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Why Are There So Few Parties Where Trans People Feel Safe?

Trans parties need to be recognized as distinct spaces with their own values and culture.

by Dream Dommu
Jun 24 2016, 6:10pm

Rebecca Smeyne

This weekend, THUMP honors Pride with a celebration of all aspects of LBGTQ nightlife in NYC and beyond. Today, journalist and party promoter Dream Dommu—founder of the club night Cissy—discusses why trans parties need to be recognized as distinct spaces with their own values and culture. Follow our Pride Weekend coverage here.

Being a woman in a man's world is hard enough, but there's a special sort of injustice that comes with being a trans woman in a gay man's world

Over the past five years, queer nightlife has blossomed in Brooklyn—almost every night of the week, you can see a drag show, some enigmatic performance art, or cruise for a new boo on the dancefloor. Gay bars like Metropolitan and clubs like Good Room regularly host riotous gay parties, and the city's underground warehouse raves are hotbeds for a whole spectrum of identities.

And yet, even these progressive spaces are mostly filled with white gay men. There is a serious lack of parties produced by and for trans people in New York City, as is the case in most major cities. The trans parties that do exist are often subsumed under the umbrella of homonormative gay nightlife culture. Which means the media, LGBT community, and world-at-large recognize these events primarily in their relation to cisgender (those who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth) white gay men—the presumed audience of any capitalistic endeavor. (We must never forget that nightlife is an industry.)

"Trans nightlife is about being honest about the fact that we are all transitioning in so many ways."—Juliana Huxtable

In the weeks following the horrific massacre in Orlando that claimed 49 lives, it feels important to be queer together, no matter what separates us. But spaces run by and created for trans people are still vitally important—and in fact, more needed than ever.

Part of the problem is that the trans nightlife scene in New York City is tiny. Sure, the big gay parties in Manhattan—run by promoters like Ladyfag, Frankie Sharp, and Susanne Bartsch—regularly employ trans DJs, performers, and hosts. The night after the massacre at Pulse, for instance, Honey Dijon, a trans female DJ, played to a huge crowd at Ladyfag's weekly party Battle Hymn, a night that provided much-needed catharsis for hundreds of queers processing their pain. But nightlife is still mostly run by cis people, which means there are alarmingly few trans people in structural positions of power. We might be getting booked for gigs, but we aren't running the show.

Gender non-conforming drag queen Zenobia at the author's party Software (Photo by Luis Nieto Dickens)

Privilege has a large part to play in this structural inequality: trans people rarely have the time, energy, and financial resources to create our own parties because we are four times more likely to live in poverty, especially those of us of color, according to a GLAAD study. 90 percent of us report employment-based harassment or discrimination, and 22 percent report police harassment. Our jobs and homes are not protected against discrimination in most American states. The odds are stacked against us, and while nightlife is an important way for the trans community to connect and thrive, most are too busy simply trying to survive.

Before actively identifying as trans, I began throwing parties in 2012 as half of queer art collective The Culture Whore, and was able to amass a large gay audience within a very short amount of time. But who knows if I'd be in my current position as a cultural curator with the social and economic capital required to produce on the scale I do, if I hadn't entered nightlife presenting as male?

This is not to say that New York City lacks parties run by trans people. These parties exist. The problem is they lack visibility, and often aren't recognized as distinct spaces with their own values and culture.

For example, last fall, I started a weekly Wednesday night party at Macri Park, a divey gay bar in Brooklyn. I originally called it Hair, then renamed it Sissy, and by December the party had morphed into its current iteration as Cissy—an evolution that directly mirrored my own transition from a bearded faggot with serious femme leanings, to a non-binary queer, and now, a transwoman who regularly pumps herself full of estrogen.

Cissy has been a weekly space for trans, femme, and non-binary queers from its inception, but these people only really started to show up in earnest when I started to carry about my own gender identity publicly. That's when they understood that the space was being created for them, by one of them.

Trans performer Belle at Cissy (Photo by Patrick Arias)

But when New York's Grubstreet recently named Macri Park as one of the best gay bars in Brooklyn and mentioned Cissy in the blurb, the website completely obscured that fact, writing:

"Nights like Cissy (Wednesdays) reaffirm your faith that the gay boys of NYC are still having fun." Post-drag performance artist and fellow transwoman Charlene posted a screenshot on my Facebook wall, commenting that she was "strapped and gagged" because Cissy is a night decidedly not for gay boys. In fact, it's the one night in the week where most of the people on the dancefloor at Macri Park aren't all cisgender white gay men.

