Back in 2018, photographer Seth Caplan began to photograph friends and acquaintances who are queer nightlife creators. What emerged was a celebration of New York’s queer nightlife in all of its messy glory. Over the next few months, we’ll be featuring each subject from this project in their own words, along with a portrait of them at home.
Who: Sammy Kim
What: Performer, artist, producer, host
What was your first experience in a queer nightlife space?
The first time I went out to any kind of gay thing, I was still trying to figure out where I fit in. I went to places that are kind of typical like the Ritz or Industry in Hell’s Kitchen. The first time, I went to the Ritz I went with some girlfriends and had a good time. It was cute, but there was something still missing for me.
I’ve been in the city and exploring nightlife for about two years. I’m still finding friends and people that I connect with. I was exploring meeting people online, especially with dating apps and Grindr or Scruff. I wasn’t having a lot of luck. There was this one guy, friends with benefits sort of, who I was exploring nightlife with. He brought me to Ladyfag’s Holy Mountain and that was my first taste of something a bit less mainstream. People were more creative, but there was still something where I felt I didn’t fit in fully. Now, I’m in a more queer community where people are more creative and it’s less…in certain parties, it’s more body and guys trying to show off and hook up. Where I’m at now feels more community-based in the way that people feel together.
I started going to a lot of dance parties and a lot of raves. I went to Unter a few times. Through that, I was meeting people that I found interesting and started hanging out with them.
I’m curious to hear more about your night at Holy Mountain.
I definitely felt excited and thrilled to be there. That was the first time I was exposed to people that were gay and celebrating and dancing in an interesting way. It was also nice to have someone to show me around. I didn’t really have a lot of gay friends yet, and this was the first space where I was around a lot of gays. There were conflicting feelings. Going to parties was definitely something I wanted to explore. The more I did it, the more I felt it was where I belonged. This was only a few years ago. I didn’t have a secure job yet. It was something that brought me a lot of joy and I felt alive every time I was there.
You said you’re now finding spaces that you enjoy being a part of and going out in. How are you participating in queer nightlife in New York right now?
I help organize and run a new party called Onegaichimasu, which my friend ET started. It’s specifically centering Asian Pacific Islander queer people. Similar to the group Bubble_T, but we think of ourselves as a little bit of a sexier, grittier sibling. A lot of people are within that community, we’re part of the same family, we go to each other’s parties and we support each other. At first I wasn’t helping run the parties, I was just going to them and loving them.
Dancing is first and foremost a mode of self-expression and communication, a way to build connection with other people.
What makes you feel good when you’re out in these spaces?
One thing that I remember is the first time I went to Bubble_T, a party centered around the queer API community. That was a turning point for me. It’s only about a year old which is crazy; we’re always gagging on how young it is, and how much momentum has been building from it. The reason why it’s blown up is because there’s such a need for it. People are so excited that it exists. That’s exactly how I felt when I went. I was overjoyed. It’s crazy seeing so many other queer Asians and they’re all so varied. A lot of times when you think of Asian and gay, or just Asian, there’s a certain expectation comes to mind. Seeing so many different queer Asians was so beautiful and I wanted to get to know everyone. That space is so inviting and welcoming that you can start a conversation with anyone and people are excited. They want to connect as much as I do. There is a communal sense of “we need this, we need to be here.”
I want to talk a little bit about what it means to create a space for a specific group of queer folks, if it needs to be open to everybody else too, and how those spaces happen in our nightlife world.
I think that’s an important thing. A lot of these parties coming up are trying to address that issue. It’s similar to being gay and going to straight places. When you are a minority in a group, automatically you’re going to feel a little less welcome, your entitlement to that space is less than. You feel like the people around you don’t understand your experience. Going to parties where it’s majority white, I’m not automatically going to feel as much a sense of belonging as an API person. It’s different than if I went to a party where it’s majority API or even people of color. I don’t go to a lot of parties that aren’t queer anymore because I don’t relate. Going back to that idea of what we can do to make people who aren’t part of that immediate community feel welcome, because ultimately ‘belonging’ is what we’re trying to establish, I can’t really figure out an answer because the more niche a community is, the fewer spaces there are for them to exist. Having the intersection of my identities being API and queer, and having space specifically for that is so needed.
