Editorial Exclusive

RFTCA: HIV/AIDS Cure Won’t Come in a Pill




Won’t Come in a Pill

We are finally starting to see the day where getting rid of HIV/AIDS is plausible, scientifically thinkable.


Illustrations by Felix Santos

“It is no longer the science that is limiting

a cure for AIDS,

but a failure of leadership and the lack of imagination,”

says Kambiz Shekdar, an Iranian-born cellular biologist who invented biotechnology that puts innovative stem cell therapy into practice. His nonprofit organization RFTCA (Research Foundation To Cure AIDS) is the first charitable biotechnology venture that obtained a license to use cellular technology to research, develop, and commercialize a global cure for HIV/AIDS for all those in need, regardless of ability to pay. 

I first met Kambiz during World AIDS Day in 2019. His nonprofit was hosting a fundraising gala at Indochine, the iconic NYC restaurant. During his opening speech at the gala, I was taken aback by his bold statement that getting rid of HIV/AIDS was plausible and scientifically conceivable. There are only two reported cases of people cured of AIDS. Timothy Ray Brown, otherwise known as the “Berlin patient” was cured in 2007, and Adam Castillejo, also known as “London patient” was cured in 2019, as reported by The New York Times. It was hard to believe that a cure might be just around the corner, when the success rate of getting rid of the disease was so miniscule. Nonetheless, I wanted to find out more about Kambiz and the work that he was doing with RFTCA. 

Just a month later I found myself sitting in Kambiz’ spacious Brooklyn apartment, deluged with a wide selection of cheese, fruits, and hot tea. 

Cookie-Cutter Cure

Kambiz: I am a gay guy, I grew up with AIDS always in the background, as something that I would have to face as a gay guy, and I care about the disease on a personal level, but why I decided to start RFTCA was only from a scientific standpoint.

There are about 37 million people around the world living with HIV/AIDS, and only two people have been cured. One of the technologies that I invented when I was a graduate student at Rockefeller University is something we built a biotech company around, and we’ve been applying that technology to many different uses for almost 20 years. It’s like a Swiss army knife that you can take to different projects. This technology has promised to take the only two known cures of AIDS to date, learn from them, and translate them into a broadly accessible cure, something that you could imagine could be available to everyone around the world who has HIV/AIDS. 

Kambiz refers to his technology as disruptive. Disruptive technology is an innovation that significantly alters the way that consumers, industries, or businesses operate. A disruptive technology sweeps away the systems or habits it replaces because it has attributes that are recognizably superior.

When I heard about the first person who was cured, I realized that biotechnology I invented and built a biotech firm around promised to translate the science behind the first cures into basically a cookie-cutter cure that would be more readily available for more people. And I decided that we were just going to start and try to figure out how to make that happen. 

The AIDS drugs that have been life-saving are amazing – they’ve kept millions of people from dying. But there’s an almost singular focus on these drugs, there is so much money behind the drugs, and the drug makers are paying LGBT/HIV organizations hundreds of millions of dollars, so everyone is promoting the drugs, everyone is talking about the drugs, and very few people have heard that two people were cured of AIDS. 

The science for developing a robust, broadly applicable cure is just starting to bubble up. Very few people know about it. So it’s very important to raise awareness that this science is on the horizon – and that this is the time to really push all possible effort towards a cure. 

How to Cure AIDS (?)

Alexey: Right now, I feel like it’s all about the medicine, it’s all about PrEP. I heard about the Berlin patient before, but I feel like not everyone was talking about it and it wasn’t featured in the news. I thought it was a fluke. If they cured that one person, why haven’t they cured more people?

Kambiz: If you cured a disease – let’s say you cured colon cancer for the first time – it doesn’t mean that future cures are going to be the same way as the first time around. Future cures could be much more streamlined and different. The first patients that were cured of AIDS had both AIDS and leukemia. For leukemia you do a bone marrow transplant, you take bone marrow or stem cells from the donor and you put it in the patient where the stem cells give rise to a new immune system that cures the leukemia.

Gero Hütter, a physician at Charité Hospital in Berlin, was the first doctor to cure a patient of AIDS.

Kambiz: The doctor who cured the first AIDS patient was a hematologist. His patient had leukemia and AIDS, and he had heard in medical school that some people are naturally HIV resistant. He thought,

“We have to cure the patient’s leukemia, but the patient also has AIDS, let’s look for a donor who’s not only immune matched but one of the handful of people who is known to be naturally resistant to HIV. If we take stem cells from the bone marrow of someone who’s HIV resistant and put them in the AIDS patient, maybe the immune system will not only cure the patient’s leukemia but also AIDS.”

And it worked!

What’s interesting is it was a doctor treating leukemia who cured AIDS-it wasn’t an AIDS physician or an AIDS scientist-the idea came from left field. That is one reason the news of the cure didn’t catch on, because it was reported by a doctor who was not an expert in the space. At first many people didn’t believe it, they thought it was a fluke, maybe the guy is a wacko. Yet this patient was tested over and over again and remained HIV negative, and eventually it was clear that he had been cured. There were still lots of questions. What exactly cured him? Could it have been the wiping out of the cancerous immune system? When the second patient was cured it became clear it wasn’t a fluke, that it was repeatable. It was still a convoluted process, it still needed to be straightened out, but the second cure showed that this is not a one-time thing, it’s now been done twice. It meant that the cure could be repeated. 

Resistance to HIV

Alexey: What makes someone resistant to HIV?

Kambiz: There may be many ways people are resistant. In the early days of AIDS, some people who became positive would progress to having AIDS illness faster than others, and people thought not much of it, like, you know, everyone has different luck or different health, but it may be that there’s a biological basis for how people respond to HIV infection. 

At least one of the factors is a gene called CCR5. Let’s say HIV infects your cells. The virus latches on to the surface of your cells and it injects its genetic material. It takes over the cell. That’s how the cell becomes infected, but the virus doesn’t just attach anywhere on the cell. There are cellular receptors on the surface of the cell, and like a boat at a dock, the virus latches on really tightly to these. HIV has to attach to two cellular factors present on the surface of cells: CD4 and CCR5.

People have different versions of genes. Some people have a shorter version of the CCR5 gene – called CCR5-Δ32 (delta-32). It’s missing 32 letters of DNA. This is a big change, making it a different version. Let’s say, the normal version is this long; the Delta32 mutation is a little bit shorter, the shortening disables the CCR5 receptor on white blood cells and people with the shortened gene may have a natural defense mechanism against HIV infection. Just like when different genes can give you blue, green, or brown eyes, people with this genetic mutation happen to be HIV resistant because the virus just can’t latch onto the cells of an individual who has the shortened CCR5 receptor. So no matter how many times they might be exposed to the virus, it simply cannot grip onto them, it can’t infect their cells. This biology was first discovered during the height of the AIDS epidemic when lots of gay men were dying. 

Some gay men whose friends were dying started going to doctors and saying,

“I have the same risk factors as my friends who are dying.”

They had the same kind of sex with multiple partners and were doing the same things, yet they were not being infected. So after a while, after studying them, doctors found out that these guys happened to have a shortened version of this gene, and that became known.

According to RFTCA, less than 1% of the global population is naturally resistant to HIV.

It was known for many years that at least 10% of people of northern European descent have the short genetics and are resistant, and there are thousands of people with AIDS and leukemia, and anyone could have thought,

“Let’s cure the leukemia and these patients using bone marrow from one of these resistant donors,”

but no one else thought to do that.

Cure Challenge

Alexey: So why is it such a challenge to cure AIDS in the first place? Can you tell me a little bit more about the disease itself? 

Kambiz: You know I’m not an HIV/AIDS expert. My expertise is in cellular engineering or genetic engineering. And I’m venturing into a genetic engineering method that we can apply to different genes including HIV-related genes. So we bring this expertise to the HIV space. As I understand it, HIV is a virus that infects cells of the immune system. Immune cells are your body’s natural defense system and this virus infects these cells, destroying your immune system. Once your immune system is gone, you can’t fight off infections that normally would not be a problem. So you succumb to diseases that ordinary healthy people would survive, but they become life and death in the case of AIDS.

Alexey: So in the case of the Berlin patient and the London patient, that infection was scrubbed out of their system?

Kambiz: As far as people can tell by the tests, that is possible. They can’t detect the living virus in the patient’s system. 

Alexey: And are you implementing the knowledge that you got from these two patients into your technology?

Kambiz: Yes. The two patients were cured using naturally occurring stem cells from the rare donors that are naturally HIV resistant. Physicians took stem cells from the rare donors, put them in the patients, and that showed what kinds of stem cells are cured. Where we and several groups like ours come in, is using our own different genetic engineering technologies, including technologies like CRISPR and others, to create curative cells using each person’s own stem cells.


(Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats),

or genome editing, is a group of technologies that gives scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA.

The idea is, if I have HIV/AIDS, you would take my blood’s free-floating stem cells. They reside in the bone marrow, but these stem cells also circulate in your blood and go back into the bone marrow and come out again. Ideally, this is what a cure would look like: doctors would draw blood, isolate the stem cells from your blood, and then we come in to do the genetic surgery to shorten that CCR5 gene in the cells. We would take the 32 letters out in a patient’s own stem cells and then infuse the stem cells back into the patient, no longer needing the donor. That’s the idea.

