New York’s queer nightlife scene is fuelling a new generation of activists

Eliel Cruz is among the new wave of names dedicated to supporting the LGBTQ+ community from protest to party

“It’s just a light beat,” Eliel Cruz tells me before giving me air kisses on both cheeks at Ladyfag’s notorious Sunday party, Battle Hymn. As one of New York’s prominent nightlife hosts, a cerulean Egyptian eye with a matching lip is on the more basic side of the look spectrum, but Cruz has a meeting first thing Monday morning and over his seven years of hosting queer parties in the city, he’s learned that no number of wipes can remove a beaten mug by 9am.

While by night he pours bottles of (top-shelf) vodka to his guestlist, by day, Cruz acts as the director of communications at the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), an organisation that provides free counselling, advocacy, community organising, legal support and education in their mission to end violence against LGBTQ+ and HIV-affected communities.

Through the all-encompassing role, Cruz has his hands in everything, including running the organisation’s social media, engaging with press, website management, marketing, responding rapidly to various incidents of violence, and speaking at rallies. Last month, he led a large rally in New York City to demand an investigation into the death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who was found dead in her cell at Rikers Island jail complex because she could not afford to pay the $500 bail. 

Earlier this year, he held a vigil for Kawaski Trawick, a black bisexual man, who’d allegedly been murdered by NYPD officers who turned off body cams and continuously refused to release details of the incident. In both cases, Cruz and the AVP applied pressure to the government and police department demanding answers. 

Despite being so grounded in both queer activism and nightlife now, attending private Christian schools meant that Cruz didn’t encounter either until later in his life. Only after college – where he risked expulsion for even showing up in queer spaces – could Cruz attend his first nightlife event: Susanne Bartsch’s now-infamous party, On Top. “It’s when I realised what nightlife could be,” he recalls. 

In fact, it was through attending queer nightlife that Cruz began to explore his own gender and femininity. “It was the first time I felt comfortable putting on make-up, 11-inch heels, and a leotard – it was fabulous,” Cruz shares. “It’s empowering, and this right to exist together, share joy, and be our most authentic selves is what we’ve been fighting for.”

These queer nights don’t just encourage gender-bending looks though, its attendees are celebrated for dressing up where they wouldn’t anywhere else. Sure, they’re a great place to meet cute boys, drink, and dance on tabletops, but they’re also about community too. In his many years of hosting parties for every modern nightlife legend from Kayvon Zand to Susanne Bartsch, to up-and-coming stars like Ty Sunderland, Cruz has made life-long friendships with other hosts and scene kids. “We’re each other’s real family. We’re not just party friends, and we have each other’s backs,” he continues. 

While Cruz notes that juggling both two seemingly contradictory components of his life might be exhausting, hosting nightlife not only compliments, but actually feeds his activism. In addition to feeling further connected with the LGBTQ+ community, hosting gives Cruz a more direct way to engage with queer folks. At these parties, he openly speaks about his job, letting club kids know that the AVP is a resource for them. “Whether they need counselling or support, we’re here,” he says. “People who know me in nightlife have reached out for support after experiencing violence or harassment, calling AVP’s 24/7 hotline.” 

In the past year alone, he has also mobilised for two trans women who he knew through nightlife who were being housed in the men’s unit at Rikers. “AVP submitted letters of support and packed the court with staff and community members to get them released while they awaited trial,” he says. Cruz’s involvement in nightlife has also raised money for the AVP, with Sunderland’s LOVE PRISM: PINK donating a portion of its entry costs last month. 

“I listen or talk about violence against LGBTQ+ people every single day. It could keep me in bed all weekend depressed, but I’d rather dance under the disco lights – it gives me energy to do my work” – Eliel Cruz 

Although incredibly inspiring, Cruz’s work can also be extremely emotionally draining; through his work, he vicariously experiences trauma through queer people who’ve experienced violence. “I listen or talk about violence against LGBTQ+ people every single day. There are a number of things I encounter during the work week that could keep me in bed all weekend depressed,” Cruz says. “I’d rather dance and be around queer joy under the disco lights. It gives me energy to do my work.” 

With 2019 marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Cruz recalls how five decades ago, LGBTQ+ people weren’t legally allowed to congregate, facing harassment and violence at the hands of police officers when they did. Despite now not being illegal, Cruz doesn’t take for granted that queer people can now congregate, dance, and express themselves together. “It may be 50 years since Stonewall, but nightlife is still a sacred and radical thing,” he muses. “It will continue to be until we reach a point where queer people are no longer attacked for simply existing.”

At the end of the day, or rather, come early sunrise, all Cruz wants is to create spaces where queer folks can feel safe, empowered, and surrounded by their chosen family. He wants old and new friends to feel liberated and dance until the wee hours of the morning. He’s doing this at both his offices: the one with a desk and laptop, and the other, with a private table and bottle service.