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House°Bones FWSS°21: All The Birds That Couldn’t Fly

EDITORIAL

House°Bones FWSS°21 :

All The Birds That Couldn't Fly

"I am not worried about how to walk on this Earth anymore, I now think about how to fly and swim with infinite breath."

sidewalkkilla

“As Black people we’ve always been taught

that we have to work

five times as hard as the next person,"


says Bones Jones, dancer turned designer, event organizer, and founder of the lifestyle brand House°BONES (HoB). Today is supposed to be his day to unwind following the previous night’s grueling yet successful fashion presentation for his one-shot FWSS°21 (Fall Winter Spring Summer) collection. He is in his Harlem apartment, smoking a spliff by the window of a second small bedroom that he has converted into a studio space. This is where he designed and executed 45 pieces for his latest collection “5 Star Nightlife.” There is a time limit on our conversation though, because he has to speed off to a photoshoot in Jersey, where he is booked to style someone's hair. Oh yes, he is a hair stylist as well.

“I can’t pay my rent, but creatively, I feel on top of the world right now,”

he says, staring out towards the uninspiring grey panorama just beyond the window sill. In the time when the New York Fashion Week is cancelled until further notice and designers are shitting themselves about the uncertain future of their fashion houses, Bones pulled off a 40-minute fashion presentation in the form of an immersive dance theater within a matter of one week. The presentation involved 17 performers of different races, shapes and sizes.  

“When I hear that saying about us [Black people] having to work fivefold it blows my mind, because to me our natural state is what's already sought after so hard. I feel like we just have a way of being that is so universally admired that a lot of  other countries, other races and cultures try to emulate it– like braids or locks, big butts or full lips, and all these things are natural physical states of Black people.”

The spliff is still going and Bones adds to his previous statement,

"What I mean is, our actual state of existing is enough, but we’ve been taught that it’s not, that you have to do a bunch of extra shit. And so we get out there and we start thinking that we’re not enough and start doing all these things that other people do, when in reality you are already exactly where you need to be. And that goes for everybody, but specifically Black people have been taught not to believe that in this country.”

Bones’ life mission of challenging the routine is directly channeled through his brand HoB. HoB’s mission is to change the paradigm of luxury and social norms, and everything that Bones does in his everyday life rings true to that mission, whether he is consciously aware of it or not. It’s no secret that fashion is one of the biggest contributors to environmental destruction. Not only is the fashion industry responsible for 10% of humanity's carbon emissions, it is also the second largest user of the planet’s water supply. 85% of all clothing produced ends up in a landfill, while washing the $5 polyester shirt that you got at H&M, contributes to the microplastic pollution of our oceans. Questionable labour ethics of the fast fashion industry is an entire conversation of its own. Even though the truly green future of all fashion is considerable ways away, people’s awareness is growing and the niche for ethical and sustainable clothing is slowly but surely expanding (HERE are some sustainable clothing labels worth checking out.)

While Zara, which operates under Inditex, the world’s largest apparel manufacturer, juggles around 20 collections per year, Bones believes that one collection a year is more than enough. Minimalism and versatility are the keys to his fashion code,

“This is the shit you can wear all year around, you can layer it, wear it this way or that, you can do whatever you want. I don’t like when things are ‘supposed’ to be only one way, it just doesn’t make sense.”

He tries to use the entirety of the fabric, even the selvage (the "self-finished" edge of a roll of fabric which keeps it from unraveling and fraying) as the garment’s trimming. This is a big no-no in the fashion industry and this part of the fabric usually gets trashed.

“Unfinished ends are unique to my brand, everything doesn't have to have a perfect finish.”

The spliff is finally done and Bones is riding the high of last night’s success,

“I feel like even the brands with money couldn’t do what we did yesterday. McQueen was the last person who did something like this. When I am able to physically touch the money that McQueen was touching and be able to rent the venues and get the proper fabrics and not three dollar, five dollar fabrics, you best fucking believe that I'm going to be working in my natural state, but it's not going to be five times harder.”

Five dollar fabrics, selvage, frayed ends or not, you can’t take away Bones’ self-taught technical ability to construct complex garments like a denim corset-cum-leotard that fit one of the model’s body like a glove, bulge and all.

“I don’t see anyone else doing what I am doing,”

Bones continues,

“Nowadays I am not afraid to say that – before I would be afraid to assert myself, again because we've been conditioned that way and not just Black people but people in general, whoever is not in the top one percent. We have been taught not to assert ourselves and where you stand and who you are, it's always ‘dumb yourself down’ for the higher person in the room. No, fuck you. What makes you higher than me? No one is brave enough to host a fashion show during a pandemic, even in a safe way. If we can go to restaurants and football games, yeah, I am going to do this.”

The “5 Star Dining” showcase was broken up into performance vignettes that had their own narrative. A few models who represented restaurant guests would walk into the “restaurant” which was represented by an awkward wooden table propped up in the middle of the performance space, and then a scene would unravel, whether through a choreographed group routine, a solo dance or a theatrical interaction. Phenomenally, every moving piece was set in its place within one three-hour day of rehearsal. 

Bones makes it explicit that he didn’t choreograph the whole show by himself, but rather gave the talent through lines and possible intention, which they were free to interpret in their own way to create scenarios. There were people who helped with styling and hair, but the models were responsible for their own makeup. It was important for Bones to let the cast build their own narrative. It’s less about the control and more about collaboration. As with the audience, the goal was to give them something to think about.

Two “guests'' enter the “restaurant,” their HoB attire is over-the-top lavish– tulle and pearls with a splash of boujee above-it-all attitude,

“That was hinting at this higher society that gets to operate during this time, because if you have money your life is normal. If you got money, you can do what the fuck you want to do, like the fucking Governor or mayor or whoever [Texas senator Ted Cruz]. The bitch ran to the heat while the people are freezing and that's exactly what the fuck I'm talking about.”

When the above mentioned boujee “guests” settle at the table, one of the models pulls down their mask and smokes a joint lit up by their partner. Then something unspeakable happens… They share the j. *Insert Karen screaming.* The sharing of the joint represents hypocrisy in our society, aka the mask police who would turn around and then do something as unspeakable as sharing a smoke with their friends.

During another vignette, a stunning amazon of a drag queen and her cis-male presenting companion visit the “restaurant". They sit on opposite sides of the clunky table and then an argument erupts. The cis-man-dude kicks his “chair” (an apple box) and exits the restaurant in fury.

“In this particular scene Viper and Sy were hinting at the trans women as sex workers and their relationships with men in public. This is what’s happening right now, people are going out to dinners, men are finding out that the girls are trans and then things transpire. The men might like it, but when the girls show up and do something different in public, the men might flip the script.”