It’s going to be exclusionary when you’re trying to make space for a certain set of people. That might be necessary, in a way. Something we’re really conscious of at Onegaichimasu is having it be majority queer API or at least majority queer POC and having fewer white people there. Not because we don’t like white people, we just need a space where we can see each other exist. I have white friends that are gonna come and I’m not going to be like, don’t come because this isn’t a space for you. But it’s work to hold their hand through it. We need a space for Asian people, space for us to relax and be our true selves. Space not to worry about the things in our daily lives we have to be conscious of because we are minorities.
That definitely relates to the issue of white entitlement in queer spaces.
It’s going to happen between any group, where there’s a majority and there’s a minority. A lot of it goes to struggles between power and entitlement and feeling one group might have more struggle than the other. Over time we gravitate towards progression. Ultimately, the goal is unity. As we are able to strengthen our individuality and visiblize our niche communities, we can then come together and bring all these communities together to form one unified community.
What keeps you excited and active in queer nightlife?
It’s community-based. I’m here for the promise of everyone. I’m doing this because through my own skills, I can be a vehicle for progression for anyone that looks like me or has a similar experience or struggle. I think visibility is really important, so that’s why I do everything. Growing up, I didn’t have someone that I could look up to as a role model. I kind of want to be that role model.
“We need a space for Asian people, space for us to relax and be our true selves.”
You’re a dancer. How does dancing play into these ideas for you?
Dancing is first and foremost a mode of self-expression and communication, a way to build connection with other people. When you dance with other people, there are different sets of connections you can build with them that are bigger than yourself. That’s the first way that I entered these spaces. You can meet someone on the dance floor and if you dance together and there’s chemistry, you feel the same vibe. You allow yourself to release into the space. to be wrapped up in it. There’s something so beautiful about that. At Bubble_T and Onegishimasu, we throw dance parties allowing people to get a sense of connection that they might not otherwise have, a sense of liberation and freedom that is powerful and allows you to free yourself. Dancing there is different from dancing in another space because I can really let myself go and I’m not worried about who’s watching me. There’s so much gratitude and freedom. I try to break the mold by bringing that energy into the daytime. That’s been something I’ve been trying to do.
It’s so exciting to check back in with you, so much has happened since our interview in the world and your journey. I wanted to start by going back to the beginning of the pandemic and thinking about what it was like for you.
I was turning 27 and the world was about to go into lockdown and we didn’t know what that meant yet. I just got back from Berlin for the international premiere of a short film I acted in. I remember feeling like my acting career was about to pop off. Things were finally making sense for my life, and then everything was squashed. The two months that we were completely in lockdown from March to May was a tough time. There were so many infections and deaths and a lot of chaos. It really was a moment for us to rethink our priorities as a society in terms of public health and social responsibility. I took a lot of that time to myself. Being home 24/7 and not having to work gave me time to reflect and get to things I wanted to do creatively. I finally sat down and started writing music that I’ve been wanting to make.
As someone that’s super social and involved in community affairs, to sit down and be able to do my own work was really important. My music single Iceberg came out and I was starting to draw again. It was a fun time for me to explore multiple creative mediums from the comfort of my bedroom. We found new ways to connect with people through Zoom parties like Bubble_T’s Lunar New Year event. I was one of the performers and that was my first time performing. Being able to do it over Zoom was nice in that it was less nerve wracking than doing it in person. Having opportunities to connect with community in new and accessible ways has been a huge teaching moment.
I remember when we biked to the beach together that May, and we were talking about what queer community was like last summer, gathering with folks to protest. So many people connected with their nightlife community through Zoom parties and outdoor gatherings, but then in June, it was gathering for social justice. Queer nightlife has been innately connected with social justice for so long. It’s been amazing seeing New York’s nightlife community come together in beautiful ways. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that time and the things you got involved with.
