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. For this series, we’ll be featuring each subject from this project in their own words, along with a portrait of them at home.
Who: Esa Freeman
What: Club kid, party promoter, host
What was your first time out at a gay club?
I moved to New York a little over two years ago from San Francisco. Before I moved, I already knew what scene I liked. I saw parties online and what people were doing and I wanted to be a part of it. I knew about Ladyfag’s Battle Hymn, and there was a special Halloween one and I really wanted to go. I convinced my old roommate to go with me. When we got there, they dropped me off in the cab and said, “I’m going home. You can stay if you want.” I was like, “we already started drinking, I just want to be out!” I stayed and remember meeting all these people. I was dressed up. It wasn’t anything crazy compared to what I do now. I was wearing some mesh, some makeup, and a head chain. I saw people dressed in the most extravagant things. I was accepted by everyone because I’m super friendly. I talked to everybody and folks were so nice. I’ve been going to every Battle Hymn since. From there, I learned about other parties.
It’s like you immediately found your people on your first big night in New York.
I’d never seen that in San Francisco, but I knew that there was more to nightlife than back home because I’ve always been a nightlife junkie. I always loved going out and doing different parties back in San Francisco. I didn’t realize there is an aspect where everybody’s expression of how they’d love to live their everyday life blends into nightlife, where you’re actually able to do it. From there, people work their way out of nightlife into their own ideal everyday lifestyle.
How did you figure out what you were into while you were living in SF?
I had been on Tumblr for a really long time and so I knew people who lived in New York from that. I found Aquaria. I found Ryan Burke. And I started following them and other people who were doing club kid things and seeing the art they were able to create and the way that being a club kid changed their mindset and their view of the way the world works, liberating them from a lot of toxic masculinity and other things that a lot of people struggle with. I saw that actively via social media. When I moved to New York, I knew I wanted to be a part of whatever they were doing because I wanted to feel as free as I saw them being.
Were there moments going out in SF that were impactful before you came to New York?
People that I met in San Francisco that I still hold dear, I met through nightlife. I met my best friend at a party I was working. It was a house party that I catered and we were the two underage people and everybody else wanted to go to a bar after. They pushed us together and said, “you guys have fun, we’re going to a bar.” That night she and I hung out and hit it off. We started hanging out more and eventually, we lived together for three years and she’s actually moving to New York next month. I would say nightlife brought me that because it taught me, especially in San Francisco, there are so many people that are always nice and friendly. You meet people every night and there are always so many people visiting so you meet strangers constantly. It brought me out of my comfort zone, as far as my social anxiety. I would go out and I’d be afraid to talk to people but I got over that because I was going out so often and seeing new people all the time. I had to talk to new people, or I wasn’t going to have friends.
How are you participating in queer nightlife in New York now?
My friends know I don’t work all the parties, but I go to everything and know all the girls. I like to be friendly and don’t ever see a reason not to be. I make it a point to say hi and remember everybody’s name. The more I see people doing what they want to do, that sense of freedom they have gives me a good feeling. It makes me want to be as free as them. There was a quote that’s like, when you remember the first time you saw somebody being their queerest self, and it inspired you to be yours. That’s how I feel. It’s about inclusion. In New York, I really like where the club kid and drag scenes meet. I love the Brooklyn queens who are doing high-concept art pieces as drag performances. It’s not a regular lip-sync, it’s a political statement. It inspires me to push myself to do more and be better.
What are some of your favorite parties right now?
I love Susanne Bartch’s On Top. It’s all these different subsections of New York queer nightlife in one room. You’ll see Hell’s Kitchen gays done up, but they’re hanging out with drag queens, and drag queens are hanging out with trans girls, and trans girls are hanging out with everybody else. You see a huge mix of people under the queer umbrella who normally wouldn’t hang out in the same place mingling. It’s really nice. I also love Battle Hymn of course. Kayvon Zand used to have a club kid party at Webster Hall called Gotham. He had a Halloween party last year. It was one of the most amazing parties I’ve ever been to. Each room had a different theme. There was a room with a huge feast on a table. There were margaritas and tequila and they had girls in the room giving out shots. By the end of the night, it was an open bar and everybody ended up in the tequila room. I remember the DJ Gia Garrison and I got so drunk. It was the first time we’d ever met each other. We were screaming at the top of our lungs, having a good ass time, feeding each other grapes. I love the drag show Oops at the Rosemont. It’s Chiquitita, West Dakota, Magenta, and all of them. There’s Bubble_T, an Asian-American queer party. There’s a new party called TropiCUNT at The Museum of Sex.