There are four or five different ways to do the genetic surgery. The technology I invented when I was a graduate student is one of them, and what we are working to do at RFTCA is to develop it for use to cure HIV/AIDS on a pro bono basis. We’ve fully licensed our technology to RFTCA, so that the organization has the rights to research, develop, and commercialize a charitable cure. The next step is us saying,

“We’ve put the technology on the table, now we need the funding to build a team of scientists to adapt the technology and optimize it for this purpose.”

We’ve used the technology in other applications, but we haven’t yet used it for HIV/AIDS. That’s what we’re starting to do.

Raising Funds

Alexey: Do you need more funding to start trying it on HIV patients? 

Kambiz: That’s one of the things we need. We also need a lab. We’re currently talking with Northwell Health. Northwell is a huge hospital complex. They own 20-plus hospitals in the New York area. And one of these hospitals is the former St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. St. Vincent’s was the center for compassionate care for HIV/AIDS patients in New York City and hundreds, maybe thousands of patients, died of AIDS at St. Vincent’s Hospital right in the West Village at Greenwich Avenue and 7th Avenue. That hospital closed down and is now owned by Northwell Health. We’re talking with Northwell about creating our research lab in the very space of the former AIDS ward of St. Vincent’s. We’re also starting to talk with the city to help get city funds to build out the labs. With the technology and the lab, what we need next is funding to actually hire the scientists and the full team to do this project.

Alexey: At the Indochine gala you mentioned that it was hard for you to get funding. Your goal was to get one million dollars to set you on the next step. And you said that it was challenging getting that much in donations. 

Kambiz: Very difficult. I don’t have a lot of friends who can easily write a big check. So to reach people who, out of the goodness of their hearts, decide they want to give their money to this and not get anything in return except knowing they’re moving something forward is challenging. I’m sure a lot of people out there would care about this project and want to support it, but they don’t know that we exist. They don’t know that curing AIDS is really thinkable. They don’t know that there are groups out there like ours trying to bring the science forward. Reaching those people who are in a position to write big checks and telling them,

“You know, there’s no crystal balls in science, but we believe we have a promising pathway,”

and asking for their support, is really difficult.

Million Dollar Obstacles

Alexey: It probably is also difficult to build that trust bridge. If I were a millionaire and then you told me about this, I would probably just give you a million right away, but I can see how people might think that it’s impossible or, why haven’t they heard of the Berlin patient or where’s the proof that this is actually going to work? At the same time I think that maybe also the problem is that the focus is on a different thing. These medications are saving a lot of lives, but at the same time they are kind of taking up all of the headspace of everyone at the moment. That’s what everyone’s just thinking about. 

Kambiz: When I first started this organization, I thought it would be very easy to get money given what we set out to do. I didn’t even think it would be much of an effort, but I had never been in a nonprofit. I thought there’d be tons of people who would happily give us checks to get started. I came across a couple of different obstacles. One is stigma. In medical philanthropy, usually the people who donate to fund the leading edge of innovation are either patients who are driven to help their own condition or those who feel like they’ve suffered through something and can relate – then it becomes a cause for them and they want to help address it. In the case of HIV/AIDS, this social stigma has been so strong and it is still so strong that a lot of people who are in a position to donate money don’t want to be known as having HIV/AIDS. There’s a barrier to being up front about it unlike, say, cancer. Social stigma makes it harder for some people to really get involved. I know some older gay guys who are HIV-positive where very few people know they are HIV-positive, and they keep it a closely guarded secret.

I also know a few young gay guys who are HIV-positive whose family has a lot of money, and it’s the same thing for them. The last thing they want is for people to know their kid is HIV-positive. They’d rather have the kid go on with his life with the best medical care and for no one to know they are positive. So if medical philanthropy is driven by patients, but stigma keeps a lot of the patients who can fund this kind of in the shadows, that’s one obstacle.

The second obstacle is just the vast amount of money in the drug space. We have a lot of terrific organizations like GMHC that have been around for 30-plus years.

GMHC is the world’s first HIV/AIDS service organization.

Their biggest corporate donor is Gilead.

Gilead Sciences, Inc., is an American biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Foster City, California, that researches, develops, and commercializes drugs. The company focuses primarily on antiviral drugs used in the treatment of HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and influenza, including Harvoni and Sovaldi.

GMHC is an organization that helps address people living with HIV/AIDS, but when Gilead Sciences, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of AIDS medications, is donating hundreds of millions of dollars to AIDS and LGBT organizations, it creates conflicts of interest where the very AIDS organizations are actually benefiting from the drugs. So, you know, where’s the activism to push for an HIV/AIDS cure? 

Alexey: It’s a vicious circle. For Gilead it’s profitable that people stay infected, but it’s not profitable for drug companies to be curing people. 

Kambiz: It’s a lot like when tobacco manufacturers were selling their product knowing that it’s addictive, how the opioid manufacturers were selling their products really hooking everyone on it. I think it’s what’s going on with Gilead Sciences where that’s what’s happening with PrEP. All medications are helpful, but there are no silver bullets, and the way that PrEP has been rolled out introduces a lot of risks and a lot of questions with long-term ramifications.

It’s a PrEP World

Alexey: I feel like that’s also human nature – you just want to find an answer right away. You want a short solution to a problem. So I think this is where, probably, the pill culture in the US comes in, where it feels like there is a cure for almost everything. 

Kambiz: There’s also so many factors and different views around health. What are the driving forces that people consider and weigh? I think one of the key drivers behind PrEP and using strong AIDS medications as a preventive is actually an emotional one. Some people who are HIV-positive don’t feel comfortable having sex with someone who’s HIV-negative because they don’t want to risk infecting them and vice versa. That’s because this is an infectious disease. It’s an infectious virus. There’s lots of ways to decrease that risk, including condoms, and taking a pill is one new way to do this. What’s beautiful about PrEP is, if you take this drug, it’s going to reduce infection rates. 

It’s also a great tool in a monogamous relationship. For couples, where one person’s positive and one’s negative, the negative partner can choose to take PrEP to protect him or herself from acquiring the HIV infection.

When there’s so much emotion wrapped up in this space, PrEP also affects how people feel and handle obligations about disclosing their HIV status to sex partners. For instance I have one HIV-positive friend who says PrEP makes it easier for him to have sex. He thinks that because information about PrEP is sort of out there, that it’s up to everyone to protect themselves. So he sometimes feels he doesn’t need to disclose he’s positive. These are important ramifications to think about, too. 

My problem with PrEP isn’t these current uses of it, but the longer-term considerations. What I’m thinking of specifically is the data that is just starting to come out. About half a year ago there was a case study in the Seattle area that showed six percent of people living with HIV/AIDS have HIV that has high-level resistance to Truvada. Six percent isn’t a small number. Yes, people who have HIV/AIDS should be taking medication so that they’re undetectable so they can’t pass it on.

But maybe they won’t, maybe they may miss a few doses, or maybe the medications stop working. It’s assuming a lot to think that the Truvada-resistant HIV in these six percent of people living with HIV/AIDS will always be under control. If you’re HIV-negative and you were to have sex with someone whose HIV has high-level resistance to Truvada, then even a bottle of Truvada won’t protect you from being infected. The six percent figure will only grow over time.

As HIV resistance to Truvada increases, there will be more and more PrEP failure. The solution in this case would be where pharmaceutical companies would ask us to take ever-stronger versions of PrEP medications:

“OK, now take turbo PrEP.”

Just like we have endless versions of iPhones, we will be asked to take PrEP version 10, PrEP version 11, and so on. I think what we’ve opened the door to is the idea that if you’re HIV-positive, take a pill. Oh, but now if you’re HIV-negative, also take a pill. 

PrEP has opened a brand-new market for these drug companies. The new paradigm that we use strong powerful medications, even if we’re negative, is like brushing HIV under the rug. It is not a sound and long-term way to treat dangerous infectious diseases. If we overuse our drugs as a preventive method, then as the drug-resistant strains rise, we have to use stronger and stronger drugs to contain them – that’s the risk that I’m worried about.

I don’t think we’ve thought out the long-term ramifications of using PrEP. We are in a PrEP bubble, where right now it’s effective, but as the drug-resistant strains rise, and as we need stronger and stronger medications to protect us, is that really the world we want?

If we advance a cure and vaccine at the same time, then together with the pillar of PrEP and treatment and diagnosing people, we have a chance to really end it. But if we just put all our hopes on PrEP, I think we are opening the door to constantly ratcheting up the strength of the drugs that we’re going to expect generations of gay guys to take in the future.

Alexey: You’re 18 honey, it’s time for your PrEP. It’s a little bit insane and it’s actually a little bit scary when we talk about it that way, but it’s totally something that could be out of a Black Mirror episode.

Kambiz: Imagine there were no long-term risks, where we just pop these pills in order not to get HIV. Even then, I think we could do better than just have everyone be on a diet of drugs forever and ever.

“Are you positive or negative? Let’s just keep taking drugs.”

That isn’t the dream. That’s not the goal. The goal should be to get rid of this thing, and we won’t get there if we just rely on these drugs. It’s a really delicate space. Very fascinating puzzle to solve.

Cure O’Clock

Alexey: So let’s say tomorrow someone calls you and says

“I have a million dollars, here you go.”

How long do you think after that point it might take you to find a cure?

Kambiz: I think that we need about three to five years for the remaining preclinical work to get to the point of the cell therapy to start taking shape and then we can start clinical trials. So three to five years of work in the lab with scientists. And then you would have cell therapy enter human clinical studies, which would mean, you start your transition from working in the lab to going into a hospital and clinic with physicians and AIDS patients.

