Seltzer bottles, roller skates and a burnt-out lightbulb line the walls of The City Reliquary, a museum in Brooklyn dedicated to preserving historical artifacts and cultural ephemera of New York City.
One of the museum’s latest additions is a live cast of queer burlesque performers, who gather monthly in a makeshift venue inside the courtyard, dancing to a single vinyl record – from the likes of David Bowie and Lady Gaga.
Venatrix, one of the dancers, says these do-it-yourself shows have been the dancers’ way of preserving one slice of the city’s nightlife, after the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered bars and clubs on March 16, 2020, at 8 p.m.
“This space did not exist before, and now we’re making it for the people who feel like they need somewhere to go and need to feel that community,” Venatrix said. “We still sell out, which is great, but it also shows how desperate people are for shows.”
Before the pandemic, Venatrix balanced performing 10 to 15 shows a month with a day job as a studio coordinator and event planner for an interior design and architecture firm, but she was laid off in November. Since then, her tip-derived income has come from virtual gigs, her OnlyFans website and that monthly outdoor show.
“Because New York has such a great nightlife community, anytime there’s something bad happening, the answer would be, ‘Oh we’re going out dancing, we’re going to put on a show, we’re going to distract ourselves a bit, be with our friends and feel like a community.’ This is the one time where we can’t do that,” Venatrix said. “It’s super isolating. I am an extrovert to a fault; I live in New York, I’m a performer and that was just all gone.”
Many gay bars already were gone before the pandemic, partly due to greater LGBTQ social acceptance and gentrification. According to data from a national LGBT travel guidebook, 37% of the gay bars in the U.S. shut down from 2007 to 2019.
More businesses may close permanently because of public health mandates. As bar owners and general managers use drag queen delivery services, crowdsourcing campaigns and Paycheck Protection Program loans to stay afloat, many of the workers who bring these spaces to life are left to adapt – financially and socially – on their own.
Nekeith Mitchell planned to tackle 2020 with new music, videos and tour dates, following momentum from appearing on the BET network and releasing a seven-track album. But he said the pandemic restrictions canceled all of his gigs, including a performance at RuPaul’s DragCon in Los Angeles and a headlining appearance at North Carolina’s Out! Raleigh Pride festival.
“I miss it so much: the live audiences, the engagement, the yelling, the screaming, the response,” Mitchell said. “Right now I’m still just doing my thing, trying to get gigs as much as I can, post some performances online and create content for the world to see.”
Mitchell, who uses both he and she pronouns, ordered green screens and microphones online and set up a cramped “stage” in the living room. She loved the creativity of pre-recorded shows, but losing income from live shows has been financially devastating.
Mitchell released her latest EP, “Pillow Talk,” in December 2020 and a music video in March 2021 – all paid from money earned working a part-time call center job.
After moving from Charlotte to Atlanta in February 2021 for more opportunities, Mitchell said he’s praying that he can get into the city’s club scene.
“I know that when I’m in the LGBT club, I’m going to be safe around my people, my family, my crew,” she said. “You are not being judged, you can be yourself 100% and live your best life.
“If you want to go twerk something, go twerk something; if you want to wear a little skimpy outfit, then wear it,” Mitchell said. “The atmosphere is completely freeing.”
Bartenders, such as Celine Dyer, waited longer to find work. During New York’s monthslong backlog processing unemployment checks, Dyer said neighborhood mutual aid funds kept many nightlife workers afloat.
As outdoor options expanded in the summer and fall, the native New Yorker picked up patio-bar shifts and started driving for DoorDash.
“For a lot of people, myself included, it was rough for a bit there,” Dyer said. “Even while working for DoorDash, we were rationing out what’s cheapest – rice, vegetables, cheese – because nobody had any idea what was going on.”
Piecemeal fundraisers across the country have collected money to try to keep many nightlife workers where they are. The fundraisers, including the San Francisco Queer Nightlife Fund, distributed more than $300,000 in cash grants to about 300 people.
“A lot of people that work in queer nightlife, which tends to have a somewhat more marginalized population, are gig workers, and they can’t apply for unemployment against that,” said Race Bannon, a gay activist, organizer and tech worker in San Francisco.
Dyer misses evenings spent at small venues such as H0L0 and Our Wicked Lady, as well as queer spaces such as the Stonewall Inn and House of Yes. Without queer spaces to inhabit, she fears not fitting the “cookie cutter” images of how bartenders in New York City should look.
“Even if it is a queer space, there’s still a finite amount of places where you don’t have to have a certain look – a super muscly toned guy or a 6-foot-tall James Bond gorgeous female – especially for queer POC,” Dyer said. “I’m a bartender at home, but I would make a point to leave my room, get on a bike and travel five miles to buy a margarita specifically from those queer spaces, because it’s so important that they survive.”
ABOUT THE COVER ILLUSTRATION
The cover illustration was created by SHAN Wallace, who is a nomadic award-winning visual artist, photographer, and educator from East Baltimore, Maryland. Her recent project “The Avenue,” named for Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue, tells a story of the culinary histories embedded in the journeys of Black people from Africa to the Americas, and from South to North. Website: http://shanwallace.work/, Instagram: _yoshann and @sisterswithstories, a visual storytelling and archive that engages and explores Black woman-and-girlhood, sisterhood and survival.
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