Twenty-one-year-old Latino poet KAIDEN FORD celebrates the legacy of the Stonewall uprising by taking us on a journey through his city, where he meets Mila, Kenrick and Richard – three talented and emancipated LGBTQ+ people dancing to their own beat.
Welcome to New York City, the land of the brave and home of the queers, where the streets are my runway and the subways are my stage. Writer, shopaholic and fashion icon, that’s me.
I was born in 1997 to Dominican parents and grew up on Long Island, New York. In 2016, when I finally accepted that I was different and that was okay, I was reborn. NYC cradled me in her arms and saved me. I felt happy, queer and, most importantly, I felt ‘me’.
Kaiden Ford is a name I chose for myself to help me move forward from the trauma of my childhood. I changed my appearance. My body became a canvas that never finishes telling its story.
My piercings and body modifications are for me and only me. I do not owe anyone an explanation for them. Good things happen when you accept yourself. You feel more comfortable and open up to people. You are no longer a prisoner to your own negative thoughts. You don’t feel scared; you are you. Then people start to gravitate towards your confidence. It’s as if your self-acceptance radiates from you, luring people into your comfort. We live in a world where people are no longer living for themselves, but for others. I stand at the forefront of this battle. I face it every day. Well, actually, we all do. All four of us: Mila, Kenrick, Richard and me. Four young NYC LGBTQ+ creatives.
For as long as it has existed, NYC has been the birthplace of many brave people who aren’t afraid of standing up for what they believe in. Some of the greatest heroes of the LGBTQ+ community came from the Stonewall uprising – Martin Boyce, Danny Garvin, Raymond Castro, William Henderson, Jerry Hoose and Marsha P Johnson. Fifty years ago a group of these accidental activists rioted against the police and left their mark on history. They had been subjected to an oppressive system and forced to live in secret with the constant threat of arrest or losing their jobs and their homes just for daring to be themselves.
On 28 June 1969, one of their safe places, the Stonewall Inn, a mob-owned bar in Greenwich Village, was raided by police, but that night instead of passively accepting this aggressive invasion, the queers bravely fought back. The next few days saw the push-back escalate into a full-on street battle. Drag queens and trans people of colour led the rebellion, facing down the armed police with whatever came to hand. Bottles and trash cans were thrown, but it was their wit and camp defiance that were their fiercest weapons. They chanted:
We are the Stonewall girls.
We wear our hair in curls.
We wear no underwear.
We show our pubic hair.
We wear our dungarees.
Above our nelly knees!
The world would never be the same again. A line was drawn in the sand, the closet doors were torn off their hinges and we would never go back inside it again. The bar – albeit in a slightly different location and no longer under criminal ownership – still stands. A living commemoration of those days.
In my own tribute to those heroes, I’ve set aside a day to meet with three people who for me represent their legacy. Young LGBTQ+ people who have been drawn to New York to realise their true selves, who not only proudly express their difference, but are each in their own way bravely carrying the torch that was lit half a century back.
I hail a yellow cab: ‘Second and East 9th please’. I’m on my way to a 24-hour Ukrainian diner to meet Mila Jam, an amazing African-American/Bahamian trans* pop-recording activist.
We cross Manhattan Bridge and I watch the iconic downtown skyline loom towards me. I put my headphones in and listen to Mila’s latest EP. The crowning glory is her song ‘Bruised’, a heart-felt torch song dedicated to women and especially trans* women who have lost their lives to their abusers. Mila has one of those voices you can’t help but be moved by. You can hear the pain in it:
I want to hold his hand,
But he won’t cause he never loved me.
That’s what I handle cause I love him.
Don’t wanna break up,
So instead of breaking,
I rather take it.
Tears form in my eyes. I want to apologise for society’s actions.
I arrive early – a first for me – and get settled at a table facing the entrance. A few moments pass and the door opens. A green-haired glamazon enters and immediately lights up the room with her beauty. The waitress approaches us.
“Two cappuccinos please,” I say.
As we wait for our drinks, I mention NYC and Mila stops me:
“As a recording artivist [artist/activist] who grew up in the theatre world, I’m lucky to call NYC home. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I’ve toured all over the world, to five different continents and counting. I’ve been making my own music for almost 10 years. I grew up idolising Whitney, Michael, Janet, Mariah, Brandy, Britney, Beyoncé and others. And, like those icons, I see myself touring the world with my music, breaking barriers in the entertainment industry and being my authentic self, to enlighten, inspire and empower a generation, no matter where they come from or who they grow into.”
Mila reminds me that this is the city where people live by breaking barriers. It is essential to the growth of New York. Like Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent, which broke barriers with its raw approach to AIDS, LGBTQ+ issues, drugs and homelessness. I ask Mila about being in the show.