The reason why lockdown ended was because of social justice, calls to show up in the streets for Black Lives Matter. It was more important for us to be in the streets as our social responsibility, those who had capacity to do so, than to stay home. We were pent up at home thinking about what we could do. In times of crisis, you’re always like, what could I have done in that moment? I think for many of us, that was the moment. We felt compelled to actually use our time, energy and resources to fight for liberation, specifically for Black communities and other marginalized communities.
We found new ways to connect with people through Zoom parties like Bubble_T’s Lunar New Year event. I was one of the performers and that was my first time performing.
Did you see an intersection with this mass participation in Black Lives Matter and your nightlife community?
Intersectionality is something I’ve learned a lot about since last summer. Being in the streets taught me a lot about what it means to build community, what it means to be a community member, what my responsibilities as a community member are in terms of how I care for other people, strangers, people that may not look like me. I learned a lot about mutual aid and how to volunteer through Occupy City Hall, the protest against the 2021 NYC Budget. I remembered why New York City is so special and why it’s so important for us to be affirmed by each other’s presence. Before last summer, a big part of my community was rooted in POC nightlife. That is one permutation of social justice work that’s very celebratory. Here, I was learning about how you can make those same safe spaces in streets, with people that are not the exact community that you might feel like you’re a part of, but seeing that ultimately we’re all part of the same community.
Being in the streets taught me a lot about what it means to build community.
That summer, I learned about what my role is as an accomplice. I was going to a lot of protests and events and sharing my experiences on Instagram. A lot of friends that I made through nightlife started reaching out to say they wanted to go to these actions together. I wanted us all to feel like we had someone to go with. I was starting to feel a sense of community, building new meaning out of old relationships, seeing friends put what they say they believe in into action.
It was important and special to connect with folks from going out and to organize together. I felt a relationship between the creation of community and intersectionality of queer nightlife, creating safe spaces together with the same people but with the aim of promoting social justice.
I want to bring up the word intersectionality again. Being able to see these things we do in nightlife, in social justice spaces, taught me about intersectionality and how we can hold multiple things at the same time. To feel joy is such a part of social justice and activism, and being able to hold heaviness when things are really wrong, to hold one another. I learned a lot about my own privilege. As someone who’s non-binary but very cis-passing and straight-passing at times, I saw how some of my friends who are not, didn’t feel as safe in some protest spaces. I felt a certain responsibility to go to those spaces as someone that’s part of my QTPOC community, to learn, to take up space, to bring back my experiences to my community. I wanted to hold space so that we could have intersectionality. Your liberation is tied to my liberation. It’s all the same.
With the outcry earlier this year on increasingly publicized violence against the Asian community in the US, I remember wondering as a queer Asian person during BLM protests, when it would be our turn. That was something I struggled with knowing how to say out loud. Sometimes, especially for Asian people, it’s hard to know how to take up space because for so long it’s been taken away from us. With all the news of brutality against Asians, I started to see people bringing up liberation for Asians. I did not expect that to come so soon after BLM, but it made sense. I was compelled to be an instrument for my community. The rallies, protests, and marches that were popping up in March were piggybacking off the work of the BLM movement. There were some things that didn’t work because we have to be specific with our community and you can’t copy and paste one thing onto another.
To feel joy is such a part of social justice and activism, and being able to hold heaviness when things are really wrong, to hold one another.
A lot of the events were cis and male-led. I was frustrated that there wasn’t a prioritization of women leaders, queer people, sex workers, elderly people, etc. I felt compelled to do something for our queer community and didn’t want to wait for someone else to create a safe space for us. We put together the Protect Asian Lives rally in April as a reaction to this. We tried to center the Asian creators in our community and keep it very intersectional. We brought together the queer nightlife collectives of Bubble_T and Papi Juice, Devon Francis from Yardi, West Dakota who was an organizer from the Trans Liberation March, Angela Dimayuga, a queer Asian nightlife organizer and chef, and Jezz Chung, a queer writer and storyteller. We wanted to make the team diverse and that proved to be a success. With only three weeks of planning, we were able to put that event together and create a space that we didn’t see existing.
