A city that's always been a home to LGBTQIA+ creatives, New York's most rapturous queer voices come together, curated by Adam Eli
At a time when trans rights are more under threat than ever, the spring 2019 issue of Dazed takes a stand for the global creativity of the LGBTQIA+ communities and infinite forms of identity. You can pre-order a copy of our latest issue here, and see the whole Infinite Identities campaign here.
From the Stonewall riots, to Aids activism, to the birth of ball culture, New York has always been at the forefront of club and queer culture, providing a home for LGBTQIA+ individuals in search of a community. In a portfolio for the Infinite Identities issue of Dazed, activist Adam Eli brings together the new generation of NYC's LGBTQIA+ underground who carry on the city's legacy, banding together in the face of resistance and showing up for those who need it the most – whether it's through parties, performance, fundraising or direct action.
As Jesse Hepworth, of activist group Voices4, says: “To not use my privilege to shine a light on injustices and fight against them would be unthinkable.”
VOICES4, VISUAL TEAM
At NYC Pride this year, one group stood out: all dressed in black, carrying ten coffins draped with the Rainbow and Transgender Pride flags, paying tribute to queer lives lost globally across the decades. Fighting for the liberation of all queer people – and marching for those who cannot – Voices4 is an activist group bringing awareness to injustices against LGBTQIA+ communities around the world, such as the homophobic policies of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan, or their continued advocacy for Chechnyans after the purges that have seen more than 100 queer people forcibly disappeared or murdered.
The group’s visual team, crossing creative disciplines, play a central role in spreading their message of hope. “I think of things like our protest for Chechnya in Columbus Circle, where we decided to use the pink burlap for the hoods,” recalls photographer Hunter Abrams. “That came from thinking, ‘How can we make a visual impact for the group that’s respectful of the situation that (we’re) highlighting, but also hasn’t been done before?’” Often creating moments that pay homage to older New York activists, the group is redefining activism in service of a simple yet profound concept – that all queer people have a responsibility to protect each other. “To not acknowledge and use my privilege to shine a light on injustices and fight against them would be unthinkable,” says Jesse Hepworth, a South Korean immigrant and head of the visual team. Always aiming for gut-punching images, the standard Voices4 sets for itself is high – as Abrams points out, “I think I’ve cried at every one of our actions, so there’s that.”
With a pink yarmulke pinned to his curls, rainbow Converse, and dark chest hair twirling through his silver Star of David necklace, Adam Eli wears his identity boldly. Whether on the streets of Manhattan or his heavily trafficked Instagram, the activist and writer considers queer storytelling a critical form of resistance. “Without the power to tell our own stories we cannot be free,” says Eli, who cites Gertrude Stein as an example he tries to follow through his cultivation of young queer talent. He believes that a blend of exposure and network creation will help deepen the impact of queer activists as the world faces the rising tide of Trump-like nationalism. In his work with Gays Against Guns and Voices4 (a queer activist group he founded in response to the Chechnyan LGBTQIA+ crisis), he has a created a platform he is now determined to share with those who are traditionally marginalised in the queer community, such as intersex people, POC, refugees and asylum seekers. Speaking of his curation of the group of artists and activists featured in this piece, he says, “These are the voices that inspire me and the ones I think we should all be listening to.”
Characterised by a sea of black and brown bodies, addictive electronic music, and bass you can feel in your chest, Papi Juice is a self-described “Brooklyn-based dance party and kiki celebrating queer and trans people of colour and the folk who love them”. Curated by Oscar Nuñez, Mohammed Fayaz, and Adam Rhodes, and featuring queer artists and DJs of colour such as Princess Nokia, Jay Boogie and Juliana Huxtable, it’s a space defined by liberation. “We started it in 2013 after a night of gallery-hopping in Chelsea and remembering how unwelcoming (cultural) spaces can be to QTPOC,” Nuñez explains. “After a shot of tequila at a cute lil’ Bed-Stuy bar, Adam and I decided to challenge those spaces by creating our own.”
Papi Juice offers the opportunity to find shelter from the daily injustice queer people of colour face; for the gang, it’s all about proudly displaying the community’s truth. “We have a responsibility as queer people to depict and also gather our community in its best forms,” says Fayaz of the team’s mission. “Sweet, joyous, sensitive, sensational... these are truths we embody that the media wants to water down. That’s not a reality we need to cash in on any more.”
BLVCK LAÉ D. & PEPPERMINT
“I feel every emotion simultaneously when I’m performing,” says trans actress and singer Peppermint. “The challenge is focusing that energy.” As runner-up on RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine and the first out trans woman to land a principal role on Broadway, her focus isn’t really in doubt. Her friend, Blvck Laé D., channels their own creativity into activism and rap, but sees drag as an extension of who they are, calling their drag persona “the best possible version of myself”.
