex educator exploring the intersection between identity, sexuality, and health.