Throughout the show the models show off the garments’ versatility by constantly changing the way they wear the pieces or exchanging them with each other– one “guest” comes in with a big denim jacket and puts it on another model as an oversized skirt. Bones says that his collection represents one full day in New York,

“Let’s say you are hanging out with your friends during the day and then you want to go to dinner and go out, but you don't want to go back to the apartment to change your clothes. This collection is very much ‘throw something on and you already have what you need for any occasion.’ The clothes were meant to be able to transition from day to night to dinner to the club to the library if you will. You don’t have to choose, you can have this and that.”

Bones adds,

“What has always interested me is who you are when you are alone and what you might be hiding. How do you feel right now?”

One of the models walks into the room and starts fixing the table. He advances towards a mirror, looks himself over for a moment and makes his way back to the table. Then overhead lights flicker, representing lightning, and then bathe the room in blue. The model turns his back towards the audience, and takes off his jacket. The next thing to come down are the pants, revealing a thong-vest-leotard, ass cheeks fully exposed. He does this a few times, then puts the entire outfit back on and exits the stage.

“I told Stanley, you come into this room and maybe you are a perfectionist so you start fixing the table. When you see the lightning, maybe settle in at home because you're like, okay, I'm not going anywhere with this really crazy weather outside. So then you start looking at yourself in the mirror and you're like ‘I like this person but I don't like who I am at the same time.’ So then he turns around and takes his pants off a little bit, revealing that he has a thong-leotard-vest on.  He's just showing a little crack. So he’s thinking, ‘It’s okay, this feels good, but I want to show my whole ass’ and pulls his pants down all the way to the floor. Then he pulls it all back up, like ‘I have this character that I have to be in real life. I gotta fucking perform every fucking day.’ When we leave our privacy, we have to perform and put on this character who everybody fucking wants us to be, you know, like these are the conversations we have with ourselves. So that's how we built the show.”

He goes on confidently,

”I say this without any cockiness, but at the same time with all the cockiness, people know where this brand is about to fucking go and it's like, do you want to be a part of greatness? Because a part of me being great is a part of me feeling that my community is great as well.”

Anyone who knows Bones wouldn’t be surprised that most of his collection was executed in an oceanic palette. But what was surprising to learn is that the reasons behind his connection to the blue hues were as deep as the ocean floor itself,

“I see life as water. You have to surrender to the water, and I feel like it's exactly where I've been because I've had to learn how to swim underwater. I wasn't living in my truth. If you want to navigate this life, you need to learn to not only swim, but also soar above the water. There is a human form on land, there is a human form in water [mermaids] and there's a human form in air, the Angels. Blue shades are present in the sky as well. Before all this social media craze, let’s say you are in your thirties and you have been making things happen, then Instagram came along and some 16 year old fucks your shit up because they're doing some dance and it just completely washed away everything you were fighting for, so you now about to learn how to fly. This whole time you've just been walking on land and then the wave came and washed you out and if you don't learn how to swim you're gonna drown. And that’s the problems with humans– we try to fucking learn how to operate on some shit that we already do. We already walk this Earth. I am not worried about how to walk on this Earth anymore, I now think about how to fly and swim with infinite breath.”

House°BONES would like to thank his team that assisted with this project:

PAs Maurice Ivy, Fletcher Christian

Creative Development Kris Seto, Tislarm Bouie

Lighting Alyssa Dunst

Special Thanks To Dana Wiener and Ayce Graham

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Alexey Kim

Founder

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Editorial Latest The Mixer

#UsToo: The Alexander Wang Case and Sexual Abuse of Men in the Fashion Industry

EDITORIAL | OPINION

#UsToo:

The Alexander Wang Case

& Sexual Abuse of Men in the Fashion Industry

Illustrations by Paco May

asked her female Twitter followers

to reply with #MeToo

if they had been sexually abused.


Even though civil rights activist Tarana Burke originally founded the Me Too movement on Myspace in 2006, only after the hashtag went viral in 2017 did the Me Too movement become part of today’s dominant cultural and social media conversations. Me Too has unarguably contributed to the growth of today’s cancel culture, where many public figures face the backlash of the general public based on something offensive they’ve either done or said, or based on certain allegations. Sometimes there is no legal trial, as we saw in the Harvey Weinstein case; instead, the crowd takes on the role of judge, jury, and executioner, in some cases leading to a person and/or their career being “cancelled.”

The latest big name that might be next up on the chopping block is Alexander Wang. The famous fashion designer came to prominence after winning a highly coveted Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund award in 2008; now, after nearly two successful decades in the fashion industry, he is facing sexual assault allegations. 

On December 11, male model Owen Mooney made a TikTok video replying to another user’s question, “What is your weirdest ‘seeing a celebrity in public’ experience?” He proceeded to recount a night where he was groped by a “really famous fashion designer” in an NYC club in 2017.

Without skipping a beat, another TikTok user left a comment under the video claiming it was Alexander Wang. In the next video Owen confirmed the comment, saying that he was surprised that the person got it right. Two weeks later, the story was blown up by Instagram fashion gossip accounts @diet_prada and @shitmodelmgmt. Since Mooney’s accusations, countless people have chimed into the conversation, and several more anonymous male victims are currently being represented by high-profile attorney Lisa Bloom. As Vogue reminded us,

“Wang’s alleged misconduct has been discussed previously on social media as early as 2017 and within the trans community; several of Wang’s accusers are trans.”

Even though the sexual abuse of men in the fashion industry has been around for far too long, it has never really made as big of a headline as with the Alex Wang case. As an ex-fashion model, I have never had any similar experience with Wang himself, but there are a few stories I would like to share that happened to me and a few of my male model friends. Hopefully, these stories will shed some more insight into what male models have to deal with in the predatorial world of fashion, and why they might hold on to their stories, sometimes taking them to the grave.

Story Time

It's not typical for men to come to the forefront about sexual abuse, and there may be many reasons behind this – shame, guilt, denial, the influence of toxic masculinity, the fear of not being believed, the fear of ridicule, the danger of career annihilation by the people in power. Having worked as a model in Miami, New York City, and in Malaysia over the span of almost a decade, I’ve faced my own share of sexual abuse by the industry. I sadly always considered this to be a norm, sort of a rite that every model had to go through. I’ve heard countless similar stories from other male models: some losing big jobs because of their refusal to participate in sexual acts with the photographer or a casting agent, some having to get hard for a famous photographer’s “private” photo collection in exchange for images for their own portofolios, and so on and so on. Obviously, 100% of the time the abuse would come from those in power to “change'' someone else’s destiny. More often than not, the victims crumble under pressure and are made to feel helpless, fearing that all of the hard work they’ve put into getting themselves towards their goal could be smeared in a minute by someone in power displeased with their lack of subordination. Most of the guys would never tell their agents or anyone else about this abuse for fear of being ridiculed, blacklisted, discredited, or emasculated; they would relegate it to the “not a big deal” bucket, only having to deal with the emotional (and in some cases physical) scarring for the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately, some of these agents, the ones who are supposed to look after you, are silent complicitors, knowingly sending you to a client’s hotel for a “casting” or brushing you off after you’ve reported an instance of sexual abuse, either for fear of severing ties with a profitable client or simply not wanting to be involved in the drama that might follow. 

