Juliana Huxtable #Shockvaluenyc
By Ana Cecilia Alvarez
Juliana Huxtable doesn’t demand attention. She doesn’t need to. Eyes fall on her when she comes into view. Her body, historically hidden, is now a beacon—on the dance floor, on any given night, in any given New York City club. If she writes in all caps when she posts statuses on Facebook—one post AAAAAHH on a story of a white man donning black skin for a bank robbery followed by a YESSSSS of a mostly back, mostly queer artist collective —its not out of combativeness. Her expressive excitement beams in earnest. It’s no wonder she’s become a magnet for the burgeoning gender queer nightlife taking shape in downtown and New York. She’s the queen responsible for Shockvalue, a “nightlife gender project” tagged with #TRANSENCOURAGED, #FULLSPECTRUMRAGE and #BISLASHTRY. I met Juliana in her home turf, Bushwick’s Tandem, to talk about Tumblr, parties as political platforms, and trans girls raging.
Juliana Huxtable: I just always went out. I had a nine to five that I hated, so I just started going out more and more. It’s one of those things that if you do it enough, one thing leads to another. Now I can support myself through it.
ACA: Where would you go?
JH: There was a party called HAM that I went too a lot. Ghetto Gothic too—that was one of the first parties I went all the time. And then just around Bushwick—I would come here, to Tandem, four days out of the week. I would practically live here. Once you start going out you start building this sort of network and things start happening.
ACA: Right. I recently moved to the city and I starting to frequent the same spots and see the same group of people. I don’t know if it’s just me or if I am entering something already present or if its growing with me as I come into it, but there’s a certain momentum that starts building—either you’re making it or being swept by swept it—
JH: —Exactly, you don’t know which one it is!
ACA: So where were you before the city?
JH: I went to school at Bard, up north. But every break, I would come down here.
ACA: As an escape?
JH: I saw it as an escape. I needed to leave—it was terrible. I was planning on applying to grad school and I burned out, thank god. Had I gone to another school, I would be a crazy person.
ACA: What was your 9 to 5?
JH: I was a legal assistant at ACLU. I was working in the racial justice program so when I got that I thought, hey this is kind of a goal. But it was terrible. It was the most judgmental space I had experienced in my life. They scrutinized the way I dressed and looked in a way that was oppositional and reactionary. They took to me as if I had, you know, dyed my hair pink—but in a more aggressive way that made me even more uncomfortable. Particularly about my gender. It tuned into a whole ball of drama. I left on decent terms cause I know how to be business, but it took a personal toll. I would leave my job in tears.
ACA: It sadly surprising to live those situations in places you’d least expect to, precisely because you wouldn’t expect it.
JH: I never thought it would come that. I figured even if they were a bit uncomfortable, everyone’s liberal, everyone lives in Park Slope or the Upper West, and went, you know, Harvard Law School, and wanted to help. And they think they are beyond that. It’s the crazy thing, when you realize—no, none of you are not beyond that, at all.
ACA: So you thought—fuck Bard, fuck the ACLU, and you start finding your spots in the city, at night. How did you go from someone who went out a lot to someone building a scene?
JH: Tumblr! [Laughs]
ACA: [Laughs] Same!
JH: I was so bored at work and I just started tumbling, and my following just got bigger and bigger. People saw me go out and then found I was on Tumblr.
ACA: Yea that moment when your physical presence and digital presence start coalescing…
JH: Yea. I remember Frankie, who ran WESTGAY, was the first person that had me at his party. He was a good friend who told me to bring more friends.
ACA: When did you begin to write?
JH: I’ve always known my writing was good, but until then I had only written academically. I had never taken myself seriously as a poet. After I left school I still wanted to write so I would just write a blog posts. Once I got into it, I started to just carry a little, and people really responded. At some point, I began to get asked to do readings.
ACA: Was there a moment when you realized you were being identified as a voice?
JH: I thought—well HAM. It was just oh, another cool party I get to go to, or someone wants me to read, great. Since it started mainly on the Internet at first, although I knew I had a lot of followers, I had no idea what that meant. To me it wasn’t a thing. Then I realized I should just start going for my goals and if I can—my dream was to be able to support myself making my work. I figured if I do all these things long enough, whatever is right for me to singularly pursue will natural fund itself.
ACA: I feel that, hard. So how did you evolve from attending and hosting to organizing and envisioning your own parties?
JH: Well, I have always been obsessed with Studio 54, not that Shockvalue is anything near that. Another party I was obsessed with when I was in college was “Mister Black”—it was so good. It was mostly gay but pretty mixed—a crazy mix of people. Like, one night Dave La Chappelle would show up followed by an 85 year old white women with her dogs, wearing sunglasses. It was the first party I went to that was visually stimulating—it was like a show, they had found a really great club. It was a lot of fun. When I was in high school I would listen to the Mishapes DJ sets on East Village radio and look at all their party pictures.
ACA: So, you’ve been at this for a while.
JH: Yea, I’ve always loved nightlife.
ACA: What makes a good party then, to you?
JH: I feel like night life is a good way and space to find people who’s talents are being underutilized or not recognized in other areas, and to just feature them in that space as hosts or performers or even just as DJs. Most of the people that work in nightlife are artist and musicians—nightlife becomes their platform. Even just the clothes, things they show up in—its awe-inspiring. And you don’t get credit for anything, and its not documented, it just sort of happens. For a good party, if you know how to pull all of these good people together and bring a crowd—its magic.
ACA: What needed to change in they party scene?
