I fell into New York City's trans nightlife scene by accident. Idling at the end of a friend's drag cabaret in the village, I looked up from my plate of overcooked shrimp to see the club had undergone a sex change. Curtains were drawn in the windows, tables cleared. Trans women sipping sugared whisky suddenly surrounded the semi circle bar, nondescript male counterparts at their sides.
I'd heard about these parties through the grapevine. My girlfriend Akasha invited me more than once, and though I'd always meant to, I'd never intentionally attended. It was just like any other New York City bar, but all the women were transgender. It looked like paradise. I wasn't sure if I fit in, but Akasha assured me that there's room for everybody, regardless of race, size, or if, like me, one tends away from a high-femme aesthetic in favor of flat hair and fitted blazers. As I watched the party unfold, I wanted to know more about it.
More stunners sashèd through the front door, their platform shoes clicking against the tiled stairwell. Multicolored lights moved across their faces and the walls, small circular cells that fleetingly illuminated this counter cultural enclave. I followed the tinsel thread trailing from the party into an alternate, trans universe.
The promoters behind this New York scene are transgender women themselves. There are only a handful of such underground stars; Akasha is one of them. They're artists and businesswomen who've proudly made their culture into a lucrative business.
The relationship between patrons and promoters is symbiotic: For the girls, the parties are a common ground to ki with your sister, share a drink, and dance for tips. For the venues, they're lucrative because the door charges between 20 and 30 dollars to get in—it's easy to set a premium rate because there's virtually nowhere else to go if you're looking to party, dance, or flirt with trans women.
It's a useful generalization to say that the guys who come to these parties are straight. Some are in committed relationships. They're interested in trans women but often struggle to reconcile their attraction with their identity and may become paralyzed by insecurity, scared the attraction makes them gay. And yet, increasing numbers of men seem to be abandoning the down low. I know more than a few trans girls in happy, healthy relationships with cisgender/heterosexual guys.
There's virtually nowhere else to go if you're looking to party, dance, or flirt with trans women.
One Saturday night this summer I met Akasha at a party in Manhattan. Somehow I'd confused the dates, so instead of a trans evening I found her DJing a room full of shirtless gay men. Despite my mistake, I decided to stay for a while and watch her work, and as I walked across the room to take a seat against the wall of mirrors, a man walked directly into my left side and said, "What's up?"
I knew right away we'd both made the same mistake. He was looking for the trans party, and so was I. As I took my seat, Jason smiled and offered to buy me a drink. He told me he comes to the parties a lot. When I asked if he'd ever seriously dated a trans woman he sighed, lowered his head before looking up at me like a sad puppy and replied, "Once. It didn't work out."
"I first realized I was into this three years ago," Jason said, swirling his shot glass before throwing the vodka into his mouth. "But I couldn't actually meet up with anybody, or come to a place like this, until last year."
I sat back on my bar stool and prepared to dig into his psyche, to figure out what occurred in those two years between the realization of his attraction and when he acted upon it. "I don't give a shit what my friends think anymore," he slurred. "I'm just me. Take it or leave it." A few minutes later, I thanked Jason for the conversation and politely declined his invitation to tie him up.
The trans scene in NYC has a long history. In the 1960's East Village, Club 82 was notorious. Thirty-five male-to-female performers gave shows there, five nights a week. The Stonewall Inn was a favorite among transgender queens, as was the 220 Club in the early 70's, which arose after the revolutionary 1969 riots at Stonewall. There were also the long running tranny bars, Sally's and Edelweiss, two of New York's trans strongholds, quintessential destinations for trans women and their admirers in the greatest city in the world.
In the early 90s, club kids were being paid ridiculously well to rule nightlife. Some began appearing on television to discuss their lifestyles—like trans actress Candis Cayne, who made television history in 2007 by becoming the first transgender woman with a recurring trans role on primetime. Another of the best-known 90s performers was a girl named Sweetie; at the height of her popularity, she was featured on a slew of daytime talk shows including Oprah, and she had a role in the seminal drag flick, To Wong Foo.
Sweetie and I met at an old Italian cafe in Brooklyn. In the hour we spent talking, she took me on a time travelling tour of the trans parties at the end of last century. The golden era began in 1991 and lasted for the better half of a decade, she said, before Giuliani helped kill nightlife by "turning New York City into Disneyland."
According to her, Akasha's bar parties are a relatively new phenomenon, cropping up only in the last decade. Sweetie recalled a straight swingers club called The Vault, where trans women were completely idolized two decades ago, but she said her 1993 trans sex party Third Sex was the first of its kind. "It was dangerous for us at that time to get from point a to point b," she said. "Girls travelled by the cloak of night. Third Sex gave girls a chance to gather outside of places like Edelweiss or Sally's."
Parties come and go, but as much of New York nightlife shut down in the late 90's, only a few venues persisted. I learned about two of them from another girl I met in the trans nightlife scene. She asked to remain anonymous. One of the venues that the girls frequented in the early 2000's was called the Now Bar. A transgender woman named Gloria owned it. Staff from the Maury Povich show would come late at night to solicit girls for their "Is it a Man or a Woman?!" episodes. One night Gloria took the microphone and banished them from her club--she wouldn't let young trans women be exploited in her bar. Then there was Asseteria, a party at the Cheetah bar in Chelsea. For whatever reason, an extraordinary amount of beautiful trans women attended. According to my anonymous source, one night Janet Jackson showed up and everybody took to the dance floor, hoping to impress her enough to be plucked from the crowd and placed in her next music video.
