Back in 2018, photographer Seth Caplan began to photograph friends and acquaintances who are queer nightlife creators. What emerged, in the end, 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: Harrison Curley
What: Producer, host, nightlife manager
What was your first time out at a gay bar or queer nightlife space?
I grew up in Orlando, Florida. The first time I went out was to Pulse actually. We would sneak into Pulse all the time. And it was one of those things where, like, “we’re not gay, but we’re going to go out to support this person or do this or do that.” It was Orlando and no one was out, it wasn’t a thing here in 2010.
In 10th grade, my friend Ross was starting to come out. We were like, we’re going to go to the gay club with you. We didn’t even really drink yet, we were just acting stupid. It was crazy, it was wonderful. I had such great memories of Pulse growing up. Seeing Roxxxy Andrews and being pulled up on stage, being mortified in high school and just the whole sneaking out of your house to go out and be with all my friends. We were the artsy kids and it turned out we’re all fucking queer.
It was wonderful and fabulous and so terrifying. It’s just a mismatch of all those nights. What I wore was horrendous. It was that beautiful feeling of when you’re not out yet but you know that this is right for you. You don’t really know how to express it yet. You’re not ready. You don’t really know the words, the language, the visuality yet of who you are and who you’re trying to be. Going out for the first time at Pulse I think is a similar feeling for a lot of people who are just trying to figure out what their queerness is.
How did you end up in New York and start going out here?
I had an internship at an art gallery one summer during college where I was studying art. I stayed at this hostel when I was interviewing, and the gallery helped me find a place to stay which was so crazy. I started going out with my friend Jesse, who graduated and moved here first. We went to Susanne Bartch’s On Top at Le Bain every single week. We would get together at either my shitty apartment on the Upper West Side or her shitty apartment in Bushwick. We would chug a Four Loko or two, smear makeup, put on all the trash we could, put on heels and then get to On Top and shark drinks, scream and yell and dance and have a great time. I always tried to avoid getting in the hot tub because I’m terrified of it, but sometimes we’d end up in there. That’s kind of where we started. We didn’t really know anyone yet except for Molly Rhinestones, Trey La Trash and a few others.
I grew up in Orlando, Florida. The first time I went out was to Pulse actually. We would sneak into Pulse all the time.
So that first summer and year was an experience of feeling nightlife calling out to you and connecting that to making art in college and working at a gallery.
Yeah, absolutely. It was definitely, I want to be an artist, I want to do this. Nightlife was something that was a passion I’ve always enjoyed and where I wanted to be, an expression of self that is important to me, and an important exploratory element of what my queerness is. That’s how it developed. Queer nightlife was something that I absolutely wanted to be a part of. So I just kept going out, kept meeting people, kept trying to work, trying to be involved however I could.
And then you started becoming involved with Spectrum and the Dreamhouse?
The Dreamhouse opened like a month or two after I arrived here, after graduation. I was talking to Molly and asked how to get involved. She was like, ‘okay cool, come hang out with me, we’re gonna get ready together, put together a look and then go together cause it’ll be your first time.’ So my first time, it was that extremely, extremely special Dreamhouse/Spectrum feeling that everyone talks about, especially with people that work there, where you arrive and it’s shock and awe. I had no idea that this was exactly what I wanted, but it was. It’s that feeling of, this is what I was thinking of the entire time and I didn’t even know it. It’s queer people everywhere able to live their lives, be comfortable, be fabulous, be messy, do whatever. Every party is insane. It’s full hedonism in the most wonderful queer way possible.
My first night there was so very much like that. Molly and I kept going. I was showing up in just wonderful, beautiful trash, all of the dollar store things I could pick out and make a fantasy out of and then acrylic paint and makeup smeared everywhere. She coined the phrase, especially when I found a disgusting wig, a long blonde ratted wig, she started calling me rat-punzle. And that was basically it. I would go to the Dreamhouse all the time to help set up, to help with installation, to help with cleaning, to help with whatever. That’s how I became a part of the family. I was working there, I was bartending, I helped manage the bar for a while. And the family all stays together. With Dreamhouse closing, we’re all still extremely tight knit, talking all the time. But I’m taking a break now too, which is also good.