The clinical trial, I estimate, would be another three to five years. If we get the funding for the first step, a million dollars, that would be great, but we won’t be able to cure AIDS with a million dollars alone. But as we hit the goals of each stage, that would support getting the additional tranches of funding needed to advance it.

So let’s say, in 10 years we would have a cure that we hopefully could start implementing.

Alexey: I read that you want a cure to be cost-effective and practical. You want there to be a practical way to bring a cure to everyone around the world, right? So, how do you see that working in more rural parts of the world like, let’s say, in Africa?

Kambiz: It’s vital that an AIDS cure be not just for rich people in wealthy countries. I wouldn’t be putting in my time into anything if it was just for a few rich people – I think that it has to be available for everyone. I think that’s the challenge that drives me – how to create a cure that has a chance to benefit the lives of everyone who’s living with HIV/AIDS.

It’s scientifically thinkable, the first cures would be a little bit more involved. They would be more custom-made for each person. But once you create these custom cures for each person, because we’re talking about stem cells that are self-renewing, they grow and you can grow the curative cells for each person you treat in large vats and freeze them down for use with future patients.

So imagine you cured the first 2,000 patients or 10,000 patients. At some point we will get to a place where, let’s say, a patient number 10,001 shows up. It stands to reason that you could go into your frozen cell bank and pull out an ampule number 689 from that patient where you made it as a custom treatment, but now cells from this vial that are frozen down are suitable to pop into patient 10,001. So it could be that you create a repository of curative cells that you collected one by one by treating each patient. But you reach a point where you have this bank of curative cells that you can just pop into future patients. And that’s what will really make it broadly accessible.

Not For Profit

Kambiz: I think what drives me is knowing it’s possible to cure this and figuring it out and not making money off of it. That’s what’s driving me, or I wouldn’t be doing it via a nonprofit. I think that’s how people should be doing things in general, like if there’s something you could add that can benefit others, put it out there and get collaboration and help from people with different expertise to make it real and tangible.

I believe in capitalism. I think it helps incentivize people, but I don’t believe that the system we have can’t be improved. I think when you’re talking about health and cell therapies and medicine, it’s not the same as washing machines or shoes. You can’t do those things fully for profit and, in my case, I invented something, started a biotech, the technology is multi-use, and we’re pursuing the other uses for profit. But in this case, it makes sense to me to do this via following a nonprofit model. HIV/AIDS affects a lot of people in countries where they can’t afford a cure. So, you have to do it with a nonprofit motive to make sure everyone’s included. 

If you would like to donate, sign up for RFTCA’s newsletter, volunteer, or share your stories, you may do so here:

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Alexey Kim


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Felix Santos


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Editorial Latest The Mixer

Martyr: Where Was God When I Was Raped?



Where Was God

When I Was Raped?

After being sexually assaulted at seventeen, I sought answers about my identity, as I tried to understand what it means to be queer living with both religious and sexual trauma.


Where was


when I was raped?

A question I ask myself every night for two years. Having stopped believing in a God as a teenager, why was I still burdened with this existential question of spirituality?  

After being sexually assaulted at seventeen, I sought answers about my identity, as I tried to understand what it means to be queer living with both religious and sexual trauma. Becoming a self-anointed “Martyr,” I found my identity through drag, art, and my own interpretation of piety. By sharing my story, I hope to help others who have experienced similar traumas find both solace and courage to begin speaking out.

Making of a Martyr

Religious trauma is ingrained in many a queer person’s experience. Being raised Catholic myself, I knew the guilt and shame of a queer identity within the church firsthand. I was taught the horrors of Sodom and Gomorrah, punished for seeing two men being affectionate, and forced to perform corrective masculine behavior. From forcing the “swish” in my walk to disappear, or being allowed to play with G.I. Joe over Barbie, most of these punishments were subtle. The one odd example that sticks out was when I grew out my nails a bit too long. At the ripe old age of nine, my dad accused me of being a gay coke dealer due to my slightly longer pinky nail. He would then restrain me while he clipped them. What short nails teach about masculinity, I will never know. 

As I matured, I began to question the validity of these teachings, seeing the contradictions of a loving God but a punished existence. I somehow managed to cut ties as a pre-teen when I began to accept my identity as a reality.

G.I. Joe>Barbie

However, the shame of my queerness hung over me like a shadow, never allowing me to fully have the coming out experience with friends and family. This shame came to a head in my senior year of high school, as I decided to test the waters of sexual attraction and download Grindr. What started as a game of impulse and curiosity ended with ineffable damage. On November 23rd, 2012, at 12:51 pm, I was sexually assaulted in my first queer sexual experience.

I try to avoid specifics about what happened that afternoon for the sake of my own mental health. After being diagnosed with PTSD, I realized the weight of bringing up details can have on me and others who have experienced sexual assault.

Despite being a dumb horny seventeen year old, I never had any intention of meeting up with anyone on Grindr. However, one guy kept messaging me persistently for days trying to convince me to meet up with him. It was the final proposition of a threesome that eventually got me to agree against my better judgment. I thought it was the ideal way to lose my virginity and score some “cool points” with my friends. I couldn’t drive at the time, so I lied to my mom about seeing a movie with some friends and was picked up in front of my neighborhood to avoid suspicion.

(012_023) Envy, Martyrdom 2019

Risking my safety by entering a stranger’s car should have been the first warning. I was completely uneasy the second I entered his car. This stranger, a mid-thirties Naval officer, just kept feeling me up and making sexually charged comments. I was too socially awkward to say anything or stand up for myself, and began to shrink inwards. We drove for about 5 miles, reaching the home of a college-aged twink. I had briefly chatted with this twink on Grindr, so I knew that this was his parent’s home. Having to sneak around his folks, we found his bedroom and started taking our clothes off.

From here it’s a bit of a blur, the shock of being sexual with strangers mixed with my Catholic guilt paralyzed me. Physically I was there, but mentally I had shut down, going through the motions and following orders. The last thing I can remember was foreplay ending and being pinned onto the bed. I desperately asked for a condom, and both parties laughed at the thought. 

I’ve repressed those next few minutes. Eventually, the Naval officer got dressed and left in a hurry. Being stranded, the twink reluctantly offered me a ride home. While less unsettling than the first, this car ride was just as uncomfortable. The twink had told me that the Naval officer was married with a newborn, and that he had been cheating with the twink for months.

(014_023) St. Anthony of Padua Patron Saint of Lost Souls, Martyrdom 2019

I wish I had known that detail earlier, as I know I could have avoided the whole situation. Besides the physical assault, not having this information beforehand robbed me of consent, as I agreed to the threesome under false pretenses. Looking back, the whole encounter was filled with secrets and lies, which led me to get in a dangerous situation with no support.

I was in denial about the assault for over a year. My Catholic upbringing led me to believe that all homosexual encounters would be predatory and traumatic. I tried to bottle up my confusion and shock of the whole ordeal and shove it in the back of my mind with the rest of my queerness.

While very clearly traumatized, I would boast to friends how I finally lost my virginity before anyone else. I realize now this was my first time trying to rewrite my memory, to turn my shame into false confidence. I used my perception of the events to cope with the trauma, acting more and more recklessly, sleeping around with anyone who even looked my way. 

Lucky enough to survive this relatively unscathed, I finally dropped this narrative after having an argument with a former fling, in which I realized they were following in my footsteps. Expressing my concern led us to raise our voices at each other, accusing each other of acting out of character. In a moment of pure frustration to justify my actions, I blurted out,

“I was raped.” 

It was the first time I admitted it to myself, but I was robbed of this moment of clarity. My former fling had heard what I said but did not believe me. Their anger blinded them from my confession, and they mockingly called me a “martyr.”

While stunned, this was not the first time I had been labeled with this title. As a child, I would use Catholic guilt to my advantage to get out chores. My mom would lovingly call me her “little martyr.” This association first came to mind when I heard it this time, thinking my fling had used the term incorrectly.

I left immediately after this confrontation, running to the sides of friends to decompress the event. While I tried to process these new emotions and reflect on this clarity, these friends started calling me “Martyr” as a term of endearment. This comfort gave me a fondness for the title, and by adopting it, I felt I had reclaimed a term that was meant to silence me.

(007_023) Famine, Martyrdom 2019

Drag the Martyr

In the first semester of pursuing my undergraduate degree, it was a formative interaction with my Gender Theory class, where I decided to navigate my gender expression through drag performance.

I had some idea of drag, thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race, but this was the first time it felt accessible. Far removed from my hometown, I felt comfortable addressing my personal biases and fears towards queerness.

Drag was the plunge that opened the door to acceptance, and I had already decided on my name. Using “Martyr,” I decided to add the affectation, or mispronunciation, of “tyr” to “tear,” to make it more my own and to be “crying for your sins.” While referencing my mocking title, I also used the term to reference the religious trauma that still loomed over me. Performing originally started as a personal therapy. It unbottled the pent-up shame and anger from my upbringing. Upon realizing this can be alienating for an audience, I have tried to shift focus to a collective trauma to carve out an environment where my audience can recognize their own sadness. We can share that moment together.

Since that realization, I have adopted Catholic imagery and tropes to form a digestible aesthetic and reference to my past trauma. In doing so, I created different characters under the “Martyr” name, curating stories and ideas surrounding them. This formulation originally came from the inherently repetitious nature of Catholic iconography, where symbols were repeated to show their association with a specific biblical character. One such example is the now-queer icon of St. Sebastian being pierced by arrows as a reference to his martyrdom.