When I first moved to New York, I was barely out of high school. I was 19 years old and looking forward to running away from an unbearable family situation in Miami. I had lived in the US for only three years at that point – I was fresh off the boat and scared of taking the wrong step.

I was scouted by Click Model Management on models.com and was offered a contract on the spot. This was going to be my big break – something that I could have only dreamed about. I didn’t realize that shit wasn’t going to be so easy and started navigating the tough motherfucker that is New York City all by myself. I did not end up landing any jobs with this agency for an entire year. I was advised that I should look for “something else to do with my life” by one of many indifferent agents on the men’s board. A few months later I went to an open call with Q Models, only to come out with another contract offer. I actually started getting some jobs and thought to myself,

“I CAN do it, that agent bitch was wrong!”

Of course, due to the competitive nature of the industry and male models being notoriously underpaid, I had to find another gig. I started working as a server at the well-known celebrity and fashion hub Indochine. I was told that this was the place to be discovered, and every single night I would turn out looks in hopes of being noticed by a big shot from the fashion industry. 

One night, it finally happened! One of the staff told me that there was a very important fashion stylist at one of my tables. She was sitting at a table for two with her male friend. Throughout the dinner her friend, a celebrity hairstylist, was extremely nice, and by the end of the dinner I was offered a chance to work with him. When I went to his website, I was blown away – he had worked for major campaigns and even done covers for Vogue, imagine fucking that!

The shoot was properly arranged through my agency, but there was very little detail given to me about it. When I showed up at the designated shoot location, it turned out to be a regular apartment building. I took the elevator to the second floor and found myself stepping right into a humongous open-air loft that took up the entire floor of the building. To my surprise it was his apartment and there was nobody else but him. I asked where the team was and he skirted the subject, saying something along the lines of “They will be here later.”

Here I am thinking, “Oh I guess he’s going to style my hair first.” I glanced at a couch and it was strewn with female lingerie. “Is he having another shoot after this?” I naively thought to myself once again.

After my hair was done, he pointed me to the couch and told me to pick an outfit from what was on it. It was only female lingerie bottoms … I grabbed the small bunch of the choices presented to me and headed to the bathroom – where I found the lingerie was all fucking see-through. There was one regular Speedo thrown into the bunch, and that was my obvious choice – at least my dick and my hole wouldn’t be showing. I stepped outside but it was still only me and him, no photographer or a stylist like he promised. He took out a small point-and-shoot camera, slumped one of the living room floor lamps onto a wall and told me to go close to the light. After the first vignette he graciously allowed me to wear a fur coat that I also picked up from the couch, and he told me to climb on top of the living room sofa.

“Yes, good, now spread your legs a little bit more,”

he said, taking pictures from the floor while I was towering over him on the sofa.

He told me to go back into the bathroom and pick out another “outfit.” When I went back inside, there was no option for another Speedo, and so I decided that this was a wrap. I came out from the bathroom fully dressed and went towards a small office space that he was now sitting in, looking through our photos on a big monitor. What I saw on the screen shook me. Even though you couldn’t see any of my private parts, some of the angles that he took were straight-up pornographic.

“Hey, I actually have to go,”

I told him and ran out of that apartment as fast as I could. I called my agency immediately and told them what happened. They shrugged it off in an “Oh well, it's not a big deal” manner, but I couldn’t stop shaking from the adrenaline, feeling like I had just narrowly missed an encounter with a grizzly bear’s claws.

He ended up stalking me over the next several years, incessantly messaging me on dating websites, but I was so disgusted that I would be thrown into nausea every time he tried to contact me. It was just the sleazy way he had about him. At that time it was beyond me why a man with such power and success had to resort to such methods for someone to sleep with him. I think dinner and a nice wine would have been a better bet, even though I’d still never fuck him.

In early 2016 a fellow model sent me a screenshot of an awful picture of me that one of the photographers I worked with back in the day took of me. The photographer posted this photo as a throwback image on his Twitter with one of the hashtags saying #whatwasithinking. My friend said,

“Giiiiiirrrlll, know when to say no.” 

At that time the said photographer was shooting any and every cute model boy that was coming to New York to take a shot at modeling. He’s had this book project going on, where the models were promised to be shot for free for their modeling portfolios as long as they participated in this project of his, which obviously required for you to shoot butt naked. I came over to his apartment to talk about some ideas involving our future collaboration, and we decided to just spontaneously start shooting right there and then. I went into a bathtub with white undies he provided me with, we turned on some water, it was obviously getting very sexy.

Alex Wang's allegations include drugging his victims

During one of the looks he told me to drape myself in these beaded curtains and to take my underwear off, since “it’s going to be hard to Photoshop it out” – he wanted the full nude illusion. After the shoot was wrapped up, I came out of the bathroom where I changed into my civilian clothes, only to see my asshole fully blown up on one side of his dual desktop monitor.

“You have a very nice hole, but it would look better if you shaved it. Don’t worry, no one will see these outtakes but me.”

At the time I brushed it off as him just trying to be funny, even though the thought of this guy staring at my hairy asshole any time he pleased really bothered me. Indeed, #whatwasithinking by letting him get away with it. 

I shared this BTS story with the friend who sent me this throwback photo, to which he shared his own account with the same guy:

”He tried shooting my asshole too! I said no! My last conversation with him was him telling me how he wanted nudes of me. I was like ‘No, they serve no purpose and will do nothing for my career or image and I don’t need them floating around the internet.’ To which his queeny ass told me ‘If I’m shooting you for free, you do what I say.’”

Then my model friend shared another experience that he had with another prominent NYC photographer:

“I shot with him once and told him 100 times I wasn’t doing nudes. After arguing with him, then him threatening to stop the shoot and tell other photographers I was hard to work with, I agreed on the condition that my dick would be covered and he wouldn’t use the pictures on the internet. He says yes, begs me to show half my shaft. Now if you Google my name and go to images, one of the first images is me in the window with half my shaft out. If I could sue I would.”

After, or sometimes even before every shoot, the photographer gives you a photo release where you essentially sign away all of the rights to your photos. The exchange is that you get to use them for your portfolio or personal use.

One of the guys I used to work with at Indochine once told me what happened at the height of his modeling career back in the ‘90s. This guy used to be huge, and had worked on the most prestigious catwalks, countless campaigns, billboards on Times Square. He was told that he was on hold as an option for a huge underwear campaign and the photographer wanted to do a test shoot in his hotel room before they made a final decision on his booking. When he arrived at the big-shot photographer’s hotel room, the photographer told him to undress and put on the brand’s underwear. The photographer took out a Polaroid camera and started snapping away.

