Content warning: this article makes reference to drug use. All views expressed are that of the writer.

New York, 2003

There’s an area I often gravitate towards here, between the corner of the bar and the fire escape door. There’s a tiny platform where people go to smoke. That’s where the best conversations happen. I’m a guest here, warmly welcomed, also very clearly not from this scene. My whiteness, thrift store clothes, long beard—incongruous with my feminine body and extra-long hair—all broadcast that I’m a guest. I feel really at home, though. The first time I came to the Clubhouse, which was at the Harlem Karate Institute on 3rd Ave between 121st and 122nd at the time, it clicked in instantly. On the drive home, as the sun came up over the East River, I remember saying, “well I know where I’ll be every Wednesday night from now on.”

Here I am again in this small special spot between the bar and the fire escape door. The music is loud, but the speakers are far enough away that you can talk and hear someone talking over it, and it’s three or four in the morning so there’s not much sound from the street. It’s only later that I realise that I like places like this where the music holds a social life that is bigger than the dance floor, that is more than the DJ, or the “crowd.” I like places like this where art happens as part of culture and culture happens as part of art, and conversations are the messengers that transmit between them.

I’m by myself, small plastic cup of vodka soda with lime in my hand, looking around, listening, smiling—paying attention. I can’t gender or age the person who starts talking to me. Baseball cap, handsome, also pretty, loose athletic clothing chosen with taste. Shorter than me but not by much. Warm greetings and a question that regulars often ask me at the Clubhouse, “What brings you here tonight?” My usual answer  is gestural, open palms, both hands with arms outstretched gently celebrating the room with loving movements… “this.” Meaning all of it. But the real reason is that this is the first genuinely gender expansive and trans welcoming space I’ve ever been in and all of me knows it and longs to be there.

A single spotlight illuminates a dancefloor at a rave

Gavilán Rayna Russom

This person gets it, while also trying to read me and decode the puzzle. They say, “I’m Paris Dupree, have you ever heard of Paris is Burning? Well I’m that Paris.” Yes I’ve heard of Jennie Livingston’s ballroom documentary Paris is Burning. I’ve recently watched this film, it’s part of why I’m here. And I’ve thought about it, sifting through it, trying to parse its complexity as a document, as an extractive product, and also as a critical resource.

Anyway, this night at the Clubhouse Paris Dupree shares a meticulous and brilliant critique of Paris is Burning, and tells me about another film, How do I Look, still only part way through a production process that will take a decade. Paris explains in detail the ways that How do I Look will be an intentional response to many of the problems with Paris is Burning, and that this will be primarily accomplished through co-authorship with members of the ballroom community, something glaringly missing from Livingston’s process.

It was 17 years later when I finally got to see How do I Look, and by then I’d become a fully actualised trans woman, something that would have never happened without the community at the Clubhouse and the people I met there, the art that I witnessed and the culture that I was invited into as a guest. In that spot between the bar and the fire escape door, Paris Dupree educated me on representation, ethics, documentary research methods, cultural sustainability, while also putting me onto a very important film that is still not seen and discussed enough.

No one was watching us, no one was recording us, no one cared to package this moment because it wasn’t even built into what was supposed to happen from the point of view of art, or music. There were programmed things happening, music playing, looks, serving, walking, and within the space that all of those things created, Paris and I were just talking.

I like places like this where art happens as part of culture and culture happens as part of art, and conversations are the messengers that transmit between them.

Berlin, 2006

They are calling it the Russian Winter. Shit is so cold. Bone chilling cold. I have ofenheizung, coal heat, and if you don’t know what that is, you don’t want to know. So I go out a lot. This is a bad time in my life. Don’t really want to talk about it. Lots of drugs. Lots of drinking. Not in a fun way. But damn I love Black Girls’ Coalition. I don’t think I will ever dance anywhere the way my body lets me dance at Black Girls’ Coalition. My favorite spot is next to the speaker in the main room, the living room. Other rooms are much better for talking. Yes I’m high, so this is sort of an obvious thing to say, and I of course will pay for it later, but god my body feels good.

It’s not that loud, not much bass. This is not a “good” sound system. Paisley Dalton is DJ’ing and the level of zoning that is happening is unreal. She looks gorgeous. She’s DJ-ing from a laptop. These are not high-quality audio files. The room glows. She glows. She never looks up from the screen where she’s pulling one track after another into a playlist that she’s cueing. No blends. No beat matching. Selection. Precision. She’s singing along to herself in the glow of the screen.

