Miami's Queer Scene Transforms the City's Nightlife

Miami's Queer Scene Transforms the City's Nightlife
Photo by Karli Evans/Collar by @amal_kiosk

It's an unusually cool August night in downtown Miami, and the hum of cars racing past on the nearby MacArthur Causeway is muted by a boisterous crowd wearing sky-high platform shoes, glitter, and heavy eyeliner.

Close to 1 a.m., as the horde cracks hand fans, Jupiter Velvet, bathed in a purple glow, appears onstage at the club 1306. She sports highlighter-yellow, waist-length hair and a blue satin outfit with silver fringe that looks as if it was borrowed from Dolly Parton's closet. The halter top exposes not only a muscular chest but also a healthy trail of dark hair.

Jupiter begins whipping her head back and forth as she lip-synchs the words to Peaches' 2010 raunchy ode to Oedipal love, "Mommy Complex."

"Hush now, baby, don't you stress/I'm gonna fill your mommy complex."

Halfway through the song, Jupiter jumps into the pit, and the crowd immediately parts, giving her room to dance. Partygoers scream in approval and disbelief.

Then the performance segues to Girli's feminist anthem, "Girls Get Angry Too," and things get even crazier. "I'm gonna tell you something that you don't wanna hear/If I have a son, then I'm gonna call him Mia/Extract the tears, extract the fear, 'cause/What's a girl, what's a boy?/Why are there gender sections for toys?"

Jupiter is a trans-femme, and her performance raises many similar questions.

"I get told all the time: 'Why don't you shave? I don't understand what you are doing,'" Jupiter says. "If that's your way of thinking, then this is not the space for you." Grabbing inspiration from icons such as Octavia St. Laurent of the New York ballroom scene in the '80s and '90s, Jupiter uses her body to show there's no right way to be a transgender person. She proudly shows off body hair, untethered from the belief that she has to "pass" for a cisgender woman. "You can set your own beauty standards and own rules to live by," Jupiter says. "And you can break them if you want."

Jupiter Velvet performs at 1306 for Charli XCX's Femmebot Fantasy. - PHOTO BY KARLI EVANS
Jupiter Velvet performs at 1306 for Charli XCX's Femmebot Fantasy.
Photo by Karli Evans

The performance at Femmebot Fantasy, a one-off event hosted by singer-songwriter Charli XCX and the gender-fluid act Dorian Electra, is part of a broader movement in Miami's underground scene. Misunderstood by the mainstream, including the gay community, local queer and gender-nonconforming people for years have sought the refuge of more open-minded cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. But recently, some have decided to stay and create a community in South Florida that encourages self-expression in performance, music, fashion, and art.

A handful of queer events have become more or less regular in Miami: Gramps' Double Stubble, Dollhouse Presents at Churchill's Pub, This Free Life's Club Koi, Cosford Cinema's Flaming Classics, Femme Top at the Langford, and MissCellaneous at Villain Theater, to name a few. At these gatherings, gender is for experimentation. Everyone is encouraged to respect fellow partygoers, meaning the messy fights that plague most nightlife events are virtual nil. These safe spaces allow young queers to find themselves and allow other kinds of drag — by cisgender and trans women, drag kings, experimental performances, and underrepresented LGBTQ+ minorities — to be celebrated.

After the right to marry was afforded to same-sex couples in 2015, it seemed to some that LGBTQ+ culture would fall into heteronormative monotony — monogamous relationships, procreation and adoption, suburban homes. But that didn't happen. Queer culture isn't new, but its visibility is growing. It rejects gender and sexual-preference norms and avoids labels such as "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," and "straight." Being queer is understanding that gender is more complicated than "male" or "female." It challenges the system of classifying people into two distinct sexes as woefully outdated.

"All genders are valid," says Sleeper, a 31-year-old visual artist and cofounder of Counter Corner, the queer party that began at the downtown bar the Corner in 2015. "There are people who say, 'Gender is a social construct,' and it is, but those are the tools we have to play with." According to Sleeper, being queer means being able to take on characteristics of either gender while establishing new ideas of what gender can be.