“Now get on the bed, turn around, lower your underwear, show me your butt cheeks.”

The next thing you know, the photographer is on top of him, trying to jam his dick in his ass. At that point my friend pushed him away, jumped up from the bed, and told him that even if he was gay he would rather die than fuck an ugly motherfucker like him. The next day his option was dropped and he obviously never got the job. When the Polaroids were delivered to the agency, they were completely unusable.

This next story takes the cake, given the circumstances that were occurring at that moment of my life.

A really good friend of mine set me up with an agent who specialized in signing models to overseas agencies, mostly in Asia. I had been dying to be a traveling model and couldn't wait to try it out. There was only one agency that was interested in signing me and it was in Malaysia. Back then I looked like a girl more than ever before, or ever since. Smooth face, skin and bones, long horse mane of hair. All of the agencies passed on me precisely because of that – they wanted macho guys. Miraculously, not this particular agency. The only caveat was that I cut my hair at least shoulder length. The contract was for 3 months, so I quit my job, moved a subletter into my room, and was on my way to what I thought would be inevitable newfound stardom during/after this trip. To make this really long story shorter, one of the agents (the main one) was kind of obsessed with me. He would subtly throw sexual hints/innuendos at me here and there. At the same time, he was feared by models and a bit abrasive. One night he calls my cell and tells me to come by his apartment, which was in the same building as the model house, but on another floor. At that moment I was with a fellow model who was already aware of the agent’s previous advances towards me. I felt that I couldn’t say no to him, especially as he mentioned that he wanted to talk about my career. At the same time I was weary and thinking he might want to stick his small dick in my tight ass. So I asked my friend to follow me to our agent’s abode. When we were outside of the apartment he texted me that the door was open. When we came in, my friend and I just looked at each other – the whole place was totally dark, with the exception of a faint light coming from the agent’s bedroom. Shit was about to go down, I just knew it. 

I called out to him saying that I was with a friend. He came out. He put on a movie for us and for the entire ten minutes that he managed to stay on the couch next to us, he was tossing and turning and sighing. It was obvious that he wasn’t happy about me not coming there alone and he was handling it like a five-year-old brat.

He abruptly got up and went into his bedroom. From there he started texting me that he wanted me to come by alone (no shit) and to send my friend off. I told my friend,

“Alright, listen, if I don't come back tonight call George W. Bush.”

I went into his room and that's when the all-night cat-and-mouse chase began. 

Basically, I was in there for five(!) hours trying to fight for my decency. At first, he started coaxing me into sitting on his bed next to him. It took him about 30 minutes to convince me to do it. He was prying and prying, lying and conniving me into that first step so well and so expertly, that I just had to oblige. Then it got more intense. He asked me to take off my socks…

I told him my feet were cold (it's 120 degrees in Malaysia on any given day). He said he hated people wearing socks on his bed. “Well, you asked me to sit on it, so that's on you,” I responded. How clever he thought he was, using the dumbed-down cause-and-effect method to sexually advance on someone. During our back-and-forth battle of him trying to convince me to do something as simple as taking off my socks or sitting on his bed, he told me many stories, like how he got some straight model guy drunk and probably roofied and took advantage of him the night before the model’s wedding. He said that the guy got up in the morning and just stumbled out of his room in shock. He was laughing and was very proud of that accomplishment. Then he began to threaten my career in his agency. Saying he's powerful enough to not arrange any jobs for me. Blah blah. It was a battle of perseverance, and I fucking persevered. No way in hell was I going to touch that dick even if it cost me my entire modeling career. I finally pried myself out from his molestation hands of steel and got the fuck out of the room. 

"No way in hell

was I going to touch that dick

even if it cost me my entire modeling career."

"I'm gonna fry

his dick

and eat it

for breakfast"

The next morning the first thing that I did was call my agent in New York and tell him the whole story. He didn't believe me. He was speechless, he said that he has been working with this guy for ages and nothing like that had ever happened with any of the models he sent his way. Obviously, that was because not everyone was naturally sexy and seductive like me. But all jokes aside, maybe no one had the balls to report him or even say no?

One little detail I didn't mention above is that I recorded the whole molestation session on my Razr Motorola. Yes, I'm gonna fry this dick and eat it for breakfast! Oh, wait. I'm in fucking Malaysia, by myself, I'm totally dependent on that guy for jobs, money, my whole entire well-being, in a foreign country. I quit my job and I'm on the fucking contract, I have nothing to come back to in New York after only 2 weeks of being gone. After I told my NY agent that I could prove the harassment with the recording on my phone, he believed me and said he would take care of it. So then, I had two ways of dealing with it: either going back to New York with nothing, no job, no money, no apartment, and most importantly, no fame. Or I could stick it out and stay until the end of my contract on the promise the Malaysian perv provided to my agent that nothing of that sort would happen with me again. I ended up choosing the latter and staying until the end of my contract, with no further sexual advances from the bastard.

Sadly, most guys that I’ve spoken to about their assaults never reported them because of the pure shock and then a burning desire to just bury the traumatic memory and quickly move on. A few of them shared that it was too embarrassing for them to talk about it in the open. At some point, I myself felt that it was all my own fault for allowing some of the abuses to happen to me. Let’s not even start exploring the legal drama that you can be dragged into by someone who might have many more connections and liquid assets than you to defend themselves in court – this in itself plays a part in not coming forward after you are sexually attacked.

One of the first people I met when I first moved to New York is currently a successful jewelry designer, but back in the day he was trying out the modeling gig just like me. He said that the reason he quit modeling was because of a celebrity photographer that made him whip out his dick and get hard for the camera,

“At first he told me to touch myself, because he wanted the image to be strong. I started touching myself and then I thought, ‘This is a bit much,’ but when you were in his studio there were so many top models naked on the walls, it felt like it was normal. It was after I left the studio, I thought to myself, ‘What just happened?’ and I started crying. I couldn’t tell anyone as I was embarrassed, I still feel embarrassed to this day.”

The End of Wang (?)

On January 5, 2021, Alex Wang issued a statement via his personal Instagram account:

“Firstly, I’d like to take the opportunity to connect directly with the people who have helped me grow this brand into what it is today and address the recent false, fabricated, and mostly anonymous accusations against me. While I have always been active in my social life, frequently attending various industry gatherings, parties, and concerts where drugs and alcohol were present—contrary to what has been said, I have never taken advantage of others in a sexual manner or forced anything on anyone without consent. I also have never abused my status or fame for my own benefit. These baseless allegations were started on social media by sites which repeatedly disregarded the value and importance of evidence or fact-checking. It’s my priority to prove these accusations are untrue and are fueled by solely opportunistic motives. It is important for people to speak up and be heard, but there is a need to ensure accusations are credible, so that we don’t harm these important causes. Our team is doing everything in its power to investigate these claims and we promise to remain honest and transparent throughout that process. We are fortunate to have received an overwhelming amount of support over the last few days and are thankful to our staff, clients, and industry peers for standing by our side at this time.”

