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.
What: Drag artist, party producer
What was your first experience at a gay or queer nightlife space?
My first time out at a gay bar was during my freshman year at Michigan State University. It was the beginning of the second semester and I had just come out to all of my friends. A lot of us lived in the same building and were all discovering our queer identities. We decided to explore the local gay bar together in Lansing called Spiral. Before this, my only experience with queer nightlife was through TV, specifically watching “Queer as Folk.” This may have slightly skewed my expectations of what going out would be like, especially in a smaller town, but nevertheless, we had a great night. There weren’t many other people at the club that night so we were able to take over the dance floor and let loose. This was also a time before I drank alcohol which was a testament to how much fun my friends and I were able to have simply dancing together. We stayed until last call and piled into a taxi to head back to campus. While the experience wasn’t much like what I saw on TV, it was such a confirmation that all of us were on the right path together and found safety and comfort in each other’s company.
How did you end up in New York City?
That decision, like all good ideas, was made with a friend late at night at the Taco Bell on Michigan State’s campus. My thought process after graduating high school was that, while I loved theater and performing, I needed to get a degree in order to get a big boy job. At the time I didn’t think following my passions would allow me to be “successful,” but after failing my math final first semester, I realized that the degree I was pursuing in Arts & Humanities wasn’t going to make me incredibly employable either. After being exposed to some creative extracurriculars at MSU, including joining the cast of a long-standing web series, I couldn’t deny the desire to perform. That night after our failed math test, my friend and I both left 3AM voicemails with our parents, explaining our desire to leave Michigan and pursue our creative passions. To my surprise, my parents responded the next day with an overflow of support. I found an on-camera program offered at a conservatory in New York, auditioned, and moved to the city in August of 2013. I finished school at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. They not only taught us performance, but things to do behind the camera, and how to use the camera too. I got to practice writing, editing, and directing. That helped me realize that acting wasn’t really the thing I felt I needed to do. I liked being a part of the whole process. I transitioned after school to writing, film, and editing.
Did you start exploring queer nightlife while you were in school?
I actually didn’t! Looking back I can say I’m a little disappointed in that. I definitely thought I’d make a ton of gay/queer friends at the conservatory, but my closest friends were straight women at the time. Without really thinking about it, I found myself mostly in straight-dominated spaces or at home playing video games with my roommates.
The night after our failed math test, my friend and I both left 3AM voicemails with our parents, explaining our desire to leave Michigan and pursue our creative passions.
It wasn’t until 2016, after graduating and getting an office job, that I started exploring queer spaces. I was promptly inducted into the company’s LGBTQ+ chat on Slack and the rest is history. I built a great group of queer friends and started going out more. I remember discovering Hell’s Kitchen and popping around to the bars. I had this idea that everything was in Manhattan, but I found spaces closer to me in Brooklyn and began to frequent House of Yes, Metropolitan, and The Rosemont. In recent years, the most fun I’ve had has been at parties and events like Papi Juice and Bubble_T that give space for BIPOC queers.
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How did you start exploring drag?
My first exposure to drag was through “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” I realized drag was a way I could combine many of the artistic talents I have and explore more about myself, too. My first night out in drag was for my friend Wyatt’s birthday at House of Yes. The theme for the night was gold, I already had the perfect little gold dress gifted from a friend and an afro wig, so I thought, this is my time to do it. I put on some lipstick, big lashes, and mascara. It was so empowering. I remember arriving and my friends taking a moment to recognize me and gassing me up once they did. People interact with you differently when you’re in drag. Very rarely did people approach me when I went out dancing before, but that night I felt seen in a way that I hadn’t before. Going out in that cute gold dress, I realized, oh, I have nice legs, I like showing a little skin! I made eyes with a guy from across the dancefloor and we instantly started dancing, it was crazy to me. I ended up going out in drag a few more times before I started performing in 2019.
The theme for the night was gold, I already had the perfect little gold dress gifted from a friend and an afro wig, so I thought, this is my time to do it.
In August of 2019, I went out with Wyatt to an amateur drag show called JUDY organized by Rob Truglia and Erik Holsten, who perform in drag as Issa Mia Mario and Darling Nikki, respectively. JUDY, which usually takes place at C’mon Everybody in Brooklyn, gives space for new performers and creates an incredibly nurturing atmosphere. I remember being awestruck by the performances and by the energy of everyone there. I knew I had to be a part of it. I met Rob that night and sent him a couple of pictures of me in drag. He welcomed me with open arms. Hazyl was born officially September 7th, 2019 on Honey’s rooftop at the following JUDY. The second my performance ended, and I was showered with a bouquet of flowers from my friends, I knew I needed to do it again.
Did you get to perform more as Hazyl before the pandemic started?