Between so many queer and gay nightlife parties that you go to, what keeps you coming back all the time? Why do you love to stay involved?
Being involved with people who run different parties, it’s a sisterhood that we all have. I see a lot of the same people at almost every party. I’ve built up a lot of friendships that way. People say you don’t make friends in the club, but I have. I meet people at the club and I keep seeing them. It gives me an opportunity to talk to them. There’s a guy I met on Tuesday, we really hit it off and now he wants to hang out and wants me to be in his fashion show. That was after two hours of us sitting and talking at a party.
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I love going out to dance. You mentioned enjoying going out to dance when you’re not in a look. What do you like about dancing in a queer space?
If I’m having a shitty day, I go out and dance and not care about what’s happening around me. It puts me in a bubble where, especially in queer spaces, I’m expressing myself fully. I’m freeing myself from all of the oppressed feelings that I’ve had, or the things my family told me wasn’t right, the things society told me growing up wasn’t right. When I’m dancing, I’m learning to accept myself for who I am. Back home, I had the opportunity to go out, but living with family, I couldn’t dress up the way I do now.
Can you share a nightlife experience that holds major significance for you?
I have two. The first one is the first night I did drag. It was a big deal because even wearing makeup already was a huge thing for me. Growing up, my mom was partially homophobic and very religious. The thought of me in makeup would kill her. I felt guilty while I was doing it because of the prejudice I grew up around. I met Amanda Lepore a few weeks prior to that night. Whenever I go out, I would make it a point to say hi to her. When I went out in drag night, I was paranoid. I practiced my makeup so many times. I bought my first wig. I saw Amanda at the party and she recognized me, pulled me aside, and said, “I love your drag.” I died a little bit because I already was in love with her. I knew who she was before I moved to New York, and I couldn’t believe that she walked up to me and validated me on the spot without really knowing me. That was one of the nights that I knew, this is what I want to do.
When I’m dancing, I’m learning to accept myself for who I am.
After everything that’s happened this year, the end of a relationship, moving, being financially unstable, I was at a party a few weeks ago at the Box with Kayvon Zand and the same thing happened. I would say hi to him and he knew of me at parties, but I hadn’t seen him in a while. I went to the party all dressed up and was feeling pretty. I went to dance because I wasn’t having a good day and I needed to get out of that mindset. He pulled me aside and he told me, “you look really gorgeous tonight.” And he told me he could see the light coming off of me. That meant a lot. I didn’t feel like there was any light in my life then. For him to say that, especially when I was feeling happy for the first time in weeks, meant a lot to me.
Hey Esa! You just got back to SF after working a boat cruise in Alaska the past few months. How are you thinking about what’s going on for you next in terms of heading out on another boat adventure and being back in NYC in the future?
New York is always my home base so I’ll definitely be back during my months off, and then from there we’ll see! When I was back in New York the other week for Bushwig and Fashion Week, all these girls came up to me telling me they’ve heard of me, seen me out at parties or with other girls, that they see my own journey with my gender and it’s helped them. New York has helped me through all of that. And now when I’m on the boat, I’m not hiding my transness either. I emailed HR and let them know my pronouns. I just got my first dose of hormones so I’m starting that really soon. It’s been a few years in the making, mentally preparing myself. That’s what New York means to me. I saw my doctor when I was there last. And now I’ve been visiting my family here in SF.
I love this adventure for you, traveling on boat cruises and seeing new places, but having New York and its nightlife being your home.
I probably wouldn’t be who I am right now without New York’s queer nightlife spaces. I would have eventually become this person, but without the support of my siblings in New York nightlife, the encouragement to continue doing what I’m doing, and seeing all the other people who are exactly who they want to be, it wouldn’t have come to fruition so quickly. I probably wouldn’t have started exploring my own gender within the past few years without nightlife. In New York, everybody’s free to be themselves in the most radical way. That’s part of what gives you status. Your notoriety is about how much you express yourself, how you allow yourself to be true, and not care about what other people think.
I want to go back to the start of the pandemic. What was it like for you at the beginning of lockdown and how did you connect with your nightlife communities then?
It was very hard in the beginning because I’m such a social person. I’m used to being out every night and seeing all of my friends constantly. I lived with a majority of queer folks so that was nice to have a small sense of community. We made our backyard into a little makeshift club and we’d all meet. I tried to do the whole digital thing and it was okay, but something about it didn’t resonate with me and I couldn’t do it for very long. I go out to dance and I go out to be around people. With digital, you can’t have a side conversation with somebody, there’s no being in a corner having a heart to heart. I would sign on to support people who were using digital as a lifeline.
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I’m curious to hear if and how your nightlife communities overlapped or intersected with the Black Lives Matter movement last summer.
