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Poppers: A Love Letter 

Wednesday, Jun 22 2016
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When the U.K. debated banning amyl nitrates — also known as poppers — earlier this year, the tipping point in keeping them legal might have come when an openly gay Tory MP addressed the House of Commons, outing himself as a poppers user on the floor of Parliament with some soaring oratory about their virtues. (Soaring oratory in the context of making butt sex a little easier, that is.)

It worked. Although still marketed strictly as "odorizers" — because selling them as "VHS head cleaners" is becoming a tad anachronistic — poppers remain legal in Britain because, strictly speaking, they neither depress nor stimulate the central nervous system. They just sort of... open you up a little.

I huffed a sigh of relief for the gays of Britain, because I, too, unabashedly love poppers. There are highfalutin aspects of queer culture that I adore, from The Picture of Dorian Gray to Tropical Malady, but really, I'm just in it for the filth. Plus, my partner is nine inches taller than me and something of a centaur.

They're fun without sex, too. I went to my friend Freddy's 40th birthday in a rented venue a few weeks ago and bottles of poppers were everywhere, just for the sheer silliness of it. People were sharing them while waiting for a drink at the bar. Freddy, the biggest poppers fan I know, says of the petite brown bottle that it's a "wayfinder of sorts, a divining stick that helps me locate and celebrate other like-minded perverts."

"The smiles that I receive when handing over a bottle in the throes of a sweaty breakdown may be more valuable than all the orgasmic shenanigans" that poppers encourage, he adds. "Thank you for turning otherwise unremarkable afternoons into spiritual journeys of self-discovery."

That last part might be slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the point stands. Poppers make me feel like space-time is dilating. (I imagine that approaching the speed of light in a spaceship might feel similar.) Occasionally, on a dancefloor, they make me self-conscious, but most of the time, I feel like I'm giving myself over completely to the beat. The act of tucking quasi-illicit naughtiness in plain sight primes me for the giggles, and a strong enough whiff of volatile chemicals can push me right over the edge into manic laughter. I like the sheer vulgarity of it — within limits. I've heard of clubs placing them in the vents the way casinos supposedly pump extra oxygen over the slots, and even if that isn't an urban legend, the lack of consent feels invasive.

As with ecstasy pills, I suspect the exact composition changes over time as the various chemicals mixed with MDMA are banned or become too expensive to manufacture. I once tried to write a story for Vice on that topic, but couldn't find anyone who would talk, so I gave up. It was frustrating, until I decided that maybe it was better to keep the mystique intact.

Complicating everything, Pride has gotten a little heavy this year. As we're handling our grief and righteous anger, it's sometimes important to appreciate the joys of camaraderie in queer spaces, however fleeting and frivolous. And my heart always beats for sweaty hedonism in the dark.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

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Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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