It was that beautiful feeling of when you’re not out yet but you know that this is right for you. You don’t really know how to express it yet. You’re not ready.
And you also work at The Deep End, you’re at Sutherland doing the door.
Yeah, I hosted Sutherland for a while. It was at 3 Dollar Bill and I worked the door for Frankie Sharpe and a lot of the parties there. I host Play Now with Linux and Susanne Bartch. Working the door is so fab. I do it for Studio with the Sterling Sisters and for all of Frankie’s parties, which are myriad and fantastic. It’s wonderful to see everyone be able to be a part of it, to work and provide service, to help out the girls that need help. You know, the people that are going to walk in in a look, that beautiful, wonderful femme who’s like ‘I only have $3,’ and I’m like, ‘fab, here you go, come on in, let me help you get your whole life’ Or the people that you’re like, ‘okay, come in with your whole group, we love seeing you.’ Fabulous.
So that feeling of being able to help other people find themselves if they can’t access the cover prices, similar to how you were being scrappy going out at the beginning with your looks.
I think the Dreamhouse and Spectrum have been a huge part of that. I have such a wonderful queer family that looks out for each other deeply and our community in Brooklyn is one of the most tight knit and expressive and just provisionary for each other in the entire world. I want to help cultivate that and make that even more true. And the little ways that I can do that is by continuing to work in nightlife, helping out those that I can in whatever way. I want to help get you a drink. I want to help make sure that you feel good in your look and you feel validated. If you’re like, ‘oh my God, I don’t have a place to stay for three nights,’ please come over and stay on our couch. I want to help bring that family aspect to all of nightlife because it is such a place that as queers we can revel in and make our own that doesn’t really exist in any other facet in the world right now. I was that scrappy bitch. Hopefully like we’ve all been through that. So it’s like, girl, I see you.
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Do you see any new trends or directions happening in queer nightlife in New York?
I guess a lot of it’s cyclical. I would say that being someone who’s only been involved in it for three years, I know a lot of people that have been in it for so long and are so much more serious. Maybe this is from just a wildly optimistic standpoint, but I do see it becoming more trans, and people of color-centric, hopefully. I see a lot more people working harder to center POC and center trans and nonbinary people, which is wildly important. It’s especially something that we should be focusing on because that doesn’t happen very often in queer communities.
I think that’s an important trend to focus on and to continue, especially in spaces that are often white and cis. A lot of gay parties can get that way. Making sure to go far out of your way so that those people are the ones that we focus on, QTPOC people are the ones that we want to feel the most comfortable because they don’t get to have spaces outside of nightlife very often. A lot of parties are very sex-centric, which is good. I work on, and hopefully it happens again, for a trans and femme-centered sex party. I was the assistant to Avory Agony who throws this party Buffet that was at the Dreamhouse. It was a wonderful working experience, being able to provide help for all of them and kind of stay in the background, being able to have a bunch of femmes and trans and nonbinary people truly express their sexuality with one another and not have to worry about the gaze of gays. I think this centering of sexuality, not just for white gays, is an important way that Brooklyn is moving right now.
I want to help bring that family aspect to all of nightlife because it is such a place that as queers we can revel in and make our own that doesn’t really exist in any other facet in the world right now.
I love hearing about people’s relationship to dancing.
What do I love about dancing? It’s movement, it’s exciting. It’s like something that you can express yourself through. I would absolutely not say that I’m a particularly good dancer, but I’m fully willing to just do it, which I think is the most important part of dancing. I’ve been known to go way too hard, especially after really drinking too much and people being like, wow Harrison, one dip is cool, but when you’re doing 20 within like a few songs, it’s not cool anymore. Okay Harrison, you’re just rolling on the ground. Also the Dreamhouse floors, no one should ever, ever put their body on them. I have been known to roll around on them and writhe on the floor and get up and have the whole side of my body be covered in soot and nasty.