Miami's queer scene provides spaces for people who feel unwelcome in more traditional gay spaces. The transgender community, people of color, and different body types all seek refuge in a scene that invites them to be whatever they want to be.

"We have full control and dominion over our performances," Jupiter says, "because we belong to such a free scene — and a free scene that we created for ourselves."

Counter Corner cofounder Sleeper helped jump-start Miami's new queer wave. - PHOTO BY KARLI EVANS
Counter Corner cofounder Sleeper helped jump-start Miami's new queer wave.
Photo by Karli Evans

As far back as 2010, it was clear: The South Beach gay mecca of the '80s and '90s was gone. The LGBTQ+ community had flocked to the area when it was brimming with elderly retirees. They opened clubs and restaurants on Washington Avenue, Lincoln Road, and Ocean Drive. But then gentrification took over. By the early '00s, many were wistful for the old days.

In the '90s, Miami was the epitome of chic, termed by many the "American Riviera" thanks to its nonstop party atmosphere and European attitude. Celebrities such as Cindy Crawford, Madonna, Cher, and Sylvester Stallone flocked to the city, while designer Gianni Versace cemented himself as king of South Beach after building his own villa, Casa Casuarina, on Ocean Drive.

"At the time I arrived here [in 1989], Miami Beach was quiet except for a few nightclubs and galleries," says Danilo de la Torre, who performs under the drag name "Adora." "The people felt a kind of freedom of expression. They felt like they had nothing to prove and nobody to impress — they could be totally themselves."

The LGBTQ+ set faced a challenge: to find a space where they could be themselves.

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Drag was pageant-like, with queens trying to look hyperfeminine. That was different from what de la Torre was doing as Adora, who, he says, skewed more toward New York's club-kids culture. Spearheaded by Michael Alig and James St. James, that aesthetic embraced gender fluidity before the term reached popularity while mixing outrageous fashion and DIY flair. De la Torre admits some people considered him and his friends clowns.

But eventually, the drag and gay communities came around. "We had no idea that we were setting a trend or being weird," de la Torre says. "We were just doing what was fun and what we wanted to do."

Tommy Strangie, who performs under the name "Shelley Novak," also found some resistance at first. His act, which started 26 years ago, made no pretense at illusion. With a deep voice, permanent 5-o'clock shadow, and squat body, Strangie couldn't fool anyone if he tried.

Still, Novak's origin story is an only-in-Miami tale: Shortly after moving to Miami Beach in 1992, he put on a seafoam-green Halloween dress and made his way to a tea dance at the Winter Haven Hotel hosted by artist Kenny Scharf and DJ Mark Leventhal. Hungry and stoned, Strangie climbed atop a speaker and began eating pizza and dancing while in drag.

"Mark and Kenny came up to me and said, 'That was fucking hysterical. We'll give you $200 if you do that every week,'" Strangie says. "I thought to myself: They are going to give me $200 to dress as a woman and eat pizza? I think I found my dream job."

However, after Andrew Cunanan murdered Versace on the steps of his Ocean Drive mansion in 1997, the culture quickly changed. In an only-in-Miami way, the violent event increased South Beach's glamour and attracted wealthy investors from around the world. South Beach began losing its LGBTQ+ character thanks to rising rents, and the creative class was spread in the wind. Gay nightclubs such as Salvation and Warsaw Ballroom were replaced by Office Depot and mainstream nightlife options such as Señor Frog's.

The LGBTQ+ set faced a challenge: to find a space where they could be themselves.

Sleeper, a punk who would blend perfectly into a Churchill's mosh pit and who ditched his birth name because it doesn't align with his queer identity, would become the key to solving that problem. He was only around 10 years old when Versace was killed and had very little connection to the original South Beach gay community. "I used to think the Beach was superfar away, because whenever [my family] went, it was for the whole weekend," Sleeper recalls. He grew up in the suburban expanse of Kendall with his mother and two siblings. He began attending art school in third grade at South Miami K-8 Center and then moved on to the New World School of the Arts for high school and college.