Alexander Wang statement

Owen Mooney statement

It seems that the camp has split in two: the civilians who are speaking out for Wang’s victims, and the people from Wang’s camp who view those who came out as opportunistic liars. It seems that most of Wang’s fashion and Hollywood acquaintances are holding their tongue on the matter altogether. The only high-profile person who has spoken in support of Owen Mooney’s #UsToo post so far is fashion model Karen Elson via her IG Stories. Otherwise, the lack of general support from other famous people, including Hollywood supporters of the #MeToo movement, resulted in Owen Mooney issuing a statement of his own:

"The silence of the fashion industry and Hollywood in general is quite deafening. In an era of #MeToo and the solidarity victims received from Hollywood, where is the same support for the victims of Wang? This is why so many accusations of his get brushed under the rug, along with other accusations of prominent figures in fashion for that matter. His celebrity acquaintances are still following him, changing captions of pictures with him, deleting comments. Anything but condemning his actions. This is staying complicit. What he’s done to some people is evil and he needs to be held accountable. Almost a week later, still more victims are coming forward with stories. How many more people have to come forward before people in fashion and Hollywood condemn him. I can’t help but question if this has something to do with this being about men, queer and trans people? Does the ideology that we are not victims of sexual assault exist? What would the response be if a world renowned fashion designer was drugging and sexually assaulting cis women? Well we’ve seen it happen, with #MeToo. How about #UsToo? Because there is no shame in coming forward and pointing to your assaulter. We need to be taken more seriously, this happens to us too and the response should be equal.”  

Can you really take the word of Wang’s camp or friendly business associations vouching for his innocence? Probably not; the industry will try to protect those within its ranks for as long as it can, until there is enough danger to be considered guilty by association. Once things start looking towards a messy trial, the deafening silence of Alex’s supporters might change. At the end of the day, everyone only looks out after their own skin, especially in any sort of business context. Models who have had a chance to work with Alex might not have experienced unwanted sexual advances in the professional setting, but it doesn’t mean that this did not happen in other situations. At the end of the day, there needs to be certain checks and balances in place – models have been fending for themselves this whole time in the cruel world of fashion with no one to back them up. The agents don’t care about you, even though they promise your gullible parents that you will be in good hands once they let you leave your tiny town; the only thing they are after is someone who brings in the checks. A third-party system-level overhaul, like a model’s union, is long overdue, and it might be the only solution to the persistent problem of abuses in the fashion industry. 

#UsToo

Regarding the Alex Wang case, it begs the question: As a society, do we keep believing those in power and possibly letting them get away with more than they should, and not believing those who speak out and shun them because we think there might be opportunistic reasons behind their claims; or do we keep taking on an angry-mob mentality and keep perpetuating the vicious cancel culture through a heartless social media machine that swallows the souls of not only the ones under scrutiny, but also the ones who drive that machine? Because right now it seems that these are the only two available options.

In any case, this is truly a sad moment for everyone involved. We all could do a little better as a society, and the cancel culture needs to stop. It’s toxic, and the private-vigilante whiff that it carries just doesn’t work. Cancelling a person or bullying them into self-harm will never be a solution. Comments on Alex’s IG page like “YOU DISGUST ME! GO TO PRISON AND ROT THERE” are not constructive or helpful. Humans’ natural reaction is to make quick assumptions without possessing all of the information, and destroying or rejecting something that makes them feel uneasy or that they don’t understand. It’s easy to annihilate, but it’s not easy to make the conscious decision to approach something broken with kindness.

I’ve forgiven everyone who’s violated me sexually in the past, even the vilest predators like this bitch from Malaysia – even though they’ve never asked for forgiveness. With so many years gone by, now I look at these situations from another perspective: What made these people approach their subjects of interest in such a predatory way? Is it their upbringing, the pressure of society, insecurities, a fetish? There could be many causes, but one running theme seems to be apparent:

“I don’t deserve to be loved for who I am.”

Some sexual predators might really regret such behavior afterwards, some may be so overcome by their ego and power to the point of not recognizing their sexual misconduct, and then again, some may only ask for forgiveness because they got caught. Will there ever be a moment when a harasser who is found guilty and punished can be offered another chance, or are they to be completely disposed of and “cancelled” without any possibility of redemption? Personally, I didn’t think I’d do myself any favors if I clung to a painful past, logging the mental burden of sexual abuses everywhere I go. I will never forget the many other instances of sexual abuse I’ve had to go through, but I must forgive – I believe that this is the only way to move forward and start healing yourself and the world around you. 

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Alexey Kim

Founder

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Paco May

Illustrator/Writer

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EDITORIALS

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Editorial Latest

2020 Roundup

sidewalkkilla

2020 ROUNDUP

We decided to divide the 2020 Roundup into categories. Needless to say, the new decade started off as a level-five hurricane. The focus of our conversations over the past year has been unavoidably influenced by the coronavirus, the Black Lives and Black Trans Lives Matter movements, and how we, as a human race, deal with this new world without losing our inspiration. This year’s Roundup is split into five categories, each highlighting three stories that we thought to be the most representative of 2020:

ART, BLM, COVID-19, CONVERSATIONS, and PRIDE.

If you enjoy our work and would like us to go on well into the future, please consider DONATING. Any amount would be greatly appreciated and will ensure that we do our best in continuing to tell creative stories and cover important events. Sidewalkkilla was founded by representatives of two immigrant minorities and is fully self-funded. We are an independent platform that aims to be open to creative collaborations with people from the LGBTQIA+ community and its allies. We created this platform out of love for our community, and we are hoping to keep holding important conversations through our unique lens.

articles arranged by oldest date

ART

Oftentimes, we produce the most creative and daring things when we are backed into a corner, depressed, or broken down. In fact, most of the ideas for Sidewalkkilla came to us when we were down on our luck, and we would get stoned out of our minds and spitball crazy ideas into the air: What if…? The stories we decided to highlight were all spawned in the midst of the pandemic, and the artists behind them took on an ambitious idea and just ran with it. 

Photographer and visual artist Michael Sullivan moves back to his hometown and photographs a collection of stunning masks that he creates; Brooklyn-based drag artist Untitled Queen “celebrates” July 4 in an unusual way; Michael Cruz, Zac Thompson and Aaron Hawkins  launch a gallery space out of a Brooklyn home.