“I used to get a lot of flack for not padding or wearing breast-plates,” they reveal. “But not all women have big curves, and that’s OK. I think that speaks to the beauty standards society puts on women.” Peppermint also hopes to smash social barriers and stereotypes with her work: “I would like to turn my attention to transamorous people, many of whom are not public about their relationships with trans folk.” Using their art to express the trials and triumphs that come with being black, trans and trans-femme, the pair embody the fearlessness needed to bring about real change. “The only person that can stop you from doing anything is yourself,” says Peppermint. “It’s time for you to get out of your own way!”
Larry Milstein aims to disrupt the rituals of the New York social circuit. As liberation efforts seek to balance the scales of power and privilege, the 24-year-old New Yorker joins the fight from a unique vantage point – occupying a space of power, and subverting the notion of how philanthropy works from that space. “I would define my brand of activism as utilising the pathways of institutional networks and reclaiming their organising frameworks, like fundraisers, to empower those who may have otherwise been shut out of these social settings or made to feel excluded,” he says.
To that end, Milstein co-founded the Millennial Pink Party – an event in Montauk benefitting gay, transgender and women’s rights organisations. “We took the typical Hamptons soiree and flipped it on its head,” he says. This March, he will be co- chairing the annual Frick Young Fellows Ball, a hallowed event of the Manhattan social scene straight out of a Whit Stillman movie. “I can’t help but wonder how Henry Clay Frick, a steel baron and union buster, would react if he knew that a progressive, gay Jew was now the one helping lead the biggest event of the year in his Gilded-Age mansion.”
Kimberly Drew has spent the last few years investigating “what it means to be black and alive right now. Especially considering what social media has done (to change) the way in which we connect, understand and articulate our identities. What ephemera has that created?” Art that can spark change has been stirred into the writer and curator’s soul since birth – from family trips to museums as a child to the influential Tumblr blog Drew started at college, Black Contemporary Art, and a recent role managing social media at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In the urgency of this political era, the queer-identifying Drew acknowledges art’s power to illuminate unseen histories, such as those featured in an upcoming anthology on black cultural production the writer is currently working on. “It’s so important for us to tell our stories,” Drew explains. “Because in this moment, there is a rate of erasure that is so scary to me. It’s important for myself and others to sit down and take the time to say, ‘This is what the fuck is going on.’ There is power in amplifying marginalised voices and putting stories into the world. That is the path to revolution.”
“Bitch, shut up!” Those are the words Tatenda Ngwaru’s grandmother told her as a child, while Ngwaru cried in her arms, to shake her into self-acceptance. Since then, nothing has stopped her from living openly as an intersex woman. Not her parents, her neighbours or her school. Not the men who jumped her, leaving her deaf in one ear. Not the laws of Zimbabwe, her home country, where being LGBTQIA+ is prosecutable; or the ignorance she encountered as an immigrant in New York. “I am the change I want to see,” says Ngwaru, a motivational speaker who teaches and raises awareness of intersex issues. “I understood from day one that it begins with me.” Channelling her indomitable perseverance and optimism, she has found it in herself to forgive and even love all those who hurt her in the past. When asked where her bravery and boldness come from, she says she gets it from her grandma. “The system here in America is built to go against everything that I am,” Ngwaru continues. “Black. Intersex. Woman. Immigrant. If a girl from Gutu in Zimbabwe could find her way to New York as an asylum seeker and make it – you can do anything. Anything is possible.”
HARAJUKU, SERENA TEA & WEST DAKOTA
The drag trio individually known as Serena Tea, West Dakota and HaraJuku teamed up out of intense mutual admiration: Dakota first clocked Juku at Bushwig in 2017 (“she did pickle ASMR for a massive crowd, it was incredible”), with Juku admiring Dakota’s “pillow (printed) with a girl dressed just like her on it” in return. The pair met Serena at their weekly party OOPS last year – the rest, as Dakota says, “is herstory”. Together, they push at the boundaries of gender, fashion and humour, from the time Juku flew to Miami and “boarded the plane in full drag” to Serena and Dakota snapping “an iconic photo” with Anna Wintour at the CVFF awards in New York.
While the scene sisters’ hand-sewn looks scream confidence, their drag was born out of intimate insecurities and yearning. “Drag really helped me come to terms with who I am and who I want to be,” says Juku. For Serena, who started drag a year ago, getting ready is nearly as important as the moment you step out on stage. “When I’m getting ready I want to feel like a teenage girl (before) prom, or a woman getting her nails done on her wedding day,” she explains. That’s why she and her sisters “bring flavour wherever (they) go!”