Juleisy steps out of cab in front of the Corner. - PHOTO BY KARLI EVANS
Juleisy steps out of cab in front of the Corner.
Photo by Karli Evans

Tired of the long commute from his mother's Kendall apartment to his downtown Miami school, Sleeper moved out at the age of 15. He worked at a vegetarian restaurant and lived in the back until it closed. Then he moved in with friends in North Miami and began working at the District, the restaurant that hosted one of the city's most popular parties, Poplife. Though still underage, he stayed after finishing his shift to enjoy the revelry. Eventually, after turning 18, he started working a string of nightlife jobs, beginning as a bar back and eventually making bartender, which led him to the Corner at NE 11th Street and North Miami Avenue in 2011.

It was at the Corner that Miami's queer scene began to coalesce. "There was an online group that would pick a location and show up together," he says. "And all of a sudden it was a gay bar."

Sleeper says that night was the catalyst for his conceiving a monthly queer night. He contacted Kesiah Wattley — another Corner bartender — and the quickly rising drag duo Juleisy y Karla. In 2015, Counter Corner was born.

The party started out small — only Juleisy y Karla were there the first night. Sleeper would cut and paste the flyers, photocopy them, and hand them out to whoever would take one. "If you showed up in drag, you got a free drink," Sleeper recalls. "People in Miami love a good deal, and we had all these people doing drag for the first time for a free drink. They realized how much more fun they were having and the energy they were bringing out of other people."

Over the ensuing months, drag personas Miss Toto, Queef Latina, and Jupiter Velvet debuted there. "I was always an attention whore, but I was really nervous my first time," Jupiter says. "I'm outside and I hear, 'Bringing to the stage, a new performer to the scene,' and I'm like, 'Oh, fuck!'" Instead of lip-synching to Marina and the Diamonds' "Primadonna," she yelled out the entire song. Yet she was proud of her performance. "A lot of [first-time] queens do a messy-ass number, but I worked really hard on it and had been thinking about it for months."

Soon there was a rotating list of acts and two or three slots for first-time performers. The crowd also ballooned, filling the tiny bar and spilling out onto the street.

In summer 2017, Counter Corner left its cramped quarters in the Park West District for a larger venue nearby, 1306. A few more editions were held there, but then it went on hiatus. Sleeper recently announced the monthly party would return to the Corner December 16.

"We are not trying to draw the tourists. That's why we stay on this side of the bridge," Sleeper says. "We're here for Miami."

click to enlarge Aurora Whorealis began performing in drag only this past May. - PHOTO BY HONEST HENRY
Aurora Whorealis began performing in drag only this past May.
Photo by Honest Henry

It's Sunday night in August at Las Rosas in Allapattah. A mix of punks and queers has congregated for Gender Blender, a monthly event where experimental drag is encouraged. Aurora Whorealis kicks off the night by performing to "Vyzee" by Sophie, one of the few transgender producers to have garnered mainstream recognition. Her songs are often played at Miami's queer nights.

"You've got to twist your body/Twirl it all around/Make it pop and sizzle/Now squish it on the ground."

Aurora's glittery tube top and pants shimmer under the stage lights as she moves her slim frame to the music. The performance is barely five minutes long, so she works quickly to win over the small crowd in Las Rosas' backroom. Barely a minute in, she does a death drop — a move in which she dramatically falls backward. The crowd erupts in cheers and quickly throws crumpled dollar bills on the floor. Suddenly, two confetti cannons held by audience members explode, releasing a paper payload over Aurora. At Gender Blender, "it doesn't matter what your sexual orientation or gender identity is, you're accepted," Aurora says, before acknowledging she has been performing in drag for only the past three months.

The person behind Aurora is 19-year-old Christian Acevedo, a Miami Dade College student who hopes to transfer to Cornell University and work toward an environmental science degree. Raised in Miami Gardens, Acevedo attended Mater Lakes Academy, where he came out as gay as a freshman. His mother and stepfather, with whom he still lives, have never wavered in supporting him.

"You want to express yourself. People are going to appreciate that."

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At the age of 17, he began sneaking into gay nightclubs in Wilton Manors such as the Manor but was quickly disillusioned. "It's a lot of hypermasculinity," Acevedo says. "Being someone who is not the stereotypical muscle head, it didn't feel supercomforting."

