Photos by Rafael Martinez. 

photographing new york's queer creative community

Rafael Martinez spoke to 13 of the city's most inspiring young artists.

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16 May 2019, 11:41pm

Photos by Rafael Martinez. 

New York City has always been a haven for creatives, many of them queer. Artists, musicians, stylists, and designers flock here from all over the world for the inspiring environment and supportive community that seems to churn out new and exciting ideas at the drop of a hat.

Photographer Rafael Martinez photographed some of these young talents and asked them to share their stories, challenges, and advice for future generations. Meet them below.

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Alfonso Javier Estrada / Taurus

How would you describe yourself?
The best way to describe myself is like that of a bull. I tend to be very calm and collected, but at the same time compassionate and self-aware of my surroundings, with always a plan of action.

What's your definition of beauty?
Beauty is having a sense of passion with no restrictions.

Where did you grow up?
I am a first generation Mexican-American born and raised in San Antonio, TX. I grew up in the southeast side of the city in a Latinx community that was predominantly lower-middle class. Although I was surrounded by Latinxs, a lot of them were third and fourth generation so I didn't feel like I fit in very much. I grew up with a family with traditional Mexican beliefs, while the rest of my community was fully assimilated and greatly influenced by American culture.

What social issues need to be addressed now?
The inequality of basic human rights like healthcare and economic stability for the queer, trans, poc community in America. Politicians and the elite are continuing to misinform the general public on the difference between “equal rights” and basic human rights.

What challenges have you experienced in your life as part of the LGBTQIA community?
One of the biggest challenges in life was having the need to feel accepted. Since I can remember, I have always tried my best to fit in the binary because I never felt normal in society. Even within the LGBTQIA community, we still see a lot of imbalance with acceptance of non-binary individuals. I’ve come a long way to understand and realize that the idea of normal is simply being myself and not having the need to conform in order to live a happy life.

What advice would you give to someone that feels they don't fit in because of race, sex, or ethnicity?
Keep doing YOU. We have been living in a society where people have tried to define us with their own words because they can’t understand the fluidity of gender. They feel the need to try and normalize conformity as a sign of unity, but that's not the case anymore. The more we are ourselves, the more we will educate the public and in a way integrate fluidity.

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Jalen Dominique / Leo

How would you describe yourself?
I see myself as a light. The sun.

Tell us about what you do.
I'm an artist/model born and raised in Texas, the best state.

What's your definition of beauty?
Beauty to me is anything unique that you possess, traditional and non-traditional. There are no standards.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Dallas, Texas. It definitely cultured me and gave me the most independence and pride. The balance of country and city is the secret.

What social issues need to be addressed now?
Although we’ve made progress, obviously representation needs to be addressed. STILL. INTERSECTIONALITY.

What challenges have you experienced in your life as part of the LGBTQIA community?
Lately, I've been typecast a lot because I am black and because I am gay. Some designers or casting staff think I'm automatically involved in ballroom, which isn’t correct. I'm young and learning and only wish to have as much knowledge about it, but I am not a representative of ballroom culture nor do I feel I have the credibility to say so. It's a prestigious thing that's important to our lgbtqia community. I want to be able to do all things. Things that apply to me and even those that necessarily don’t.

What advice would you give to someone that feels they don't fit in because of race, sex, or ethnicity?
Regardless, people are going to judge or have opinions. The secret, for me, is to educate, but also do and live as freely as possible. Happiness is the goal and anything hindering that is to be corrected.

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Isaac Cole Powell / Capricorn

How would you describe yourself?
A work in progress.

What's your definition of beauty?
To me, beauty is a spirit that takes many forms, physical and otherwise.

How did you get into acting?
I’ve always been a natural performer, and some very generous friends took notice of that early on and guided me on the path to a career in acting.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. NC isn’t exactly known for inclusivity, so growing up gay came with a set of challenges. I muted myself in a lot of ways just to survive. I’m also biracial, with a black father and a white mother and I didn’t know many other mixed children other than my siblings. I witnessed a lot of racism growing up because people didn’t know my father was black. I felt misunderstood for a long time because I passed as white and hid my sexuality. There were large parts of my identity that went unseen and those feelings of invisibility still linger a bit today.

What social issues need to be addressed now?
We’re having a moment right now where, because of social media, even the voiceless have voices. Most people have access to platforms to affect social change. Because of that, we’re presented with the challenge of being responsible for everyone’s struggles and it can be easy to feel like you’re not doing enough. There are thousands of issues we could focus on, but the most immediate and dire for me at the moment is how we’re treating the planet. Sure, socially it’s our responsibility to create a livable society for future generations, but it’s detrimental to our species and continued existence that we don't take care of the planet we occupy.