In my attempts to mimic this referential nature, I would repeat outfits, makeup, looks, and allude to previous performances. Close friends picked up on it, even calling it the MCU (Martyr Cinematic Universe), but there was still a disconnect with the audience.

(020_023) St. Sebastian Patron Saint of the Holy Christian Death, Martyrdom 2019

Ultimately, I was dissatisfied with how these characters would interact, where they would live out in a fleeting moment on stage. As the expanding complex narrative story took shape within my head, I took up photography to document my performance art and my work’s overall ephemeral nature.

Capturing these moments now in a physical medium allowed me to create characters that could not physically exist on stage while also fleshing out unique scenarios for each of them. In doing so, I hope to reach a wider audience and unpack years of trauma.

(un)holy trinity


For the past two years, I have dedicated the month of November to work on a personal project that combats both the dread around the holidays and works out emotions surrounding my sexual assault.

This year’s series, Genesis, serves as a prequel series to my first photography project Martyrdom. Shot daily in November 2019, I created twenty-three images counting down to my sexual assault anniversary.

Martyrdom served as a first attempt at capturing these ephemeral figures, with each image showing a unique character. From depictions of saints and demons to a physical manifestation of my deadly sins, the overall goal was to expand my storytelling process. For Genesis, I wanted to focus on my original three figures, the (un)holy trinity: The High Priestess, Whore of Babylon, and Martyr. These characters interest me the most as they represent the most about myself, both good and bad. Creating the scenarios of their backstory helped me unpack the trauma I knew I was holding on to.

Birth, The High Priestess,

Martyrdom 2020

Leviticus 21.9, The Whore of Babylon,

Martyrdom 2020

Who Art in Heaven, The Martyr,

Martyrdom 2020

The High Priestess

Dressed in all white with a red contour, the High Priestess is the closest representation to my Catholic upbringing, in the form of a feminine Pope-like ruler. She has had the biggest evolution as a character, starting as a ghostly specter in a performance about memory.

Stern in her demeanor, but physically frail, nowadays I see her as a corrupted moral authority. I took her name from the tarot card of the same name, only to realize later that it stood for secrets and the subconscious mind. This connection furthered my understanding of the religious trauma I had experienced, as I see this character as the most terrifying. For me, white has been more of a sinister color, as its perceived “purity” seems abnormal and unearthly.

When it came to live performances, I would always stand out from the dark shadows of clubs and stages with this bleak white makeup. For this series, I wanted to figure out how such a character would become so blindingly white. In her scenes, I tried to depict what I essentially call her “rebirth”, from starting as a dying husk to the eventual spiritual possession.

Contractions, The High Priestess, Martyrdom 2020

The Whore of Babylon

The Book of Revelations tells us of the inevitable apocalypse that will befall mankind. In one such forewarning, we learn of “Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth” as she sits upon a beast of seven heads. 

This figure, commonly known as “The Whore of Babylon” represents the Church’s insular infighting, depicted in the form of a feminine “harlot.” To me, the representation of women in the Bible was always degrading, with this passage being no exception: the ultimate evil and downfall of the Church appears as a sexual being. 

When I was going through my reckless phase of sexual maturity, I would use the term “whore” against myself in the same way. I was shaming myself for my sexuality while actively still participating in it. When I eventually reclaimed “martyr,” I felt the same treatment was due to my own derogatory title.

Dressed in all black and with a mask in the shape of a bat, my version of the Whore differs from the Biblical description. I wanted her to be an almost stereotypical form of a demon or gothic character, to serve as a foil to the High Priestess. I do not see her as an evil character, rather a tragic one, with her lack of sight to display her lack of faith. 

For this series, I wanted to show her downfall from the Church. Echoing my own experience, she finds herself drawn into temptation and then humiliated for it. 

Our Father, Martyrdom 2020


The Martyr’s physical depiction is the least seen in the series: only shown aiding the High Priestess in her ailing health, and later as a stand-alone portrait. I purposely chose to underrepresent her, as I see her as more of an idea than the other two. The term “Martyr” can be applied to either of the other figures, as it is a title rather than a name. Like the series before it, Genesis is a collection of black and white photography with the color red isolated. While it is my favorite color, I find it most representative of “martyrs” in general. More than any other trait, red ties the characters together, whether it depicts blood, passion, or life.

Splintering my lived experience into these separate characters has helped me cope with what has happened. While I realize I am rewriting my own narrative, I do so to produce creativity and, hopefully, invite the same collective mourning I created through my performances.

trauma is my muse


My story is all too familiar. Working in nightlife, I have had too many instances of fellow performers, friends, and complete strangers coming up to me to share something similar that happened to them.

I always try to thank them for being open with me, as I realize the strength it takes to put those feelings into words. I try not to say “survivor” or “brave” when talking about sexual assault, as I believe these terms perpetuate the narrative that sexual assault is not uncommon. Speaking out and defending those who have dealt with assault should not be given noteworthy attention, as this continues the sensationalizing of victimhood. I ask for you who normalize dealing with this trauma not to call me a survivor – but to listen to those who speak out.

So where was God when I was sexually assaulted? At this point in my life, I don’t care. I put that anger beside me. I split my emotions from both my religious and sexual trauma to reflect and move on. In some ways, this trauma is my muse, but she no longer has the emotional weight over me.

I’ve reclaimed my martyrdom, and she is purely mine.

NOTE: All of the photos featured in the article and on the artist’s website/social media are for sale as 5×7 prints, at $10 each.

20% of the sales will go towards RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) nonprofit organization (prints must be bought before 11-30-20).

You may place your orders HERE.

Martyrdom 2020


Hallowed Be Thy Name



Jude 1.7

Our Father

Who Art In Heaven

Revelations 17.9

Leviticus 21.9

Martyrdom 2019

(001_023) Martyr

(002_023) Whore of Babylon

(003_023) High Priestess

(004_023) Baptism

(005_023) Communion

(006_023) Confirmation

(007_023) Famine

(008_023) War

(009_023) Pestilence

(010_023) Death

(011_023) Lust

(012_023) Envy

(013_023) Pride

(014_023) St. Anthony of Padua Patron Saint of Lost Souls

(015_023) St. Jude the Apostle Patron Saint of Lost Causes

(016_023) St. Agricola of Avignon Patron Saint of Plague

(017_023) St. Bibiana of Rome Patron Saint of Mental Illness

(018_023) St. Mary Magdalene Patron Saint of Sexual Temptation

(019_023) St. Agatha of Sicily Patron Saint of the Assaulted

(020_023) St. Sebastian Patron Saint of the Holy Christian Death

(021_023) St. Lucia of Syracuse Patron Saint of Martyrs

(022_023) St. Stephen The First Martyr


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Photographer/Drag Artist


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Transgender Day of Remembrance 2020: Remembering Amelia


Story of Amelia


Remembering Amelia on Transgender Day of Remembrance 2020

My friend killed herself in 2014. She was my best friend once. People who knew her and who I told about her passing barely had any reaction, or simply were not surprised. I know that the news did not make any impact on their lives and they moved on as soon as they found out the news. Asked me if I was OK, went to dinner, went to the movies, went to a party. It made me angry that no one really cared, it made me not want to tell anyone about it, because of the lackluster reactions I was getting. I was angry that life went on, that my friend was cold and would never have a chance at experiencing anything beautiful like others would. Then I realized that you couldn’t blame any one – not her for taking her own life, not my friends who never knew her the way I did. She was fucking crazy. She alienated a lot of people, she did a lot of stupid things. She reminded me of one of those insane characters out of Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters. Everyone remembers her as this unstable crazy person. The only reminder of that is when I go through the old pictures in my phone, she is never present at any of the big outings, trips to upstate, or even just dinners. Her bat-shit craziness was the exact reason why we stopped being friends, why I cut her off. I had a choice whether to keep this person in my life, this person who is going to continue to flake and not be there when I need her, or take her for who she is. I decided to go with the first.

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There is a bigger picture about the whole situation that no one is seeing. You see, she was born a boy. She was born in Croatia. When she was 5, war started. She told me once that while she was playing basketball with other kids in front of her home, someone started shooting at them and taking them out one by one. Later the playground turned into a graveyard. Then there was a whole story of them leaving everything behind and hiding in the back of an army truck in order to flee the country. They ended up in Australia and that’s where Toni grew up. He actually grew up on the streets, because when his parents somehow found out he was gay, they kicked him out of the house. He was only 14. He met some trans girls who took him under his wing. He grew up cross-dressing and having sex for money, did lots of drugs (that he claimed fucked up his whole body for years). At some point he almost transitioned, but was too scared to go through with it at that time.Then he was discovered and signed as a model to one of the local agencies in Australia. Then Q Models signed him and sponsored his visa to the US. That’s where we met.

His whole world was so fucked up that he never made any rational decisions. Once our friendship was over, he admitted that he was still doing heavy drugs and this is why he was never around and so unreliable. The last time I saw him was when he begged me to meet him for lunch before he moved back to Australia. He told me that during one of his fights with his husband, he stabbed him and ended up going to jail. The same day he was finally approved for a green card, but after his arrest it was obviously revoked and now he couldn’t stay in the country. He gained significant weight. He broke the news that he had started hormonal therapy. He already started doing hair removal laser treatments on his face. He said that he finally came to realize why he was doing all these loony things and why he was so unhappy this whole time. He thought he found an answer in becoming a woman. He brought me his Armani boots and told me to keep or sell them, as he was trying to get rid of all the things that would remind him of himself as a boy and that he was moving with nothing more than underwear. He said that he was going to stay with his family and that they said they would support him through the transition, they would go to family therapy with him and pay for his surgeries. He wouldn’t be able to contact me for a while, because his doctor told him that he needed to basically erase the past.