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BLM

On May 26, three days after George Floyd’s death by a cop’s knee, violent protests erupted in Minneapolis. In turn, on May 29, nonviolent protests in NYC organized at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn turned violent. Following the violence as well as looting that ensued on May 31, Gov. Andrew Cuomo placed NYC under curfew from June 1 to June 7. While Black Lives Matter protests sparked up all over the US, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, on June 1, a mob brutally attacked Iyanna Dior, a Black trans woman from George Floyd’s hometown, at a gas station. The incident raised concern about the inclusion of Black trans women into the conversation. On June 14, around 15,000 people dressed in all white showed up at the Brooklyn Museum to walk for Black trans lives. 

Take a look at our exclusive photos from the first few days of the protests in NYC (violence warning); revisit the Brooklyn Liberation Action inspired by the 1917 Silent Protest Parade organized by the NAACP; protest in the form of joy with three Black-led organizations that brought jubilee to Harlem during Juneteenth. 

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COVID-19

While a pre-COVID-19 report, the 2019 Global Health Security Index, ranked the US #1 in Global Pandemic Preparedness, the Trump administration’s dismantling of the team in charge of pandemic responses in early 2018, and downplaying the coronavirus threat from the very beginning, didn’t do us any favors. On March 22, Governor Andrew Cuomo  mandated a stay-at home order for New York State. As COVID-19 began to spread in the US, New York City quickly became the global epicenter of the pandemic. After experiencing a record-breaking deadly spike in April, New York, through social distancing mandates, aggressive testing, and clear messaging from leadership, was able to change the trajectory of the pandemic and drastically reduce the number of infections and deaths. New York City and the state as a whole were able to reopen in phases, and on July 20 the city went into the fourth stage of reopening, which allowed for schools to reopen, resumption of low-risk outdoor activities and entertainment at 33% capacity, and media production was able to resume. Almost 20 million COVID cases later, and well over 320K deaths nationally, NYC is nearing another possible shutdown. But life goes on — leave it up to the artistic community to make the best out of a shitty situation and stay creative. 

Live streaming becomes the preferred means of communication and performing; Jesse Alvior, a long-time resident of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, sees and documents changes first-hand; drag queens create their own socially distanced QuarantQueen Ball, instead of the cancelled Met Gala. 

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CONVERSATIONS

When we say that we want to create conversations with the LGBTQIA+ community, we mean it. The three stories below are deeply contemplative, moving and inspiring.

Dévo Monique has had enough of being the token Black drag queen; photographer Adam Ross collaborates with Black Trans people Alex and Jael to show the beauty of trans women blossoming into themselves; Martyr was raped when they were 17 and uses their trauma to heal through art.

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PRIDE

There was no official NYC Pride this year due to coronavirus regulations, so instead Pride month was transformed into a month of protests for Black and Black Trans lives. While the rest of the world was reeling from the devastating losses incurred by the coronavirus pandemic, a land straight out of a fairy tale managed to continue on as usual, unaffected by the pandemic or racial division. 

Bushwig collective celebrates Pride by riding bikes in solidarity with the BLM movement; the annual New York City Pride Parade turned into the Queer Liberation March; Taipei hosts the biggest in-person 2020 Pride, pink-washing and all.

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Alexey Kim

Founder

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Felix Santos

Co-Founder

Categories
Activisim Events Latest

First Days of NYC BLM Protests Recap

ACTIVISM

First Days of BLM Protests in New York City

sidewalkkilla

On May 26, three days after George Floyd’s death by a cop’s knee, violent protests erupted in Minneapolis. In turn, on May 29, nonviolent protests in NYC organized at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn turned violent. Following the violence as well as looting that ensued on May 31, Gov. Andrew Cuomo placed NYC under curfew from June 1 to June 7.

Take a look at our exclusive photos from the first few days of the protests in NYC (violence warning.)

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Alexey Kim

Founder

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Editorial Latest Videos

Drag King God Complex Succumbs to Bliss

EDITORIAL | VIDEO

Drag King God Complex

Succumbs to Bliss

Watch Aeon Andreas, the artist behind God Complex succumb to the Bliss of their art via the exclusive video premiere below.

sidewalkkilla

"I Try to Resist

But Succumb

to The Bliss of Your Kiss.’

-Depeche Mode


God Complex is a drag king alter ego of gender insurrectionist and multi-hyphenate creator Aeon Andreas. The Brooklyn-based 28 year old performer describes their character as a hedonist and a proud sicko. Usually adorned with horns, severed doll parts, a pentagram or an upside down cross somewhere on his body, God Complex is more reminiscent of a demonic creature rather than anything godly. The character of God Complex was born almost three years ago. Since then, he has garnered quite a buzz with his chilling performances and blood-curdling looks. In 2019, he was named as Drag King of the Year by Brooklyn Nightlife Awards, but the success and the reverence of the nightlife community didn’t stop him from almost abandoning drag all together.

The very first time God Complex performed was at one of Switch n' Play’s shows in Brooklyn. Switch n' Play is a Brooklyn drag collective established in 2006, which received the title of “Best Burlesque Show” at the same Brooklyn Nightlife Awards as when God Complex was named Drag King of The Year.

“After this first performance I was like OK, this is my life,”

says Aeon. Aeon has been performing their entire life. Before the pandemic they performed full time as God Complex, while simultaneously working as a resident performer at Brooklyn’s creative venue House of Yes and as a composition and movement teacher at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“The feeling of performing drag is very different. I don’t often feel stage fright when I’m performing dance or theater, but in drag I really do. It's sort of positive, in a way— it's an electric feeling. For me, doing drag is like being a rock star.” 

Aeon says that they were lucky enough for their dance and theater life to take them all over the world, but it wasn’t really on their own terms.

“I’ve gotten to travel all over the world with the company I dance for, or with a show I’m working on. Never specifically for just me. Now, as God Complex, I’ve gotten lucky enough to get flown out to perform. On my own. That’s a new experience for me.”

Right before New York City became subject to the stay-at-home orders back in March, the character of God Complex was on the way to a chopping block.

“I got a job with some friends of mine launching a new cruise ship. I was dancing in this very queer show and that got shot down because of COVID. While I was onboard I realized just how burnt out I was from doing drag constantly. I had this moment where I questioned if I wanted to keep being God Complex at all. As I got back into the city and started doing little gigs here and there I realized that it wasn’t the drag itself that was hurting me—it was the lack of recovery time. There's such a short turn around when you work almost every night— there’s very little time to grow.”

Subsequently, God Complex was put on the backburner, while it seems that everyone else from nightlife has found a way to perform online.

“I had previously broadcasted that I didn’t want to do digital drag. I just didn’t know how to do it well, I was already feeling weird about drag. I was planning on taking a break until I figured out my next step.” 

But then Aeon’s dear friend had a fundraiser for his top surgery.