Almost all of my friends are trans or people of color. We were out in the streets as much as possible whenever there was a rally, some of my friends were the people organizing these rallies. I was trying to be out there as much as possible while still working because I started working again in July that summer. Work took priority because I wasn’t making enough money to meet rent otherwise. If I saw somebody in the street who needed my help, if I saw a trans sibling looking uncomfortable, I was like, do you want me to walk with you, small stuff like that. It’s about being aware of the community around you.
There were so many connections between creating safe nightlife spaces for queer communities, and how we can look to create a safer society at large.
Exactly. Even when I produce parties, that’s always number one on the list. Emphasizing Black trans people and trans people of color because they’re the most underrepresented, the most vulnerable in our society. That goes straight into actual activism and out on the streets.
How are you thinking about safety and accessibility when you’re working on planning or promoting a party?
I want to make sure that the venue itself has a track record of safety for the people I’m trying to protect. I make sure I’ve talked to the owner or the business manager and that they understand what kind of party this is going to be, what kind of people are coming, what security is going to look like as far as allowing us to utilize the space. I also need to know how they know us as a community. I’ve been to parties, even where I was a host, and have been accosted by security because I went into the women’s restroom as a trans person. Those experiences hurt. I make sure that everybody who’s involved in a party knows our vision for safety and security. From there it’s about actual Black and trans people, creating the opportunity for us to cultivate our own space, and not, say, for a white gay DJ to come in at a party for QTPOC folks, or for white gays to outnumber us because the party is fire and everyone wants to come. I try to make sure that spaces are created for us by us, while still being inclusive of others too.
Were there any events that you loved being at or participating in when things opened up this summer?
Fire Island this summer was amazing. It was the first time I’d been out where everything was vaccination only. It was the first time I’d been out where it felt comfortable to be without masks, talk to strangers, and have the kindness I used to have. I loved the amount of outdoor drag that came out of the pandemic, being able to see beautiful performances and support my girls, especially at Maria Hernandez Park or on rooftops. It allowed us to still be a part of the community and show support for people who work in nightlife.
Drag is political. Nightlife is political. There’s really no other place for us but the ones we create for ourselves.
After this last year and a half, it feels like there’s a greater understanding for what goes into queer nightlife in the city, and a greater appreciation for all of the people who work in nightlife and make everything happen.
There’s resiliency in the community and an awareness. Nightlife people create these spaces, not only for us, but for themselves too, to not have to go back to a day job where they’re unaccepted and join this capitalistic world where they don’t have a say in how they get to express themselves. I like to see that resiliency and the imagination that everybody comes up with for ways to continue nightlife, especially in a safe way, putting themselves in a space where they feel comfortable. There’s politics in everything we do. Drag is political. Nightlife is political. There’s really no other place for us but the ones we create for ourselves.
What parties and events did you work on this summer?
I was working so much at the restaurant so I was only involved in a few things. I helped out with a friend’s drag brunch. I helped produce a party called H.U.N.G. at 3 Dollar Bill. We talked to Brenda, the venue owner. She knows me and my friend Matthew Stursber. We told her our vision and discussed the protocols. I did more promoting and Matthew did logistics. Louis Fernando and Joey Quiñones DJed. The party was a sex positive, femme-centered concept. We wanted to have a dance party where everybody felt free and femmes are always the most underrepresented. Matthew goes to a lot of masculine gay parties and we wanted to make sure that the femmes could be comfortable and not be afraid that their presence was going to be hindered. We wanted to make a party that wasn’t just a room of men with their shirts off, but femme forward and everyone knows it.
I think it went really well. My friends had a great time, there was space for everybody. I met people who follow me and they said they had a great time. People were thankful for the space to connect. Working on these parties is all about love and bringing people together. It fostered community, which is always something that I’m interested in.
What are your hopes or goals for yourself and nightlife coming up?
I’m taking it day by day. Every time I get back on the boat, it’s another big commitment. But I really love the way that things are going. I love that trans women specifically are coming to the forefront of nightlife and creating events and space. There are parties like Dollhouse where it’s all about trans girls. We’re the hosts, the creators. It creates even more of a sense of community and security for us because we’re the ones getting paid, we’re the ones promoting the party, getting the people together to come. We know it’s going to be our space. I enjoy this idea going forward, having the dolls come first when normally we come last.
When I’m back in NYC that’s how I want to be involved and supporting and participating. Especially knowing that I’m going to start hormones and become who I want to be, this journey of self has stemmed from my own involvement in nightlife.♦
Text and Photography by Seth Caplan. Read his statement here.