It felt like a movie. The space was taken over by the children, club kids in outfits a commoner might think were lifted from The Hunger Games. The tea is The Hunger Games got their looks from the kids. It was a mix of the club kids hosting the event, the gays who attended, and the unknowing straight hotel visitors who happened upon the party.
And it was a party. This was the debut of “On Top,” thrown by legendary nightlife hostess Susan Bartsch, then in collaboration with nightlife king Kayvon Zand. The venue was The Standard hotel. Not the one in the East Village. The one people care about– the one in Meatpacking. The Standard has the Boom Boom Room, a Great Gatsby meets 2050 kind of space. It has Le Bain, a red lit dance floor with a glamorous disco ball and a hot tub in the middle of the dance floor. It has the Rooftop, featuring 360° views of New York City, the city that never sleeps.
It may have been Tuesday, but the crowd danced like it was a Friday. Nightlife protege Domonique Echeverria was decked out in a gold sequin gown she sewed herself. She jumped in the jacuzzi, still in her gown, her dress falling down exposing her breasts, with a champagne bottle in hand spraying bubbles on partiers in the splash zone. I stood in awe, transfixed by the lights and the music. This was the queer space I had been looking for all my life.
Especially after the Pulse Nightclub shooting.
I couldn’t see the screen through my tears. I just got back from dancing at the now closed Brooklyn gay bar “This N’ That” for Brooklyn Pride. It was 4 am. Still buzzed from the liquor, I checked my Twitter before going to sleep and that’s when I saw it.
Photos and videos of the heinous act of violence began to flood my timeline. The shooter had a semi automatic weapon. It was Latin night at a gay club. Injured individuals ran from the nightclub for safety. Bodies were on the dance floor strewn together in a mass grave.
America’s largest mass shooting targeted black and brown queer and allied bodies.Their names and faces made headline news just hours later. Their stories snuffed too early to ever get the endings they deserved. I cried myself to sleep only to wake up and cry some more.
And it was the proximity of my identities that made the Pulse massacre so real. It made me feel vulnerable. Not only for being both queer and Puerto Rican, which made the faces of those lost feel like familia, but also because of how often I found myself in nightlife spaces.
It was in nightlife that I allowed myself to put on my first dress, wear a pair of heels, paint my face. I found a community that allowed me to find and express myself. These queer nightlife spaces were what I yearned for when I was younger, something I thought only existed in fiction.
I could salsa before I learned to crawl and I could dance merengue before I took my first steps. My hips swished back and forth when I walked barefoot as a child on the island of Puerto Rico. I would dance, sing, and boy, could I give you shows.
After coming out as bisexual, the same swish in my hips was ridiculed. My queerness became something that I had to hide, for my safety. It wasn’t until I moved to New York in my 20s that I was able to fully explore my queerness in both my sexuality and expression.
But even large cities aren’t the queer sanctuaries that many mistake them to be. Just in the last few weeks a lesbian woman was harassed and assaulted on the train in the city I call home. Even more horrific, a trans woman of color was murdered in the same city. These city lights expose that anti-LGBT hate doesn’t just exist in the shadows of middle America.
The days following the Pulse I could barely get out of bed. I was in mourning. Precious lives were lost. The safe space of queer nightlife was desecrated. It was time for Pride but I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate.
I couldn’t bring myself to dance.
Weeks passed but things weren’t the same. Something had changed significantly for me and for my community. Life went on but the reminders of the 49 lost were etched into my mind. Their faces resurrected in memorials around New York City. Their names echoed on lists, not to be forgotten.
The election only made things worse. My depression consumed me, paralyzing my daily life. An administration voted in by individuals who actively worked against queer people took control. Living as a queer person of color post Pulse after this election brought forth some of the hardest times I’ve ever faced.
I assume my position perched on the balcony. My feet already sore since I only wear heels no shorter than six inches, but holding onto the railing provides some relief. It also gives me a bird’s eye view of the crowd raging below. I adjust my corset and sip my drink through a straw so not to ruin my glittered lips.
This is Gotham, a weekly party at Webster Hall thrown by nightlife legend Kayvon Zand, who I met years ago. I host here now, inviting queer people to dress up in glitter or leather, and dance the night away in VIP. I pour drinks for the new children who come out in looks for their first time, wagging my finger and giving an approving “yaasss” to those who truly turn it, and giving reassuring smiles to those too nervous to be in a look, waiting for approval.
It’s in these spaces that I feel at peace now a year later since Pulse happened.
I still have days where it’s hard to get out of bed, yet I’ve found myself going out more than ever. I put my look on like armor. My sink tells the stories of ferocious looks past. I create my looks as a form of therapy. I allow myself to live a fantasy and celebrate the parts of me society wished didn’t exist.
Days I spent in bed now are turned into nights spent on dance floor. I find it rejuvenating to be around queer people uninhibited and joyful. It’s not about the substances, it’s about the community. I find the strength I need to face the day in queer nightlife.
This is what makes it so special to me and so sacred for queer people. It’s a self created space where we find and celebrate each other. It’s why queer people met at Stonewall, it’s why queer folks danced at Pulse that tragic night and it’s why I dance now.