“I want to keep building on the backs of forgotten or lost black voices,” says playwright Jeremy O’Harris, whose commanding art interrogates social constructions around race and sexuality. Through his work, O’Harris wants “to express what we have and give new visibility to black queer writers”; he wears his diverse influences on his sleeve in order to raise up other historical voices, however obscure. “I want audiences to leave (my) plays and think, ‘Let me look at some of the writers that inspired Jeremy,’” he says. “‘Let me look up (Angelina Weld) Grimké and her play Rachel from the 1920s’ – this weird, lesbian drama.”
O’Harris has debuted two new plays this winter, Slave Play and Daddy, their seductive, razor-sharp humour and heart-wrenching dialogue earning him multiple awards – but it’s the audience, and their reactions, that mean the most to him. Theatre is almost always a white space: O’Harris wants those who don’t think theatre is for them in his crowds. “I hope that my plays sneak up on you,” he says, adding that there’s only one thing he could imagine telling his future audience to prepare them: “Watch out, because you will be swallowed up by this play.”
“Is urgency a feeling?” asks Antwaun Sargent, the writer and art critic who interrogates truth, trauma and the power of blackness. His upcoming book and travelling exhibition, The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion, explores the increasing inclusivity of the fashion community – and how powerful images by black photographers have revitalised vocabulary around beauty and the black body. “I started writing about black artists because I was fascinated by what seemed like the endless possibilities of their imaginations,” says Sargent. “They continue to challenge and unmask demeaning images of blackness and expand on the definitions of our identity and culture, by offering compelling alternatives to a mainstream culture that always falls short.” One artist’s work that Sargent has folded into his own identity is that of late portraitist Barkley L Hendricks. “(He) ignored the pressure to paint black kings and queens, and painted original black people from his neighbourhood. They are about the chicest and most dignified people you’ll ever see in a painting. I’m always trying to push myself to be as fearless on the page as he was on the canvas.”
MARTI GOULD CUMMINGS
“Drag has always been political,” says drag queen and activist Marti Gould Cummings. Drawing equal inspiration from San Francisco hero Harvey Milk and drag legend Miss Coco Peru, Cummings believes that, while drag and politics are very different aesthetics (for now), they are intertwined and similarly on the front lines of social progress.
Raised on a small farm in Maryland, Cummings moved to New York City aged 17 to pursue his dream of being a performer. Now, he is a drag artist who has performed around the world, the founder of the Hell’s Kitchen Democrats – created to give NYC a truly open, diverse and inclusive democratic political club – and an advisor to the mayor on his nightlife advisory board. What’s more, Cummings doesn’t leave his political perspective backstage. “I love being able to make people laugh and educate them on issues all within one show,” he says. “Performing and doing politics goes hand in hand for me.” Looking to the future, Cummings hopes to use drag to “get young people working on campaigns, working with organisations that help queer people”, and even – why not? – “running for office”.
Image one top row, from left: Jesse wears all clothes HUGO, earrings and glasses his own, socks stylist’s own, shoes Florsheim. Hunter wears socks stylist’s own. Rooney wears embellished suit John Richmond, shirt HUGO, earring his own, bowtie Giorgio Armani, shoes Florsheim. Luca wears suit Dior, shirt and tie Ermenegildo Zegna. Matías wears embellished suit John Richmond, shirt and bowtie Giorgio Armani. Middle row, from left: Matt wears all clothes and tie Giorgio Armani, rings his own, socks stylist’s own, shoes Florsheim. Nick wears suit Stella McCartney, shirt and tie Ermenegildo Zegna, socks stylist’s own, shoes Santoni. Wyatt wears suit Giorgio Armani, shirt Richard James, glasses his own, socks stylist’s own, shoes Santoni. Bottom: Matt wears striped wool romper and accessories Moschino
Hair Shingo Shibata at The Wall Group using Oribe, make-up Jen Myles at Streeters using M.A.C, talent Adam Eli, Hunter Abrams, Matías Alvial, Matt Bernstein, Blvck Laé D., West Dakota, Kimberly Drew, Nick DeLieto, Mohammed Fayaz, Marti Gould Cummings, HaraJuku, Wyatt Harms, Jesse Hepworth, Larry Milstein, Tatenda Ngwaru, Oscar Nuñez, Jeremy O’Harris, Peppermint, Matt Penna, Luca Piccin, Adam Rhodes, Antwaun Sargent, Andy ‘Rooney’ Simmonds, Serena Tea, styling assistants Diana Choi, Joel Parada, hair assistant Risako Itamochi, Kazuhide Katahira, make-up assistant Jenna Scavone, production John Haywood at Mini Title, production assistant Jessica Tjeng, special thanks Highlight Studios, Manhattan