Tear sheets from an editorial Toni and I did back in the day

Couple years later, Amelia reached out to me. She said that she currently was living in the suburbs near London and working as a phone receptionist. Shortly after she moved to her parents’ place, they kicked her out AGAIN. What a fucking surprise. Her parents were still very backwards, even after years of knowing that their son was gay and was living with a man in New York. Theoretically they thought that they would be ready to handle it when she was there, but when they faced her and saw the reality, they couldn’t cope.

She was reaching out to me tirelessly, first by emails, then by sending me messages on WhatsApp, then by calling me. She was always the one contacting me. I would never be the one to text her or call her myself. I think I still had a sour taste in my mouth from when we were friends, and it wasn’t easy for me to just jump right back into a friendship with her. One of the times that we spoke over the phone she told me that she was expecting to “cut off her penis” in a couple of weeks. I had chills.

“Aren’t you scared?,”

I asked her.

“No, I am thrilled, I can’t wait! You have no idea how hard it is to be constantly conscious of your body, of tucking in every 20 minutes, going through the airport security, of wearing a bathing suit. Once when I went to see a doctor, I pointed out that I was a female, when he checked me, he simply walked out of the room and insurance told me they wouldn’t cover my visit, because I lied about my sex.”

About a month later, she was the one calling me again to tell me how her surgery went. She said that she was very happy that she had done it, she was still a bit sore, but now she had to dilate her vagina every day and it actually felt good. She said she was very unhappy with her tits, she looked like a porn star. She found this doctor who makes tits for supermodels and shit. She wanted to redo them, but it would cost $30,000. She said that she wanted to come back to the United States and maybe she would be able to as a new person, as a woman. I said I couldn’t wait to see her and maybe I could come see her in London next year. That was the last time we spoke. Three weeks before her suicide she tried to FaceTime me, but I missed the call and never called her back.

When her ex left me a voicemail in early October of 2013, I did not even suspect that anything bad had happened.

When I called him a day later, he said that

“She killed herself.”

Who is SHE? What? I don’t understand. Who told you? How do you know? What?

He said that he spoke to her several hours before it happened. She seemed fine, and asked him to come see her. She mentioned something about a guy she was seeing in Australia with whom she had a bad conversation. She told me before that her new man wasn’t supportive of her reassignment surgery and he would constantly change his mind, breaking up with her then getting back together. She was drinking. Her ex told me that she went to a store and bought a second bottle of vodka. She killed herself the same way his other ex-boyfriend killed himself – she turned on her car and inhaled exhaust through an attached pipe, carbon monoxide poisoning. They said that if not that, she had so much alcohol in her system, that alone would have killed her.

A flyer from GMHC campaign that Toni modeled for

This is when I started realizing how everything happens for a reason, how ironic and fucked up life is. How maybe if her parents hadn’t kicked her out on the street at such a young age, but instead had accepted and supported their child, how if she had grown up in a loving family that didn’t give a shit about prejudice or what others think, but put their flesh and blood first and foremost, maybe she would be someone else and somewhere else right now, not lying in a coffin? Maybe she would have been a self-sufficient, confident, and strong person who had backing, love, and support of her family. Maybe she would have found a cure for AIDS or cancer? Maybe she would have become a famous person of sorts that would go down in history? Maybe I would have never met her, but she would still be alive and well? How, if all these fucked-up things in her early life hadn’t happened, maybe she wouldn’t be so unbalanced as to throw a knife at her ex-husband and go to jail, having her green card revoked. How, maybe if she had never met her ex-husband, she would have lived a more self-sufficient life instead of going crazy being confined in their Queens apartment and doing drugs all the time. How, if her ex didn’t tell her how his other ex killed himself, Amelia would have not killed herself the same way? How, maybe if she had had more support and someone to lean on while she was going through the change, I wouldn’t even be writing this right now? How, if I had accepted her attempts of friendship earlier, she would have felt that she could call me before she did this stupid thing?

The only photo of Amelia I got to see

What happens when someone dies? You simply never hear from them, they will not return your calls and you will never see them again, smell their scent, or hear their voice in real life. All that’s left is a memory, pictures, and videos. As a boy, Amelia was so beautiful, she walked for lots of famous fashion houses, she shot for Vanity Fair. Did way more things than I could have done as a model. But what of it? Why does that matter anymore? The people that have put her in clothes, taken pictures of her, or shot with her will not ever think of her or how she is doing. Would they really care if they found out? They would probably say “That’s sad.” The point is, no one will ever remember her, she will NOT go down in history, I can count people who will shed tears for her on one hand, she is just another soul lost to the battle of unfair things in life. She was never really given a chance.

Amelia was only 27 years old, and her whole life she struggled to find something to hold on to, to find meaning and happiness. Back when I found out about her death I punched and punched my pillow asking her why the fuck she would do this to herself? Because of a fucking guy that would not even have a drop of remorse about what happened? But obviously that could not be the only reason.

Perhaps she thought that once she went through gender reassignment surgery, her whole life would change for the best. Only thing is, she didn’t realize she couldn’t outrun her demons, especially when they had been implanted within her since early childhood. Yes, it’s fucking cliché, but if, only if, people had known better. If society were not scared of what they don’t know or understand and therefore acted violently towards it. If we were only more forgiving. If we loved our kids the way they were and surrounded them with warmth and support. If only we were more educated on certain matters. If only instead of banning, punishing, making illegal, bullying, or making fun of people that don’t act in a generally accepted way, we built tolerance, understanding, and kinship as a whole human race… Maybe then Amelia would still be alive and happy, just like millions of other souls lost in this constant war for tolerance and acceptance? If only, if only, if only…

Your story didn’t have to be this tragic.

Please take care of trans people.

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Alexey Kim


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Events Latest

Spectrum Formosus Carves Out Space For Techno Loving Queers In Mountainous Outskirts Of Taipei


Spectrum Formosus,

Taipei, Taiwan

Taiwan’s music label Smoke Machine carves out space for techno loving queers in mountainous outskirts of Taipei.


In 2019, Taiwanese-based music label and event organizer Smoke Machine celebrated 10 years of success in the music business. The label is mostly known for its annual techno Organik Festival. The 3-day event is celebrated on the black beaches of Hualien County on the east coast of Taiwan, surrounded by a stunning mountainous vista.

In 2017, Smoke Machine launched another festival, queer-centered Spectrum Formosus. The label didn’t stray too far from keeping it in nature: every year the 3-day techno / art / queer festival is held on a hilly Wen-shan tea plantation, just 30 minutes away from Taipei proper by car. 

“In an age in which nationalism and closed-mindedness seem to prevail globally, we offer a counter space. A safe space for all of those who support and cherish liberty, openness, love, and inclusiveness. A Space where all are welcome, regardless of race, background, class, sexual preference and gender identity,”

Smoke Machine offers explanation to Mixmag Asia for their latest venture.

Spectrum Formosus was originally intended to be an LGBTQ+ geared festival, but only became its queerest self the third time around. In 2019, the organizers of the event decided to involve queer collectives from Hanoi, Chengdu, Beijing, Tokyo, Honk Kong, and its Taipei home base.

On the Resident Advisor page of the festival, Smoke Machine states,

“The edition of this year will be a regional festival, celebrating the unity and shared visions. We asked these local collectives to join forces so we can share colorful experiences, learn from each other, celebrate and build a community reaching beyond the borders of our beautiful island.”

The festival included a stellar DJ lineup, matched with queer-centered activities, discussions, and performances. While Smoke Machine’s resident Diskonnected was playing on the Forest stage of the farm, on the other side of the farm a dozen attendees were peacefully creating watercolor portraits of live models—local drag queen by way of New Zealand Popcorn, and Mx. Vagabond who flew in for the festival all the way from New York’s Hudson Valley.

counter space

Over a hundred tents were sprawled in the middle of the tea farm, some of the visitors staying for the whole three days of the festival. On Saturday night DJs started spinning as early as 10 AM and went on until 5 AM the next day. One of the headliners of the festival, Paris-based Shlømo, played hard beats for the entranced eye-rolling, gum-chewing, lollipop-sucking, dirt-stomping barefoot crowd for over three hours.

Most of the people in attendance looked like brief visitors, just like me. Shockingly, 99% of the people I spoke to resided in Taipei. After what seemed to be the 100th person’s confession about living on the island, I almost grabbed him by the shirttail and demanded an answer why.

His response was simple:

“It’s beautiful, the people are nice and it’s safe.” 

There might be a few more reasons why Taiwan is a hit with expats though: the cost of food and accommodations is very affordable compared to major Western cities; English teachers are in demand, racking up a salary high enough to afford comfortable living; excellent public healthcare if you are a student or on a work visa. Another undeniable draw of Taiwan is tolerance towards the LGBTQ+ community; not only was it the first nation in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in 2019, it also introduced the Gender Equity Education Act to schools in 2004 following the mysterious death of 15-year-old Yeh Yung-chih. The Act was “formulated in order to advance genuine gender equality, eliminate gender discrimination, safeguard human dignity, and soundly establish education resources and environments that epitomize gender equality.” The Act requires all public and private schools to “provide safe and gender-fair campus learning environments, and respect and give due consideration to students, teachers, and non-teaching staff members who have different genders, gender traits, gender identity, or sexual orientation.” Even though a large chunk of the population still opposes same-sex education in elementary and junior-high schools, Taiwan is leaps and bounds ahead of even the most progressive countries when it comes to LGBTQ+ legislature and education. 