Like the tiny microaggressions I face every day as a transwoman—an Uber driver calling me "sir," or furtive looks in the ladies room—the Grubstreet article was just another casual erasure of my identity, of my community's identity. And the fact that this negation of the entire purpose of our little freak space came in the form of someone applauding it didn't make the pill any easier to swallow. The writer was sincerely apologetic when I sent him a Facebook message correcting his mistake, and his intent wasn't malicious—it was mostly just poorly researched journalism.

"The 'safe space' conversation acts as a hangup. People lose sight of what's really going on—a war on trans girls' bodies in these space."—New York DJ Serena Jara

But his reflexive assumption that a party called Cissy was geared towards gay men is indicative of a larger problem in underground queer nightlife culture, where trans and gender-nonconforming people disappear inside a larger gay structure that values cisgender white male bodies more than any other. That is why the need for more trans-run parties and more visibility for the ones that do exist is so pressing.

Cissy is one of these parties, as are all the other parties I throw, like the semi-regular Software I produce with DJ Katie Rex, and the larger warehouse raves I do as The Culture Whore. My friend Charlene runs a monthly party series at her home, a space lovingly referred to as Casa Diva, and she and I throw a monthly called High Femmes for stoner babes all over the gender spectrum. Genderqueer Le Tigre icon JD Samson's weekly tea dance Scissor Sunday is one of the vestiges of lesbian nightlife in Manhattan. DJ Serena Jara teamed up with Cunt Mafia in March for C-unit, a party with an all-femme lineup, including a performance by rising trans rapper Quay Dash. Macy Rodman's weekly "drag show for fuckups" Bathsalts, which closed last June, was a space for the weirdos even before she announced her identity as a transwoman, and her events continue to be inclusive spaces for femme queers and gay boys alike. Juliana Huxtable's roaming party Shock Value is usually full of young, hip trans kids thanks to her status as Internet celebrity and art world wunderkind, as well as hot trans talent like DJ Dese.

The author (Photo by Ben Boyles)

While the queer community likes to talk endlessly about "safe space," the sad reality is that safe space is a myth. How can any space be safe when trans people, especially trans women, continue to be assaulted and abused on dancefloors? How can any space truly be safe when earlier this month, Goddess Diamond became the 12th trans woman of color murdered in 2016? How can any space be safe when Omar Mateen was able to walk into Pulse and murder 49 of our brothers and sisters?

The world is already a difficult enough place to navigate as a trans person. Even in seemingly enlightened queer nightlife, trans women are often objectified, insulted, assaulted, and ignored. "To me the 'safe space' conversation can get tired," says New York-based DJ Serena Jara in an email to THUMP. "[It] actually acts as a hangup that people focus on, [losing] sight of what is really going on—which is a full-on war on the bodies of trans girls in these spaces."

Nightlife space created by and for trans people—what we call t4t nightlife—is as much about safety, Huxtable says, as it is about "being honest about the fact that we are all transitioning in so many ways."

Juliana Huxtable DJing at her party Shock Value in February

"[Shock Value] was a way of creating a space about me and my peers who were trans and gender non-conforming, [and] a vessel to push beyond ideas of queerness as the antagonistic other," she continues. "It was really a place where we assumed the authority to create a space where our sisterhooding, brotherhooding, otherhooding or whatever could be at play." In other words, parties like Shock Value create spaces where the fantasy of queer control and safety can be enjoyed, even for a few hours. These empowering experiences are desperately important for trans people to take back to the muggle world.

Safe space might be a myth, but trans space isn't, or doesn't have to be. So how do we empower trans people to expand their turfs in nightlife? Promoters: book trans people as often as you can, and pay them fairly so that they can gain both the financial and cultural capital needed to start their own parties. Bar and club managers: if you have an open night, hire a trans person to run it, and don't say you don't know any, because we are here.

The media continues to reframe the horrific tragedy in Orlando as an American one, rather than a queer one, by focusing on ISIS, terrorism, and Mateen's own repressed sexuality—instead of the fact that he was a product of cultural homophobia and ignorance. This kind of erasure is extremely dangerous, but we can fight it. Not only do we need more trans spaces, we need those spaces and the people creating them to be recognized and respected. Because when you aren't seen, you aren't safe.

Follow Dream Dommu on Twitter, and go see about her party The Dragon Ball tonight (June 24) in Brooklyn.