Imagine the quintessential gay space. Except for the glimmer of a disco ball, are the lights off? Does the driving beat of a bass drum distract from the distractions? Is the room full of people who may not know each other’s names but whose closeness suggests they don’t need to? I bet so. Nightlife has long been the right life for sexual- and gender- nonconforming communities of all kinds seeking safety and escape from the heteronormative, patriarchal, and often white cultures of work and family. But all nightlife spaces aren’t created equal. Through their door policies, advertising, architecture, and music choice, many of those spaces purporting to offer refuge continue to reinforce and reproduce the same racist, ableist, and sexist qualities of the society out of which they emerge and against which they position themselves.
In this essay, Oscar Nñ, an urban planner and co-founder-slash-resident DJ of Papi Juice — a collective of DJs, visual artists, and friends — discusses the difficulties and joys of creating, holding, and celebrating space that centers queer and trans people of color. As he describes, this is not only an architectural and urban planning challenge; it entails creative use of technology, rethinking received modes of representation, and critically embracing complicated histories. Take a look, and hopefully we’ll meet soon on the dance floor. Just know someone else might be leading this time around. — JM
When you enter a Papi Juice event, it’s hard to know what to expect. Every event is curated along its own theme, and every person’s experience is different from the next. Each night is unique. At the annual Mami Juice event, six hours of music by womyn-identified artists bring out crowds to dance and honor womyn-identified people and femmes. Papi & Chill, a month-long art and music residency, featured over 28 queer and trans artists of color, in readings, panels, performance art, and spoken word — plus, as always, a DJ set.
A few threads run through every Papi Juice event. First and most importantly, the community of people that attend every event holds steady. They come to dance to great music and to be in a room filled with other queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) and like-minded individuals. Occasions when QTPOC can feel like we are the majority in a space are rare; from professional to everyday settings, we can feel isolated. But in nightlife spaces, the community can come together in all its strength and complexity.
Second, at every Papi Juice event, art and music center queer and trans artists of color. Over the past five years, we’ve featured more than 200 artists in a variety of disciplines — producers, DJs, dancers, performance artists, writers, poets, and curators — the vast majority of them queer and trans people of color.
Finally, at every Papi Juice event, the vibe and energy is unmistakable. From Toronto to New Orleans via Philadelphia, attendees feel it as soon as they walk in the door: fresh, happy, and energetic, encouraged to stay for as long as they want.
I first met my Papi Juice co-founder, Adam R., on Tumblr in 2012. At the time, Tumblr was functioning as a virtual space where queer people shared knowledge, art, music, and community support, but we eventually began to have conversations about the importance of physical cultural spaces for our online QTPOC community. In 2013, soon after we finally met in person, we were gallery hopping in Chelsea with a group of friends when we began to discuss the lack of other black and brown bodies in the art they were looking at as well as in the crowds that surrounded us. We realized that this was a common feeling, not only in a neighborhood like Chelsea but in our everyday lives. From work to the grocery store, even at gay bars, we felt left out by the extreme value mainstream society places on masculinity and racial homogeneity. Since queer or mixed spaces often felt more accepting of gender difference than cultural diversity, Adam and I decided to create our own space. Of course, Papi Juice was hardly the first QTPOC space ever. We were inspired by other queer and trans people who had been doing this long before us, like Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) led by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the Paradise Garage, the Mudd Club, Clit Club, GHE20G0TH1K, Azucar, iBomba, and many others outside of NYC.
Thinking about everything that had existed in the past and that was happening in other places at the time, we started Papi Juice at One Last Shag, a tiny bar in Bed-Stuy that had been home to many queer events, sharing announcements of the first events with friends and on social media, mostly Facebook and Tumblr. After that first party, queer and trans people of color who had never met one another before started showing up, forming friendships that last to this day. The 72-person-capacity bar would see 250 people come through over the course of a night. Simply by playing the songs we wanted to hear on our own nights out, Adam and I created a musical space that the crowd found both familiar and exciting. From Selena to Luther Vandross, we played with what it’s like to be black, brown, and queer.
The initial event flyers got at some of the things we saw missing. Drawing on the aesthetics of the Tumblr spaces Adam and I first inhabited, intimate images of black and brown men being sensitive and vulnerable with a bit of a lo-fi filter were an ode to gay images of the past, but recontextualized for today. After a few events, we invited illustrator Mohammed Fayaz and visual artist and photographer Cristobal Guerra Naranjo to join the collective. Mohammed’s flyers for the parties are themselves works of art. His detailed and personable images reflect the community of people that attended our events, not only in their racial identities but also in their gender expression and style. Attendees see themselves and their friends, as well as others they admire or desire, celebrated in Cristobal’s photographs, and social media has played a huge role in growing the community. People on Tumblr gladly reblog and “like” Mohammed’s artwork and Cristobal’s highlights of every party. Facebook houses many albums of photos from every event, allowing people to share pictures with their friends and tag themselves. And Instagram provides an even bigger platform. As we post from the Papi Juice account, people are able to keep up with the events, and can find themselves and get to know others in the photos. Before Instagram “stories” came along, we would also take videos during the events, which helped our audience know how the nights unfolded, and encouraged them to come by.
Listen to more mixes by Oscar on the Papi Juice Soundcloud stream.
For queer and trans people of color, nightlife spaces promise safety in darkness. At night, we may feel like it’s easier to escape mainstream and heteronormative crowds that dominate the day. At night, trans and gender non-conforming folks might not feel as seen as their assigned sex at birth, drag queens might feel more able to pass as cis female, and in general the emptier streets might seem more hospitable to gender play for anyone on the queer spectrum. In the West Village, where gay bars first started to appear in New York City, dress up has historically been a part of nightlife. But while there’s a sense of safety in the empty and dark city streets, imminent danger lurks in these subtleties as well. People with bad intentions, motivated by self-hate or homophobia and transphobia, realize that they can have access to the most vulnerable at night. But as dangerous as the night may be, the freedom queer people feel when coming together in a space make it worth it — freedom to express affection and our own identities, freedom to love, and freedom from loneliness.