The festival itself attracted a slew of interesting people from all over the world. I spoke to Lenny Naakt, who was the only nudist and exhibitionist at the event. Lenny is adamant that people understand there is a distinction between nudism and exhibitionism. He identifies as both.

“Most nudists would not like to be associated with exhibitionism,”

says Lenny,

“In my case it’s both. Nudists just enjoy pure freedom of being without the burden of clothes. I grew up as a nudist (my parents would prefer ‘naturist’ but I don’t make that distinction), but I figured out the love of exposing myself and the effect it has on others when they notice my nudity. The exhibitionist would be enjoying when somebody watches them naked or could potentially see them unexpectedly. That’s more of a sexual aberration.”

Isabella, a Brazillian model turned drag king who currently resides in Taipei, shared that the reason she started dressing as a man was to escape harassment on the streets of her home town. Birmingham-born Esta Ricardo moved to Vietnam to find/mother GenderFunk, a queer collective that creates inclusive spaces for drag performance in Ho Chi Minh City. JC found himself stuck in the middle and not being able to build close relationships with people from the drag scene as a guy doing male drag:

“Some people wanted me to be a drag queen, but I just think that I already have this JC brand and if I will do female drag people will want to see more, and my drag guy career will fade out. I really don’t want that to happen, because this is my unique side. Actually, I just found out there are people out there who are doing the same thing and calling themselves Drag Prince.”

Lenny Naakt

The personal highlight of the festival for me was the “Taipei Is Burning” mini-voguing Ball organized by Popcorn and her husband Henry. Almost everyone from the drag and Ballroom community of Taipei made an appearance and participated in the Ball’s categories. Big Ninja, the father of Taipei’s chapter of House of Ninja, was the only assigned judge for the Ball. Right before the “Sex Siren” category, he got up from his throne, approached me in the middle of the crowd and whispered in my ear

“You betta work it kitty girl.”

I had never walked in a Ball before and I was shitting in my boots, but I couldn’t pass up on Big’s challenge. After five rounds of floor grinding, neck licking, and ultimately getting my ass naked, I secured the “Sex Siren” trophy, officially making me the sexiest person at the festival. 

Resident Advisor has put it best:

“Techno events in East Asia reflect something at the core of the region’s cultural DNA: zen philosophy. While Western parties and the artists they book tend to emphasize the heavy side of techno, their Eastern counterparts favor more hypnotic and spiritual sounds, suggesting a state of transcendence and, when heard in the striking outdoor locations where some of these events take place, a heightened connectedness with nature.” 

Man vs. Nature

Popcorn (top) with Nymphia Wind

Mx. Vagabond (right) with a friend

Even though Taipei hosted a 10,000-person concert in August of 2020 when the rest of the world was still reeling from the effects of coronavirus, this year’s Spectrum Formosus was cancelled.

“It relied so heavily on international guests from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Japan etc. But the group that organizes it is still holding big parties at their nightclub which opened in December, so they’re getting by okay. Obviously, they took a hit but at least we can still do events here,”

says Popcorn, who was enlisted by Smoke Machine to help organize the festival from its inception.

Taiwan has been one of the most successful countries in curbing the virus. On October 30, 2020, just one day before the 18th annual Taipei Pride, the island hit a milestone of 200 days without any locally transmitted cases of the disease.

Before Taipei Pride 2020, Popcorn predicted that the festivities would still go on, but on a more modest scale,

“Obviously it will be smaller than previous years without the foreign guests, but we can still do the parade and some parties, which is super lucky. Not a lot of people are doing major events because no one is quite sure what the scale will be… It’s all very up in the air, but I’m sure it will be special and local.”

On October 31, 2020, over 110,000 people took to the streets of Taipei to celebrate Pride.   

NOTE: The article was updated with Lenny Naakt’s quote on 11-18-2020

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Alexey Kim


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Editorial Latest

Being Queer When Noone’s Watching


Works From Home

@ARTpartmentNYC curates and exhibits queer art out of a Brooklyn apartment.


“We thought,

what can we do

to get through this pandemic?”

Says Michael Cruz, one-third of the organizing force behind @ARTpartmentNYC, a gallery space that he newly launched out of his home. Growing up in the Philippines, Michael pursued a singing career and enjoyed a successful run on Filipino singing competition series Star in a Million. After moving to NYC, Michael started an event production venture, settling in Williamsburg right above The Rosemont bar, beloved by Brooklyn queers. Then the pandemic happened. 

“Me and my partner Aaron thought, how can we do something productive and come up with a creative project involving the community while we are at home?”

says Michael.

“We thought about gathering some of the best artists that we knew and curating an exhibit.”

The couple has been working with Griffin Editions, an iconic full-service fine-art printing and processing shop that operates out of Gowanus in Brooklyn. That’s where they met Zac Thompson, a multidisciplinary artist and a drag performer.

“We ran into each other at the Rosemont a few months ago, that’s when Aaron and Michael told me about the idea of curating an art show out of their home, and it was a no-brainer. Our ideas were very similar in terms of creating a community and a space for the people that are close to us, in Bushwick specifically,”

says Zac about the origins of the creative trifecta.

“We are leaning into that feeling [of Brooklyn becoming a microcosmos for queer creativity] and embracing it and deciding to make choices and decisions to specifically create care, spaces, and opportunities for each other, instead of being in that weird Manhattan mindset of competing with each other. We can actually do it here, for ourselves and our community, instead of participating in a space that never included us in the first place. This is a different generation, where it feels like what we are doing here is similar to what they did in the ‘80s on the Lower East Side. Things have changed and shifted and it doesn’t work for everyone anymore, or they don’t feel safe or comfy in those spaces necessarily.”

“Sally” polaroid by Steve Harwick

Body and Sex Positivity

Their first exhibition is called Works From Home and the theme of the show is “Body and Sex Positivity.” Inspired by Gracie Mansion, who pioneered an art exhibition out of the bathroom of her East Village apartment in 1982, the trio decided to curate each exhibition “to be tailored to the history, vivacity, and perseverance of New York’s LGBTQ+ community.Works From Homecelebrates the LGBTQ+ artists and photographers who have persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic” and “who have been unable to physically show their work for months” due to NYC coronavirus guidelines.

“Being queer in Brooklyn is so much about visibility,”

says Zac.

“So what happens during the time of quarantine and COVID when people are not allowed to be out or visible, how do you represent or weave your queer experience when it’s just you in your apartment and you are not interacting with people? I think a lot of artists in the show have had to look inward like so many other people and deal with, what does it look like being queer for me, if no one’s watching? I think a lot of the works were made in a headspace like that. So it’s nice to acknowledge and celebrate that. Like sex and body positivity and other queer things and experiences can still exist even if we are not out and proud. But it’s just more personal and you can still celebrate it with yourself and be able to share it or articulate those feelings through visual art, and having an intimate space to look at those—it just feels very special. It’s nice to have different ways to think about what it means to be queer or have a queer body, especially now. You are going through a lot, this isn’t just free fun time, you are trying to survive, how do you incorporate all of those things in the way that there’s harmony and it works for your well-being? It’s not the same for everyone.” 

“Hot Buddies 69” acrylic on paper by Sean O’Connor

Michael discusses the exhibition’s theme focused on sex and body positivity:

“I’ve always been fascinated with the subject. It’s weird, uncomfortable, awkward, to some it’s painful. It’s part of who we are and we should give praise to that. So I wanted to touch on that in the beginning of our journey. I come from a conservative place in the Philippines, where we are Catholics and Christians. One of the things I had to face is my sexuality and embracing all of me. Whatever you feel about your body and sexuality, own it, it’s about being proud.”

The Artists

The space is a railroad-style apartment, where the kitchen and the bathroom are facing the backyard of The Rosemont, and the living room’s walls are bedecked with the physical artwork of seven (out of ten) artists. Video projections of the three remaining artists play on a loop on the back wall.

The left wall has three black-and-white vintage prints – two of the photos portray a young man with a nice bubble ass prostrate on the blacked-out floor, with arms stretched out like Jesus on a cross. The third photo in the middle showcases the young man straddling a toilet seat with a raging hard-on. One of the people in the room approaches me and introduces himself as Joe Kaminski, the author of the photographs.

“Those photos are 30 years old. I did a series of all nude self-portraits. Sometimes I look at these and think, where is the ink?”

Joe shows his tattooed arms.

“I forget that I was not always like this. These prints are older than any other artist in this exhibition.”


“But sadly they are still controversial. I can’t post them on Instagram as is. I censored the full-frontal images, and I feel that it’s actually more provocative that way.”

Each print is listed at $200 and, if sold, will benefit the artist as well as @ARTpartmentNYC.

Joseph continues,

“In the late ‘80s erections weren’t allowed, so that was pushing an envelope a little bit. But just a being a gay man expressing yourself, and saying, ‘But male figures is what I love, why can’t that just be my simple subject matter?’ – it doesn’t have to be complicated, but it was still controversial then and still to some degree nowadays. But even an erection is not something you’d find a lot, particularly in fine-art photography.”

