Exclusive: The Glitoris, Barbarella's musical mastermind, owns the night (literally)
This is not about Jon-Erik Garcia. He wants to make sure people know that.
And yet, you can't credibly talk about LGBTQ nightlife in Austin without mentioning his ribald nom de guerre, the Glitoris. For 11 years, Garcia has soundtracked Red River Cultural District dance club Barbarella, notably its weekly Tuezgayz party. Since Barack Obama was in his first term and Lady Gaga was wearing sirloin to award shows, the question “Should we go to Tuez?” has started nights of sweat and self-discovery.
Once it’s late enough at 611 Red River St., people line up under the watchful gaze of Jane Fonda, her space-faring 1960s alter ego painted on the building’s brick façade. The dance floor's dark and crowded enough to hide everything, but the lasers glow enough that you can find anyone. If you’ve had the right number of well vodkas, Barbs seems to stretch back forever, past the long front bar, to the back bar where you might hang out with a cup of water to collect yourself before you either head out to the wide-open patio for a smoke or back to the front, because he’s playing “Oblivion” by Grimes, and you’re in that kind of mood. (Those vodkas.)
On any given night, you might see a drag queen, a man in a full suit, a man in a rubber suit, a gaggle of straight girls or a soul bursting out of fishnets. All kinds of people come to hear Garcia’s immaculately curated sets at Barbarella. It’s not “bro-y, Sixth Street, aggro, machismo” the DJ says. It’s for anyone.
“There are people who come into Barbarella on ‘80s night or a Saturday, and they’re like, ‘Is this a gay bar?” Garcia says over drinks at Cosmic Coffee + Beer Garden in South Austin earlier this month. He raises his eyebrows toward his buzzed hair, which is dyed in neon colors.
"It's not a straight bar.”
On Fourth Street, Austin’s bastion of clubs marketed toward the gay community, you’ll get to turn up to Ariana and Beyonce, too. But you’re as not likely to hear the songs that are like safe words for queer people in the know — Robyn, Marina, Christine and the Queens, Charli XCX.
Garcia doesn’t play remixes, he says. No two sets are the same. He’s out “to express the music that we love in its original form,” the music you listen to at home when you’re getting ready to go out. That’s probably part of the reason Barbarella and Tuezgayz have racked up awards for more than a decade.
If you ever stop by, you’ll know Garcia is telling the truth when he says he’s never wanted to make it all about himself. He’ll be perched in the booth; the music is probably the only thing you’ll hear from him.
After a difficult pandemic year cut him off from the crowds, Garcia’s finally brought the party back to Red River. And as of this spring, he's now Barbarella’s co-owner.
It’s a new era. The Glitoris is ready to talk.
Garcia was born in Spring, a suburb of Houston, and started dropping hints almost immediately.
“My first DJ set was in 1999,” says Garcia, 36. “My parents were throwing a Y2K party, and I had a six-CD changer.”
Garcia’s parents were involved in the Tejano music scene. He grew up fascinated with superstar Selena, a love that has stuck with him. (At Barbarella, he hosts a tribute night called Homo la Flor.) He idolized the singer “because she was brown, and she looked like me. She looked like my cousins. She looked like somebody that I wanted to be.”
He was raised on Madonna and Paula Abdul in the ’90s. He went to Selena’s shows and saw her emulate those same artists he loved, but within the Tejano genre — “moving its boundaries.”
“She was interested in pop culture, and so was I,” Garcia says. He continues: “I grew up watching her be a superstar on stage, and watching her spinning around, and her energy and her voice, and the way that she carried herself. And as a young kid, it was so pivotal to see someone be so confident on stage.”
As a preteen who “wasn’t athletic,” Garcia left the straight boys to their soccer games on the street. Instead, he would open up his bedroom window, face his speaker outward and “soundscape their playtime.” He always knew what was good and what he liked. CD singles from Kylie Minogue and Ace of Base were on heavy rotation.
After graduating from Klein High School in 2003, he moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas. He wanted to become a marriage and family therapist, specifically for gay couples. Helping people felt like the most important thing; he knew that LGBTQ people often don’t get to be themselves in their formative years. While Garcia didn’t go down that route, the desire to help others led him to work for Habitat for Humanity in Austin. He taught immigrant families how to do taxes and make basic home repairs.
When he first moved to town, Garcia was excited to explore his identity outside the confines of home. He hit up those Fourth Street bars, but he did not see people that looked like him.
“I walked in and automatically felt dejected,” Garcia says. "It was just like, chubby Hispanic boy, not desirable. Then I went to a couple of other clubs on Fourth Street, and I felt the same way. I was like, ‘Wow, this is a reoccurring theme throughout my life where I feel like I don't belong.’”
Eventually, he found more accepting corners. At the time, that was often Charlie’s, the long-running Lavaca Street gay bar that closed in 2011. Garcia remembers going to see iconic Austin drag queen Nadine Hughes perform. DJ Sliver was behind the decks. And, he remembers, there were a lot of Black and brown people.
Around 2009, Garcia became a regular at Beauty Bar, also since closed. He noticed other queer people on the Red River scene — “I was clocking all these queens,” he says — and he realized he was not the only one who felt “counter-culture” to the typical gay bar world.
While still a student at UT, he had created an online persona to express who he felt like outside of school. On a Twitter account, he fired off satirical chronicles of a “nasty whore who is living his best,” stuff he would be afraid to show some of his friends. On a now-defunct blog, he did what he’d been doing since he was a kid: share the music he loved.
Always one for a pun, Garcia dubbed his online persona the Glitoris.
The blog had one reader who would change Garcia’s life: John Gardner, the owner of Barbarella. South by Southwest 2010 was coming up, and he wanted to throw a party. Gardner liked the music that Garcia put on his blog.