What challenges have you experienced in your life as part of the LGBTQIA community?
I’ve been very privileged, since the beginning of my career. I’ve felt celebrated as a gay man and I haven’t felt my opportunities have been limited by my sexuality. I’m lucky that I can be out and still have a fruitful career. I’ve gotten to play a multitude of roles, gay and straight, and I’ve never been deprived of an opportunity I’ve wanted because of my sexuality. Yet. *knock on wood*

What advice would you give to someone that feels they don't fit in because of race, sex, or ethnicity?
You DO fit in. You just have to find WHERE. This world is huge. You are not alone. Your tribe is out there. We’re more connected than ever, so it’s only a matter of time before you find where you belong. And I love you.

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Memphis Murphy / Scorpio

How would you describe yourself?
I would describe myself as young transgender model and artist from New York City, who is an only child and loves fashion.

Tell us about what you do.
I model with No Agency New York and I am starting my career as a DJ. My goal is to make space for other trans youth who want to model or pursue something in the fashion world.

What's your definition of beauty?
I don't think that anyone can define beauty, but, what I find personally beautiful is confidence and being the most authentic you that you can be.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in NYC and have grown up all over the city. A main portion of my life took place in Spanish Harlem. I remember always loving the fact that there were people in that neighborhood who looked like me, with darker skin and afro hair, and understood the culture of the neighborhood. Growing up mixed has its challenges, but I definitely appreciated having a place where I could relate to my black side authentically.

What social issues need to be addressed now?
I could go on and on, but I think that the most important social issues that need change are social media platforms giving people an outlet to be fake supporters of marginalized groups. What I mean by that is I see a lot of people who, just because they follow a couple of trans people on the internet, automatically think that they deserve the title of being an ally when they haven't done anything to support trans women at all, like donating, etc. I also think that people who have bigger platforms should use their platforms to support voices that are unheard, as well as spreading awareness to help other people do the same. And finally, I think that other women should START INCLUDING TRANS WOMEN AS A PART OF THEIR POLITICS. I see a lot of "feminists" around who support black, disabled, and queer women's rights, but fail to acknowledge that trans women are women as well and need if not more support from cisgender feminists and "allies."

What challenges have you experienced in your life as part of the LGBTQIA community?
In modeling, some of the challenges I have faced include not being taken seriously as well as not being able to stop comparing and contrasting myself to other models who are cisgender. I think that within modeling there is this idea that models who are transgender are less fit for the job, especially within high end and designer brands.

What advice would you give to someone that feels they don't fit in because of race, sex, or ethnicity?
My advice is to remember that there is only one you. No one can do you like you can, so you might as well rock it.

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Parker Bright / Pisces

How would you describe yourself?
A Stunt Queen. Period.

What's your definition of beauty?
Feeling free.

Is there a connection between music and photography for you?
Definitely. I think if you look at photography from different music related subcultures you’ll find that the photos help inform, to a certain extent, what’s happening during these musical happenings, the energy, and the visuals (on the body, on the walls of a club, or a bar, etc). I also love looking at old rave photographs, and archives to gain insight on specific subcultures and to live vicariously through the images.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Northern Illinois. In short, my experience was basically being a black person in a John Hughes movie. I lived around a lot of lakes and white people and I grew up riding horses. Later, in high school, I was into the metal scene around my hometown. The only thing to do after school was find someone's house to smoke weed at, or my friends and I would drive around for hours shooting photos.

What social issues need to be addressed now?
Clean water in Flint and other areas around the country that are affected, access to better and more affordable healthcare for transgender individuals, black lives and trans lives being valued... but those are only a few.

What challenges have you experienced in your life as part of the LGBTQIA community?
I often feel like I need to work harder to be seen and heard and to have my work respected, especially when dealing with predominantly white institutions or gatekeepers.

What advice would you give to someone that feels like they don't fit in because of race, sex, or ethnicity?
Find peace and freedom in yourself and in the things you love.

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Desmond "Dez" Sam / Taurus

How would you describe yourself?
A free spirit, a lover, a creative.

Tell us about what you do.
During the day, I am the manager of a boutique called VFILES. At night, I throw a monthly party called No Homo and I host it at the best spots in NYC. In between, I style, DJ, and laugh a lot!