In addition to granting safety and freedom, nightlife creates a gathering space. Since secure housing can be difficult for queer and trans people of color to attain, either because of discrimination by landlords, rejection by family members, or failure of the housing market to provide affordable housing, gathering in our homes has always been difficult. We have historically come together in spaces that weren’t our own. Long before the rise of the West Village as a haven for LGBTQ+ people in the 1950’s, Black queer folks gathered in Harlem to dance, listen to music, perform on stage, play with gender presentation, and even get married. These were “gay spaces” before the term existed, and queer performances would take over jazz clubs, mostly without incident. But those spaces, and queer presence there, were always under threat. The Prohibition-era Cabaret Law outlawed music and dancing in bars in New York City. The law, written to explicitly prohibit specific arrangements of performers and instruments associated with jazz, like woodwinds and bass, was intended to shut down the Harlem clubs, activists have argued. Elsewhere in the country and in New York, public humiliation and police raids of known queer gathering places were common. The violence enacted by the police against queer people, and especially queer people of color, is often forgotten. Even Stonewall, remembered by the mainstream as a moment when (white) gay men simply protested their right to love one another, in fact marked a moment of resistance, led by Black and Latino queer and trans people, against a police raid that night and against ongoing police violence. Today, though gay bars and gay neighborhoods have become increasingly acceptable — even desirable — in the eyes of mainstream society, media reports of racist discrimination by mainstream gay venues makes it clear that for QTPOC these spaces are still not safe.
Recently, although QTPOC organizers like Papi Juice have created dedicated spaces for our communities, we remain dependent on the goodwill of venue-owners. By the end of the first year, Papi Juice had outgrown our Bed-Stuy home and needed to expand. But the move to a bigger venue wasn’t easy. Even after we presented receipts from earlier events, proving how popular they had been, bar owners and managers dismissed the project as appealing only to a “niche market,” and said that it would never grow because the explicit mission of celebrating people of color excluded white people. Bar owners would also say, “We already have a gay party at our venue, and we don’t want to be known as a gay bar.” Meanwhile, for friendlier small venues, staying open has become a challenge as rents for commercial spaces have gone up. But supportive management at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg allowed us to expand our audience to more than three times the original size, and lines began to stretch down the block. From 2015 to 2017, it became our home.
The repeal of the Cabaret Law in 2017 has the potential to level out the playing field for venue owners and managers. As it becomes easier to open nightlife venues, spaces oriented towards queer and trans people of color are cropping up in greater numbers. One example is Mood Ring, a recently-opened astrology-themed bar owned and operated by QTPOC staff, which has begun to fill an urgent demand for more QTPOC-inviting spaces in Bushwick (aside from the already popular spaces Secret Project Robot and Happyfun Hideaway). Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson, who along with the rest of the Dance Liberation Network was integral in the repeal of the Cabaret Law, says that repealing the law “takes some stress off of the most vulnerable promoters and party goers, the fact that police cannot give u a fine for dancing is a big relief as dancing is one of our only forms of relief in this fucked up world.”
Ariel Palitz, New York’s new “night mayor” (or Senior Executive Director of the Office of Nightlife at the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment) and an ex-venue owner herself, says that a lot of her job will consist of navigating the relationship between owners and neighborhood residents — a dichotomy which does not include the creatives organizing the events that make venues popular. But the Internet has given nightlife organizers and creators more protections and control over their work, at least. There are fewer opportunities for venue owners to exploit nightlife organizers — whether through discrimination, wage theft, or something else — since most of the community that queer nightlife organizers serve is closely connected both socially and digitally, and event attendees will not hesitate to share any unfair practices by a venue owner or staff. And women, people of color, and queer and trans people in New York City and beyond seem finally to be getting recognition as pioneers of nightlife. A few specific groups have led the way: Discwoman, a booking agency collective that promotes women and gender-nonconforming artists has changed the discourse of dance music. The grand space at Elsewhere, which is run by a team of men of color with a background in DIY and alternative nightlife, supports dance music and freedom of expression through arts programming and residencies. They didn’t hesitate to provide us their whole space, after we faced so much denial from other places; they were completely open. Qween Beat, the foremost music label for ballroom and voguing artists, sets the standard for ballroom talent and events. And Bubble_T, a collective of friends and event organizers, playfully takes over space for the queer and trans Asian and Pacific Islander communities.
The connection between nightlife and the art world seems to be going back to its roots, too. RAGGA NYC, a collective which brings together queer and trans people of mostly Caribbean descent to stage wide-ranging exhibitions of visual art, is setting a high standard in both worlds. They’ve been getting recognition in the art world, with shows at Mercer Union in Toronto and the New Museum, but they started as a nightlife platform. Their work is exciting because it shows the connection between nightlife and art, and that nightlife spaces are more than just that; there’s flexibility in them. They can be adapted to mean or create different things, to be a space to harbor and nurture different social movements. Look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who just won the Democratic primary in the 14th Congressional District — a year ago she was a bartender. I’m not saying that led to her career in politics, but I think that she probably had space to think about activism while she was bartending. And her campaign graphic design was made by a group of friends who were regulars at the bar. To me that makes sense.
I’m terrified of the uncertainty of the future, so I never like to predict things but rather manifest them. I hope we keep building, trying new things, and keep pushing and resisting having any sort of label attached to the work that we’re doing. I hope we keep holding down space, whether virtual or in person, at an art gallery or a block party. I want to make sure there’s space for my people and that we’re in control of it.