JH: I felt like In terms of parties, I could go to a super straight or perhaps a little mixed Bushwick parties at like Tandem or at someone’s house. It turned into the same DJ and the same people, nothing interesting. It’s just a self-segregating group of people. Or— I loved gay nightlife because it’s so open, but I just got tired of being in that environment all the time. That is a small part of who I am socially. I’d rather do something that mixes all of the crowds and I felt like there was a generation of people—generally we didn’t hangout with all gay people. Our interests spanned a lot. Even if you’re doing a queer party—I wanted more lesbian female performers and DJs and artists. There’s a lot of talented people that because they aren’t a gay dudes or Bushwick bros, get passed. I wanted to make the party an experiment—with taste, we still have strong aesthetic—and create a nightlife gender project.
ACA: If you are using these parties as platforms, how do you reconcile their exclusivity?
JH: I mean, we aren’t doing bottle service. We never turn people away. We’ll work with anyone as long as its open and chill. When people are divas—if I ever work with some cocaine monster ego manic with an inflated sense of their place in the world, I just don’t wok with them. I’ve found the more queer people you work with—every party we try to have one trans performs or DJ or female performer or DJ—they are the easiest to work with. The worst experiences I’ve had have always been with straight male DJs.
And it is political, in a way. Generally, too, I love people of color. I try to be aware of who are the female performers I am thinking of, but generally me and the people I party with are already connected to those communities anyway—it’s not hard. It’s our friends that we are asking to perform ten times out of ten. I never reached out to someone that I am not already connected or that I don’t have an affinity with what they are going through, as a token.
ACA: Shockvalue seems like a space where these different contingencies bump heads and are forced to interact—the space turns into a sort of breeding ground.
JH: That’s where I feel most comfortable. I don’t want to go somewhere and feel completely at home. I want to be surprised by someone I see—to see different people exist together. The best is at the end of the night when the people who are here to just have a good time and dance indulge in the space.
ACA: Anything else that’s the best of the night?
JH: There are lots of great trans girls raging right now. It’s like a community of people that five years from now I am going to be very thankful I was a part of—fostering and growing within that community.
ACA: I feel like there’s been, recently, more public awareness, although this doesn’t necessarily mean more justice, for trans women.
JH: I honestly think—this is what I tell people al the time —people’s acceptance of specifically trans women has increased because it is more visible. I hate porn, I think it’s disgusting and I hate generally how it shows women, particularly how trans women are represented. But I think because there has now been such a legacy of people being exposed to those bodies, as disgusted as I find it, I think porn has—not advanced the cause of trans women because it turns them into objects—but at least now there is no one alive, as sad as it is, that has not seen a she male porn ad. For people growing up in the 70s, in most of America, they had never even seen such a body.
I’ve talked to a lot of older trans women, who came into themselves the 70s and 80s, and there’s definitely a sentiment that, because it was so rare to be trans, your body was never seen or heard, of unless someone sought out obscure porn. These trans women had a masochistic relationship with their bodies. Your entire life was centered around getting every surgery that you could and not be noticeable on the street. You cannot tell any difference between me and any other cis woman because I spent so much time, energy, money, life-energy into that.
I was born intersex and now I take hormones to push everything a bit further. But I don’t feel the same compulsion to feel uncomfortable in the journey. I don’t have to get to point B to feel comfortable with myself. I think that right now there’s a renaissance because people are just now starting to explore a womanhood that has never existed—raging from people who have gotten their gender reassignment surgery, who have started transitioning at 15, and they’ve lived their entire lives this way, to people who are more gender queer and transition later in life. Trans men are much more visible. There are trans men dating trans women. Right now, the category of identity is really about exploring and pushing boundaries.
ACA: That’s striking the ground for something that has been fought for even before trans visibility—questioning gender roles outright. Gender doesn’t have to replicate in one way or other way.
JH: Or maybe it can and that’s okay. That’s what I really feel now—there’s a lot of trans people who reinforce the gender binary. I know trans men who want to be completely stealth—they want to walk down the street and wont be seen as trans, wont introduce themselves as trans, wont want to talk about it. And there are trans women who live think, “I live my life, I don’ t want to be questioned, I don’t want to challenge anything, in fact I want to uphold gender roles.” That’s just as valid.
And now in New York you have Hari Nef, you have me, you have Janet Mock, you have all of these symbols that range the full spectrum from cis-looking women to people who don’t look like women at all. It’s—it’s super exciting.
ACA: You mentioned before you felt exhausted by going to all of these queer parties that didn’t fully represent you. Do you think these trans identities, plural, coming to in conjuction with this new form of nightlife your creating?
JH: Not necessarily, but we are making effort to. De Se and I are both very open about being trans women. Aaron, who I work closely with, is a gay male—though everyone thinks he is a trans male. I think because we came together explicitly together thinking, “we need to platform specifically trans and female artist,” our crowd is naturally mixed.
For a really long time, I was the angry political person. I would scream about the white, cis, privileged colonialists. Those are all things I believe in but I got to a point where—if someone starts the battle, I will carry it through and I will let you know were I stand very clearly, if you provoke it—but I would rather waste less time preaching to people than creating something that I think is positive and beneficial. I don’t need to focus on how transphobic everything is in nightlife and how for the large part no one is hiring the talented trans folk I know because they have been boxed into political roles. But they are out there, so why don’t I just hire them for my party?
ACA: Fuck yeah.
JH: Then we just create our own scene. I am so much less angry now. I used to carry so much resentment. I’m still frustrated. Racism sucks. Slavery sucked. All those things that structurally create barriers are problematic, and I put effort into seeing them dismantled and destroyed. That’s still my goal, but I think for me the most productive way to do that is through battles. I’d rather create space that’s productive and positive, in its own right.
Photography: Lyndsy Welgos
Stylist: Josh ES