What's your definition of beauty?
Real beauty is in a person’s character. Your visual appearance is just a facade and no matter how amazing you may look to the eye, your ugly will always find its way out.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Brooklyn. I moved around a little bit, but most of my childhood was spent in Marine Park and in Flatbush. My parents always made sure I was never a product of cultural stereotypes and made sure I experienced everything. I think Brooklyn is a great place to grow up. There’s an energy you can’t find anywhere else and it definitely was a part of my growth.

What social issues need to be addressed now?
I think making the conversation of gender identity more of the normative, especially in black communities. We need to be encouraging our boys to love more and remove the association of showcasing a more sensitive side as feminine or gay. The easiest solution to all social issues, I believe, is love. Showcasing more empathy for people, something the government lacks. We need to be more united as a community, no matter the race, sexuality, etc.

What challenges have you experienced in your life as part of the LGBTQIA community?
Visibility. It’s easy to feel invisible in a community that doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. I think the most important part of being in the LGBTQIA community is making sure your voice is being heard. Making sure your existence matters without conforming. It’s hard when you know at least one person a day looks at you and doesn’t view you as their equal, due to judgment or ridicule of you just being you.

What advice would you give to someone that feels they don't fit in because of race, sex, or ethnicity?
DON’T GIVE UP! Fuck what anyone has to say cause a greater universe created you. And when they created you, they had nobody in mind but YOU. This makes you, individually, a very important and special person. No one’s life is a mistake and if you don’t fit into society’s bubble, break out of it and do your own shit! Never conform or allow yourself anything less than the best and you will prosper.

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Exodus 7 "Exo" /Aquarius

How would you describe yourself?
Unique.

Tell us about what you do.
Everyday I wake up hoping I can make it through the the day. I heal myself everyday because I’m fragile.

What's your definition of beauty?
Confidence!

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the countryside of Puerto Rico. I don’t have that much experience to share besides knowing more about gardening and farming.

What social issues need to be addressed now?
Transphobia! Racism!

What challenges have you experienced in your life as part of the LGBTQIA community?
I always tried to fit in with everyone I was surrounded with because I knew I wasn’t the same as the others. At some point, I stopped trying to fit in with others.

What advice would you give to someone that feels they don't fit in because of race, sex, or ethnicity?
Stick to what you know.

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JorJa Brown / Gemini

How would you describe yourself?
First of all, I’m fucking hilarious. That aside, I kind of define myself by the way my life revolves around those who I love. I am very affectionate and care about others deeply — sometimes to a fault. Surrounded by dogs every second. Overflowing with curiosity and admiration always.

Tell us about what you do.
I am an actor, model, and advocate for queer and trans folks of color. I am also a singer/musician and a writer of songs and screenplays.

What's your definition of beauty?
Beauty is the warm feeling I get in my belly when I look at someone or something. The way my heartbeat picks up and my breath comes faster. Beauty makes me want to cry and laugh at the same time. I think all types of people, bodies, and things are beautiful. I find nature and colorful things beautiful.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Chicago’s historic gay neighborhood, Boystown. But when I was 10 we moved to Wrigleyville, which is not cute. Cubs fans are unruly, but I lived just north of the stadium in a quiet little neighborhood lined by a big cemetery, where I found my peace. I grew up in a chaotic home, full of love.

What social issues need to be addressed now?
We desperately need to dismantle oppressive systems — imperialism, sexism, racism, and ableism. We really need to stop destroying the planet and the beautiful humans and other lifeforms on it.

What challenges have you experienced in your life as part of the LGBTQIA community?
As an openly trans and non-binary woman, my opportunities are way more limited then before I came out and transitioned. That, combined with the color of my skin, causes people to see labels instead of seeing me as a multifaceted human being. I don't really like to go into too much detail about the adversity I face in these kinds of interviews, because it can really be traumatic, and I don't wanna feed those who eat that up.

What advice would you give to someone that feels they don't fit in because of race, sex, or ethnicity?
The most important thing is to be who the hell, and to look how the hell you want. If people don’t wanna work with that, then you don’t wanna work with them!

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Hao-Chun Chang / Capricorn

How would you describe yourself?
Honestly, it depends on how I’m feeling. Right now, I am feeling content, ambitious, relieved, and anxious. I would say that I’m a curious, self-expressive, and honest person. I hate being stagnant, so I’m constantly trying to evolve by absorbing and learning from those around me, and I strive to look at everything indiscriminately.

Tell us about what you do.
I draw! I study illustration in art school, but I also try to express and create for myself, which usually translates into what I wear. I create illustrations that aim to celebrate the marriage of masculinity and femininity, and the ways it can result in peace of mind, because it is something I have struggled with my whole life. In the meantime, I dress as cute as I possibly can because it’s fun and empowering.