Self-portrait by Joseph Kaminski

Still from “Me 2” digital video by Michelle Girardello

“Nip Slip” by Asafe Pereira

One of the videos that plays on the loop is of a female form straddling a chair covered in a  crocheted blanket. The frame changes and the body is on the floor still covered in a blanket, but no chair this time. In the next frame the body is on its back, with limbs thrown up towards the ceiling, still covered in a blanket. Every frame is different, but the angle is always the same – a corner of a room. It seemed to represent restlessness and anxiety, being cooped up within four walls and not knowing what to do with yourself,  an all-too-familiar storyline.

“At the beginning of the quarantine I started to crochet, so it’s kind of where the video came from,”

“In my work I’ve always dealt a lot with domestic space. Then in the past year I started to introduce the queer body to the space and then during quarantine I started making these blankets for my friends – it was kind of like the extension of me to them. And then I decided to do these photo shoots with the quilts before I gave them away. I’m a photographer, so the crocheting is weird and I’ve had conversations with my friends, saying ‘Oh no, I’m just crocheting, this is nothing’ and so I am just trying to be conscious that I am doing that. ‘No that is something Michelle, stop beating your fucking self up, you are making stuff and still getting shit out.’ I feel that it’s so hard right now and I’m beating myself up, because I am not making art, you know? So I feel like this kind of deciphers where I end and meet again and date again and then the space begins morphing.”

“Light Up” by Marianna Peragallo

Still from “Grapes” digital video by Shannon Stovall

Being one of those creatives that started participating in the sport of “beating yourself up” for not lactating with your best creative juices during the quarantine, I’ve also found myself indulging in a cocktail of depression with a side of self-pity every now and then. In one of the looped videos, Shannon Stovall is luxuriously sprawled out on a satin pillow, repetitiously spewing out grapes out of their mouth hole.

“I feel that this video was my attempt at trying to find a way to be creative and indulge in a moment of playfulness while also really feeling the anxiety and tension that was going on during the lockdown,”

Shannon shares.

“To be honest I was having a lot of trouble sleeping one night and I thought about how cute the raccoons are while they eat grapes with their little hands and I thought about how it brought me a lot of comfort. A raccoon has to really adapt and live their life in kind of a scrappy way and patchwork things together in order to live day to day, which is kind of how I also felt at the time. I was thinking about how I would eat grapes right now if I was resonating with that energy. Honestly it’s sort of a visual representation of a lot of emotions and feelings that I was having at the time and feeling really stuck in my own body and not really knowing how to tap into play. How do you tap into joy and play and creativity when you are so depleted all the time? To me the whole video, even though it’s really playful and kind of silly, just feels like it’s a big wrestling match with how to feel, how to exist, how to play, how to be sexual and how to explore that when you are isolated and depressed.”


A lot of us trying our best to continue to tap into this well of joy and creativity which is almost dry, there’s a couple of droplets down at that well, how do you take a little suction vial of that and turn it into something that can make you feel that you can keep on moving forward in the way of being productive?”

For Marianna Peragallo, who contributed three anthropomorphic polymer-clay sculptures to the exhibit, the stay-at-home orders were all about paying attention to little things, like love and dust pans.

“I’ve been making these works that are anthropomorphic sculptures, these objects that are morphed into bodily things. It’s a cross-section of love, endurance, and support. I like to say they are almost overbearing in a way, they are physically transformed to become the object.”

A severed clay hand is propped up on a small red shelf, the pointing finger is transformed into a light bulb, a lone thick cord comes out from the chopped-off wrist and stretches itself into an electric socket; a small mirror on the wall looks like it’s holding itself up with its own fingers; the dust pan has a finger that’s supporting it in place, and the bristles of the broom have become fingers as well.

“I started to think a lot that we have a very clear definition of what hate looks like. Love is sort of an amorphous thing where people think that it’s just soft, fluffy, and sentimental but it’s actually this very radical thing, it’s like an action, it’s something that you have to do. It’s something that I had to define for myself and turn it into sculptures. These are all bodies that are trying to perform some small loving gesture. That’s kind of what these works are about.”

When I first looked over the objects, “taking things into your own hands,” was resonating in my mind.

“It’s polymer clay that I used when I was a kid,”

says Marianna,

”they are sort of childish, a little cartoony, they are reminiscent of children’s books, that’s where we learn or mislearn about love. We’ve all been spending a lot of time in our houses and these are kind of like guts of our spaces, these sort of mundane daily quotidian things that we kind of take for granted but they are really essential, so I think about how love is kind of that way too – we just continue to take it for granted.”

“Haze” by William Donovan

Still from “Those Big Brown (Almost Black) Gay Eyes” short by Jason Elizondo

Jason Elizondo explored the relationship with their mother and almost taking her love for granted in a 6-minute 35-second video titled “Those Big Brown (Almost Black) Gay Eyes.” The digital art piece priced at $800 is entirely narrated by Jay’s mother Missy and is part of a bigger piece called, well… “Missy.” The performance was filmed in Jason’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

“Essentially the work is me performing as my mom to better understand how my queerness has strained yet deepened our bond, you hear her going through the trials and tribulations of my coming out and how it affected her. I asked her to read passages from her diary and record her voice doing it. She cleans houses for a living so there’s always Lemon Pledge in the house, so I bedazzled it. Those objects appear in the video as I’m performing, which was another way of clearing the way for her to talk about this queerness that was brought upon her that she didn’t ask for, but had to embrace because her child was queer.”

Jason brings the video full circle with a powerful ending, their mother says that Jason has become very judgmental of the people that were judgmental of “him,” and that “he” was a hypocrite. The last line of the short is

“That being said, there’s more to the story. Sorry buddy, but gay doesn’t define you.”

There is so much more to all of our stories than what we are willing to see in ourselves – it must have been very cathartic for Jason and their mother to mend their relationship in such a powerful way. 

“Crimson” by Ish Peralta

Shop the art pieces or book your 30-minute visit to the gallery via and view the rest of the incredible works by Asafe Pereira, Ish Peralta, Jason Elizondo, Marianna Peragallo, Michelle Girardello, Joseph Kaminski, Sean O’Connor, Shannon Stovall, Steve Harwick, and William Donovan before December 4.

Special thanks to all of the artists for allowing Sidewalkkilla to use the images of their work for this article.

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Alexey Kim


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Editorial Latest The Mixer

Trans Women Blossoming


Trans Women Blossoming

“The journey of a Trans Woman is at first internal. She has to come to terms with who she is at the core.”


Miami-born, Bushwick-based photographer and artist Adam Ross (they/them) met Alex, an Ivorian born Trans model, actress, writer and activist at one of the rallies held on the Christopher Street pier; Adam reached out to her about collaborating on a shoot. “She responded with a beautiful idea,” says Adam, who also goes by Gaystrychef, their IG moniker, ”she wanted to embody the idea of Trans Women blossoming into their true selves.” Adam says that Alex also had the idea of including Jael, a Brooklyn-born Trans Person, into the shoot.

Adam continues: “The three of us met at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and spent a beautiful afternoon shooting in and around the flowers. We talked about how as queers, the idea of community is so vital to us all, and how we need to always stand up for each other when facing hatred and oppression. The experience of Trans Black women specifically is one that people need to witness and share, which that day it was my honor to do; I’m incredibly proud of the work that Alex, Jael, and I created together, and of how much of themselves they put into it.

In Our Own Words

Alex and Jael’s portraits by Adam give us a glimpse into the beautiful moments that may come with rebirth, like the evolution of self, love of yourself and the love for others. In Alex and Joel’s own words:

The life expectancy of Trans Women of color is only 35 years old. There is an urge to improve this statistic drastically. As a marginalized group of people, Trans Women of color especially are taught self-hatred from a very young age. We are indoctrinated into the belief that transgenderism is unnatural and ungodly. 

These seeds are planted in the heart of an innocent child whose life experiences are set to be limited and deprived of joy and happiness with thyself. 

Hate and intolerance coming from the external world will only exacerbate one’s negative life experiences. Such negative feelings and deeds are rooted in ignorance, obsolete religious beliefs, and a lack of compassion and kindness in this perfectly imperfect world. 

Trans people are history.

We’ve existed since the dawn of times through different cultures and throughout the world. From the Fa’afafine (boys raised as girls) in Samoa, to the Two-Spirit people (male-bodied with a female gender or female-bodied with a male gender) in Native American culture.





We are not going anywhere. Black Trans People are expected to Dislike themselves, their history, and their legacy. Not today, Not tomorrow, Not Next Year… WE ARE HERE! And we’ve always been.

This photoshoot at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden was inspired from the concept of Trans Women blossoming into their True, authentic selves. The journey of a Trans Woman is at first internal. She has to come to terms with who she is at the core. Internally, She has to align the truth of her heart with her testosterone-induced brain. The Trans Woman experiences anxieties at different levels varying from one individual to the other. These are mainly focused but not only limited to the matter of misgendering, on a daily basis by folks that aren’t fully aware of her inner gender identity. Medical transition comes into place to alleviate such anxieties and relieve the Trans Woman of a weight She no longer needs to carry: The man She knew She wasn’t.

Once She blossoms into her True self, the Trans Woman is ready to fully live her life like the woman She was always meant to be.