This is not a techno party but there’s a lot of people here I see at techno parties. I don’t remember the last time I was at my apartment. Too cold. We went somewhere else before this. We’ll go somewhere after. Nächste Party kommt bestimmt. Fuck my body feels good. The friend I’m here with is so handsome. Not my type, I’m consistently not into men although I try to keep an open mind, but it’s so fun to have a handsome gay friend who sees me even in my current disaster phase. Damn my body feels good.

People on a dancefloor with a red spotlight

Gavilán Rayna Russom

We can talk over the music. We can’t stop appreciating Paisley. The whole thing is so punk and also so glamorous and like, HOT. She is in total control, and she doesn’t care. It’s mindbending. It doesn’t feel real. We have to keep checking in with each other and appreciating it to make it feel real. Celebrating this place, and her—that makes it feel real. Otherwise, none of this is believable. I don’t believe it remembering it now. Shit my body feels GOOD.

The music is all over the map, but the continuity makes sense. The mix itself creates sense as it spins itself, as Paisley spins it. We are partying and having fun, we are sharing space. It’s fucking COLD out there and we are inside together and inside it’s HOT. And jesus my body feels good.

Then this happens: Paisley Dalton plays Blister in the Sun by the Violent Femmes. No perceivable shift because everyone dancing is already at peak celebration. Have been already. No way to go higher. Maximal pleasure saturation. Maximal joy saturation. But my friend and I have already been in this ongoing conversation while we dance, asking each other periodically and enthusiastically: “what is she going to play next?”

In this Blister in the Sun moment, I remember my first dance party in a club. Stupid Dance Party at The Rocket. I had to sneak in. I was 16 years old. Blister in the Sun always hit big at Stupid Dance Party. It was usually slipped in by DJ Grizzly after some longer stretches of Techno, Acid House or British Dance Sounds. I wasn’t a huge fan of Blister in the Sun but watching the way it worked when DJ Grizzly played it in a dance set was remarkable. Usually it came after a patch of instrumental tracks. And I remembered that on one of my favorite nights at Stupid Dance Party, Grizzly followed Blister in the Sun with Groove is in the Heart. I really LOVED Dee-Lite as well as that single, their first, which had just come out. I just melted with joy.

So then at Black Girls’ Coalition, 16 years later, my friend and I are dancing to Blister in the Sun, and we’ve been talking and dancing at the same time for a while and it’s casual. He asks me, in this same way we’d been talking about it, this celebratory way, “what’s she going to play next?!?!?!” And I’m high and in this memory about Stupid Dance Party, and without even thinking I say, Groove is in the Heart. And then Paisley Dalton plays Groove is in the Heart.

Desire continues to operate beyond the place where appearances are kept up.

Berlin, 2015

It’s a big club. It’s a huge club. We’re in that little spot where there are a few chairs against the wall between the bar and the bathroom. We are both very comfortable here for different reasons. Simple, quiet, still. Undoubtedly nearby someone is drinking someone else’s piss. There’s actual sweat in the air like it’s a microclimate. Techno. Don’t remember who’s playing. Likely not that important although it might become important later. You never know for sure. Time changes those things. Casual, quiet despite the volume. This is actually what quiet is like for me because in spaces like this the music takes the place of what is otherwise a chattering loud-space in my head. In the volume there’s a quiet, and I can relax in that place.

Some talking, mostly about music. We are getting to know each other, me and this husband of a friend. We both care about music in ways that needs this particular kind of quiet-within-volume to really propagate conversationally. There need to be breaks that aren’t awkward silences longing to be filled. The music holds space for the breaks.

People on a dancefloor with a red spotlight

Gavilán Rayna Russom

In a long break we enjoy what’s around us, commenting occasionally on the beauty of people giving up on keeping up appearances. The sex and the sweat make it impossible and on the other side of that rushes in the adorable discovery that desire continues to operate beyond the place where appearances are kept up. Desire is churning and thriving in the space of running mascara, soaking wet clothes, absence of clothes as a utilitarian choice, incongruity, smells, disheveled hair. In the swirl of these things in this public albeit dimly lit space that arcs towards privacy while making display inevitable.

In a long break while we are mostly looking, his arm curls around me. Not a flirt nor an advance. Not sexual, not romantic. Not charged, not transactional. Simple. Affectionate. Steady. I lean towards him and relax. The way it feels when a gay man puts his arm around me and doesn’t want anything but the closeness that gesture adds to the moment. The way I feel at home. The way this only happens in spaces like this.

New York, 2020

We’ve maybe only talked once. But have exchanged countless smiles across haze-filled dance floors. If either of us is not playing we generally zone at the peripheries. And that’s how this is. I break the ice because I’m taking contrary action to feeling left out. This pays off. The connection that’s happened musically and in glances is happening in words now. Sense-making in the undertow of the sub-woofer. They have things to say that touch places I care about. And through conversational resonance I get the sense that this is reciprocal. We want to see each other more.

