On March 9, while packing up boxes of sequined fabrics and colored lights at Fred Wildlife Refuge on Capitol Hill, members of the BeautyBoiz collective thought finding a new home base would be their biggest challenge. The event venue had announced its permanent closure because of a rent hike it couldn’t afford.
Then COVID-19 began to spread across Washington, and on March 23, Gov. Jay Inslee put the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order in place.
BeautyBoiz, a collective of queer artists known for curating extravagant parties and events that showcase the work of local LGBTQIA and QTPOC performers, DJs and other creatives, found themselves in a similar position as other arts organizations in Seattle — no longer able to produce the events that were their central source of income and community building.
Like everyone else, they had to adapt.
“We have to move and react,” says founder Kaleb Dameron. “Being a community organization, we owe it to our family members to make sure that we're still here and pushing forward.”
BeautyBoiz was first imagined in 2015 by Dameron and Wesley Frugé at a Halloween house party in an apartment complex on Capitol Hill. Several neighbors decorated their homes — each room with a different theme — and opened them to revelers, who had lined up around the block. It was there the idea of a collective was born. By the next year BeautyBoiz had recruited a small team and moved operations into Fred Wildlife Refuge.
But the specific intention of inclusivity came into focus for Dameron after the 2016 election. “[BeautyBoiz] started frivolous, and then 2016 was a hard year, and then it became a call to bring people together,” Dameron says.
Since then BeautyBoiz has grown into a collective of 20 members dedicated to cultivating more inclusive, safe spaces for those regularly left out of Seattle’s dominant queer scene. They operate under Forward Flux Productions, Frugé’s nonprofit live-arts production company, which puts on plays by underrepresented voices. Regular events include the annual Halloween party, “BeautyBoiz Go BOO”; the Pride party, “Queer AF”; drag shows; aerial performances; burlesque; digital art; and more.
“Nothing brings people together like the arts,” says Dameron. “It transcends everything else.”
The arts events created by BeautyBoiz are designed to bring a very specific group of people together — those who feel overlooked by mainstream LGBTQ culture.
BeautyBoiz member Bri Patin, who is queer and Latinx, says Seattle’s queer nightlife spaces tend to push queer and trans people of color to the margins. LGBTQ bars or clubs hosting occasional events aimed at people of color are a good start toward being more inclusive, Patin says, but if those spaces aren't including Black and brown LGBTQ people from the start, it's harder to make them feel welcoming.
“My experience with Seattle nightlife has very much been seeing how cis LGBTQ-ness and queer whiteness can overtake spaces that are even specifically designed [for] or advertised to people of color, Black people, LGBTQ people in those communities,” Patin says.
BeautyBoiz no longer wants to ask for a seat at the table, Patin says. They want to build their own table.
“If we can build a table that has Black and brown queerness baked into the foundation,” Patin says, “that's going to create a space of inclusivity and accessibility that we've never seen.”
While in-person events are suspended as a health precaution, BeautyBoiz is finding other avenues for reaching their community. One way is creating films that reflect the group’s spirit and ethos.
An artist since childhood — growing up in a Jehovah’s Witness household, they remember drawing angels — Patin once dreamed of being a comic book artist or animator, but shifted into video production. For the virtual Seattle Pride event this past June, Patin created, produced and contributed a video, BeautyBoiz: A Black Pride Celebration, to the festival’s online lineup. It marked the first time BeautyBoiz was a part of Seattle Pride.
“My goal was to highlight Black feminist energy, Black queer, feminine energy,” Patin says.
The video features three local Black LGBTQ musical artists, each performing alone in front of a plain, white background with a simple colored light. There are no special effects or theatrical frills — the focus intentionally stays on each of the artists and what they share, whether smooth R&B with a touch of saxophone, rapping to electronic beats or singing a cappella. It is their time, their space.
Another way BeautyBoiz is adapting: podcasts. Carmen Rivera and her fiancé, Jas Maisonet, joined the collective this year with the idea of starting a podcast called Queers Converse. Rivera hosts the monthly episodes and Maisonet does the editing.
The project, which launched its first episode on Aug. 10, was born out of Rivera’s experiences as a queer woman of color navigating a professional world in which she didn’t see herself reflected.
“I wanted to contribute good, accurate, reliable, diverse experiences from queer people to help spread understanding,” Rivera says. “Education is our most powerful tool against ignorance and hate.”
In the most recent episode, released on Sept. 10, Rivera interviews Rosalynne Montoya, a Latinx transgender model, makeup artist and advocate. They talk about everything from Montoya growing up on a farm in Idaho and their experience coming out to gender identity and advocacy work in the trans community.
Along with their newfound roles with BeautyBoiz, both Rivera and Maisonet hold other leadership roles in Seattle’s queer community. Rivera serves on the board of directors of Seattle Pride and Maisonet runs a hiking group for queer people of color called QPOCHikers.
“I think in times like this, we see who rises and who sinks a little bit,” Rivera said. “Of what I'm seeing in BeautyBoiz, they’re showing that they are going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
As BeautyBoiz dreams bigger, they are not limiting their efforts to Seattle. In June, the collective put on its first Portland-based event, “Drag on Demand: Portland Pride Edition.” The virtual drag show was produced and hosted by Henry Felton, whose drag name is Kimber Shade.
Felton is a makeup artist and drag queen based in Portland who has been doing drag for a decade. They became involved with BeautyBoiz as it was put into motion in 2016 and have been involved ever since as the “First Lady of the BeautyBoiz.”
The idea for the Portland show came to Felton after they saw the lineup for Portland’s digital Pride events and felt it wasn’t inclusive enough.
“It just didn’t tell the story of who Portland is,” Felton says. “Portland has grown into so many subcultures of drag, bigger than what was represented [in the lineup].”
Wanting to truly represent their drag community and with the support of the collective behind them, Felton was able to build a space for the drag queens who were overlooked.
BeautyBoiz founder Dameron says “Drag on Demand” was a huge success for the collective, selling more than $2,000 in tickets (comparable to BeautyBoiz’s large in-person events). Felton hosted the show live on Twitch, screening prerecorded numbers by 21 performers.
Because audience engagement is such a huge part of a drag show, Felton says, fans were encouraged to participate via live comment streams and digital tipping.
Felton says BeautyBoiz has allowed them to express their creative voice in a way that they weren’t allowed to in other spaces.
“Being able to produce an event that brought the community together, it was almost like throwing a brick at the door,” Felton says. “It was almost like being able to fight back and say, ‘No, we are still going to be here and we're still going to be seen and we're still going to be,’ and to do that as a Black gay man, I am just so honored.”
Recalling a tough childhood — a mother who struggled with addiction, a lot of moving around, getting kicked out of the house in high school — Felton says the family they built of friends was the one that stuck.
“What the collective is made up of, we are all survivors. We are not the 1%. We are all people that at one point in time ‘did not have,’ and we've had to figure out how to ‘go get.’ ”
Despite losing their home base, and the impossibility of staging in-person events during a pandemic, BeautyBoiz is still growing its community — recently adding nine new members and two new board members — and trying to be even more inclusive.
The collective is currently working on making its virtual events accessible to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community by implementing closed captioning and American Sign Language interpreters.
“We were always more than just events,” Dameron says. “Physical gatherings aren’t a thing anymore, and we didn’t need that. We've always been about community and engagement.”