The first queer event Acevedo attended was Celebrity Deathmatch at the Hangar on 11th Street in downtown Miami. It was sponsored by This Free Life, the federal government's public education campaign to prevent tobacco use among LGBTQ+ young adults. "There was a wrestling ring in the middle of the dance floor, and I was like, What did we walk into?" he recalls.

The former monthly event was a mixture of lucha libre and drag show. That night, the crowd saw pop battles between performers channeling Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Ariana Grande.

Seeing hundreds of young queers there was a revelation for Acevedo. He knew most of the people in the crowd, which put him at ease.

When the performances began, he was blown away. Dang Ho-Yu Sickening, who would go on to become his drag mother — a term of endearment for someone who mentors another performer — battled as Nicki Minaj against Deluxx's Cardi B. Dang danced and lip-synched her way to victory.

Doing drag has always been in the back of Acevedo's mind. He had come up with the name "Aurora Whorealis" — to honor his love of science and the moniker "Aurora" — long before he stepped out in drag. Slowly, Acevedo began developing his drag look, at first dressing up at home and eventually working up the courage to step out in public at a Celebrity Deathmatch event. "On the way over there, I was thinking to myself: I can't believe I'm doing it! What if people think that I look bad?"

But as soon as Aurora Whorealis stepped from the car for the first time, the fear melted away.

"I had a few friends in front of the Hangar, and they were like, 'Look at you! You look so good!'" he recalls. "They were hyping me up. Inside, I saw more people I knew, and they were complimenting me too. Getting that reassurance that I didn't look like a fool was important."

Now he feels comfortable both in and out of drag. The art form has become a way for Acevedo to explore his femininity to the fullest. This past May, Aurora made her debut onstage at Azucar Nightclub, the gay venue off Coral Way. The weekly drag competition — Azucar's Got Talent, hosted by TP Lords — offers performers a chance to win $100 for the best show. Though nerves and shady wishes of "good luck" from other contestants had her doubting whether she could do it, Aurora nailed "Whip It" by Nicki Minaj with a performance that included multiple splits and a backflip that almost landed in the crowd. She took home the prize money that night and twice more. "I was like, Wow, I guess I'm good at this!"

Back at Las Rosas, after her performance at Gender Blender, Aurora stands in the green room, out of breath. Sweat beads through her layers of makeup. She remembers the host at Azucar telling her: "Keep doing what you are doing, because I see a lot of potential in you."

"That was really inspiring," she says. "You want to express yourself. People are going to appreciate that."

Yoko Oso found their voice through the queer scene. - PHOTO BY KARLI EVANS
Yoko Oso found their voice through the queer scene.
Photo by Karli Evans

About 200 people are gathered at Villain Theater in Little Haiti for Club Koi, Miami's first queer night focused on Asian performers. Some of the revelers have embraced the Asian theme in their looks, but as the night's host, Miss Toto, points out, everyone has done an excellent job of taking inspiration from Asian culture without overdoing it. Instead of wearing chopsticks in their hair or bad geisha drag, attendees have opted for Asian fabric prints, theater makeup, and koi fish imagery.

Around 1 a.m., Yoko Oso takes the stage. Short for a drag performer, Yoko stands about five-foot-five and is dressed in a Hogwarts cape, complete with a wizard's wand. Yoko's face is painted in Kabuki-meets-drag style. The performance begins with a lip-synched rendition of Rachel Rostad's poem "To J.K. Rowling":

"Ms. Rowling, I know you're just the latest participant in a long tradition of turning Asian women into a tragic fetish./So let me cry over boys more than I speak/Let me fulfill your diversity quota/Just one more brown girl mourning her white hero."

The crowd cheers loudly, almost drowning out Rostad's voice. The performance continues with lip-synching to Mitski's "Your Best American Girl." The song by the Japanese-American singer-songwriter deconstructs what it is to be a "real" American. The performance is poignant in Miami, where Asians are less common than many other cities.

A minute later, the crowd explodes with laughter when Yoko opens a large white parasol to reveal a tinier red parasol adorned with cherry blossoms.