“I love this person, and I wanted to be a part of that,”

they say,

“I was watching some live Depeche Mode performances and I watched the live in Berlin version of this song— ‘Should Be Higher’ and it was so spectacular. Dave Gahan is just vomiting out the words and everyone in the audience is just eating it up. It's so beautiful— it's a very giving performance, and I got a little obsessed with this version of the song. There is this lyric in this song, ‘I try to resist but succumb to the bliss of your kiss.’

It’s a powerful, painful idea that bliss and love are things that we resist."

“This kind of image of a very flat red rectangle came to me, with almost Jesus-like or anti-Jesus- like body. That’s where my concept for this video began.”

The 7-minute video is called Bliss and it’s quite apparent that it signifies the rebirth of both God Complex and Aeon as a drag artist. They say,

“I have spent most of my artistic life failing. Trying and failing, but I'm at a point now where I can see more clearly what it is I want.”

Watch God Complex succumb to the Bliss via the exclusive video premiere below.

Conception, direction, performance, design, and editing by God Complex.

Co-Direction and DP Sharkey Weinberg

Co-Shot / 2nd Camera Daniel Aros

Set + Prop Assistance + hands Juno Stardust, Frankie Placidi, Emily Malave

Thanks to Amy Pollock and Kaz Phillips.

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Alexey Kim

Founder

VIDEOS

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Editorial Latest Nightlife

Bar d’O: 27 Years of Cocaine, Cock Sucking, and Love

EDITORIAL

Bar d'O:

27 Years of Cocaine, Cock Sucking, and Love

Bar d'O closed its doors in 2001, but the legacy still lives on.

sidewalkkilla

Every once in a while

there comes a moment in life

that changes the course of history,


and 27 years ago that pivotal moment happened in downtown Manhattan’s queer night scene, when Bar d’O opened its doors. Not only has Bar d’O served as a stepping stone for many of its now-legendary performers’ careers, but it served as a shining example of how something made purely out of love can become much bigger than yourself.

A Bit of History

Once upon a time, in 1992, to be precise, Jean-Marc Houmard took over Indochine restaurant with two partners. It wasn’t long before he was approached with another business proposition by one of Indochine’s managers.

“He had a space in the West Village on Bedford and Downing that was available for rent and he wanted to do just a bar,”

Jean-Marc reflects on that time.

The place was called Glowworm and it didn’t do so well (maybe because of its name?). Mr. Houmard’s partner was from Miami and a year later he decided to move back home. The pair was going to sell the lease, but then Jean-Marc decided to do the place on his own. This would be his first solo venture.

The name of the bar was promptly changed to Bar d’O, which was a subtle homage to Story of O, an erotic novel published in 1954 and written by famous French novelist Anne Desclos, who wrote it under the pseudonym ‎Pauline Réage.

“It’s kind of an S&M novel that she wrote for her lover to try to entice him to be more adventurous,”

says Houmard.

The original Fifty Shades of Grey, if you will.

“It was a bit of an S&M theme. It wasn’t an S&M bar though. It was just a slightly risqué, dark bar,”

Jean-Marc goes on.

“After a few months I went to a show downstairs at Indochine where Joey Arias was performing. I still remember it was called “Strange Fruit.” But I remember that night because it was the night that OJ Simpson was in his Bronco being chased by the cops. I remember that very well. And Madonna was in the audience that night, watching Joey. I remember that because Joey called down to her, because she was chatting with the person next to her and he said: ‘Hey you there! It’s not all about you!’ It was a vivid memory, having Madonna there and being on the night of the Bronco chase.”

“Strange Fruit” had a more than year-long run at the space right below Indochine called Astor Theater – now long gone – where Joey performed Billie Holiday songs along with a live band and two other performers, Raven O and Afrodite. Joey Arias has been a staple of New York City’s nightlife since the ‘80s, famously appearing as a backup singer to David Bowie on SNL in 1979, alongside his best friend and lover, German alternative musician Klaus Nomi.

As fate would have it, the Bronco-Madonna night also happened to be the last performance date for the show, and Jean-Marc caught Joey just in time:

“I approached him and told him I had a bar. I asked him if he wanted to do a regular thing – a once-a-week show. He loved the idea and so we started doing that and then it was so successful that we did more nights. So we started on Tuesdays and then we did Saturday and Sunday.”

“You just never knew what was going to happen. It was before the time of social media, but every Saturday there were people from all over the world. I don’t know how the word got out, but when it did, it was incredible to see so many different countries represented in one room,”

Steven Knoll, a celebrity hairstylist and long-time patron, shared during the 26th Bar d’O reunion at Indochine late last year.

According to Joey, The New York Times was the one to blame for getting the word out:

“A writer for the NY Times came in once during the beginning of our Bar d’O stint and the next thing you know, the line to get in was around the block. So to accommodate the demand we had to start doing shows three times a week.”

Joey Arias, Edward P Wagner and Flotilla Debarge waiting "backstage" by Indochine's bathrooms

The show ended up being so successful that it went on for the next 8 years. The original trio named Three Cherrys that started it all consisted of Joey Arias, Raven O, and Edwige, who was a well-known French lesbian singer in the seedy downtown scene. There were many guest performers that joined the roster throughout the years, many crediting Bar d’O as a platform of starting in NY, among them being: Jimmy James, Lady Bunny, Jackie Beat, Candis Cayne, Flotilla Debarge, Phoebe Legere, Sherry Vine, Porsche and the late Sade Pendavis, who ended up having her own show every Sunday. Jean-Marc attributes a large chunk of success to his long-time friend and business partner Yvan Cussigh,

“Yvan took over running the show the first week he moved to New York in ‘96, when I had to go to LA to open Indochine on the West Coast; from that year until its closing Yvan was instrumental in making sure the show lived on for all those years.”

Jean-Marc reminisces,

“The one thing that distinguished Bar d’O was that there was never any lip-syncing, it was always a live cabaret. That’s how we separated ourselves from all the other drag bars. Well, it was not even a drag bar, it was really mixed actually. I think what worked really well is that there was no stage like in a typical bar with a show. They walked in the middle of the room and there was an island bar. The girls basically just climbed up and sat on top of it. It felt very improvised and I think that’s what people liked. It was not like a theater, it was a bar and all of a sudden the light came on and the queens did a few songs, messed with the crowd. It felt very spontaneous, I think that’s what people appreciated. There was no sitting, so people were all over the place. They sat all over the floor, on the bar. They sat everywhere – on top of each other – and the fact that it was a mixed crowd made it very interesting and fun and convivial. It was not a typical gay bar with the stage. You know, we’ve seen that setting many times. It was different.”

Another thing that set Bar d’O apart is that it was inclusive before inclusivity was a discussion like it is today. It was always fluid – each performer brought something different to the table. It wasn’t just drag queens that got their spotlight, there were also cis women and gender-fluid performers.

Everything was very improvised – for the first two years Jean-Marc used to climb on top of the bar and change the spotlights, just so they would shine on the performers. The green room was the old kitchen at the back of the bar. Bar d’O didn’t serve food, so that was the queens’ green room.