For that first party, Garcia booked buzzy bands like Crystal Fighters and We Are the World. Gardner was happy: “How the hell did you book all these bands?” Garcia remembers him saying. Gardner asked Garcia to DJ a regular night at the club.
Did we mention that he didn’t really know how to DJ?
Garcia was told it was like being a museum curator, and the stakes did not seem too terribly high at first. He would be spinning on Tuesday. “Who goes out on a Tuesday?” Garcia remembers thinking.
“It (expletive) blew up,” he says. "In the first year, we were maxing out the club’s capacity.” Barbarella, which at the time was operating in the smaller room on Red River that’s now its sister club, Swan Dive, eventually expanded into the adjacent space formerly occupied by Spiros and Club Encore, Garcia says.
With more square footage, Tuezgayz continued to grow. Garcia describes it as cathartic to meet “so many queers who were expressing themselves and being a little shy, but then hearing the songs they liked to hear and going buck wild.”
Around this time, Garcia was out one night with friend Kelly Noel, a blogger who ran the popular @atxhipsters account on Twitter. (Noel died in 2014. During our interview with Garcia, a white feather floats down, which Garcia thinks of as a sign from his late friend, whom he considers a guardian angel.)
That night, Garcia met a boy who kept looking at him at Oilcan Harry’s: Matthew Joyner, now his fiancé and a bartender at Barbarella. At first, he thought Joyner was straight. He saw him later that night at Beauty Bar, and again at Barbarella. Garcia thinks his spirit guides were putting a spotlight on Joyner. They were both really into music; Garcia jokes that Joyner probably saw him as an opportunity to make song requests at Barbarella.
“We’re 11 years deep,” Garcia says.
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Garcia — Capricorn sun, Virgo rising, Scorpio moon — considers himself an empath. He pays attention to what the crowd feels like and lets the songs flow from there. Every Tuezgayz looks like a painting, Garcia says, and the first song is the first stroke. “Each night, the painting looks different," he says.
Sure, you’ll probably hear the gay bar bangers: “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston, for example. But Garcia also wants to expose people to pop culture they might not be privy to if they just moved here from the Valley, or Taylor, or El Paso.
He takes requests — but mostly to avoid people, the “introverted extrovert” wryly says of having people write their wishes down. It’s a request list, not a demands list.
After an hours-long conversation with a room full of sweaty bodies looking for connection under a disco ball, at the end of the night, Garcia is spent.
Five hours, every Tuesday night, for 11 years. Until last year.
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down Austin’s live entertainment industry, Barbarella and Tuezgayz went with it.
“I couldn’t do what I loved,” Garcia says.
Garcia became depressed. The club was able to get a Paycheck Protection Loan that helped keep longtime employees above water through December, including health care. The DJ continued to share music he loved through weekly Spotify playlists.
Still, he held out hope. He had a feeling there would be leases available when the pandemic eased up, so he started looking around, with dreams of branching out into his own club.
Gardner caught wind. The club owner was getting older and wanted to take a backseat, Garcia says. He offered to let Garcia buy in. The DJ brought on a partner, Jacob Cheely. (“He's a Capricorn, too, so we’re on the same wavelength,” Garcia says.)
In March, Barbarella reopened for the first time since the pandemic began. By the end of April, Garcia and Cheely had become majority owners of Barbarella.
Garcia says this is his life’s work.
“Both of my parents were migrant workers when they were kids. They grew up in large Mexican families where their parents had no choice but to take their kids to work with them, and to put them to work. I was the first one to graduate from college,” he says. His mom was a little disappointed that he wasn't using his degree: "She didn't understand the therapeutic part of what I was doing, because she wasn't there to see it."
He still can't believe that he got this opportunity. "That was a pivotal time in my life, to go from such a depressing point, a low point, and to be in a position to buy into the venue," he says, his voice wavering with emotion.
“I know that there are gay clubs in Austin that are not owned by gay men. They're owned by cisgendered white men,” he says. "For there to be a queer club — an accepting, inclusive club — that's brown owned, that's queer owned, that's DJ owned ... it's so much more meaningful to me, to have that grasp on the business.”
He and Joyner got engaged on a trip to Australia in February 2020. They put their dream wedding on hold in part so they could buy the club and help people in their own way.
“We’re feel like we’re investing in our community,” he says.
“People have an emotional bond with me, and they’ve never met me,” Garcia says.
Those are the people, he says, who tell him that they met their best friends in the “petri dish” of Barbarella’s dance floor.
They’re those who healed trauma by meeting new loved ones and seeing people — the range of what it’s possible for a queer person to be — move to beats you can’t find anywhere else in town.
They’re the former “little baby twinks that came in 2010 and 2011,” Garcia says, who now come in having grown into themselves, ready to hear whatever old song Garcia plays when he sees them enter, to get a little drunk and to get home early enough for work the next morning.
And they’re the people who have who found a space where they're comfortable, maybe started experimenting with drag, or felt liberated enough to begin their gender transition.
No, Garcia has never wanted Tuezgayz to be about him. But times change, and he sees the value in being vulnerable.
Now that he’s in charge, Garcia wants to party for a cause — supporting the community with direct aid, donating some proceeds to a nonprofit or helping to fund the transitions of transgender members of the community.
Garcia says he knows the struggles of being a young person who does not feel comfortable in their own skin. He remembers being in his early 20s, broke and going to the food bank. Cheap drinks and clubs with an hour of no-cover entry made his life’s work possible. He’d like to keep that going as long as he can.
“I have to be someone that I wanted to be when I was 23,” Garcia says. “I want people to look at me and say, ‘Wow he did it. If I have these dreams, I can do it, as well.’”
Eric Webb is the Austin360 entertainment editor for the American-Statesman. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @webbeditor.