"There's this stereotype [in media] of the tragic Asian that's submissive and can't do anything with a big American soldier around her," Yoko says a couple of days later at Churchill's Pub, where the performer hosts the Tuesday-night drag show Dollhouse Presents. "It's also a metaphor for how the West sees Eastern culture."

"I had the worst cabin fever. I had been stuck in my house without power for a month. I needed something to do."

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Though the gay community generally preaches acceptance, people of color are often excluded. Women and transgender people routinely encounter misogyny. The queer scene gives those marginalized groups a voice. You could mistake Club Koi, decorated with lotus flowers and Asian-style lanterns, for simply a surface-level effort, but the fact that the promoters are Persephone Von Lips and Miss Toto, both of Asian heritage, and every performer onstage is Asian, proves the event provides more than just lip service.

Yoko, a Filipino-American and graphic designer, grew up in Davie. (Yoko, who asked New Times not to use their real name, identifies as a cisgender male.) Born in Queens, New York, they grew up in a Catholic household where their father would often make derogatory statements about gay people. Yoko was interested in music but pursued it only as a hobby because "telling your [Filipino] parents you want to do music is akin to telling them you want to join the circus," Yoko says.

During high school at McFatter Technical, Yoko joined the school's marching band on trombone, played the upright bass in the orchestra, and also played the guitar and keyboard. Yoko also tried to blend in with the rest of the student body and even dated a couple of girls. When Yoko moved to New York to attend St. John's University, they dove into the city's queer scene during their junior year. However, though being a punk queer Asian who plays guitar is unique in Miami, it was difficult to stand out in New York, Yoko says. So after graduating — and out of money — Yoko moved back to South Florida in 2017.

Upon returning, Yoko discovered Miami's nascent queer scene. While attending Counter Corner for the first time, Yoko thought, I could do this! Then, during a visit to Brooklyn a few weeks later at the bar Macri Park, Yoko played the guitar to Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" while in drag makeup. Yoko admits to quickly washing off the makeup afterward out of fear of being harassed on the train home.

The following morning, Yoko returned to South Florida just before Hurricane Irma hit. The resulting power outages gave Yoko enough downtime to fully flesh out their persona. "I had the worst cabin fever. I had been stuck in my house without power for a month. I needed something to do. I tried painting, and it did not satisfy me. So I thought, OK, when I feel comfortable again, I want to perform down here."

Yoko debuted in September 2017 at Southern Nights in Wilton Manors while performing the same Kate Bush song. Wearing a wig, makeup, and a thrift-store D.A.R.E. shirt, Yoko made tips but lost to a performer who had brought about 50 friends. However, that lukewarm reception toughened Yoko for pushback at other events. At a pageant in Delray Beach this past summer, when Yoko walked onstage to plug in a guitar, someone shouted, "Kim Chi!"

"[Miami] is where I feel more accepted," Yoko says.

Petty Boop, whose given name is Skylar Weidert and identifies as a cisgender woman, has also been dismissed. Hanging out at Club Koi, Weidert, who has adorned her shaven eyebrows with hand-painted koi accessories, could be mistaken just another artistic young woman. However, as Petty, she transforms into a hyperfeminine version of herself. "I feel like my height gives it away," Weidert says. "I'm 5-1 — 5-5 with heels on."

A recent graduate of Miami Beach Senior High, Weidert says she was always considered the weird kid by her peers. She grew up living between Texas and South Florida after her parents divorced and her dad moved out of state. Weidert has been a performer her whole life, singing in school and with bands. Toward the end of high school, she began considering becoming a makeup artist. During that time, she fell in love with drag queens through shows such as RuPaul's Drag Race.

She came upon Miami's queer scene at the first Wigwood event in 2017. "Seeing everyone, who now I call my friends, I felt like finally I found a spot, not being the stereotypical gay or bisexual person." After Wigwood, Weidert attended Counter Corner and was hooked.

About a year ago, she decided to stop being a fan of drag performers and become one herself. Drag allowed her to combine her passions for music and makeup. "I love drag because it allowed me to do all my favorite things in one. I don't have to pick one or the other."