Does that freedom of movement in dancing connect to your love of queer nightlife spaces?
They’re extremely connected. I think in trying to provide space for others, especially those who have less space in our world than I do, or people with bodies like I do, or people who have the ability to operate easier within our society. Being able to provide space where people feel comfortable dancing, they feel comfortable being themselves, where they can fully express their identities and loves and passions and talk about it and tell others and feel valid and just be. That’s tied to dancing. Dancing is often just joy and expression and I want to move with all of these people.
It’s so great to catch up with you, Harrison. I’d love to start out with what early lockdown in NYC was like for you when everything shut down, and if and how you participated in the culture of digital and parties that the nightlife community put together.
I definitely participated in the Zoom party culture. At the very early stages of the pandemic, I connected with two of my friends Garrett Allen in New York and Xavier McFarlane in Marfa, Texas, and we started a Zoom party called FFZ where we brought together people from everywhere. We had DJs out of Mexico City, a DJ from Peru. We had a really exciting and diverse group of people that got to participate. We were able to raise money through our Zoom party that we gave to different organizations benefiting Black trans folks during last summer too. It’s something I’m very proud to have been a part of. We continued for about four or five months until the Zoom party culture collapsed in on itself. Aside from that, I did a few parties for Susanne Barsh including her Pride last year on Zoom, which was an interesting spectacle considering how very deeply in person she is. But that allowed me to see some friends in person from across a rooftop having fun in full looks.
I participated in Zoom parties at the beginning too. At the beginning of lockdown when I was having a lot of anxiety about not working and not seeing friends, the parties gave me a grounding sense of community. It was so beautiful to see and dance with friends, even through a computer screen, and get dressed up.
Yeah, in those early days of quarantine, not knowing what to do with ourselves, those parties really provided a space and served a need we had to get together. I also started taking Spanish classes on Zoom with this tutor from Colombia, which has been a really cool, and of course he’s a very cute, gay teacher.
One cool thing about digital connection that we were all figuring out, is that it erases physical boundaries. It’s wonderful how you brought your New York nightlife community together with your friend from Texas and DJs in other countries. It didn’t matter where people were.
It was definitely a really cool way to get together when we were inside for so long and it didn’t matter where you were in the world.
In those early days of quarantine, not knowing what to do with ourselves, those parties really provided a space and served a need we had to get together
You mentioned raising money for Black trans folks through your party. It was so amazing to see how folks were working on creating community within the Black Lives Matter movement. Queer nightlife has always been tied in one way or another to social justice and it was powerful to see people using nightlife networks to fight for social justice. I’d love to hear a little bit about what you were up to that summer.
I was very honored to be able to try to do my part as a white person and organize the people around me for the Black Lives Matter movement. My boyfriend and I, and a lot of our friends from nightlife, were painting signs and we held a big cookout with our neighbors and marched in the streets. I connected with GLITS (Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society, a non-profit that supports trans folks with health and housing) and Cayenne Doroshow, the founder, and just wanted to show up and show out for the people that we love so much.
In the club, it’s an ideal to be able to create safer spaces in which QTPOC people feel centered and feel taken care of. So trying to bring that into the public was important. Obviously it was nothing close to a safe space, cops were attacking people, especially Pride marches that summer that ended becoming violent because of the police. It was a deeper reminder that is echoing, to protect those of us in our community that are most oppressed, whether you’re in the street, whether you’re in the club, whether you’re on a Zoom. It’s ongoing.
Last summer was a relearning and growing, or a brand new learning experience for so many. I think there are a lot of people making parties and curating events that are doing a fantastic job of centering QTPOC communities like Dis Cakes and Papi Juice. And there are new parties that are coming up making something special. I think it’s also important to mention that as parties have come back, the way that capitalism works, parties need to make money by selling tickets online, and especially as white people, we have to remember that not every space is for us as well. Part of the work is taking a step aside at certain events in which you might have money to throw at a ticket, but it doesn’t mean that you should be there taking up space. That’s something I’ve seen a lot post-pandemic. Not everything is meant for everyone, it’s about being able to help make those spaces safer and better, and sometimes taking a step back is really the answer to that.
