He.She.They, the U.K.'s Premier Queer Underground Rave, Makes NYC Debut

Chris Lavado

“I told the lighting guy 'sex dungeon' and he just ran with it,” He.She.They co-founder Sophia Kearney tells Billboard as she lounges on a long black sofa behind the stage. She stares at the red and white strobes illuminating the warehouse roof and smiles. “I think he’s doing pretty well.”

A few blocks from Elsewhere, Bushwick’s reigning nightlife hub, is a more underground space in the vein of the warehouse parties that the north Brooklyn neighborhood gained notoriety for. With its large dance floor, even larger windows and garden space, the [Teksupport-owned] studio at 99 Scott Ave. was chosen specifically by Kearney and her partner-in-crime, He.She.They co-founder Steven Braines, because it was a more intimate warehouse space, the perfect spot to host a party like He.She.They.

“Every single party has been a learning curve,” Kearney tells Billboard. “We have learned we cannot expect every party to be perfect the first time, but each time we revisit we have the chances to tweak and improve the little details that mean a lot to us. They key thing for us is booking a lineup which we feel will really hit the spot with our crowd and working with people who are actively showing that they want to be part of He.She.They.”

A mixed crowd where everyone feels represented was essential for Braines, who self-identifies as pansexual and is dressed head-to-toe in black with a long shirt brandishing a prominent skull, a look more suited for a metal show than a rave. “I’d get weird looks for making out with a girlfriend at the gay clubs,” says Braines. “There wasn’t a place in for people who looked like or dressed or expressed themselves like me, so we made a party for everyone.”

Started in the U.K. less than a year ago, He.She.They. has made a name for itself as a party celebrating the experimental, inclusive and marginalized DNA of the electronic underground, a core message evident in the gender pronouns that give the party its name and one of its mantras: “Experimentation. Is. Encouraged.” After making its way through hallowed club spaces around Europe—from hosting the official London Fashion Week Party at Ministry of Sound to playing Pacha Ibiza, Watergate Berlin and Opium Ireland—the party has landed across the pond.

Past He.She.They’s have hosted some of techno’s most in-demand tastemakers, including Miss Kittin, Magda and Honey Dijon. The much-anticipated New York debut featured an all-female lineup helmed by Depeche Mode tourmate and genre-defying producer Maya Jane Coles, with Lauren Flax, Heidi and Kim Ann Foxman. "We found a big tendency that today’s house and techno nights often have all male DJ lineups that are usually cis and white with exclusively female dancers, and even queer parties had (again, usually cis and white) all male DJ lineups with male dancers,” says Braines. “It just seemed odd to us given society in general that too often womxn, people of color and a whole host of intersectional people had zero visual representation and sometimes weren’t even part of the conversation.” The massive event was hosted by NYC nightlife mainstays Nicky Ottav, Pauli Cakes, Diss Grace, Muffy Queen, Hoodrat Princess and Jeffrey Scott.

“It's a great spot and it's very close to my house,” Foxman says with a laugh in the garden space out front before going in for her set. “It's their debut New York party. I think it'll be something refreshing and different. It's cool that it has this all-inclusive message and I think people are super down for that.” Entering the space, you see muscle bros in leather harnesses, club kids fitted in red lace and five-inch platforms voguing, a drag queen in all-white with a riding crop, Ottav in a jester-like mask grinding on the floor. No one feels out of place in relation to the other, with every partygoer dancing and swaying and talking to each other under the same lights to the same droning four-on-the-floor beats. The drops came between waves of the kind of dub techno that wouldn’t feel out of place at Berghain or on the shores of Ibiza—near the end of the night, before the apex of her set, Maya Jane Coles unexpectedly sampled Bill Withers’ signature song “Aint No Sunshine,” and the stillness in the crowd led to a moment of observation, of reflection. People looked around at each other, smiling.

The core message of He.She.They. is one of inclusivity on the dance floor, of the resurgence of a space where people of any race, gender, color, creed and sexuality can come together and get off their faces to thumping beats. “House music especially was born in the gay clubs,” Foxman says. “With the history of Chicago, Detroit and New York, it was the gay and black and other marginalized communities coming together that had this place to celebrate music and celebrate themselves.”

Foxman and the organizers are all abundantly clear on the roots of electronica and nightlife being from the outskirts of society, and have emphasized that in the party, one that was born from that very same mentality: if we don’t have a scene, we’ll make one. “It is interesting to see that people forget where the roots came from. I think it's good to push to remind people that the dance floor should be a safe place for everyone to just dance,” says Foxman. “Music is the thing that brings people together and that's what it should be about.”


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