Petty debuted at a competition in Fort Lauderdale. That night, she walked away empty-handed, but her resolve to continue doing drag remained. "I was never 100 percent sure that I was always understood," she says, "but I knew that I could be good at it if I kept going and perhaps change people's minds."

Women who perform as drag queens are derogatorily referred to as "bio queens." But Weidert nevertheless hopes to shine a light on the many cisgender and genderqueer women who do drag.

"[Female drag queens] have been around forever, but gender has become such a big topic that it's suddenly become an issue," she says. "But if you tell me I can't do drag, guess what? I'm going to do it anyway."

A cisgender woman, Petty Boop is challenging who's allowed to do drag. - PHOTO BY KARLI EVANS
A cisgender woman, Petty Boop is challenging who's allowed to do drag.
Photo by Karli Evans

Jupiter Velvet sits in a black turtleneck and mustard-colored skirt while sipping an iced coffee at a Miami Lakes Starbucks. Her brunet hair is done up in a style that evokes early-'00s Lizzie McGuire, complete with plastic star-shaped earrings straight out of a Lisa Frank illustration. She looks so completely different from her drag persona it's hard to believe it's the same person.

Meeting with a reporter, she says she lives nearby with her parents in a gated community, which reflects how she feels trapped by her surroundings. She has no steady job and relies on her drag performances for income. That isn't enough for her to move out on her own. She regularly performs at local queer events and has attended DragCon, RuPaul's annual convention in New York.

"DJs make so much money, and we get paid $40 to $50 to spend three hours getting into drag and bring an insane amount of people who are going to buy drinks," Jupiter says. "Meanwhile, while I was up in New York, gigs pay a minimum of $150. [New York] knows drag makes an impact."Raised in a Cuban household, Jupiter came out as gay to her parents when she was a junior in high school at Mater Lakes Academy. She attempted to create a gay-straight alliance. "The principal of that school was a fucking monster," Jupiter recalls. "[The administration] would call me out of my class to bully me out of doing this club." The school was adamant that the club rename itself to the "Coexist Equality Club," according to Jupiter, and threatened to out her to her parents. She decided to tell her mother and father herself.

Her parents only recently found out she was transgender after reading a New Times article.

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Jupiter knew she was transgender from an early age, when she caught her brothers watching porn and noticed her body was different from what she saw. "I thought, Maybe I'll grow into a dashing young lady someday." Her parents only recently learned she was transgender after reading a New Times article published in July. Without acknowledging her transgender identity, they told her they were proud of her notoriety.

Though it can be difficult to stand out at a queer event, Jupiter has become one of Miami's most successful performers. When she began doing drag two and a half years ago, she identified as genderqueer; however, she has leaned into her trans-femme identity for the past year. Her drag look has also evolved. Her first look was inspired by Joan Cusack's Debbie Jellinsky in Addams Family Values. These days, Jupiter is more polished and hyperfemme, with a heavily made-up, angular face and wigs that range from neon yellow to fluorescent green to platinum blond.

Jupiter has considered moving to New York. However, advice from her drag grandmother, Merrie Cherry, an icon of the Brooklyn drag scene, has made her see the value of remaining in Miami: "You want to stay in the community that you're in because the longer you stay, the more you become the icons and legends of that scene... You become known as the queen of Miami."

She believes Miami's queer scene will grow. Venues and promoters need to learn to value drag performers. "I have a good following and fan base in the scene," she says. "In New York, promoters are queer, and they get it. Here, it's old Latino men or random guys who are like, 'We want a drag-queen night. You're gay — let's do a party.'"

Even so, Jupiter knows Miami's queer scene satisfies a need for hundreds of young people who want to explore their gender identity without fear of judgment. Asked if the queer movement will eventually be appropriated by the mainstream the way the phrase "Yas, queen" has been embraced, Jupiter is skeptical. "What I do will never become the mainstream," she says, "until thousands of years from now, when gender is eradicated."

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Jose D. Duran is the associate editor of Miami New Times. He's the strategist behind the publication's eyebrow-raising Facebook and Twitter feeds. He has also been reporting on Miami's cultural scene since 2006. He has a BS in journalism and will live in Miami as long as climate change permits.
Contact: Jose D. Duran