Alex Sirius

is an Ivorian-born Trans model, actress, writer and activist. She’s a firm believer that Trans women need to not merely survive, but to thrive, just like other women. Her creative work includes producing and celebrating Queer Arts as a Whole. She’s also invested in HIV/AIDS advocacy and writing. Her writing has the ultimate goal of educating non-LGBTQ+ people and allies on LGBTQ+ issues and challenges needing to be addressed for change. Her writing also has healing purposes pertaining to her personal journey toward self-discovery, self-acceptance, and self-love. She uses her own life experience and lessons learned along the way as a canvas to inspire, empower, and ignite courage in others to live their authentic lives with fierce passion, joy, and happiness.


a Brooklyn-born Trans Person, drowned in traditions of Conditioning that no longer serves her or US in the “The New Earth,” has chosen to live OUT LOUD. She is in essence and aroma, Divine Feminine Energy. She understands the significance of Black History as well as Trans/Two-Spirited/LGBTQ+ culture. Her drive and inspiration is her Mother and all the female figures who represent women’s empowerment. She’s on a journey of discovery and mastery of her TRANS LIFE.

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Adam Ross



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Activisim Events Latest

The Stonewall Protests are Here to Abolish the System


The Stonewall Protests:

Liberation Extravaganza

On Thursday, September 24, 2020, a group of activists gathered at The Stonewall Inn to fight for all Black life, Breonna Taylor, and abolition of the system.


Every Thursday, a group of activists, headlined by Joel Rivera and Qween Jean, gather at the iconic Stonewall Inn, part of a series of protests under the rubric The Stonewall Protests, organized by “Black Queer and Black Trans Activists centered on the Acknowledgment of All Black Life.” On Thursday, September 24, just a day after Kentucky’s grand jury decision not to charge cops involved in Breonna Taylor’s fatal shooting, The Stonewall Protests held a ballroom-themed protest called Liberation Extravaganza. 

Before taking to the streets, Qween Jean addressed the news about Breonna’s case,

“They [the grand jury] did not bring justice to Breyonna Taylor, her family, our family. There was no justice! And for that, we are gonna get justice today.”

Joel Rivera explained that the reason for the Liberation Extravaganza theme was the arrest of 86 peaceful protesters in Times Square on Saturday, September 19:

“We witnessed that protesters are not even allowed to step onto the streets without being arrested and so we said, no matter what happens on Thursday, we are going to look our best. And we are going to walk into a battle looking our best, because that is a legacy of Black queer and Black trans people, the Black queer and Black trans people that were here on the same street fighting for liberation, fighting for Black Lives Matter before the movement was founded. We call this The Stonewall Protests, because The Stonewall Inn forgot that history. But we are here to remind them of the legacy of The Stonewall riots. It’s 2020, we are at The Stonewall Protests, fighting for the same thing our ancestors died for. So this is not a threat, it is a promise, if I am not allowed to march on this street today, there will be a Stonewall riot part two…”

The movement’s slogan is “Abolition is Liberation.” Joel explains,

“When we scream ‘No justice, no peace’ what do we mean? Because Breonna Taylor, the black life that really initiated the Black Lives Matter movement over this summer, got no justice. And I can’t sit here and say I’m surprised, because Black people do not get justice under this system. We can vote in November, but my problem will be the same in December. Because no matter who runs for office, no matter if you know who runs for office, no matter if you know that person is a great person, the system will destroy them. Because that’s what the system was made for – to destroy Black people. We need to be in these streets chanting ‘Abolition Now,’ because that is the only way I will get true liberation, that is the only way we will all get true liberation. Tear down the system and forge a new one that is for all people, not just white men…”

Join Joel Rivera, Qween Jean, Iman Le Caire, Alana Jessica and many more every Thursday at The Stonewall Inn, to fight for all Black life and abolition of the system.

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Alexey Kim


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Events Latest

NYC’s Biggest Drag Festival Sort of Just Happened in Spite of Corona


Bushwig 2020:

Corona Edition

One of the world’s biggest drag performance festivals, just kind of happened on Saturday, October 3, in spite of coronavirus.


Bushwig, one of the world’s biggest drag performance festivals, originating in Brooklyn in 2011, just kind of happened on Saturday, October 3, in spite of coronavirus. The official three days of the festival that usually happen at Brooklyn’s Knockdown Center around this time of the year, were scrapped just a couple of months ago, when the prospects of opening up New York spaces that could accommodate large crowds were slim to none.

The social-distancing event happened over the course of a Saturday evening in Maria Hernandez Park in Brooklyn. The official Bushwig IG page posted a flyer about the event just a few days before it happened, giving unusually short notice to the festival’s fans. The post advised everyone to wear a mask and a wig, and to keep 6 feet apart. Instead of the usual 300+ performers that would have been scheduled over the course of the three days at the Knockdown Center, only 12 performer names were featured on the flyer. Amongst the night’s slated performers were Bushwig’s old-timer Charlene, Ms. Bushwig 2018 Chiquitita (née Harajuku and then Juku), Sasha Velour’s NightGowns show’s regular Neon Calypso, the self-proclaimed mother of Brooklyn drag, Merrie Cherry, and Bushwig’s co-founder Horrorchata herself.


The crowd warmed up with the DJ set from Babes Trust, the second co-founder of the festival, who eventually came out onstage to start off the shows and tell everyone that the idea to throw the event was very last minute, and that all of the proceeds would go to the performers and the Bushwig organization team “to survive and strive.” The evening’s shows were split in two parts with a 10-minute intermission. Lady Quesa’Dilla opened and MC’d the first part of the evening, with Rify Royalty and drag king Myster E Mel Kiki following right after. Chiquitita, formerly Juku, debuted her new stage name to Sade’s “Is It A Crime,” sensuously embodying her womanhood in front of the large crowd; Neon Calypso followed up with poem “Capitalism” by Porsha Olayiwola, a 2014 Individual World Poetry Champion, breaking into “Bitch Better Have My Money” with her signature flips and splits; Merrie Cherry and Horrorchata closed out the first half of the performances with a joyous duet.




Merrie Cherry took over the MC duties for the second half of the evening and attempted to thank the NYPD for not kicking everyone out of the park. Most of the crowd booed and several people screamed out, “Fuck NYPD!” To which Merrie Cherry conceded and said that she was just grateful that everyone could come together and celebrate Bushwig.

The larger-than-life Dragon Sisters opened up the second act with a bang, while the multi-talented opera singing aerialist Marcy Richardson showered them with a thick stash of dollar bills; Charlene followed up with a fierce hairography thanks to her signature portable fan, her unruly bosom continually popping out of her deeply V-necked ensemble; Zavaleta kicked off her heels, one of which managed to hit someone in the crowd in the head, at the start of her performance and then cried bloody tears through plastic tubes attached to a pump; Miz Jade introduced everyone to a “Toxic” X “WAP” mashup; the last two performances belonged to Magenta and then Horrorchata’s duet with Charlene.

The night wrapped up with an iconic photo op of all the Brooklyn-based performers in attendance and a DJ set by mrjpatt. The organizers of the event are already setting their eyes on next year. In Bushwig’s most recent IG post, part of the comment reads, “See you September 11th & 12th 2021 at @knockdowncenter ~ Tickets on sale soon“. Here’s to hoping that things will go back to somewhat normal in the upcoming year and the Brooklyn LGBTQIA+ community will be able to celebrate with each other once again under the roof of the Knockdown Center.

Performers of Brooklyn

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Alexey Kim


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Addison Page Comp

The Thing

About Dance

Find out more about Addison’s ballet

journey right below

See Addison’s video library


Welcome to Garden of Love


Welcome To

Garden Of Love

Garden of Love Gitano hosts a bougie post-apocalyptic NYC drag brunch every Sunday.


“I had to wake up

at 7 AM this morning

to get ready.”

Says NYC nightlife legend Amanda Lepore while sipping on a margarita during the weekly Gitano Garden of Love Sunday brunch party that she hosts with her drag daughter CT Hedden. “I’ve been invited to drag brunches before and I always said no, but right now there is nothing else to do.”

It’s not often that NYC nightlife creatures make it outside during the day dressed in their latest garb. But of course that’s not the craziest thing coronavirus has changed. “This is the only chic spot to be right now since Indochine is closed,” says nightlife persona and Amanda Lepore’s bestie CT Hedden, “so I told Amanda let’s do this party together.” CT doubles as a bartender in drag and is not a stranger to conceiving and hosting events in pre-COVID New York. It’s hard to call Garden of Love at Gitano a party though; it’s more of a brunch soirée, where you are only allowed to table-hop if the table’s host allows you to join them. Everyone has to wear a mask once you stand up from your chair. It’s strictly reservations only, where the doorman takes his job very seriously, “Six feet apart please, get in line!” Before entering the premises you are prompted to scan a QR code with your smartphone where you are asked a series of questions about your recent travels and if you were recently in contact with someone exposed to COVID-19. Once your temperature is taken and you’ve shown the filled-out waiver to the host, you are welcome into the Garden of Love. “Next they are going to start taking our DNA and blood samples,” one of the brunchers quipped while smoking outside. 

CT Hedden and Misty Copeland

Gitano’s sitting area transports you into Tulum, the original outpost of the company. “It doesn’t even feel like you are in the city during a pandemic,” says one of the first-time guests at CT’s table. Gitano is planning on staying open until late October and CT is hoping to continue Garden of Love as long as possible. Principal dancer with American Ballet Theater Misty Copeland and DJ Tommie Sunshine were in attendance during the second edition of the event. If you’d like to attend Garden of Love Sunday brunch, contact Gitano for table reservations. Check back every week for the photo libraries.


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Alexey Kim


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