I did! I got into the monthly rotation of JUDY shows. I was in the October 2019 Halloween show, JUDY: Nightmare. Obviously, I did Rihanna’s “Disturbia.” We had a JUDY: Decades at the start of 2020 to kick-off the new year. I did 70’s and hit them with Donna Summer who I love. In February 2020 we had JUDY: Rihanna Roulette, which was essentially what Hazyl was born for. I’m a big Rihanna fan. We had to learn nine songs and at the show they’d spin a wheel to pick which one you do. I ended up getting the song I really wanted, which was “Love on the Brain.” At that point I was more confident on stage after doing a few performances even though I was still learning how to walk in heels. And then, as we all know, Miss COVID-19 stepped onto the scene in March, 2020.
Before we talk about the pandemic, I want to hear more about your journey. It sounds like you were starting to get comfortable as Hazyl and with the way you were interacting with New York nightlife compared to how you first started going out. What kept you coming back?
My initial search for queer spaces skewed my thoughts on what community was. In my earlier days, we frequented Hell’s Kitchen, and honestly, I didn’t have the greatest time. I felt ignored by a lot of people, and it wasn’t necessarily that I was going out solely to hook up, but when that doesn’t really happen, and you go out with friends that don’t look like you, you can start to think hmm, what’s wrong with me, or why not me? I had a very tumultuous first start and that’s basically what I thought gay/queer nightlife was. I often became anxious before going out because I didn’t know how or if I’d be received by others outside of my friend group. The gay community seemed to have restrictions that were amplified and unvieled to me though interactions on dating apps too. Nevertheless, I continued to explore more spaces and began to embrace my Blackness and femininity through drag. I was beginning to celebrate the things about me that I used to hide, especially growing up in a small town in a religious household.
Drag began to teach me that my skin is gorgeous, and that I’m gorgeous! I’m Black and femme and need spaces that I feel comfortable in. Now, as parties are coming out that center queer POC folks, I have a lot more fun. These events ask attendees to think about how they take up space, and that’s something that didn’t happen a lot in the past. I want to go out and not feel like a spectacle, even though I want to show up and wear a look and be seen too. Building closer relationships, protesting together, and having family dinners built my community outside of clubs and apps. When I went to my first JUDY, I saw a room full of acceptance and people there to support, which became my understanding of community. Knowing that there are spaces like that allows me to enjoy other nights out where I’m just grabbing a drink and I don’t need to expect anything.
What was the beginning of lockdown like for you?
The March 2020 JUDY we had planned was going to be riot-themed, but of course, we didn’t do it. I got a lot more active on social media, looking at things and seeing the big shift to virtual gatherings. Rob messaged all the JUDY girls to see about doing a virtual show over Instagram Live which was my introduction to virtual performance. I rearranged my whole house, made a stage and did a Beyonce routine. I didn’t get the same energy from it as I do with in-person drag, but I was happy to find something to keep me active and creative. I was still working full time as an office manager too. Without more virtual JUDY’s, I started my own virtual show called HAZYL’S HOLE. I got a few of the girls I knew through JUDY and some other friends to perform. One of my best friends lives in Guatemala and I got her and her girls to join. We raised funds for the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, G.L.I.T.S., and the Okra Project. This was after the Brooklyn Liberation March, and listening to a number of incredible Black trans voices that day, I learned more about their importance in our community and how they’ve been at the front lines for gay rights for years without receiving much in return. I’m from a small town in Michigan and didn’t really know my own queer history.
The gay community seemed to have restrictions that were amplified and unvieled to me though interactions on dating apps too. Nevertheless, I continued to explore more spaces and began to embrace my Blackness and femininity through drag.
You started talking about how your nightlife communities and work started intersecting with learning about Black trans voices. Can you speak more about any connections between your queer nightlife worlds and the Black Lives Matter movement?
That was a huge shift for everybody. I remember feeling disassociated from my job and understanding that there’s so much oppression happening all the time. Mental health in the Black community is a hot topic. A lot of us are taught to simply pray to solve problems. The BLM movement changed so many things in my life, my family, and the conversations I was having. Going out into the streets and finding a couple of friends out there was one of the greatest parts of understanding what community is about for me. Seeing people that didn’t look like me come out to support me was really powerful. I think that built my sense of community stronger than nightlife events have. When Pride month started, I got a call from Wyatt who said he wanted to cut down the JetBlue sign that was hanging over Stonewall. I think I had a work meeting in 30 minutes, but I said yes, I’m coming in drag. I put on combat boots and got down there. After a demonstration finished outside of the bar, we took our painted sign over, cut down the JetBlue one, and hung up ours that said “Pride Is A Riot #BLM.” We brought a step ladder but none of us were able to reach the top rungs to hang the sign. There were cops on the side that weren’t doing anything and two taller guys came over and gave us a boost to get the sign up. It hung for months. That made me want to do more. My virtual show fundraisers were all for organizations centering Black trans people. Looking at my privilege, having a full-time job with benefits, I needed to give back to my community. Brooklyn Liberation was insane. I remember standing in the huge crowd outside the Brooklyn Museum listening to Ceyenne Doroshow, Raquel Willis, and IIanne Fields Stuart, their words reverberating against the buildings around us. Everything about that day was perfect from the mutual aid resources made available for Black trans folks, to space was made for Black people at the front of the march, to the food available to those who needed it. This was what a world could look like with Black trans people in charge.