“It was like the dopest concert, with a deep and groundbreaking storyline. I played Angel and ensembled as a swing, which meant I had to know at least five different roles and be prepared to play them at any given time. It was a great challenge and an honour to be a part of such an iconic show. It gave me the most diverse family of artists. The New York in Rent the musical reflected grit, but there was a passion and originality that can’t be bought out.”
Mila is running late to a show, so we share a cab uptown to Spanish Harlem. She jumps out and dashes into her building. I am two blocks away from meeting Kenrick in Central Park, where hundreds of people are tanning and having picnics.
“I’m OK with any pronoun,” Kenrick tells me when I ask which one he prefers. “He/She/They, I am all of those things. We’re all one, and I believe that each of us embodies feminine and masculine qualities.”
“Claiming not just one part of the LGBTQ+ community – but all of it – is such a powerful thing. My goal is to help us realise our shared humanity, so we can work together as a team.”
She believes if one of us moves forward, then we should all move forward. “There are so many divisions in our community, and I want us to take better care of each other.”
We’ve all heard people saying that NYC saved them in some way, but for Kenrick, this was not a metaphor. Back home in the Bahamas, being gay carried with it a very real threat of persecution and Kenrick still bears the scars. In 2012, fearing to return, he sought political asylum in the US. They were beginning to lose hope after an organisation in Washington, D.C. refused their case, when an organisation in NYC took them on pro-bono. Though the process was emotionally taxing, they were granted asylum in a matter of months. Sadly not everyone is so lucky, but their NYC team were on it.
“I never ever thought I’d be living in NYC,” Kenrick admitted. “I was studying in Florida when this random gay student comes up to me and tells me that I should go to New York, because they thought I’d find myself there.”
At the time, I thought he was absolutely crazy, but now I wish I knew how to contact him. I want to tell him that I did move to NYC and he was right – I did find myself!”
Kenrick became successful at whatever she did. Being able to explore her passion safely drew success towards her. She wrote a short film called GEMA, and in February 2018 it was picked up by HBO. It’s now available on their platforms. MJ Rodriguez (breakout star of FX’s Pose) and Ari Blinder stars in this film. It’s about a woman who doesn’t fit gender norms; and what that looks like behind closed doors. In 2017 Kenrick was voted one of Independent Magazine’s 10 Filmmakers to Watch, and it’s an accolade that’s well deserved.
It’s 10.30pm. It’s been a long and emotionally charged day and I’m in need of a drink. Thankfully, I have arranged to head out to Bubble_T, a queer Asian-centric party in Brooklyn, with Richard.
We take the M train two stops, then transfer to the B at B’way-Lafayette. We are just seven stops from a much-needed vodka soda. Originally from Indonesia, Richard Munaba is an artist and designer specialising in new media. I ask him why NYC. He responds with the most iconic of answers:
“Because everyone and their sisters who doing anything remotely creative and in NYC.”
Which really gets me thinking that New York is what it is because of everyone who moves here – the wannabe artists, the money-focused Wall Street daddies, the power lesbians, the drag performers. We might not always notice it, but our community is bigger than we believe it to be.
Richard tells me that finding his ‘family away from home wasn’t easy, but when he did, he knew that he was home’.
“Being a part of an art exhibition in a sex dungeon, to working together on a mini documentary series telling the history of queer Asians in America, to helping out with pop-up food projects to raise money to send trans peers to an Asian conference in California – this is what NYC is all about,” he says.
Walking into the club, the colours are bright, but the people are brighter. I can feel the music through my feet to my fingertips. Fabulous Asian queens fearlessly strut their stuff on the dance floor, a couple of babes stand by the bar deep in conversation about which tattoo artist is best. Richard is in Chinese-opera-inspired makeup and has all eyes on him. After he’s received an overwhelming number of compliments, I slam my drink and grab his hand. The dance floor is calling us. I have to let my own hair down. Tonight, this is exactly where I am meant to be.
And so to me
The next morning, bleary eyed, I check the news on my phone. There are reports of 8,000 LGBT people being rounded up in São Paulo, Brazil. A ‘proud homophobe’ has won the presidential election there. And in my own country, trans* rights have taken another blow from the current administration. I feel compelled to write. I realise two things have happened to me today. First, I would be lost without NYC. Well, we all would. Secondly, the fire in my eyes got brighter and my will to fight has gotten stronger. I didn’t realise how privileged I am as a Latino gay, non-conforming 21-year-old. I have two options: sit back and enjoy my privilege or strive to continue to make a change. And I refuse to sit back.
My words, my body and my clothes are my weapons and I will use them. I will walk with pride in my dress and heels on the streets of New York, my shoulders back, head held high. This is my birthright. This is what my queer ancestors fought for and it is up to me to carry on their legacy of pride and be myself whatever comes my way. In doing so, I will, I hope, make things easier for subsequent queer kids to do the same. #neverforget
Kaiden Ford’s first book of poems, I Am Not She But He, is available on his instagram: @IAmkaidenford
Photography courtesy of