What's your definition of beauty?
It always changes for me, but the pervasive trait I’ve found to be present in all things I find beautiful is the feeling of raw joy and contentment beauty can bestow upon me. I love finding beauty in my surroundings and that’s why I love being in NYC. Beauty is so personal and subjective, I’m sure there are many who find this city ugly, but that’s what I like about it.

Where did you grow up?
I am Taiwanese, but I grew up in Bangkok and then Shanghai. I spent most of my early adolescence in Shanghai so I consider that as the place I grew up. As a third-culture kid, I struggled a lot with identifying a home as I grew up in two different foreign cities outside of Taiwan. What I love about Shanghai is that it’s a huge city that fuses Eastern and Western culture. In so many ways, it taught me a lot about open-mindedness. I just didn’t feel like I was free to express myself the way I do now here. It was definitely a very stifling environment, despite it being multicultural. I didn’t feel like I belonged in such a heteronormative atmosphere, especially when I was in school. I wouldn’t dare to paint my nails, wear heels, or dye my hair. Moving to NYC gave me a lot of liberation and freedom to express who I am. A lot of people here don’t realize how privileged it is to grow up or live in a city that is so nonchalant about “different” people. I can stomp around here in heels feeling empowered and cute, but in Shanghai I’d feel uncomfortable.

What social issues need to be addressed now?
Less virtue-signaling when it comes to the ever-pervasive issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry, and even environmental issues. I don’t think it’s productive to be performative in your moral values for the sake of social capital. You don’t have to tell everyone about how much you care. As such, tokenism is a big issue for me. I also think the whole “cancelling” people thing is reductive and we should be more motivated in fostering positive and helpful learning environments. I feel like everyone is so intensely divided because of these attitudes when we should be trying to learn from each other.

What challenges have you experienced in your life as part of the LGBTQIA community?
Like I said before, it was hard growing up in Asia where it is generally less progressive when it comes to LGBT+ issues. I remember I was constantly made fun of for playing with Barbies. My parents eventually refused to buy them for me. As a kid, the thought of my future as a gay man scared me so much I didn’t want to face or think about it. Because of that, I spent a lot of my school years repressing myself around friends and family. It got worse when I was a teenager, when the reality of my sexuality was much harder to push away. I was made to feel less than for being a boy that didn’t adhere to typical masculine standards like playing sports or gaming. I enjoyed art, drawing, and hanging out with girls, and felt like shit because of it.

What advice would you give to someone that feels like they don't fit in because of race, sex, or ethnicity?
I know it’s corny to say that you should embrace what makes you different, but it’s so true; it’s such a waste of time to fixate on things you can’t change about yourself. Realize that it doesn’t make you less than because it has nothing to do with your character. Find and spread love to others who don’t fit in. Envision yourself as the person you want to become. Think about what they would do and act accordingly, one day it will manifest.

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Phillip

What do you do?
I am a chef.

How would you describe yourself?
I would say that I am ambitious, witty, and impulsive.

What's your definition of beauty?
I think it is hard to define beauty in one way.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Connecticut. I had a hard time making a lot of friends and dealing with being made fun of a lot. I wasn’t openly gay, but kids can be so cruel. I do come from an extremely loving and supportive family. They mean the world to me.

What social issues need to be addressed now?
I truly believe that lack of education is the largest issue that we are facing in 2019. I have dealt with many loved ones and friends after coming out, as to what they have stereotyped and perceived being gay “meant.” At first I was angry, but when I took the time to educate them personally, and share with them my own personal journey, I soon realized that they loved, supported, and respected me even more. I think it is important to understand that some people don’t know any better. Having access to information is the ultimate privilege and when people know better, they do better. It is up to us to educate and share our stories in a positive way. Living in a climate where cancel culture is so relevant, we must understand that everyone makes mistakes and nobody is perfect. I don’t believe that excluding is effective because it doesn’t give us the opportunity to inform. As a white, privileged male, I can only speak on my experience as being gay, but I think if we apply this to other issues in the world we could solve a lot.

What challenges have you experienced in your life as part of the LGBTQIA community?
Working in a very heterosexual, male-dominated field I have always experienced the brunt of the joke and physical harassment. Although it has always been something very difficult to deal with, I have never given anyone the satisfaction of letting their comments or actions get in the way of my success.

What advice would you give to someone that feels like they don't fit in because of race, sex or ethnicity?
You always belong. The world is beautiful because everyone is different. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Victor

What do you do?
I'm a fashion designer and visual artist. I started BARRAGÁN when I moved to New York after a couple presentations under a different name (@ytinifninfinity).