“It was always very colorful in that kitchen to see all those performers getting ready for the show, they are getting their makeup on, gossipy stories, having fights, having drama, you know, everything that people with a lot of personality would bring to a small room,”

says Jean-Marc.

“Every year we did a big party for each anniversary and we had a big show with 10 queens performing, we had an amazing crowd. I mean we had people like Bryan Lourd bringing his celebrities; Andre Balazs with Uma Thurman; I think there was Al Pacino with Bryan Lourd one year; Ellen Barkin. So those anniversaries were always amazing, with all these talents in that tiny room with all these fabulous people. And there was no pretense like, you know, the celebrities would sit right next to regular people and it was fine – no one paid attention. It was loose and fluid and I think that's why people remember it as a special place.”

Joey Arias and Jean-Marc Houmard

After a successful eight years, the lease on Bar d’O skyrocketed and Jean-Marc decided to close down the bar.

“People were devastated when we closed, so we thought we had to carry on the tradition.”

That’s when Bar d’O moved to Indochine and became more of a yearly reunion, assembled towards the end of each year.

Bar d'O Today

The first time I attended Bar d’O at Indochine was 12 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. A co-worker of mine invited me to come, putting me in drag right before the show. Combine your first night out in New York City as a drag queen with Sherry Vine’s dirty remakes of popular songs and Joey’s “Love For Sale” number where he shoves a microphone into an unsuspecting attractive audience member’s pants and sings through their crotch, and you might never forget that night either.

Nowadays Bar d’O is hosted by ⅔ of the original trio, where Sherry Vine has taken over the third spot initially filled by Edwige. At last year’s Bar d’O reunion she performed a remake of Lil Nas X’s runaway hit “Old Town Road,” which broke the record for the longest-running #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but flirtatiously renamed it “Old Brown Hole.”

In Sherry’s naughty fashion, she started the performance off with a prelude of how the idea for the song came about:

“When I was in my 20s my butthole was pink, beautiful shimmering pink. Then when I got into my 30s my butthole turned taupe…,”

finishing up the story with the retelling of a night where she was taking a bath and she noticed that her butthole was now brown.

“It was an important time in New York – those performers were the best of the drag cabaret singers, and to not do it anymore, I think something would be lost. Year after year people come to enjoy the same, and it’s kind of my duty to continue the tradition,”

Jean-Marc says.

Even though not much changes from one year to the next – it’s mostly the same crowd that’s been coming to see the show since the beginning and mostly the same numbers performed year after year –  it’s the improvisation and the idea that anything can happen that keeps bringing people back and keeps the show fresh.

During the late-night sets, the queens turn up the heat; the jokes get dirtier, the songs get sexier, and you can feel the energy becoming looser by the minute. People get tipsy, they start flirting with their waiters and unbuttoning their shirts. During one of the reunions, I was working as a server when I got picked up by this hunky wrestler who doubled as an opera singer. Somehow the decisions that you make during Bar d’O nights might be the book definition of wrong, but at Bar d’O anything goes, so you go with the flow and realize that it’s OK to be bad sometimes.

SISTERS

In 2019, the 26th reunion carried on in the usual classy, unfiltered manner, but not without a few sentimental moments. Edwige passed away in 2015 and Raven paid a tribute to her with one of his performances. At the end of the night Raven, Joey, and Sherry performed their “Sisters” anthem, a song that will probably be performed for as long as Bar d’O keeps going on. Sherry and Joey shared an intimate moment after the music stopped – they held each other’s faces up close and gazed into each other’s eyes, inevitably getting emotional.

“Whenever the 3 of us, me, Joey, and Raven, are onstage together and singing ‘Sisters’ (our theme song) I am filled with joy, love, and admiration. We have been together for over 25 years so the bond is strong!,”

Sherry shares about that touching moment.

I asked Jean-Marc if he thought Bar d'O was something that could be revived as a regular thing. He responded,

“The early mid-90s still allowed for small bars like Bar d'O to exist, when the rent was still affordable and we didn’t need to make a ton of money to be able to do that. That’s what’s missing now, to be able to do things more for the love of it rather than just to make money. Right now, I think it would be difficult. When people tell me, why don’t you do it again? I don’t know that we could anymore. Because our rent would be 3-4 times more than it used to be and then it has to be bringing in money, and that was not what it was about.”

Sherry Vine and Joey Arias share an intimate moment during "Sisters" performance

Even though these days watching performers lip sync and slaying the stage with their moves is the preferred entertainment for those who are out to see a drag show, it’s unfortunate that not a lot more people from younger LGBTQIA+ generations know about Bar d’O. The realness and the rawness of those invited to take the stage at this event are unparalleled – you laugh, you cry, you get horny, you experience a blend of emotions like on a rollercoaster (well, maybe you don’t get horny on a rollercoaster).

Raven O sums it up perfectly:

“Bar d’O was and remains the epitome of New York’s edginess, coolness, and chicness. We changed nightlife and queer culture. Music, art, fashion and filth ‘came’ together with a lot of cocaine, cock sucking, and love.”

At the end of this year Bar d'O would have celebrated its 27th reunion at Indochine, but due to COVID it's going virtual for the first time. Sherry, Joey and Raven will host a virtual show on December 20th. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased on legendarydrag.live

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Alexey Kim

Founder

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Junior Mintt: The Only Voices You Need to be Listening to are Black Trans Voices (VIDEO)

Brooklyn Liberation March Rewind

06-14-2020

Exactly six months ago, around 15,000 people wearing all white showed up for the Brooklyn Liberation Action in support of Black Trans Lives. Brooklyn-based drag artist West Dakota drew inspiration from the 1917 Silent Protest Parade organized by the NAACP that was held in response to an attack on the black community in East St. Louis.

In the video below, drag preacher/activist Junior Mintt explains why we can't be truly inclusive until we listen to what Black trans women have to say.

Fran Tirado, Eliel Cruz, Dix Peyton, Raquel Willis, and organizations like G.L.I.T.S., The Okra Project, For The Gworls, Black Trans Femmes in the Arts, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, and the Emergency Release Fund joined the movement.

VIDEOS

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Editorial Latest

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

EDITORIAL

RFTCA:

HIV/AIDS Cure

Won’t Come in a Pill

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

sidewalkkilla

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.

CRISPR

(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: rftca.org/GetInvolved/

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Alexey Kim

Founder

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Felix Santos

Co-Founder

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Editorial

Transgender Day of Remembrance 2020: Remembering Amelia

EDITORIAL

Story of Amelia

sidewalkkilla

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

Founder

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Categories
Events Latest

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

EVENTS | FESTIVALS

Spectrum Formosus,

Taipei, Taiwan

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

sidewalkkilla

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, Hong 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

Founder

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