It was a deeper reminder to protect those of us in our community that are most oppressed, whether you’re in the street, whether you’re in the club, whether you’re on a Zoom. It’s ongoing.
Can you tell me a little more about the work you did with GLITS and what you were up to over the fall and winter?
It was incredible. So, Cayenne Doroshow is a big friend of the Spectrum family where I used to work for so long. She did a massive fundraising campaign that went worldwide and we helped spread that, at least in New York. It was so great to bring together our Spectrum family to support her and her work. And you know that fall and winter we kind of started working, restaurants opened a little, I was back at work like two days a week. My boyfriend and I ended up leaving our apartment in Bushwick and moving to FiDi because of the low rents. And then we started gearing up for the opening of The Q, a new club in Hell’s Kitchen, where I work now as a floor manager.
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Oh, amazing! I haven’t been yet but have friends who’ve DJed there recently after the opening. How did The Q come about and what’s going on there now?
It’s a fabulous space. It’s been two, three years in the making. I was Frankie Sharpe’s assistant for about two years so I’ve been hearing the rumblings of being able to visit the space as it was getting built out during the pandemic. It opened for Pride this year. It’s owned by Frankie, Allen Picus and two others. It’s four stories of a club, a lounge and cabaret and just wonderful things. So it’s really coming together and we’re excited to have the parties that we do. It’s definitely a new challenge for me being in Hell’s Kitchen because the culture is extremely different from what I’m used to in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy. I’m excited to carve out a space for everyone in a neighborhood that’s overwhelmingly white and affluent.
What are the different parties you’re running now?
Frankie creates a party that’s very much like Dreamland, if you ever went there, it is definitely our QTPOC centered party and there’s a ballroom scene and a bunch of incredibly gorgeous individuals that come together actively changing the culture surrounding Manhattan nightlife. I’m just honored to be able to be a part of it. We have something new or changing almost every week now because it’s so young. I’m there weekends Thursday through Monday. On a Friday night is our pop rave party. Saturday we have Babylon, which is more of a traditional boy party. And then Sunday, there’s Hard Serve, with Dahlia Sin and Lucas Skywalker. During the week, there’s a bunch of wonderful cabaret shows and drag. Really just anything, anything you could imagine. The way that Frankie’s curated the spaces, it blows my mind. I’m there five days a week right now so I really got to cradle and take care of the baby as it starts to take its own first steps.
What was Pride like for you this year?
Oh my gosh. What did I do? As someone who works in nightlife, it is definitely a week that I’m like, listen, I love Pride, for me it is about making my biggest paycheck of the year and making sure everyone else has a great time. And then I get to have fun after that. I worked at The Q. I worked at Turks Inn, which hosts a lot of queer events. I was working there pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. And I also worked Unter at the end of the week, you know, just, seven days straight bartending and being in the club. It was a fantastic time and definitely a lot of work.
It’s really cool to see so many new things, especially like The Q in HK, with old venues closing like Therapy and smaller queer spaces closed during the pandemic too, to have a new Manhattan space with a diverse offering and trying to be open for a big swath of the queer community.
Having a brand new space is incredible. There were so many spaces that closed and couldn’t survive. Having a brand new one where everyone is welcome and where we’re actively working for a safer space there is so great. New York nightlife can come back and be as resilient and as fantastic as ever, you know?
So on that note, what are you looking forward to? Do you have any personal goals or hope and dreams for your corner of queer nightlife?
During the pandemic, I’ve been able to work a lot on my art and have made a lot of breakthroughs since we had so much time. I’m working on a painting series that I want to show and hopefully be able to make a career out of that. I’ve been doing photography again. I’m just excited to re-explore being in spaces with people and help move things forward, to just support these dreams that people are coming up with. I’m trying to learn to take time for myself again, while working so hard in nightlife. Work-life balance definitely, and just making magical spaces.♦
Text and Photography by Seth Caplan. Read his statement here.