How would you describe yourself?
Creative, determined and funny, if you get my sense of humor.

What's your definition of beauty?
Anything could be beauty. It’s impossible to define beauty using words. You feel it or no.

Where did you grow up?
Mexico City. I've come from a working family. My dad had a taqueria in the city and that was my life till I moved to NY. I had a big interest in art, design, and fashion since I was young and my older siblings showed me music, magazines, and subcultures from the city. We grew up with a computer in our house, where I spent hours looking at fashion shows, downloading illegal music, and porn. The internet gave me an opportunity to show my creative process and work. I'm grateful a lot that I was influenced by different people around the world, so I could define my interpretation of the world on my work.

What social issues need to be addressed now?
We still need to talk about how we are gonna improve or push education, so we can keep the dialogue between racism, immigration, and sexuality [going].

What challenges have you experienced in your as part of the LGBTQIA community?
The machismo in Mexico is still really affecting generations below mine, but I’m happy to be part of a community where we want to fight that subject. When I moved to NY, I didn’t feel any type of discrimination in the fashion community for being gay, I will say that maybe more about my heritage. Having your own brand, it’s really hard, you need a lot of time and money.

What advice would you give to someone that feels like they don't fit in because of race, sex, or ethnicity?
Speak loud and clear. People need to know how you feel. You deserve to be treated with respect in this world.

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Kai Baynes / Taurus

How would you describe yourself?
A quiet storm.

Tell us about what you do.
I'm a full-time student at Parsons, a creator, a DJ, Vogue Fem... I do a lot. I'm dabbling.

What was it like to work with Dev Hynes?
Imagine admiring someone's work for years and just loving them, then being blessed with the opportunity to work alongside them. Such a genuine person.

What's your definition of beauty?
My definition of beauty would be loving yourself, being comfortable with you, and having your own thing going on.

Where did you grow up?
Philadelphia. It's a decent city. I can't stay too long though. I got so accustomed to New York, the fast pace, I can't go backwards. If you understand what I mean.

What social issues need to be addressed now?
Trans rights. Period.

What challenges have you experienced in your life as part of the LGBTQIA community?Constantly being othered by outsiders is the biggest obstacle. I don't see heteronormativity, I'm too involved in my community and doing for my community.

What advice would you give to someone that feels like they don't fit in because of race, sex, or ethnicity?
The best advice I could give, because I don't have all the answers and am still figuring life out, is to live for you and do for and worry about yourself and your happiness. Do what makes you happy.

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Harshvardhan Shah / Pisces

How would you describe yourself?
I'm a 22-year-old creative living in New York. I'd say I'm really thoughtful, curious, and emotional. I'm a triple water sign, so you already know my emotions run the show here.

Tell us about what you do.
I am a photographer, writer, and visual artist. A lot of my work tends to focus on the LGBTQIA community and I draw a lot of inspiration from my personal experiences. I feel strongly about creating spaces for people of color and narratives/stories that I wish I saw growing up as a brown, feminine queer person.

What's your definition of beauty?
I never seemed to fit the norm in a lot of situations in my childhood, and developed an appreciation for people who were able to fight to create a space for themselves and remain unapologetic about who they are, regardless of what society threw at them.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Mumbai, India and moved to America on a student visa when I was 16. The combination of having dark skin, being feminine, and gay was overwhelming and often confusing to navigate as I didn’t identify with the media or have any queer friends growing up. I feel like I missed out on a lot of my childhood being too self conscious or fearful of being myself, but I am also very lucky to have an accepting family that helped me through all the hard times.

What social issues need to be addressed now?
I don’t know where to start honestly, but maybe we can collectively agree that having more women and queer people of color in positions of power would definitely solve a lot of problems the world is facing today.

What challenges have you experienced in your life as part of the LGBTQIA community?
I had a lot of difficulty embracing my femininity growing up in India. My surroundings didn't promote the most positive representations of the LGBTQIA community and it was hard to feel accepted or like I belonged anywhere. Moving to New York helped me discover and heal from a lot of things that held me back for a long time. I was able to redefine that narrative for myself, with my art, and all the things I’ve learned from the people I've met along the way.

What advice would you give to someone that feels like they don't fit in because of race, sex, or ethnicity?
Take the time to get to know yourself and build a support system of people who have your best interests. Something really changes in the way you see yourself and the world, when you’re able to feel secure with who you are as a person.

This article originally appeared on i-D US.