The majority of the people that helped organize it were people that I met through nightlife. We came together to center our joy, as opposed to only the pain and suffering that we’ve been seeing in the news. We held each other in a deeper way, held each other’s grief in a tender way.
All these things you’re talking about have been some of the most beautiful parts for me to witness and participate in over this last year and a half. We see how the communities that we create through nightlife can grow, to create the new spaces we need for the new times we’re in. Seeing so many nightlife creators doing these amazing things shows how nightlife connects with social justice.
You and I met through nightlife, it’s a way to find community spiritually and physically. As much as I love it, there are limitations to nightlife too. It can be draining in terms of physically going, preparing, being social, and the expectations and image that you can I feel you need to uphold. I always had a desire to be a leader or organizer and bring my community together in a meaningful way. My prior nightlife and social justice involvement prepared me to organize the rally.
We held each other in a deeper way, held each other’s grief in a tender way.
Things started to open up slowly in May. What was going on for you then?
After the rally in April, I was drained and went into hibernation mode for a month. Having put so much work into that event with a high level of intentionality, it was hard for me to go back to regular life. Pride came along and I felt like I had to speak out, but I realized I just needed to do Pride for me. My life is already intrinsically queer, I don’t need to prove that to anyone. I wanted to give myself time and space without analyzing and broadcasting. Pride Weekend was so amazing. It was probably the best Pride that I’ve ever had in terms of feeling connected. I’ve always struggled with having a sense of urgency. This year I felt more at peace, more present. This Pride was about knowing that I don’t always have to be my best self. Whoever I am on that given day is exactly who I need to be.
What did you get up to that whole weekend?
It was such a bender. Thursday I go-go’d at a new party called Peep Show. Friday was Bound at Le Bain and one of my friends was hosting. They got a room at The Standard where we all pre-gamed. It was mainly a crazy Asian crew and it always feels affirming to be around that set of friends. I met a new Asian chosen fam during Pride weekend and we stuck together. On Saturday afternoon, Bubble_T asked me to introduce their segment at the Red Stage on Astor Place. I wrote a speech centering the origins of Pride and why we’re here, including a land acknowledgment and speaking to why having spaces that center Asian people is important. I spoke from my heart, explaining why Bubble_T was so meaningful for me when I was first exploring nightlife. I feel so fortunate and grateful to have become family with them. Saturday night, a bunch of us went to Papi Juice together at Elsewhere. Sunday was the Bushwig Fam party where I saw you, after arriving from the Stonewall Protests. I’m glad that I was able to protest during Pride and not at a corporate parade. Bushwig was a beautiful way to wrap up the whole weekend, seeing all the performers sharing their hearts on stage. That’s so much of what queerness is, it gives us permission to express ourselves in the ways we might otherwise feel too timid to.
This last month has seen such an explosion of nightlife activity. You hosted a new party created by David Chan, DJ The Limit Does Not Exist.
I took a trip to LA, which I’ve been wanting to do, and just enjoy summer. I came back for David’s party, sksksks, at H0L0, which I hosted. He’d been talking for so long about throwing this party pre-pandemic. Since I first met him and he started DJing, he’d been wanting to throw his own party with PC and Hyperpop music. I told him I wanted to help and he made me one of the hosts along with others like Syro and Leak Your Sex Tape.
Being able to go to the first iteration of a new party is so exciting. Nightlife is always changing, it’s temporal. I think it’s so important to take advantage when you can see it with your own eyes because it’s such a marker of history and where we are at the time. Parties don’t last forever but when you’re there, you remember the space and the feeling and why it stood out from other parties. I wanted to help David have that kind of identity from other parties, and to ensure that all the things that we’ve learned, in terms of protecting our community and caring for community this last year, to bring that level of care to nightlife.
When David put together the party, he made sure that some of the hosts did Narcan training in case there were any overdoses. He had free earplugs at the bar and a lot of people ended up using them. I really love that little extra thing that makes people feel cared for, and not just putting a party together and be like, pay up, but we don’t really care what happens.♦