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That march and rally was organized by queer nightlife creators. Envisioning a queer world and creating space during the day, out in the open.
So much of our trans community has been relegated to the night. Even in the representation that you see on television, if you see a trans person, they’re a sex worker, if they’re even alive at all. People don’t understand trans issues because they think they don’t have trans people in their lives. But we’re everywhere. I’ve been on my journey of being nonbinary which has allowed me to talk more with my family and loved ones about these issues.
You and I first met when Michael George and I, who were doing phone banking for the Georgia Senate race, teamed up with Rob to do a JUDY drag phone bank. You presented a powerful short film in drag about police violence and Black death.
When I started hosting virtual shows, I performed live at first. A couple of other performers did pre-recorded shows and a light bulb went off. I was like sis, you do video editing, you do camera, you have all of the things, this is what you went to school for. I knew I wanted to film something for the June 2020 virtual show and I did some recording by myself and had two friends come film me on my roof with a drone. Then, for the October edition of HAZYL’S HOLE: Hole of Horror I wanted to focus on everyday horrors that we face in society as Black people. I had an American flag under my bed which gave me the idea to use it by cutting it up. I had seen some images of a performance art piece that had red ribbons moving and flowing so I got this idea to use red ribbon and pull it out of things as if it were blood. I got a studio and self-taped it. It wasn’t until I put it together that I saw how it worked. I felt something, that this is what I want to be doing. It was probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve done.
I left New York for a while after that to spend time with family and take a break for everything. I was in Michigan and a bunch of my stuff in New York was in storage. I got a car. When I was able to come back this June, things opened up. It felt like coming home.
Mental health in the Black community is a hot topic. A lot of us are taught to simply pray to solve problems.
One night out at Metropolitan, I heard a Rihanna song on the dance floor and so of course knew it was my time. We were surrounded by people. It was like having an out-of-body experience. We were sweating. None of us had masks, but we all showed proof of vaccination. It took me a minute, but I was able to get back into it. Most of my time being back has been working on artistic projects and spending time with friends. I want to invest in the relationships that I have and the people that have already invested in me.
Now you’re starting to produce your own in-person events.
When I started HAZYL’S HOLE, the name was a joke. I sent it to my group chat and everyone was obsessed. But I don’t necessarily want to say ‘hole’ every time I talk to new people about my shows. I started building a doc for my new upcoming party, Marsha. The name is derived first and foremost from Marsha P. Johnson, but also from Marsha Brady, because I love 60’s and 70’s aesthetics, and disco as the pinnacle of Black femme power music. Marsha is a girl with places to be. I want to make sure that that party is a space where people like me know they’re welcomed, celebrated, and can take up space.
So much of our trans community has been relegated to the night. Even in the representation that you see on television, if you see a trans person, they’re a sex worker, if they’re even alive at all.
Marsha will be at Honey’s on their rooftop. It’s my first time hosting live, but I’m very excited. We have three drag performances, myself included. C’etait BonTemps, a trans drag performer who I met during the protests and Bushwig rallies will perform, along with my good friend from JUDY, SaeKki, who did drag for the first time during the first HAZYL’S HOLE. I’m also going to have time for anyone that’s served a look to come up, get their picture taken, be seen and grab the mic if they want to. I’ll have a Jeff Bezos piñata because it’s the first Marsha, so the theme is blast-off, Marsha goes to outer space. The billionaires can’t be the only ones in space! We have to make literal space for our people in space. After we do our space moment, we’ll have a disco dance party.
What are your hopes and goals for yourself and for queer nightlife?
I want to continue doing what I’ve been doing, but on a larger scale. I’m still a baby in the nightlife world. I’ve had a few performances here and there, I want to start small and build a network of QTPOC creators and performers. I received a warm welcome from some established Brooklyn queens recently, and I want to keep building those relationships. I love talking to other Black drag artists. We have so much in common. If we keep showing up for one another and making space for one another, we can expand, and gain equity and sustainability. We’re seeing more parties coming up that are carving out space for QTPOC folks. I was out in Hell’s Kitchen a couple of weeks ago and it was fun, but it felt similar to what it’s been before. I look forward to a more accepting time where people can go anywhere and feel their fantasy. I want to be a part of making that happen.♦