Then there was Mother, which was located in the Meatpacking District. According to Sweetie, it was a significant part of trans club culture throughout the 90's and into the early 2000's. "The Tuesday party at Mother was Jackie 60, and it was magical," she said. "If you were a trans girl, a fierce queen, or a kooky cross dresser, you drank for free and you were put at the front of the line. They took care of those girls and made sure that they were just as part of the food chain as the muscle, faggot boys."
Mother also ensured that the right people attended the party—regardless of their gender or celebrity status. Madonna joined the sidewalk queue for Jackie 60 on more than one occasion, but the dom of pop never made it in because the organizers just didn't want what she brought to the party.
So many girls come up to me and say 'Sweetie, I have never ever felt pretty. I feel so pretty tonight.
Eventually, even Mother died, laid to rest with her cousins Edelweiss and Sally's. Mother was off the beaten path, and as precious cafes in the area were quickly being replaced with chic shopping destinations, the owners sold it. The culture then migrated online: Much to Sweetie's dismay, it became increasingly difficult for a trans girl to meet eyes with a dark stranger at the other end of a smoke filled bar. It was this impersonal aspect of trans nightlife in the early 2000s that inspired Sweetie to start Eden Underground, a party wholly devoted to trans women's sexuality.
I attended Eden in 2012, shortly before it sputtered its last breath. There were girls there who looked like they transitioned in the womb and older queens whose identities seemed loose, like a silk slip to be put on and taken off at will. As the party's emcee, Sweetie underscored the importance of inclusivity from her microphone. She would remind attendees that the amount of surgery you've had or the degree to which you pass doesn't determine your womanhood, and she'd preach self-identification by welcoming people into the space regardless of how the outside world perceived them.
"So many of us just never received formative validation, " Sweetie told me in the cafe " So many girls come up to me and say 'Sweetie, I have never ever felt pretty. I feel so pretty tonight.'"
Within the trans scene, there are several different labels, all of which mean different things and yet overlap at times or merge together—labels like transsexual (TS), transgender (TG), transvestite (TV), and crossdresser (CD). The progression of Candis Cayne's identity from drag performer to trans woman is a useful representation of the way categories like trans or drag can overlap or act as a bridge between one other. They're not mutually exclusive, nor are they synonymous. Our categories attempt to describe us, sometimes to liberate us from obscurity, but they can also become confining.
"There was a period when you only referred to people as TV, TS, or CD before you said their name," Sweetie sighed. "You know, TS Barbara. Then there was Sex Change. 'Sex Change Debby came to the party last night, and she looked fierce.' You had to compartmentalize people instead of calling them Barbara. People weren't really allowed to just be."
It isn't only trans women who've struggled just to be themselves. In the aftermath of Eden, Sweetie said she's witnessed a small yet profound cultural shift. While more room has been made for trans identity to be expressed, the men who attend her parties still struggle for self-acceptance. "The girls are much more self actualized than the men will ever be. The men never have another human being to say, 'Guess what? I love trans women. Trans women make me so incredibly happy.' You see these guys striking up friendships, and then the next couple parties they'll show up together."
There is a negative stereotype that suggests trans women have no one to love them. Trans bodies complicate popular ideas about what makes someone a man or woman. As a culture, we define sexuality in terms of gender, and woman with a penis doesn't fit neatly into either straight or gay orientations. Of course, trans girls know all too well the great power they hold and the innumerable amount of people who desire them: Many girls have no trouble getting a date. The difficulty more often lies in finding someone who has overcome the cultural stigma against loving transgender women.
In the club, sophisticated women surround me. They take care of each other. The men are infatuated, floating behind a trail of perfume like heart-eyed tomcats. What does it take for the guys to bridge the gap between their attraction and the intimacy these girls share in sisterhood? The scene is complex, but it represents a simple truth about human sexuality: The idea that sexuality is fixed, or that it's all about genitalia, is boring and outdated. The ladies behind trans nightlife are genius--they've created their own microcosm of cultural resistance, the spawning pool for a new sexual liberation.
On my last night of reporting for this story, I went to a gentleman's club in Midtown Manhattan to meet Akasha. The place was packed with grinning men and trans girls with good boob jobs. I arrived just in time to see the dancing begin. A man whose face was covered in tattoos sat front and center beside another wearing a suit. The guys were everywhere, eager with stacks of dollar bills to peel apart and snap into the floss of bulging thongs. From her booth, Akasha introduced the first dancer. I took my seat in one of the blood red velvet armchairs.
The idea that sexuality is fixed, or that it's all about genitalia, is boring and outdated.
Around two o'clock in the morning a dancer described as the Blasian Barbie took the stage. She twirled romantically to a high-pitched pop track before another voice came over the speaker.
"Cut the music," the voice commanded.
There was a lag and then the club fell silent. I, and the male patrons, looked around puzzled as Barbie stood on stage too prettily, wearing a ring of Hawaiian flowers around her neck. The girl on the pole by the bar in the back of the room stopped spinning, and the crowd of men and women turned their attention to the stage. Then a great plate of fire began to drift through the air on someone's hand as a chorus of dancers started to sing happy birthday to Barbie. I looked to see if the guys would join in, but none of them did.
"Don't burn your hair, girl," someone said as she blew out the flame. Akasha's commanding soundtrack reclaimed the room as the multicolored lights passed over us. There will be a day when the love of transgender women is regularly visible, when it no longer strobes in and out of cultural awareness between intervals of darkness. Until then, there are bars across Manhattan where the trans girl is always asked to dance.