A month later we’re sitting at opposite ends of a rotting tree trunk in Forest Park. We’ve been talking for hours. It’s a different kind of quiet-within-volume. The force of trees, leaves, pine needles, wind, flowers, bugs, birds, they hold space for the silences. But it’s the same conversational rhythm. Clubs are closed. People are sick. Minimal facts are available. We’re both wearing masks outside and staying distant from each other.

There’s this one tree with white flowers that run across its branches like vertebrae. Effusive praise for this tree. We are both/each just praising this tree. We have to keep checking in with each other and appreciating it to make it feel real. Celebrating this place, and her. That makes it feel real. Otherwise, none of this is believable. I don’t believe it remembering it now.

Later I’m in Pennsylvania near where my ancestors are buried, and I see this same kind of tree, although not as impressive as the version in Forest Park. I photograph it and send it to them. More praise. Remembering. I’m sure at some point in the future we will revisit praising that tree again in an effort to bring a sense of reality to something which continues to challenge my limited ideas of what that can be.

Connecting with other trans women out in the cis world is like landing in a perfectly woven net in the midst of a free fall. Perfectly woven in its buoyancy, resilience, and beauty.

New York, 2023

It happened just the other night. On my way home, not ready to go home yet. Wanting to check in with a trans-sister (thank you Chloe Dzubilo). More for me than for her although she’s been on my mind. Someone’s playing. They’re good. It’s early. Backyard is open. God comes and holds me in her arms in the form of another trans woman who I know and enjoy talking to who is running the bar, a trans woman who also makes impeccably intricate and sensual music.

Connecting with other trans women out in the cis world is like landing in a perfectly woven net in the midst of a free fall. Perfectly woven in its buoyancy, resilience, and beauty. It is possibly the most precious experience I have in my life. This simple interaction, quick, casual, informal, held in space and time by the sounds we talk over that drift from the nearby dance floor, also full of a richness that is impossible to name. Grateful for my ability to appreciate and witness it in real time.

Out to the backyard, mostly out of curiosity, I don’t plan on staying long. Smiles as I run into the other trans woman I thought I might see here. We sit, we catch up. Bouncing softly in the perfectly woven net of trans sisterhood. We talk about possible collaborations. Backyard closes, we move inside, talk more. Joined by a couple of her friends. Casual. Music continues. Undertow, vortex, sluice, wave, ebb, run, rush, synonyms for “tide” that only approximate this feeling of being held in a space created by volume that is not only about the sounds that volume carries.

Moving through the space. Pausing, observing, letting the mind settle in the way it sometimes can there. Another trans woman I know. She’s talking to someone gorgeous. I let her be. Then check in with her later on at the edge of the dance floor. A good conversation. Again that feeling of bouncing gently in the woven net.

A person on a dancefloor with a multicoloured spotlight behind them

Gavilán Rayna Russom

Later I’m in the bathroom line, planning to leave soon. Two people behind me. One of them is the gorgeous person my friend was talking to earlier. The other one is also gorgeous. They are talking about something. I can’t remember what now, but at the time I identified with it. Maybe it was about the heat. Or about waiting too long to head to the bathroom and then getting stuck in line having to pee really bad. We don’t know each other but we’re standing close enough where it wouldn’t make sense to not laugh at the jokes that are obviously being overheard and to offer casual comments on the stories being told. It makes the line move faster and it’s a pleasurable way to transform something that otherwise is uncomfortable and annoying.

Then out of the blue one of the gorgeous people gives me the most detailed and expressive compliment on my hair. I’m shy at first, “yeah it always gets really full in humid weather.” But I yield to accepting the praise as the compliments keep coming. I accept it because I’m attuned to the idea of praise and celebration as a way to ground the implausible beauty and pleasure of these interstitial moments, and because I sense in some way that in this moment I’ve become a little bit like the tree in the park for them. I’m what is pushing this moment into the place where it becomes hard to believe, where it requests—too much subtlety at work to say requires—praise to ground it. It’s just a momentary suspicion that allows me to take in a sweet compliment. No need to follow it up.

A stall opens and I take it. When I come out, they’re gone. I’m ready to go home, although I’m craving more time in the dense and strange summer night air so I gladly walk the 40 minutes it will take to get there. Space unfolds. Re-folds. Unpacks into time, also folding. Alone, moving through the night wrapped in a garment woven of the tiny and massive pleasures of these in-between moments.

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