Editor’s Note: Tiq Milan is an award-winning writer, trans rights advocate and media consultant who lives between New York and Toronto. He recently delivered a TED talk with his wife on defining love and marriage which you can see here.
In “On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories,” published by Rizzoli, award-winning photographer Mark Seliger presents a series of portraits he took in the neighborhood.
Christopher Street is legendary. With a storied – and sometimes sordid – history, those few blocks between Seventh Avenue and the Christopher Street Pier are synonymous with old gay New York.
A short stretch in New York’s West Village, this was typically the first stop for gay transplants and the newly out; the runaways and the abandoned. The intersection at Hudson Street, renamed Sylvia Rivera Way after the famed transgender civil rights activist in 2005, is the heart of Christopher Street and the birthplace of the modern LGBT rights movement.
During my 14 years in New York City, I’ve created many memories on Christopher Street. It was the backdrop in the classic queer documentaries “Paris is Burning” and “The Aggressives,” both of which I’d watch obsessively, enamored with the narratives of queers of color, and knowing that these few blocks, although sometimes seedy, would offer me community and safety.
By day, Christopher Street was a road of self-determination where a plethora of queer experiences and a spectrum of gender expressions could coexist, bound together by the common threads of identity, rejection, and reclamation.
“Unbothered” was a term I heard retorted after baseless criticisms and transphobic microaggressions. The trans girls were “unbothered” by the snickers and long stares of curious tourists and new, nervous neighbors slowly gentrifying the area.
On Christopher Street, they “paid it no mind” and “paid it dust,” crafting new language that reflected the crux of so many lives: resistance.
But at night, it held secrets. Some transwomen engaged in sex work to survive; homeless gay teens, left in the cold by the families who were meant to protect them, mixed with happy hour patrons at late night bar crawls.
When I arrived, it was mostly sex shops, bars and pizza joints lining the blocks. The first safe space I found was Chi Chiz, the last black gay bar New York, which closed in 2010. As bars shuttered across the Village amidst widespread gentrification, Chi Chiz became the base for many black and Latino queer New Yorkers.
This place was more than just a watering holes to catch a buzz. Gay bars in New York were where family was formed. After a long day of playing don’t-ask-don’t-tell, folks could put the limp back in their wrist without fear at the daily two-for-one happy hour.
These dark, smoky bars offered refuge for all of us who had to code switch at work or at home to avoid being berated or ridiculed. This is where you came to be yourself and find folks like you.
While Chelsea was rife with boutiques and over-priced gyms, on Christopher Street, it wasn’t rare to see bus drivers, corrections officers and UPS workers still in uniform, belly up at a bar, being free, gay and safe.
Brilliance and beauty
The Stonewall Inn on the east side of Seventh Avenue, the infamous site of the 1969 LGBT liberation riots, may be the monument, but Christopher Street is the movement.
It’s the space that the community has defiantly claimed as our piece of the city we love. The nightlife will always give you a glimpse of the underbelly, and the consequences after the party’s over have never been for the faint of heart. Yet, it is ours.
This is where we exist, love and live on our terms. This is where the masks come off.
“On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories” by award-winning photographer Mark Seliger, published by Rizzoli, is out now.